Website Design Introduction
Launching a website design project can be a challenge for any business, and the process starts with defining what you want the site to do. Even if you're planning a simple website with a few basic pages, you may find the complexity and cost of the project snowballing as more people - both internal and external - get involved.
At a minimum, you need a site with a professional look that reflects the mission of your business. The site should include your logo, key marketing messages, and basic information like your phone number, locations, and products.
Or, your business may have more complex needs like collecting customer information, selling products online, or connecting to your internal software systems. Once you lock down exactly what functionality you need from your site, you'll be able to choose a website design vendor who can offer you the best combination of value and results.
If you're not familiar with website design, you may have some misconceptions to overcome. Some tasks won't be as simple as you imagine; other features you may not have considered may be fairly easy to add. The best website design professionals act like consultants - working to understand your needs, then proposing solutions.
Whether you're creating your first website or upgrading an existing site, this BuyerZone Website Design Buyer's Guide will help you get the right site for the right price.
Step #1 is to figure out everything you want your site to accomplish. This fully-formed list of goals will be a tremendous help when you end up talking to a designer. It also sets the expectations for delivery, enabling you to evaluate the services you receive.
Use the guidelines below to determine exactly what your new website should do for your business.
Identifying Your Web Design Goals
Whether you're building a site from scratch or updating an existing site, the first thing to do is pinpoint your web design objectives. Simply "having a web site" is not a goal - nor is it a good use of your time and money.
Your goals for the site will help determine who you should work with and how much the site will cost. Ask yourself what you want your site to accomplish:
- Dispense information? (Note that this is OK! Many businesses just need a site that provides basic contact information, directions, and hours. If that's all you want, you will save yourself quite a bit of money.)
- Conduct online transactions (e-commerce)?
- Gather data for sales or marketing purposes?
- Provide customer support or customer service?
- Cater to mobile customers?
- Have social media compatibility?
Once you know the goals, you can address more specific questions about what you want your web design project to include:
- About how many pages do you want on your site?
- What sections do you want? (Information about your company, product pages, executive bios, discussion boards, customer service information, press releases...)
- Do you already have a logo, or do you need your site designer to create one?
- Does your site need to have any dynamic information or interactive capabilities? (e.g., database connections, order tracking, password-protected areas, on-site games or calculators, or anything else that lets visitors interact with your site.)
- Do you need secure connections?
Your web design project can be as simple as your budget requires or as complex as your imagination allows. Having answers to these questions will help you quickly set expectations with potential vendors.
Most web design companies agree that clients who understand different types of websites have a much easier time getting the final product they're looking for. So we've compiled a basic understanding of how a site works, along with background on several of the popular platforms.
Components of Website Building
There are two major components to building a website: the "front end" and the "back end." For the most part, "design" refers to the front end - what people see - and development to the back end - what makes it work. Two other components needed to make your site complete are hosting, which refers to the computer or server where your website is run, and e-commerce, which is often built and managed separately from the rest of your site.
You can save yourself a lot of headaches by understanding the different components of web design listed here. Most web design companies agree that clients who understand different types of websites will have a much easier time getting the final product they're looking for.
Front end: website design and content
The front end is what your website looks like: the images and text visitors see when they click on your site. Graphic designers concentrate on the front end, choosing appropriate images, fonts, and layout. They should have a strong understanding of what works visually on a computer screen and know the technical limitations of designing for the web.
Be wary of choosing a web designer based only on a portfolio. Sites that look beautiful in printouts may be slow and hard to use. Examples shown via the designer's website may be full of flash - and Flash (see "Back end: website building and development") - but lacking in content or real value. A good web designer needs to combine technical and design expertise.
You will be responsible for the content of your website. If you have a "history" page, you'll have to write the information it contains. If you have a products page, you'll have to supply the images and descriptions that make up the page.
Back end: website building and development
Web developers actually build your site, writing the back end code that makes it work. The HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code they write allows visitors' browsers to display your images and read your text - it's the common language of the web. Developers don't usually call it "programming" when they're working on basic websites.
Some other back end terms you might encounter:
- ASP and PHP provide customization and interactivity, such as collecting data from visitors or displaying account information.
- CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) let you easily control the look of your entire website from a central file.
- Flash allows for interactive menus, animated presentations, and interactive tools. (Bonus design tip: skip the fancy Flash animated intro. Visitors don't want to watch it and you'll save money.)
For customers to access your website, it needs to reside on a server connected to the Internet. Unless you plan to turn your site into an Internet powerhouse, your hosting needs should be fairly straightforward at first. For a basic website, the server can be a fairly modest computer. Hosting should also cover data backup and security for any customer data being collected.
