Making the Designer Work For You
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I made this classified help wanted ad up out of my head, but every freelance designer recognizes it. Many experienced clients do, too: They used to write classified ads just like that before they learned what a designer was and how to get the most out of the ones they hire.
This article is a guideline for clients who plan to hire a web designer for their business. It is also written for designers as a guideline of what is expected of them in a world that expects the mere designer to wear many new hats.
First, what is a designer?
Design is a field based on ideas and concepts. Designers do not merely come up with ideas and execute them (more on what a production artist is, later). A good designer works with the client to define the problems that need to be solved, finds new opportunities that a client may not have considered, and manages the business resources needed to make the solution a reality. A good designer also breathes life and vividness into what could be merely a good idea.
The client that expects a designer merely to layout a good-looking page with cool graphics may get that. However, the client will get only a cool web site and will miss out on all of the business value a designer has to offer.
So, how do work with a Designer to get the most bang for, what some consider, a lot of bucks?
You get what you ask for.
If you want a generic, thoughtless web site, then write a generic, thoughtless classified ad.
Consider the advertisement at the beginning of this article. The ad asks for nothing, really. I havent personally met a designer that didnt fit every one of the graphic software requirements, and havent met many that were good at all of the programming languages. So essentially, the client has made a call for any and all web designers that know how to make images and web sites.
Step 1. Articulate a very clear and actionable design brief.
Period. End of story. If you get this one step wrong, you will be asking for (and getting) uninspired, derivative work which will impact your business negatively for years to come. When you hire an experienced designer (and you will, because you have read this article) they will be able to help you distill the problem down to its essentials and even explore issues you may not have thought of.
The design brief contains the following information:
Who are you?
- What your business does
- How long has your business been around and how large is it (employees and staff)
- What is your niche market?
- How does your company fit within the industry sector?
- What objectives does your business hope to achieve? Be specific if you can, but if not, let your designer help you set realistic objectives. Let him/her know that your objectives are vague and that they need to be defined. Are you trying to generate sales? Gather information? Generate name and brand recognition?
- Who is the designer trying to communicate to? What gender, age, demographic, income any information you give helps the designer visualize the audience.
Inexperienced clients hate this part. Two issues come up: The client doesnt know how much a web site is supposed to cost, or the client is afraid that the unscrupulous designer will run up the cost. The first issue I will write about, later. For the second, I will say that the client should be aware of who they are hiring. References help weed out the unsavory to a certain extent. Simply understanding what you are paying for also helps.
In any case, the cost of a designer that creates a Golden Gate bridge made out of real gold when you only have a budget for steel ? Alternately, the designer who figures for a $3500 e-Commerce site when you have $1,000,000 set aside to become the next Victorias Secret isnt saving money.
- What is your budget range? High, low, target.
- Time Frame. Whats the deadline, what milestones are you planning for that the designer needs to know about?
- Other info that will help. (Please! If you hate the color Yellow, now would be a good time to mention it.)
Here, again, your designer may be able to help you design the path that will get you from the Point A of your objective, to Point B. Do not be afraid to rely on a designers ability to scrap every vision you had of your future web site (including the daydream about the animated Flash Introductions).
Step 2. Develop a well articulated strategy for achieving your objectives. Also, remember to go back after youve developed your strategy and ask, "Does it actually achieve the objectives?" Sometimes, all the brainstorming and writing will cause us to forget what the strategy was all about in the first place.
Getting Support from within your organization
Designers and Client contacts always miss this step and always act surprised when all their work is met with stony silence by the rest of the organization. If you are the owner, dont get arrogant about your employees approval. Ive seen great designs become sources of low moral for the simple reason that the owner was trying to shove it down the companys throat. If your employees / colleagues / bosses do not like a design, it will never succeed as well as it could.
Get their input and advice.
Letting your designer move in with you.
If the designer asks for a tour of your business and time to wander around and get a feel for your business culture, you already know that youve struck gold. Let them. Give them a hard hat if you need to and let your insurance carrier know that this contractor is going to get their hands dirty on your front line.
The reason why VW Bug ads are fun, while Mercedes ads are a different fun is not merely the car, but the culture of the organization. The designers for both companies are geniuses not only in their ability to talk to the target market, but to talk to that target market about the company culture.
Allow for test ideas, experiments and mind games.
