Tech Tips: Choosing a Web Designer

So you've decided you need a website. Or you've got one and you realize it's just not up to scratch. Suddenly you've got lots of decisions to make – decisions that involve a whole new set of technical terms that don't mean very much to you.

You start doing a little bit of research and you're even more confused; are you going to have a static site, or a dynamic one; will your website use a database - and if so which one? Will you be using flash animation all over the place, or keeping things nice and simple? Unless you've got an in-house web manager, most of these technical decisions will be taken by - or at least on the advice of - your contracted web designer. But how do you decide who that's going to be?

Note: Web design vs Web Development

What's the difference between design and development? A designer will often come from a graphic design background and may also work with print publications . A developer typically spends more time programming a website, and often the database behind it. Most reasonably sophisticated websites require both sets of skills. The categories are not fixed; many people are competent in both skills, but more often a solution is created by two people in a design firm. In this article, web design is used to refer to both parts of the website creation process.

Web design – and by this term I mean the whole process of putting together a website (see note above) - has a fairly low entry level. Until recently anyone with a PC and an (often pirated) copy of Dreamweaver could set themselves up as a web designer.

However, things are a little more complicated now, with programming and database skills increasingly required, but there are still not many professional or even academic hurdles to get into the business. In many respects this is useful – there is plenty of competition and therefore plenty of options are available for every budget and organisation. Many NGO websites started as - and may still successfully remain - a project of an intern or volunteer with a technical bent.

But with this comes increased risk such as poorly conceived solutions; a lack of professionalism; difficulty in making changes at a later stage; or even having whole projects abandoned halfway through!

Sometimes the risks are not as obvious as contracting a fly-by-night web designer; you may contract a perfectly competent web designer, who has no understanding of the NGO sector and, as a result, risk ending up with an inappropriate and perhaps, overly expensive solution.

So what are the requirements of a good web designer? Below are some criteria to consider.

Project Size and Scope
To a large extent the size, scope and ambition of a particular project will determine how much effort is required in getting the right designer. A simple, static website consisting of an organisational profile, contact details and a small collection of news and reports doesn't carry too much risk of failure. However, an ambitious project, with collaboration tools, lots of regularly updated content, perhaps some basic e-commerce (or e-giving/ online donations) facilities can be far more risky if left in the hands of an amateur.

An important question to ask yourself when deciding on a suitable web designer is: Do they have both the design and development skills that all but the simplest websites require?

These activities do not have to be undertaken by the same person or company. For example, you may already have a corporate image that you're happy with. In this case, the web-designers may just need to adapt this to a web format. Still, it is easier if your web developer can work closely with your graphic designer. On the other hand, if you are intending to coincide launching a new website with a corporate image revamp, it will help tremendously if there's a significant degree of collaboration between these roles. Collaboration between a print publication designer and your web designer is also useful when it comes to simultaneous print and electronic publishing; if you do a lot of this you need to make sure that you have some sort of a workflow arrangement designed to facilitate both activities in order to avoid duplication of effort.

Design look and feel is very subjective and really requires a good understanding of the nature of the organisation and indeed the sector. One tip is that you get a sense of the designer by looking at their portfolio (if they are serious about web design, this information should be available on their website).

Since the complexity of programming is usually conducted behind the scenes this aspect is difficult to assess – and also requires a level of technical knowledge many people lack. A key indicator here is to investigate whether that the designer has successfully undertaken projects of a similar size and scope previously. You may also want to involve another expert service provider in helping you to evaluate the candidate's previous work. A trusted IT or network support firm, for example, whilst not directly involved in web design work, may have the relevant knowledge to assist you. You can invite them to advise you to scope the work or at least weed out inappropriate would-be contractors.

Experience in Content Management Systems
A useful option that anyone requiring a full-featured website should look at is basing the site on one of the many a content management systems available (see sidebar). Again it's likely to be your web design consultant who is in a position to assess whether this is an appropriate solution for you - and indeed which of them to use. Nonetheless there are few things to be aware of, even before they've had a chance to pitch to you.

Examples of Content Management Systems:
These include systems such as Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress & DotNetNuke and are aimed at sites that change their content regularly and are collaborative in nature.