If you sell products directly through your website, you're doing e-commerce. Typically, e-commerce services are considered to be a separate project from the construction of a website, due to the different back-end tools to set up and run the online store. Many website designers offer e-commerce development as well, but it's usually priced separately. For more information, read our E-commerce Buyer's Guide.
Depending on your in-house expertise there are a number of options when it comes to hiring out your website design. This opens the door to a wide range of cost-saving potential by enabling you to only contract the things you absolutely can't do on your own.
Outsourcing vs. In-House
Depending on your site needs, budget, and internal staff capabilities, your project can involve any combination of website design services, professional web designers working as freelancers, and your own employees. Here are three options:
- Keep it all in-house. . If your needs are relatively simple or if you have design and programming skills in-house, you'll save quite a bit of money - at least on the surface. Web development activities can quickly become a drain on productivity if you don't keep careful track of the resources they require.
- Farm it all out. If you want interactive tools, complex e-commerce functions, or just don't have technical staff available, you can easily outsource your entire site development project. Remember that you'll always need at least some internal resources to work on content and to guide the website design service.
- Mix it up. Your third option is to do some of the work in-house, and outsource the tasks your company can't handle to professional web designers. This is a very popular way to achieve some cost savings while not overtaxing your staff.
What to outsource?
- Design: Simply put, if you don't have professional web designers on staff, look to a vendor. Having someone who is somewhat familiar with Adobe Photoshop is not enough.
- Development: If you're planning a basic informational site and have an IT staff, you can probably handle the development in house.
- Hosting: An in-house IT staff can set up a basic web host very easily. However professional hosting companies provide guaranteed uptimes of over 99% and high-quality backup and security policies - for a relatively low monthly cost.
- Social media: Most websites today are heavily integrated with social media profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Web design companies now offer outsourcing packages that include social media setup and even running Twitter and Facebook campaigns. Some web design companies may also create custom social media backgrounds for company profiles.
Take caution if your staff is already spread very thin. Even if you can do the work in-house, that doesn't mean you should. Website development projects are notorious for "scope creep" - gaining complexity as they progress. It may make sense to use professional web designers and let your employees focus on the day-to-day work of running the business.
If you decide you need outside help, as most businesses do, there are two different types of providers you can turn to: all-in-one development shops, or freelancers.
All-in-one website design services
Many website design firms provide all the services you need, from initial design to development and maintenance. These companies have professional web designers, developers, and IT experts on staff.
Or, they may outsource one aspect to a partner company or work with a number of freelancers who provide different specialties. No matter how they manage the job, they provide a couple of key advantages.
First, by providing you with one point of contact, they ease the management of the entire project. Second, because all the key players work together, there are fewer integration problems or communication hassles. Third, having one company manage all aspects of the project can allow them to focus on understanding and addressing your business needs, rather than simply following a checklist of development tasks.
Many larger website design services offer other marketing services, such as email campaigns, search engine marketing, and other programs to help drive visitors to your website. They can be the best route if you're outsourcing your entire project or are not familiar with website development.
The web development industry supports a large number of freelance developers and designers. If you're taking a "mix it up" approach to your development project, it's often cheaper to hire a freelance professional web designer or developer than to use only one aspect of a larger company's services. Working with freelancers can also give you more control over the project, although that comes at the price of more project management work on your part.
When considering a freelancer, make sure you understand their availability. However, freelancers who work full-time can usually provide the communication and support you need -- however, freelancers that have a second job may have limited availability and could take longer to complete a project. This depends a lot on the particular freelancer as well as your needs, but it's worth investigating.
Planning for Website Updates
One aspect of launching a new website that many businesses overlook is planning for ongoing updates. At an absolute minimum, you should try to update your website every three months, even if the edits are simple text changes and additions. If you're conducting e-commerce, you may need to update prices or availability at any time.
There are three main ways to handle website updates:
- Have your website builder make updates for you. Site design companies either charge a monthly fee for a set amount of changes, or charge per hour for each change that they make. Since simple text updates can be done in a matter of minutes, the latter is an economical choice if you don't intend to update your site very frequently.
- Implement a system that lets you update text. Many website design firms offer content management systems that let you edit site content without learning any programming languages. Depending on the complexity of your site, this can range from a small additional expense to a considerable upgrade. However, it frees you from the hassle of contacting an external supplier every time you want to make a change.
- Have an internal staffer manage updates. Even if you outsource the production of your site, your internal tech staff should be able to make basic website updates without too much trouble. If you have the staff in place, this option is the least expensive and gives you the greatest control.
