Choosing a Web Designer: 6 Key Tips

Knowing the key factors to consider when choosing a web designer is absolutely vital and will ultimately be the kingpin as to whether your new website is a failure, or a success.

You don’t have to go far to find someone that has had a terrible experience with a web designer/developer and had a project that ended in a shambles. Late delivery of work, overall poor quality and a general lack of clear communication are just a few of the problems that may make up a greater website project disaster. This sounds dramatic, and it should. Your website is the core of your online presence. And a strong online presence has never been more important than it is today.

Knowing how to look for and select the best possible designer for your website project is an essential skill that will ultimately determine whether your new website will be a failure or a success. It all starts with you as the client putting in the ground work necessary to clearly define your project requirements. These insights will guide an effective designer seeking and selection process that will hopefully result in a smooth website creation process and an improved bottom line for your brand.

I have seen so many projects go well and so many go badly over the years. From all of these experiences, I have deduced a number of insights as to what one should look for when choosing a web designer/developer. These are the 6 most important tips I can give you.

1 - Define your functional needs

Understanding what you need your new website to do is the first thing you should decide on and clearly define before you even start looking for a web designer/developer. I have seen so many web projects go south at a rate of knots because of this step being completed poorly, or ignored altogether. If you don’t know what you want your website to offer, you cannot expect the web designer to decide and execute that for you.

Where to start:

Start off by collecting a bunch of reference websites that contain features you want to emulate. More often than not this will mean plucking out certain elements from a variety of different websites and then collating them in some kind of document.

This list of features could look something like the following:

  • You want a blog that performs and looks like Website A
  • You want a contact form that performs and looks like Website B
  • You want a checkout flow that performs and looks like Website C
  • I think you get the point!

Once you have a reference website for each feature you want on your site, put them together into a document and categorize them by page type. The benefits of doing this are two-fold. Firstly, this task will go a long way in helping you visualize how you actually want your site to work. Secondly, the insights and references gained from this process are key for guiding your web designer/developer when they start building your new website. You cannot expect a web designer to create your website concept for you. It is your business, and your website is your business tool. It is up to you to provide sufficient guidance and information to your designer so that they can make your ideal website a reality.

Larry Ludwig goes into even more detail on defining technological needs on his blog.

Choosing a platform:

Defining your functional needs is also key for deciding the platform you want your website to be built in. Once your needs are clearly defined, you can start looking into what platforms best suit your vison. Having a suitable platform shortlist will also help narrow down your potential designer/developer options as most candidates specialize and limit themselves to specific technologies.

Taking the time to figure out what you want, and illustrating this with examples of existing websites is the first step.

2 - Know the look & feel you are going for

Once you know what you want your website to do, it becomes a lot easier for you to determine what you want it to look like. The process of defining a desired look and feel is somewhat similar to that of defining your functional needs. the key difference here is finding aesthetic inspiration that suits and is compatible with the desired functions of your new website.

Where to start:

Again, you will want to start by collecting a list of website examples that have aesthetic features you would like to draw inspiration from. Look at things like color schemes, fonts, image use and layout styles to start picking up common themes. Going in, it can be difficult to imagine what you want your website to look like. Browsing other websites will elicit “aha!” moments of inspiration and you will slowly but surely start knowing what you like and what you don’t like.

Again, you will want to create some sort of “look and feel” document to house all of your visual inspiration. This will be invaluable to the designer you do eventually hire. Don’t be that client that doesn’t provide examples of creative influence to your designer. It will result in constant back and forth because your designer will be playing a guessing game. It is unfair to waste their time with this, and I promise you it will result in a poor end product.

3 - Portfolio and past work is key

If you want your new website project to be a success, you will want to hire a designer/developer who has projects similar to the one you envision under their belt. This does not mean that they have to have successfully built every functional or design feature that you want before, but there should be a solid indication that they have both the creative and technical ability to build what you need them to build.

The best way to vet candidates through their past work is to ask the following questions:

1 - What type of sites have they built before?

Designers/Developers are not one-size-fits all and any candidate that claims to be so should be knocked off your shortlist immediately. Good designers become good by developing proficiency in a specific site style or niche and looking at their portfolio should depict that.

Some designers/developers specialize in e-commerce. Some specialize in brochure style business websites. Some specialize in content-based sites like blogs or directories and the list goes on. Before you start assessing the quality of a designers work, make sure that they have built something in the same functional and aesthetic realm of the site you envision.