First of all, what is a content management system? A CMS is an online application that removes the responsibility of updating complex website away from technical web designers and into the hands of editors, writers and information creators so that information is made almost immediately available online. It also means that your web designer doesn't have to re-engineer a new site; a CMS tends to have pretty good coding and standards-based formats behind it. There are also often many add-on components or modules, which that means you can enhance your website with new functionality as you require it (examples include online polls; ecommerce-systems; photogalleries etc).

However, there are some downsides. Some web experts argues that CMS sites often seem too homogenous – in other words, a simple installation is very cookie-cutter-ish. Also, many CMS solutions are really more like blogs; which is great if you are creating a very collaborative website – but less so if you're doing your own publishing.

A CMS gives a defined structure to a site (this can be a downside too – a CMS can make it surprisingly difficult to "just put up" something new on the front page of a website without a bit of foresight and planning).

Most of the disadvantages can be overcome by using a developer who is familiar with using and modifying a CMS; at minimum, this means creating visual templates that give the site your "look", (what many commercial organizations might refer to as a unique branding identity) – rather than that of the original application. But you may also require significant behind-the-scenes customization; even developing modules to fit your individual needs.

Tip: If you decide to go the CMS route, your web designer should, at a minimum, have implemented an installation in that CMS before and ideally be able to demonstrate sufficient skills in customising both the look and functionality of the system.

Sector Knowledge and Experience
If your site is going to be content-rich; that is if you're planning to disseminate research and activity reports, or perhaps use the site as a tool for advocacy work and so need features like newsletters and collaborative tools, it'll be easier if your designer knows a little about the sector. He or she may not end up writing your material but it helps to have someone one board who has some sectoral experience, when they are figuring how to structure the site.

The more sophisticated features you require, the more important this is; the web is a fantastic networking and collaboration tool and there are lots of pieces of software to facilitate this. Getting these to work successfully requires experience in both the technical side of things (which Blog or wiki software do you use), but also advising how to successfully implement this (Should you require users to login? What can you do to generate participation; and which great-sounding features almost never work?).

Assistance in getting your site noticed is another key area where a combination of both web and content skills are required. Any decent web designer should be able to help with Search Engine optimisation. A really good one, who understands the sector you are in, should be able to go beyond his and help with finding appropriate networks and similar organisations to link to.

Tools like RSS means that content can be borrowed or shared amongst partners and networks – again very specific to the sector your are in, but you web designer needs to help you make the connections between what's technically possible and the goals and ambitions of your organisation.

Support and dependence
Is the web designer you chose going to be around to support your site, and make technical changes to the structure when necessary? Depending on the complexity of the system, regular training of new staff may be necessary.

The life cycle of a website can be anything from 18 months to four years, so you need to make sure that you designer is going to be around for that time. Here is where – for a complex site at least – there are advantages to using a well-known CMS or development framework. If your developer ups and leaves – or you have a falling out, it shouldn't be too hard to find someone else able to get up to speed with your site. If you have a custom solution designed for you, then you may find yourself tied to that designer for longer than you'd prefer.

Obviously, financial outlay is one of the most critical factors that require consideration for any NGO. The pay-off for having a web site needs to be very carefully assessed. Depending in the type of work that your organization undertakes, it may be appropriate to use this platform as a very basic way of creating a virtual "signpost" to your organization. Alternately, if your organization generates a great deal of policy-shaping research and thought leadership material, it may be one of the most critical platforms that you ever invest in! Years of online interaction at a global level means that the academic snobbery of the past is rapidly giving way to a more accessible, free flowing exchange of ideas. The sooner NGOs from the South jump on board, the easier it will become for us to shape the discourse of development.

Given this view, a website is beyond doubt one of the most important investments a development- focused NGO can make. It should, therefore, receive adequate budgetary resources. Furthermore, the need for a simple, easy-to-maintain solution must dominate the selection process. In this regard, there are many Open Source CMS solutions that are ore than adequate for any novice user.

As the old adage goes "build it and they will come". Unfortunately, this has never held true in the online environment, where a large amount of effort must be dedicated to keeping your website fresh and well-informed, so that visitors find some benefit in using it (and returning to it!) However, if there is enough passion and dedication for a project of this nature, the rewards can far exceed any initial expectations.

- Matthew de Gale, ICT Services Manager, SANGONeT