A Client's Guide to the Web Design Process

I work with a lot of solo entrepreneurs and small business owners. For about half of them, this is their first venture into online business, so the whole web design process is completely new to them. Even clients who have had websites built for them before, haven’t necessarily been introduced to the concept of a web design process (which is when I start to understand why they’ve come to me instead of their previous web designer). The reason it’s so vital for clients to understand this process is this: a lot of time and resources are going to be required from you throughout. Particularly if you are a solo entrepreneur, this is all going to require a lot of planning. So if you’ve gone through the rigmarole of hiring a web designer and think your job is now complete, think again. Not every designer will follow the same exact process but by and large, you will need to prepare for the following steps. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Step One: Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You…

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I’m going to be blunt here: if you hire a designer and sign a contract without first going through the planning stage, you’re an idiot. It’s the equivalent of getting married halfway through a first date: at best, it’s a potentially expensive mistake. That’s why I always start with…

  1. Information Gathering. I’ll get you to fill in a form so I can collect all the basic details I need: your name, contact details, whether you need a brand new website or a redesign, your budget for the project, etc. Then I’ll schedule a call with you so we can discuss your needs in more detail: I’ll want to know as much as possible about you, and your business, so I can be sure we’re going to be a good fit. This is also my top tip to clients when they need to choose a web designer: if the person you’re hiring seems happy to skip this step in favour of getting you to sign on the dotted line, they are not putting your business first. Just do yourself a favour and find someone else.
  2. Once I’ve satisfied myself that I can really help you, we’ll get to work on all the nitty-gritty details: how many pages does your website need to have, and what needs to be on them? This is often referred to as a sitemap, and is not only vital for determining the scope of a project, but also for allowing me to begin thinking out how your visitors will move through your site, and how we’ll get them where you want them to go, like your checkout or contact pages, for example.
  3. As part of the above step, we’ll also discuss any special features your website needs to have: for example maybe you want to sell products and need an online store, or maybe you’re trying to create an online community and need a forum and member login areas. I also recommend to clients at this point that they let me know any features they may want to implement in the future, even if they’re not ready for them yet. The reason for this is I’ll be determining what platform is best for your needs, and this often impacts on how difficult (read: expensive) it is to implement certain features – for example, Shopify is great for selling products, but it’s blogging capabilities lag way behind a platform like Wordpress. So even if you’re a couple of years from adding that blog or shop to your site, do let me know about it!
  4. Finally I’ll need all the technical stuff: login details for your hosting and / or domain name provider, access to your server, access to your Google Analytics account, and so on. Don’t worry if this part is all mumbo jumbo to you, I and most web designers can take care of all this for you if needed.
  5. Now I’ll be able to prepare your contract, which will contain things like all the details we’ve agreed upon above, the project timeline, and of course, the costs and when payments will be due. A lot of clients assume that their role in the web design process is complete when we get to this stage, but be warned: we’re only just getting started.

Step Two: The Design Stage

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Before I can start designing your website, I’m going to need your website content. A lot of small business owners are dismayed by this, because they’re frequently not prepared for it, and it is without question the most time consuming part of the process for them. Here’s a question I and most web designers are well used to hearing:

“Can’t you just use dummy content in the meantime? I can’t start working on the content for weeks!”

So here’s the rub: yes, technically I could go ahead and design your site with dummy content. I can throw up a placeholder logo and some stock photos, and use our good friend Lorem Ipsum for all the text. It’ll look great. Until that is, you start adding your real content: suddenly that block of text I’d designed to be about 100 words, is actually three times that length, and is throwing out the whole page layout. Or your logo is actually a completely different color and style from my placeholder, and doesn’t fit at all with the colors and fonts on your site.

Although a certain number of revisions will generally be built into your contract, they definitely won’t cover starting the entire process again from scratch. So now you see why before I even start, I’m going to need:

  1. Your logo and brand materials (i.e. any colors, fonts, and graphics you use to communicate your brand identity). Some clients don’t realise that a logo is not included as part of their website design, and haven’t budgeted for it at all, so this is yet another reason why the planning stage is just so vital. Others have a logo, but no other brand materials: again, if I know this during the planning phase I can work with you to choose your brand colors and fonts.
  2. Any images you plan to use on the website: these don’t actually have to be final, but at the very least I’ll need similar images to the final ones you plan to use, so I can make sure the colors don’t clash or the banner text is readable.
  3. Your website text. Whether you’re hiring a copywriter or doing it yourself, this is very time-consuming for clients, and can delay the start date of your site considerably, which is why I’ll so often have clients asking me to start designing without it. Aside from the layout considerations I’ve mentioned above, there is another reason why I don’t like to start without your website copy: once I’ve read it, I now have a much greater understanding of your tone. Is it bouncy and playful? Then bright, bold colors and simple graphics will complement it brilliantly. Is it more formal and business-like? In that case I’m probably going to use traditional fonts and simpler, cleaner layouts, so the visual impression visitors receive isn’t at odds with the content.

Hopefully I’ve now convinced you why your involvement at the design stage is so key to the success of the project. All it takes is a little awareness and forward planning, because these are all items you will need to prepare eventually anyway. So doesn’t it make sense to have them ready before your web designer gets to work, so they can do the best job possible for you? Once you have them ready, you really can turn your attention to other things for a while – they’ll be busy building your website. I said “for a while” because once they’re finished, it’s going to be time for the final phase of the design process.

Step Three: The Website Handover

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By this stage, the bulk of the work is done: we’ve gone through any necessary tweaks and revisions and the design is complete. Every web designer has a different set of steps they will follow during handover, so I can really only speak for myself at this point, but this should give you an idea of what to expect:

  1. The functionality review. I insist on this because I charge for ongoing technical support separately from an initial website build. So before I hand over the website, I ask you to go through all your website pages with a fine-tooth comb, checking the functionality works according to their expectations. Obviously I will have performed my own review before this, but websites are complex things and sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is needed to spot the less obvious issues.
  2. Payment and handover. Once you have signed off on the website, I will put in my request for final payment. Then I’ll generally push your site live, and give you any login details you need, so that you have full access to manage your website.
  3. Instructions and future support. I’ll make sure we discuss how you can add pages, images, and text to your website, so you are able to make changes to your site without my assistance. We’ll also discuss who is going to be responsible for future updates and ongoing technical support, so if you ever run into any issues you know exactly who to call.

Conclusion: Web Design is Not a One Way Street

By now you’ve probably realised that building your website is definitely not something you can simply brief and then walk away from. Your input during every step of the process is the key ingredient that ensures you get a website you can be proud of and that does everything you need it to. The most expensive mistake you can make is starting off with a poorly designed site. It’s the foundation for your whole business, and as any builder will tell you, you can’t build anything strong if the foundation isn’t solid.