Web Site Planning – Questions To Ask Before the Building Starts

Template-based vs. Original Design – which should you choose?

There are a million template-based web sites out there. Before even building your site, you need to come up with a marketing strategy and how you plan on reaching your market. Otherwise, the rest of the information that we’re going to go over is going to be all for naught. You absolutely MUST have a clear vision in mind when starting your project, and you need to have your product already selected. We don’t go over product selection and market demographics in this book, but that could be a great idea to go over in the next one! Remember, however, that the following information about template web sites is for e-commerce based web sites and does not apply to all web sites.

The problem with template-based sites is that every site built around that template looks like the same web site before it. Have you ever gone to a web site that is part of a web ring, and the next web site after it is the exact same design except with a few color changes? That’s the drawback of using a template-based web site. You will not gain much credibility among your clientele if you use a template-based web site. HOWEVER, and this is important. It does depend on the industry that you’re in and your technical expertise. If you want to deliver the hands-on touch to your own web site, and you have very limited graphic design, web design, or web development skill, then you might want to go with the template site provided you can learn how to do significant customization to it. Otherwise, you will be better off obtaining the services of a REAL web designer.

Here’s the difference.

Instead of using a template-based web site, a customized web site is completely developed around your business. Your web designer will (at least they should) go over specific information with you that will help determine wich design direction to go in for the web site. Quality web designers are always concerned with providing platform compatibility. Quality web designers are also concerned with writing valid code. They are also concerned with making sure that images are optimized appropriately for the people viewing your web site..

So what should you ask when interviewing your potential web designer to make sure they know how to do the job accurately? Here are 10 questions that you should ask to make sure your designer has the appropriate experience required for your project.

1. Can you make sure our web site works on as many different platforms as possible?

If the answer is anything but “Yes, absolutely!” get yourself another web designer FAST. They are not interested in promoting your bottom line, your clients. One of the most important facets of web site development is ensuring that the web site will work on as many different platforms as possible. This means that the site will work just as well on Firefox 1.0 as it will on Internet Explorer 7, without major display issues. This means that it will be compatible with the various monitor resolutions out there. This also means that the site will be compatible on many different computer systems (Macintosh, Linux, and the IBM compatible). This means that the site will work on a variety of specific operating systems, platforms, browsers, and computer hardware.

Many kitchen table designers are not fully aware of the complications that can be involved when developing a web site for multi-platform compatibility. They have absolutely no business developing a web site if they are not capable of adhering to the basic standards and practices involved in creating a high quality web site.

So if your designer says “huh” or anything but a sure yes answer, run. Run far away. They will deliver a sub-par web site and you do not want something like that hurting your business’s reputation.

2. Will our web site be accessible to as many people as possible?

While this may appear to be the same question as question number 1, it’s not. It actually touches on a very important topic that can make or break a web site. Accessibility is the practice of making the web site accessible to the disabled. This means that through specific alterations of the code behind the web site, the web site will be able to provide the disabled with an alternative means of viewing it. From screen readers for the blind to voice execution software for the physically disabled, it will be important to make sure that your designer is up to the task of making your web site accessible.

It’s so important that Target themselves were sued by an advocacy group for the blind for the web site not being accessible for the blind. This meant that blind shoppers were excluded from making purchases because they could not make a purchase via the web site without significant outside help. Not only was Target sued, a judge ruled that the suit was not frivolous and gave the defense permission to proceed with the case.

This is a pretty scary thought, especially when you consider the potential ramifications of what can occur if you’re not careful. When in doubt, move on to the next designer. Or, if you must use this designer, have a technically-savvy friend interview them for you to make sure they know how to deliver.

3. Will the web site be designed with standards-compliant techniques and how will you make sure the code is up to par?

The last question is so important to web site accessibility and quality that I have to go over this one. If you don’t know what the code is going to look like, or how to make sure that the code is valid, how can you be sure that you have a quality web site? If you don’t have valid code, a myriad of problems can occur. The web site will have display issues in major browsers. The web site will have specific issues with rendering properly in older browsers. Simply put: invalid code is a very bad idea.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though! You can use the validator at w3.com for free, the world wide web consortium web site. This will provide a great way for checking your designer’s code, to make sure it’s up to snuff. Do NOT skimp on this – this is so important for your web site’s success. You’re not going to get many customers if you have a missing image on IE7 but it appears just fine on FireFox, especially if those customers DO use IE7. Checking your demographics and making sure that the majority of users can see your site is an important first step, but building your site around standards compliant code is far more important from a usability point of view.

4. Will the web site provide us with a shield against legal action?

While there isn’t really any kind of specific “shield” for shielding your web site from legal action, you can make sure that your designer remains responsible and doesn’t allow themselves to open your web site up to legal action. There are so many web sites out there with pictures on them that it’s so easy to grab one without a care in the world. Then, a year later, you may find out that a company such as Getty Images is suing you for the use of that image over the past year! This can be a hazardous situation, especially if they charge you thousands of dollars.

This is just what happened to many webmasters. They were found out by Getty Images that they were using images without Getty’s permission and got sued. Many of these webmasters used designers to design their sites, and found out too little too late that the web designer used a copyrighted image that wasn’t theirs in the first place. Because the web designer was already paid for it, they didn’t really have to care much unless the client themselves came back to haunt them. While the majority of designers are wonderful, creative people with the best intentions, there are some with sinister motives and will cut corners on the project in every possible way just to save a buck. It’s the latter that you have to keep an eye out for.

Here are a few guidelines to follow when discussing possible image selections with your designer: have them show you the images they’ve taken with their own camera. Have them provide you with evidence showing that the pictures are theirs. Sometimes webmasters, being the starving artists they are, will use what’s known as the poor man’s copyright trick. They’ll have the photo sent to themselves in an enveloped, postmarked the day they sent it out. This proves it was theirs. Or, if they’re fairly established, they should have some kind of registered copyright form to show you as evidence that the photos are theirs and theirs alone.

If they scoff at this or are not cooperative in obtaining the specific evidence that proves photos are theirs, be careful. Also, when in doubt, try to shoot your own photos or hire your own photographer. At least you will then have the peace of mind to know that your images are yours and you won’t wake up the next morning being sued by the largest image houses.

There are so many legal topics to go through depending on your specific industry, that I would highly advise consulting an attorney that specializes in tech and internet law. They will be able to provide much more accurate legal advice than I can.