How to brief a web designer

Colour swatches and site maps - web design concept

Hiring a web designer to build or revamp your website can be a major investment for a small business, so it is essential you get the brief right and that you select a website designer that fits your business

What are your website goals?

It's critical that you understand the goals and ambitions for your site before you even approach a designer.

  • What are you trying to achieve with your site - is it for selling or is it marketing-driven?
  • What is the proposition and image you are offering to your customers?

It's important to define your goals and objectives. However, be careful not to shackle your designer with too rigid a set of requests up front.

A good designer will take your requirements and work creatively with them. Don't try to do their job, or you will diminish their value.

Which web designer should you hire?

Web design is a fairly ad-hoc business and anyone can set up as a designer. You should ask for references and check out the websites that the designer has produced. But remember these are the sites that your designer wants you to see, so do your own research. It can be very beneficial to talk to a designer's previous clients.

It's even a good idea to try buying a few items from previous ecommerce stores that the designer has worked on. That way, you can get some first-hand experience of being their customer's customer.

The importance of your web design brief

Give your web designer vague instructions and you could find yourself forking out for something that does not do the job. It's essential to start by writing a good web design brief.

Talk through what you want with a web designer first. This will help you to draw up a specification for an acceptable design. They should tell you the pros and cons of the different choices you can make, and most will do this for free if they think they're going to win the business.

These discussions will help you write your web design brief - the instructions telling the web designer how to build your site. While not legally binding, the brief is an important document. It can pull the designer back on track if they don't deliver what you wanted, or go over budget.

Key considerations before writing the brief

If you are planning to sell online, it's more than likely your site will require the ability to accept credit and debit cards. How will you handle payments? This can be an absolute minefield and highly confusing for those new to ecommerce.

It's important you do your research. Card security and banking regulations such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS) are your responsibility, not the designer's. It will be you that's fined by the banks if the solution doesn't comply.

If you are in any doubt, discuss the situation with your bank. The simple shortcut is that you can use a third party like Worldpay to process payments, making you pretty much fully compliant.

Don't discount other payments services such as PayPal either. Research shows they can add up to 10% of sales, because some people prefer to use these methods.

It's also important to consider what will happen when you take control of your website. Will you be maintaining the site yourself? If so, make sure you discuss training and devise a long-term plan so you can carry out that work. Do this before the designer has moved on to new clients.

Structuring the web design brief

Consider three things when writing a brief. Start with the technology. You need to ensure your site can be displayed by different web browsers on different devices. You need to ensure that your site is fully optimised for mobile devices and that it works as well as it would if the client were accessing it via a computer. The vast majority of people who visit are likely be doing so on their smartphone or tablet.

It's more than likely that a designer will implement an off-the-shelf package. It could be a dedicated ecommerce package or a free CMS (content management system) with an ecommerce plug-in.

Choosing an off-the-shelf solution brings many advantages - it should keep costs down and ultimately save time. It will also mean you should be able to look after the site yourself, and if the designer moves on, your site still has a future.

If your site will be used to make online sales, you should consider whether your site should link to back-office systems such as stock control systems. Your ecommerce site should also integrate with your other sales channels. For example, if you also have a traditional bricks and mortar store, whatever solution you adopt for your online store should be integrated across all your sales channels.

Getting your channels into sync with each other is not easy. A good ecommerce designer should have multi-channel experience, so you need to review them and only opt for a solution that fits.

The second key area is look and feel, so include some of your marketing material showing your colours, logos and house style in the brief. Make sure you give examples of websites you like and those that you don't plus the reasons why.

Your website needs to make a great impression during the first few seconds of a user's visit, establishing your brand and building trust. It's a tall order, and the only way to do this is through the design of your site.

Once you have a prototype of your design, spend time with friends, family and (if you're feeling brave) customers, and get some input. The question you should be asking is ‘How would you approach buying from this store? not ‘What do you think of the design?'.

If your designer is mocking up an HTML prototype, ask them to use a heat map such as Click Heat. This free heat map tool will show clicks on a web page, displaying both hot and cold zones.

Make all this research available to your designer and make sure they take it into account when designing your site. If they are not interested in this information, maybe they aren't right for you.

Finally, be clear on what the site should achieve. This will help the web designer understand your business model - what you sell and who your customers are. Don't forget that people scan websites, so it's important that your pages aren't cluttered with information and that people can easily find what they're looking for.

Bear in mind that what you want the website to accomplish and what your visitors require from it may differ. Think about the needs of your audience and reflect these in the design brief.

Sticking to the web design brief and the budget

Plan ahead for the future development and maintenance of the site. You should be able to update it yourself rather than using external specialists. Otherwise you may be charged every time you want to change product information.

Throughout the process you need to keep an eye on the quality of the work and the budget. Give the web designer a clear date when the work has to be completed and regularly check on progress. Also remember that every time you change your mind and amend the brief, it might have an effect on the overall cost of the project.

Last word

Remember, not knowing what you want from the beginning will cost a lot of money, either by retro-fitting features that weren't planned, or by paying for features you don't need. Arm yourself with as much information as possible, research and get your web design brief right off the bat!

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