Keep in mind that this does not mean that a candidate needs to have a plethora of relevant sites on their track record. So long as they have some solid indication that they can successfully undertake your work, you are good to go. Portfolio size and pricing have a direct correlation. The more experience you demand, the more you can expect to pay a web designer for their services.

2 - Do they provide a link to sites they have built before?

This question is absolutely crucial. Often, designers will present a case study for a previous project they have worked on but fail to provide a link to a working version of the project. If this does happen, ask for a working link. If they still refuse, run away quickly as it usually means there is something to hide.

Always insist on seeing a few live versions of previous work as this is the true test of a websites overall quality.

3 - How good is their work?

Once a designer/developer has checked the box of portfolio relevance, it is time to assess the quality of their work. Objectively deciding whether a site is good or bad can be tricky so I have included a few vital questions to ask yourself below:

  • How easy is it to find what you are trying to find on their previous websites? (how easy are they to navigate).
  • Do websites on their portfolio work well and look good across responsive screen sizes? A well designed and developed website should look good and function properly on desktop, tablet and mobile devices.
  • Do websites on their portfolio load fast? Slow page speed is one of the best ways to chase prospective customers away before they even see what you have to offer. A good website loads fast and feels snappy on desktop and mobile devices.
  • Are there obvious design flaws and inconsistencies? Things like inconsistent spacing and a general lack of cohesiveness between website elements are indicative of a poorly built code base that is guaranteed to be a nightmare down the line.

It is always a good idea to have other people you trust run through a designers portfolio and answer the questions above. Having multiple sets of eyes will often reveal potential red flags you have missed.

4 - If they don’t ask questions, they aren’t a good fit

A good designer/developer will always have plenty questions about your project. The reason for this is that there is no one way to design or develop anything. A good candidate will thus be mentally brainstorming different options and approaches while speaking to you and in order to do this and come to the best possible solution, they need all the info and clarifications they can get.

An inexperienced/poor designer/developer in contrast will nod their head incessantly at absolutely everything you say and act as if there will not be one hurdle along the way. They do this because they are trying to seal the deal as quickly as possible by reducing friction. Their short term prophecy for solving problems they do not understand is “I’ll figure it out later”. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very alluring when a candidate has this kind of false confidence and self assurance but it almost always ends in heartbreak.

I have been the guy who asks no questions and I am now the guy who asks absolutely every question possible. New me is an infinitely better designer/developer.

Any designer/developer that does not ask questions is doing so because they are trying to seal the deal as quickly as possible, not because they know exactly what you want.

5 - Communication is key

The importance of good communication once a project has started cannot be understated. You will need to have regular meetings with your designer, go back and forth with feedback and set up times and dates for progress meetings. It is important that through all of this, you are able to clearly communicate your thoughts and visions to your designer and that they are able understand and align with them.

From the designer’s perspective it is important that they are able to communicate their design decisions and how they align with your vision. They should also be able to challenge you where necessary and have clearly laid out reasoning for these challenges

Another factor to consider in terms of communication is promptness. Don’t get me wrong your designer should not be at your beckon call replying to emails instantaneously but if to the leadup of hiring a candidate they reply to emails slowly and inconsistently and disappear for days on end without warning, they are probably not going to be a good hire.

When you are consulting with potential designers/developers for your new website, assess their overall quality of communication using the guidelines above and look for red flags.

Choosing to work with a web designer/developer that communicates well with you will serve you well and make for a pleasant project experience.

6 - Ask for a detailed proposal/breakdown

This is almost like the final assignment a designer/developer should be able to pass before they are hired. The project proposal comes after all of the above factors have been considered, and a decision on the top candidate options finalized.

A good project proposal is detailed, clear and should always include the following:

  • A clear scope of work, itemizing all pages, features and important aspects of the website to be created as per your correspondence up to this point
  • Some indication of direction as to how they intend to complete the requirements of the project.
  • What platform they are going to use for your website and any associated costs or actions required from you as the client in this regard
  • Price and timeline
  • A list of what is not included as part of the project. This is to protect the designer/developer as well as you, the client. This list should cover things such as whether or not the project fee includes SEO, branding, site management after launch etc. Obviously if these things are included they should be itemized in the scope of work.

Wrapping up

Choosing a website designer/developer is something that is too often rushed and not well thought through. If you choose the wrong candidate for your project, it is guaranteed to go badly and that will mean money down the drain. Taking some time to clearly define your project needs and linking these up with designer attributes through the tips outlined in this article will significantly increase your chance of project success. It will help you set your project off in collaboration with a web designer/developer that understand your goals and has the tools to help you achieve them.

Don’t rush this process. One week of effort and research could just save you months of pain and a lot of money.