At Corporation Pop we’re often asked to fix a broken website, rebuild one that isn’t fit-for-purpose or redesign a site that maybe looked OK on the ‘drawing board’ but turned out to be a dog’s dinner online. Commissioning a new website (or fixing a broken one) can be a costly and time-consuming process so you need to make sure that the site you buy is going to deliver the results you want. To ensure you don’t pour your money down the digital drain it’s vital that you ask the right questions of your chosen agency and provide a brief that puts in what you want to get out. With this in mind I’ve put together my top ten list of tips that I think every website purchaser should consider when briefing and working with a web agency. Of course if you want to talk to us at Corporation Pop about your web needs then I'd be delighted to hear from you but whether you use us or another agency you should bear all of the following in mind:
1. Put the user first
Very often clients come to us with a fixed idea of the structure of their new site. More often than not this is based on pre-conceived notions of how a site should be structured rather than an analysis of user’s needs. To understand how a visitor is going to use your site, and therefore how it should be structured, you need to understand what each of your different types of users is interested in finding and then think about the shortest route to take them to that information. At Corporation Pop we work with our clients to define personas and user stories which then helps us to identify user needs. We group these needs in to related subject areas and hierarchies so that we can start defining a site architecture. By working through a process like this you will ensure that your site is effective and geared towards your specific target market.
2. Design is crucial
In the cruel world of web browsing a visitor will quickly navigate away from a site that doesn’t instantly grab their attention. Way back in 2006 (ancient history in web years) a team of researchers from Carleton University, Ottawa, discovered that it takes just 50 milliseconds for people to form an opinion about the visual appeal of a webpage. That’s less than half the time the average blink of an eye takes so for this reason the design of your site needs to be instantly eye-catching. Last year Google carried out some research which suggested the higher the visual complexity of a web page the lower it’s perceived beauty so clarity is important too. There’s a great online tool which we sometimes use to test the effectiveness of a web design called ‘Five Second Test’. Here you can upload a mockup or screenshot of your design, together with some questions about the content. A community of users on the site have five seconds to view your design before answering your questions. You then get a report on how your design has performed against the questions you set.
3. Don’t break the rules…
… or rather don’t let your designer break the rules. Don’t get me wrong, at Corporation Pop there’s nothing we like better than challenging convention, but there are some rules that just shouldn’t be broken – there’s a very good reason for putting things like navigation, home buttons and search fields exactly where people expect to find them.
4. Think about devices
When I designed my first website 18 years ago things were a lot easier – there were a couple of browsers (Netscape and a new kid on the block called Internet Explorer), mobiles were for making phone calls and tablets were either medicinal or recreational. These days you need to consider how your site will display across a wide range of browsers and on different devices with vastly different screen sizes. Too often we see sites that have been designed purely for desktop viewing and whilst that was fine in 1995 it’s not OK in 2013: having to zoom in to a page and then scroll around to find what your looking for just isn’t good enough. This year over a quarter of all web traffic is via a mobile device – that’s a 70% increase on last year and next year it will be higher still. If your target market is in the 18 – 34 year old demographic then consider too that nearly half of all people in that age range consider mobile to be their first screen. Whatever your target market, if your site looks pants on a mobile screen then you’ll be alienating a high percentage of your visitors so make sure your site is optimised for mobile viewing. There are two approaches to building a site for both mobile and desktop. The first is to build two versions of the same site – one for mobile and one for desktop. The second, and by a country mile our preferred route, is to build a single responsive site where the design adapts to the screen size (technically the browser window width) on which it is displayed. Whichever approach you take make sure that in your brief to your designers you specify (and budget for) a mobile friendly design.
5. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut…
… or a penknife to chop a tree (or whatever the counter-idiom might be). Your chosen agency will suggest a content management system (CMS) for your site and it’s important that you make sure that it is the right tool for the job. Sometimes we’ve seen clients lumbered with a high-powered and complicated CMS which is managing nothing more than a small brochure site – it’s overkill. Conversely if you’re commissioning a large corporate site then you may need to commission some bespoke development to handle complex functions. If you’re setting up a shop selling a handful of products then a WordPress site with a plug-in like WooCommerce may suffice but you’ll need the power of a platform like Magento if you’re running a full-blown ecommerce operation. So before you commit to any kind of CMS or store ask for a demonstration to make sure that you’re comfortable with it and that it’s fit-for-purpose.
6. DIY SEO
Nobody but Google really knows exactly how the complex and ever-changing algorithms that dictate page ranking are calculated but a specialist SEO agency will have a better idea than most and if budget allows you should contract one in addition to your web design agency. However there are certain things, like writing good search-friendly copy and building backlinks that you can do yourself. One of the most effective things you can do is construct keyword-laden page titles (with the desired keywords as close to the start of the page title as possible). You should check with your agency that your CMS allows you to change the title of pages as many don’t without additional modification. If you’re commissioning a WordPress site I recommend the ‘All In One SEO Pack’ plug-in.
7. Agree functionality at the start
One of the first things your agency should do is produce a Functional Specification. This is a document which clearly outlines all the features and functionality of the site. Make sure everything you want is in there as you won’t be able to add features later without incurring additional costs.
8. Choose your browsers carefully
I talked earlier about the proliferation of browsers and devices. You will need to make a decision early on (with guidance from your agency) about which browsers and devices your site should be built to support and then ensure that your agency rigorously tests the display of your site on all of these. You could be forgiven for assuming that your site should display correctly on all browsers but there is an elephant in the room called Internet Explorer. Modern web browsers (like Chrome, Firefox, Safari and IE9 and later) don’t present too many compatibility problems but versions of Internet Explorer prior to release 9.0 are a web designer’s nightmare. It’s likely that if you want your site to work correctly on these that you’ll be charged an extra development fee for the additional work required. You could argue that IE8 (and earlier versions) are archaic relics of a different age and shouldn’t be supported. This is the line taken by Google Analytics who will stop supporting IE8 from the end of this year. Even Microsoft is ceasing support in April 2014. However if you already have a website with Google Analytics installed (see point 9) take a look at the ‘technology’ tab to see which browsers your visitors are using – if there are a sizeable number using IE8 (or earlier) then you would be wise to pay the extra development fee. If you want to keep an eye on the demise of IE8 then visit the IE8 Countdown.
9. Budget for the long term
Remember that site launch day is just the beginning. You should budget for ongoing maintenance to cover site improvements (see point 10) and upgrades to your CMS. It is essential that your agency regularly updates the CMS to install security patches and bug fixes. How often you need to do this will depend on the CMS you are using – according to Admincredible WordPress releases an update on average every 42 days whilst Drupal’s update cycle averages at 51 days.
10. Study the numbers
Make sure that your agency installs Google Analytics (or similar analytics software) so that you can track site usage once the site goes live. Understanding how your users behave is crucial to improving site performance and will inform how you tweak the site content and structure over time.
It can be a tricky business buying a website. I hope these tips help you through the minefield.