Plan to Participate
If you hire a developer and then disappear for weeks, you can expect to be disappointed in the final product. Plan to be actively involved on a regular basis, reviewing progress with the project manager at least once a week, and helping to test features as they are completed. Building a successful website or web application is a collaborative process, and developers and their clients often have very different assumptions about what ‘obviously’ needs to be done. These assumptions can only be overcome by on-going communication.
Using Content Management Systems (CMS)
If you want to be able to maintain the website yourself, and be able to cost effectively expand it’s feature over time, make sure your developer is implementing a ‘Content Management System,’ (CMS) which is an online application that allows you (and other designated users) to log in and update your website content easily from any web browser. You fill out simple forms to add or modify content on your website; no need to write any code. A few of the most popular CMSes are Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla. Most of these come with ‘modules’ or ‘extensions’ the allow you to easy drop in new features, like multi-user blogs, forums, web forms, podcasts, etc. ‘Themes’ or ‘Templates’ allow you to change the design (‘look & feel’) of your site instantly, without losing any of your functionality or content.
Look for an open source CMS, like one of the three above, for cost savings, and to ensure that you aren’t stuck with your web developer and his or her software vendor. Open source software like Drupal is supported by hundreds of firms around the world. If the developer you choose first is no longer a good fit for your needs, you’ll have plenty of options for others who can pick up the ball. And you never have to a pay a recurring license fee for Open Source Software. (However, you will probably want to subscribe to on-going support and maintenance services to keep your site secure, which may have a recurring fee.)
If anyone tells you you need to install some program (e.g., Dreamweaver, or Adobe Contribute) on your computer to update your website, Run Away. This person is not up-to-date on current web technology. All serious website content management is now done through the website itself. (Dreamweaver, for example, is a powerful, professional tool, and has it’s place, but is completely unnecessary for day-to-day website administration.)
Define your requirements in terms of the people who will be using your website. For example, if you are building a business site, and you want your customers to be able to log-in to discussion forums and access private documents, you might have a set of requirements like this:
ALL SITE VISITORS CAN:
- Access product & company information pages
- Leave comments on Press Release pages
- Sign up for a Website Account
ALL LOGGED-IN USERS CAN:
- Access Discussion Forums
- Submit price quote requests
LOGGED-IN CUSTOMERS CAN:
- Access Customer-only documentation (Training Manuals, etc)
ALL STAFF MEMBERS CAN:
- Access private company calendar
MARKETING DEPARTMENT STAFF MEMBERS CAN:
- Post Press Releases
- Edit Product Information pages
WEBSITE ADMINISTRATORS CAN:
- Designate which users are Customers
- Edit All Information Pages
Providing your developer a list of requirements in this form can potentially reduce the preparation and consulting time required before work can begin on your website. You don’t need to be very detailed about each individual requirement, but your should be very thorough about listing ALL of the features you need. Assume nothing is automatic. If you’re on a limited budget, you should differentiate between features which are ‘required’ and those which are ‘optional,’ if time & budget allows.
Separate into Phases
Don’t pay a developer for a large website project all at once. Instead, break your project up into small phases of work that can be completed in 2-4 weeks time. Start with the design, and then move on to the basic CMS configuration, and then the addition of other features, and then finally, all of the ‘nice to have’ features that aren’t absolutely essential to meeting your goals for your project.
This approach allows you to easily change course between phases. More often then not, once the project is in-progress, you’ll start to think of new things you’d like to have, and you might realize that some specific elements that you thought were very important can be done in a simpler, more cost-effective way. If you signed a big, flat-rate contract with a long list of every single detail of the site, it can be difficult and costly to make changes mid way through the project. But if you start with just the basics, you can have the freedom to adapt your project plan based on what you learn in the earlier phases of work.
Understanding Designers & Developers
It’s important to understand the difference between a ‘designer’ and a ‘developer.’ In brief, the Designer’s job is to make it LOOK the way you want. The developer’s job is to make it WORK the way you want. They are very different skill sets (Artists vs. Technician), and it rarely works well to combine the two in one person, in my experience.
A lot of people are running around selling themselves as ‘web designers’ or even ‘web developers’ who don’t really understand the technology and will more than likely give you a site that is insecure, difficult to use, and costly to update, revise, or expand.
My recommended approach is to hire the graphic designer to do design mock-ups in photoshop. They don’t necessarily need to be able to create websites. Then, once you have the look that you want, you pass the photoshop files off to a developer who will then turn that into a functioning site.
Never hire a graphic designer to manage your website project, unless they have a proven track record for web CMS projects, and very good references. The development firm should generally be the leading force on your project, and the designer should be required to deliver the designs according to the developer’s technical specifications. Good Development firms will have in-house graphic designers; the best will be willing and able to work with the designer of your choice.
A word on Flash Animation: Don’t get carried away. Most people are not nearly as interested in watching your thirty second flash intro page. Thirty seconds is a long time on the Internet. If you must have Flash, use it in a hybrid approach, to decorate your site, not to run it. Firstly, flash can slow down your site greatly, and make it inaccessible to mobile browsers and people with disabilities who use screen reading software. Secondly, many of the sexy fading and fluid motion effects can be accomplished these days without Flash. If you don’t REALLY need it, don’t use it.