It's not necessary to choose one of the approaches before you start. Talk to your vendor about the expected magnitude and frequency of your website updates and they should be able to present you with the right option for your needs, budget, and internal capabilities.
You may even wind up with a combination of these three. For example, your e-commerce setup may come with an interface that lets you manage product prices and availability, but other parts of your site will have to be updated by your vendor.
With a solid understanding of the process and options involved, it's almost time to start talking to web designers - but not just yet. Choosing a designer or design company is like hiring any other employee. Many of them specialize in specific aspects of design and have varying levels of experience.
Choosing a Web Designer
Once you get a list of potential website design companies, choosing one is easy if you know what kind of site you want.
- Simple: If you want a simple informational site, perhaps with very straightforward e-commerce and no tricky interactive features, you should look for a website design company that specializes in small business website packages.
- Complex: If you want a website that addresses complicated business problems, connects to your existing databases or customer service systems, or offers e-commerce that's more than point, click, and buy, you will want to find a website design company who work with your business as a consultant.
- Mobile: If you need a mobile friendly website or app, choose a web design company that specializes in this service. Today, 90% of websites are mobile friendly, but that doesn't mean that every website created will view well on a mobile phone. Some web design companies can also help you create an iPhone app to market your business.
This is an important distinction. Companies that focus on basic small business sites will be able to create a site for you quickly and for less money than more wide-ranging firms. Companies with an emphasis on working with you to define and address your business needs will cost more, but can help your business in ways you might not have considered. Lastly, both types of companies may offer mobile friendly web design capabilities, but you must ask about this in advance
Please note that many buyers today confuse mobile apps for a website. It is important to understand that a mobile app is a separate entity from a website used to attract new customers and direct them back to a company's original website.
Questions to ask
The first step in choosing a website design company is conducting a phone interview. Here are some questions to ask. (If you're looking for a freelancer, almost all of these still apply.)
- What are your strengths as a site development company?
- Do you understand my business and customers? (It's not the end of the world if they're unfamiliar with your industry, but they should be eager to learn.)
- Do you handle design, development, hosting, and e-commerce? (Ask only about those you're interested in, of course.)
- Will you do the work, or outsource it to others?
- Can you help us with content creation or ideas?
- Will you test the site in various browsers? Which? (A site that works fine in one browser may break in another.)
- Are the websites that you create mobile friendly?
- Can your developers connect the site to our customer database/inventory tracking software/sales software?
- Will we be able to update the site content ourselves?
- Do you do site hosting? What kind of guarantees do you offer?
- How long have you been in business? Can you provide some sample sites for me to look at? (Be wary if you may hear the answer that "most of the sites we've worked on are intranets, not available to the public." Any company deserving of your business should have at least a few sites to show you.)
- What kind of support do you offer if our site breaks or needs emergency updates?
Note that we do not include "So, how much is it going to cost me?" on this list. Determining that a given website design company is right for you should be more important than the cost. See Website design prices for information on what you should expect to pay.
In addition to looking at sample websites, you should also check a design company's references. Talking to their other clients can give you the good picture of what it's like to work with a particular website design company. Get at least three, and ask them specific questions:
- Did the firm meet deadlines?
- Were they flexible?
- What aspects of their work were particularly strong?
- What areas were not quite up to your expectations?
- Did they help you plan and organize the website?
- Did they set and meet realistic goals for your company?
- Would you work with this company again?
Professional services often require you to sign a contract. And web design is no different. Here's what to look for in a standard web design contract, as well as fees that may be associated with the initial bid.
Understanding Web Design Contracts
Depending on the company and the scope of your web development project, there may be a few different ways your project gets started.
For the most straightforward projects, you'll be choosing a standard website package - a specific number of pages, standard layouts, and (potentially) a simple e-commerce system. In those cases, there isn't much back and forth on pricing: you either accept the company's price or you don't. These projects usually include fixed costs for additional pages or interactive features. You should always sign a contract specifying completion dates and deliverables.
For medium-complexity projects, the design firm will usually provide an estimate based on an initial interview. They'll list the expected amount of hours required for design, image production, development, testing, and maintenance, along with the cost per hour for each task.
You'll be billed for the actual amount of web development work, so make sure there is a clause in the contract that requires the vendor to notify you before they begin additional work should the price exceed the estimate by a certain amount. If you don't approve, they won't be able to bill you for large cost overruns.
For the most involved projects, there is typically an extra step involved. After you and the vendor agree to the initial estimate, they will work with you to create a much more detailed requirements document. It will go into the specifics of how the site will work, often including mockups or a prototype.