The designers job is to come up with ideas that fit hundreds and thousands of pieces of data that are coming to them from all of the steps above. They are not merely painting a picture on a canvas that has to have meaning only to them as artists. The designer has to paint a picture that distills data and objectives down to simple, communicable visualizations.
Let them play. Let them develop prototypes, explore an idea to see where it will lead, paint a web site idea on the side of a barn if they feel the need. They are trying to come up with something new and unique; something that hasnt been done a million times before. If you think that it is easy, ask yourself when was the last time you ever came up with a truly new idea?
A designer at play with your idea is a designer who is trying to break the box that they have been thinking in. It really doesnt cost you more than a generic idea would cost. Budget for it.
Test the idea as much as you have budget for.
Focus groups can be as simple as going out with a laptop and accosting passer-bys to try out the left navigation bar (Dont laugh! I did that for an IBM project once). Its important to understand that when youve been staring at a project for weeks over the shoulder of your designer, that both of you have forgotten what its like to look at your site for the first time and have to move through it.
Test out the ideas. Test often. Test again.
(OK you LOVE the color orange, but all of your test subjects hate it. Guess what?)
Now, its time to get your production team together.
What? You thought you were working on the actual web site? Oh, no. That would have cost you a lot of money to be trying to produce the site while thinking about and creating it at the same time.
Dont worry, though, because your production team (who might actually be the original designer) knows exactly what to do and how they need to do it. We promise that if youve gone through all of the steps, the production phase will be much smoother than you could expect, otherwise. Not as many bottlenecks, fewer delays, less surprises.
Launch the site and youre done, right?
Hopefully, your designer is going to stick around, because after the site is live, youre going to be able to see the result of all your and your designer's assumptions and a few will have to be changed, or corrected.
Visitor tracking will have been worked in at the very beginning of the project and you have developed a metric system for evaluating whether your objectives are being met. If they arent, then your ability to track visitors will pinpoint the parts of the web site that are causing problems and your designer will have to come up with solutions.
Its inevitable and it should be seen as an easy opportunity, so dont miss it.
"I have to go through all of this? I only wanted a web site for my business!"
You don't. And, I can make a web site for you. I know PhotoShop and I know Dreamweaver. I'm pretty handy with PHP and could probably get all the code to work, though it may be bloated and slow (a programmer could do it better and faster, but I'm just a designer). I don't need to know much about your business, just give me a copy of your logo and I'll paste it in to the template I have laying around.
You want a custom design, not a template? Not a problem. It'll take me an extra day. Flash Intro? No problem (do 14% of your customers hate Flash?).
Are you going to achieve your objectives? Yes: Your business has a web site and it looks cool.
Here are some numbers to think about in comparison to design costs.
85% of all e-commerce traffic will be from Search Engines or directories. If your site is not readible by Search Engines, yet an objective is to generate sales, then you're not acheiving a substantial part of your objectives.
Most Search Engines cannot read and index Flash files. Google and a couple of other Search Engines only do it with partial success. If your designer does not know your objectives, and if you've told then that you want a Flash Intro, then again, you've lost the value your designer could have offered you.
Let's say you sell widgets for $100.00 a piece and gadget accessories for the widgets for $10.00 per.
If 100 people visit your site in a day and three people finish a transaction for a total of two widgets and one gadget, you've made $210.00.
Not bad. But what if I told you that neither of the widget buyers knew that you sold gadgets, and the guy that bought the gadget actually wanted a widget and couldn't find it... he bought the gadget from you and thought that he'd have the buy the widget elsewhere.,
Further, what If I said that there was one other person that started to make a purchase, but got confused about the form and simply gave up and left.
Another person loved your gadget, but couldn't find the (very obvious to you) Buy Now button. He left.
Another person really didn't feel like searching your entire site for one widget, another came to your site thinking that you sold widgets, but after seeing your Flash intro, couldn't really say what your business was about at all. He left.
Were you going at that with a calculator? You missed at least three up-sale opportunities, chased away the rest with their money in hand.
Now, how much does a good designer cost? How much for a good design process? How badly do you want that Flash Intro if you're not a local band looking for gigs?
Part 1 of 2
About the author: Sean Rice and Rasa Design Studio specializes in web design and marketing for e-business sites. Rasa Design Studio provides the 'eBusiness' section of its site as a free service with articles and tools for designers, marketers and clients. You can visit this Western Massachusetts firm and read several of our other articles at www.rasadesign.com.