Whether it’s doing your taxes, redoing your kitchen, or redesigning your organization’s Web site, there comes a time, no matter how good you are, when it makes sense to turn things over to a specialist.
You can choose from among an alphabet soup of technologies from CSS (cascading style sheets) to XML, using the latest Adobe InDesign (http://www.adobe.com) or Macromedia Dreamweaver (http://www.macromedia.com) to improve the appearance and performance of a Web site. The risk isn’t so much in not using the latest tools but in not using them appropriately.
“An effective Web site is easy to use,” said Leigh Weber, president of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA), echoing the views of many. “It shouldn’t be too fancy, too cluttered, or too noisy.”
Weber points out that when people go to a Web site, they typically take only seconds to decide whether or not to stay. Along with barraging visitors with flash and withholding substance, another way to encourage visitors to leave is to design your site from your perspective, starting with your organization’s accomplishments or history, rather than their perspective, starting with their needs and how you can serve them.
If you decide to go outside for help, your choices include Internet service providers, graphic designers, Web consultants, Web design shops, technology consulting firms, traditional advertising or public relations agencies, or interactive agencies.
To help decide which type of specialist to use, remember what Socrates said—know thyself. “You need to define what type of site you are,” said Weber. For example, are you primarily an informational site, an interactive site, or an e-commerce site?
Each type requires different technical skills. Informational sites can be put together by a graphic designer with Web experience. Interactive sites can require database or instructional design skills. E-commerce sites require database skills as well as knowledge of the most appropriate e-commerce software packages that are available.
There are various ways to find Web help. The ICCA’s Web site (http://www.icca.org) lets you search by skill keyword and by geographical area. Web Design Plaza (http://www.webdesignplaza.com) lets you home in closely by using pull-down menus to choose the type of Web site you are, the consulting services you’re looking for, the features you require for your site, and your budget.
If you want an attention-getting, award-winning Web site, one option is to use an agency responsible for these types of sites. Interactive, advertising, and design agencies behind the Web sites honored in the last Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com) include:
* Biggs|Gilmore (http://www.biggs-gilmore.com)
* Crispin Porter + Bogusky (http://www.cpbgroup.com)
* Critical Mass (http://www.criticalmass.com)
* David Day + Associates (http://www.dday.com)
* Xylem Interactive (http://www.xyleminteractive.com)
When choosing a developer to work on your site, look critically at the developer’s own site. Some go overboard on the surface, making it more difficult to get to the content. On the other hand, a site boasting the latest technological bells and whistles may project the image you want.
When talking with prospective Web designers, don’t get hoodwinked by buzzwords. Make sure you understand what they mean and whether the technologies behind them are appropriate for your site.
Ask to see a list of URLs of the Web sites the designer has worked on, along with contact information for the people responsible for these sites. Talk to them about their experience with the designer.
If you’re looking to redesign your site, ask for a critique of it and for examples of how the designer would improve it. But first weed out outdated or otherwise extraneous material from your site—that can save you money on the redesign later on as well.
Ask about the consultant’s or agency’s fees. Some charge on an hourly basis, others assess a one-time lump sum, while still others use retainer agreements.
Get an estimated time frame for completion of the project. It typically takes several weeks to several months to build and test a site. If your designer works by the hour, request to be alerted if the project is going over budget.
Ask about arrangements for maintaining the site. A consultant can do this for you or provide the tools and training for you to do it in house. A common mistake organizations make is focusing too much on initial development and not enough on long-term maintenance.
Most important, make sure that anyone you’re considering hiring listens to you. You don’t want to wind up with a cookie-cutter site. Your site should be carefully crafted to meet your specific needs and goals. Good Web consultants, like any good consultants, ask as many questions as they answer.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.