This document is important for larger web projects to make sure that both parties agree on what is being delivered - it helps reduce miscommunication later. You'll have to pay for the developer's time to create this document - up to 20% of the total estimate - but it's well worth it for large web development projects.
No matter how your project is structured, there are several key points you should make sure are written into the contract:
- Itemized cost breakdowns for different employees or services.
- Estimated costs, and notification requirements of overruns.
- Deadlines for reviews and delivery, along with consequences of missing deadlines. Note that this will apply to you, too - if you don't deliver feedback in a timely manner, you may delay their final delivery.
- Hosting details, if applicable: guaranteed site availability and response time.
- Maintenance agreements, if applicable.
- Detailed responsibilities for design, content, development, testing, and signoff.
Professional website design can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Here, as in many other business purchasing decisions, you get what you pay for. But that doesn't mean you have to overpay.
We've gathered a solid range of fees reported by BuyerZone customers throughout the United States. Use them to budget your project, and gauge the quality of the designers themselves - avoiding those that fall too far outside the ranges provided.
Pricing for Professional Website Design
One key point to be aware of as you compare prices: your project may include both one-time costs for development as well as recurring monthly costs for hosting, updates, and other ongoing work. Bids from different companies may not address these two areas in the same manner, so make sure you clarify the exact breakdown of your costs before making a decision.
Website pricing from basic to complex
At the low end of the scale are website "packages." If you choose a website development firm that offers a 4 to 6 page website for $400, you'll probably get a template-based website with very little customization and no extra functionality. A basic 10 page website could cost $1000. If your site just needs to inform people of your hours and location, then that's probably enough.
The same basic type of site package with a customized design will usually come to around $700 to $2000. In most cases, the packages are just a starting point: good web design firms will provide a detailed proposal that itemizes various costs like additional pages or extra image work.
Higher-end website projects are usually priced on an hourly basis, because the amount of work it will take to complete them is harder to judge. This can range from $40/hour for basic HTML production to $140/hour for high-end development work. It's a huge range, but the fees are reflective of vendors' expertise and specialties.
However, a medium-sized website with a completely customized design, content management tool, and robust features and interactivity can easily cost $5,000 to $10,000, and up to $50,000 for large or very complex applications.
Additional web development costs
E-commerce is usually priced separately. Initial development costs for an e-commerce enabled website start at around $1000 for the bare minimum. You can also expect to pay an ongoing monthly fee of $15 to $50 for a typical online store, depending on how many products you have and how many options are involved in the ordering process. Larger, customized e-commerce websites could range in price from $3500 - $5000.
Hosting is another separate cost, but a fairly small one. Basic site hosting - shared services, where your site is run on the same computer with many others - can be as low as $10/month, although $15 to $25 monthly hosting fees are more common. Dedicated hosting, in which a specific computer is only used to run your site, is more like $150/month. These costs are directly related to the size and visitor activity on your site, so online popularity can increase your monthly bills.
There are other occasional expenses you should expect. If you don't own your domain name - the "yourcompany.com" - it starts at $12.95 per year. To conduct e-commerce on your site you'll need a $125-per-year SSL certificate, which guarantees the security of credit card numbers and other sensitive information. Flash animation may cost $30 to $75 per hour.
None of these charges should come as a surprise - make sure they're spelled out in your contract. Professional website design can vary quite a bit in cost - so make sure you know what you're getting.
Website Development Tips
Talk to your users. Before spending $10,000 on an interactive website, make sure that your customers will use it. Talking to your actual and potential customers can provide surprising insights into what you should and shouldn't do as part of your website development.
Keep an eye on progress. To avoid unpleasant surprises, check in regularly as the site is being designed and built. You'll also want to have final approval on each stage of the project. However, it is still critical to listen to your web designer's advice. Remember, you hired your web designer for a reason. Many businesses see the greatest success in building a website by providing clear expectations and allowing the web designer to do their best work based on their guidelines.
Look at your competitors. Visit competitors' websites for ideas about look and feel, content, and features for your own site. But keep in mind that they will likely look at your site, too, so don't take any of their ideas - or content - too literally during your website development.
Name an editor. Assign someone to be responsible for managing the site and making updates. The editor doesn't have to make all the changes, but should gather content from other departments as needed.
Understand the bigger picture. One big misunderstanding many buyers bring to a website project is the "field of dreams" attitude: "If we build a website, the customers will come." This is far from the truth. Building a website is only the first step towards online marketing success: great results come from ongoing work to develop traffic, not simply from the look of the website.