Don’t Let Your Web Site Design Become a Nightmare

As a web designer and front-end developer, certain words always make the hairs on the back of neck stand up, my stomach muscles tighten, and the small voice in my brain scream Noooooooooooo!!!! What are those words?

“I just hired a [(traditional) marketing firm or graphics person” to create my website. Will you code it for me?”

As soon as those words are uttered, in 9 out of 10 cases, the resulting site will take me 25 percent longer to code and will be much less likely to convert or be an effective presence for the brand. And don’t even start on the ones that come back in Flash.

Now, to be fair, not all marketing firms are clueless about web design, though the general love of Flash-based websites seems to indicate a sort of overall lack of knowledge. Not all print designers are clueless to code and how design choices affect code budgets, though their love for sending pixel-perfect specifications seems to indicate it’s a prevailing condition.

But before you throw flames my way, if you aren’t one of the offenders, pat yourself on the back, be proud, and please take no offense. This article isn’t directed at you.

This article is directed at the person or company about to hire someone to create the website of their dreams. Hiring a web designer means just that — a web designer.

The terms “web designer,” “print designer,” and “(traditional) marketing firm” are indicative of different skill sets. Choose the wrong one and you’ll cost yourself money, time, and possibly customers and conversions.

Please! Please! Please! One Size Doesn’t Fit All!

Do you go to an orthopedist to get your eyes checked? Do you go to your oil guy for major engine work? Do you get your house painted by a fine artist? A beautiful mural created by a simple house painter? Of course not.

Though they work in similar areas or mediums, they need special knowledge or skills to perform the job well. So why do you go to marketing firms or graphic artists to create your websites, to create your web design?

Why Does It Matter?

Marketing firms and graphic designers usually create pretty images, sites that look nice — maybe even beautiful. But these sites are difficult to code and aren’t particularly conversion friendly.

These designers generally lack the expertise in user interface design, front-end code and back-end development, search engine optimization (SEO) and conversion optimization, as well as cross-browser compliance (just to name a few) to create a site that will fulfill your site needs and business goals.

What’s the Difference?

A true experienced web designer understands that just by making simple design choices (which don’t compromise the overall look) you can significantly cut down on design and development time, or by understanding user interface interactions, you can greatly increase user site conversions or page engagement. Print designers and marketing firms generally do not.

In addition, web designers understand that you can increase your search engine rankings by how you place the text on a page, and how their design choices affect functionality decisions. They also understand how pixel perfection is impossible and won’t put design objects in that require this, as trying to achieve it wastes valuable time and resources.

So What Should Your Design Person Know?

Here are some things that distinguish a web designer from a print designer, and what your designer should know before you hire them — no matter if you’re a small business or large corporation.

  • Can they code HTML and CSS (or do they at least understand how it works)? There’s a big difference in coding a table-based site and a div-based site. You may not know what this is, but your front-end developer knows a table-based design when they see one, and so should your site designer.

    Sites today should be tableless, or at most one common content table (yes there are legitimate use cases for this). Your designer must know how to design without tables. If you ask them do this and they say, “Huh?” Move on. This one issue can add 25 percent or more to your development time, and even more when it gets to supporting cross-browser compliance. Web designers code issues out, where graphic designer often (unknowingly) code them in.

    I once spent 40 additional hours on a site just working on getting two lines to line-up because it had to be pixel perfect in 80 browser platform combinations with no hacks. Did I do it? Yes! Would it have mattered if that line had been designed out? No. Did they spend a lot of money for that? Yes. If they had a web designer create the design, those lines never would have been there.

    Not to mention how many projects I’ve been on where the print-based designer has me go back in for 1px changes across multi browser combos unaware that Mac and PC have different DPI resolutions (96 for PC and 72 for MAC).

  • Do they know landing page design, eye tracking, and have they heard of Tim Ash? Ash is the person most well known for his insights into landing page design and conversion rates. You probably should have at least heard of him, attended a session with him, watched his webinar on the “Seven Deadly Sins of Landing Page Design” or read his book, “Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions.”

    Understanding websites, eye tracking, and user interaction are other critical elements. A designer has to know this for your site to provide you with proper conversions. Pretty images don’t get your customers to your buy page or your information. Proper pathing does.

    Think of your home page as an entrance to your site. Does the design take them down a direct path or do your users get to your site and have no idea where to go? And how quickly? Do they use common site pathing techniques? While you can take a while once they get to the path, you generally have three or four clicks to get them to that path or they’re gone.

  • Do they understand information architecture? Unless someone on your team does this, it usually falls on the web designer to set up the general structure, or at least guide it. Does yours understand proper site architecture?

    This is one of the most important elements of any site’s success. How your site lays out, how it paths, and how easy it is to get to the information or goal all determine a site’s success or failure. If your team doesn’t have a separate person for this, then your designer must be an expert. What they design will be the first stepping stone for this path. Make sure it’s the right one. Poor information architecture will affect every aspect of your site, from user experience, to conversions, to SEO.

  • Do they know the basics or on-site SEO, have they heard of Matt Cutts? Unless you have the SEO team in from the beginning (sadly, most teams often don’t) your design will also be setting the tone for your site SEO. Does your designer know the basics of on-page SEO? If not, then your site will limp out of the gate. This is another area an experienced web designer will be familiar with and, if you’re fortunate, fluent in.

WOW! I Had no Idea so Much Went Into Web Design!

Yes, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Good, effective web design is a combination of creative and a tremendous amount of technical and marketing know-how.

You can hire people to do all these jobs, of course, but that gets expensive, doesn’t it? Or you can hire an experienced web designer who can work with your team to get you off to the right start, or who at least knows enough about all this to work with your senior team members to create a best site for everyone and not add issues into the design that will cost you time, money, and conversions.


Let your marketing people create video and slick on-site presentations and let your graphics person create icons, pretty images, and awesome web graphics that go on the site. Leave your site design to your web designer.

A web designer isn’t just a graphic artist who creates images for the web. A true web designer has a mix of skills and knowledge that, when put to proper use, can be the difference between a site’s success or failure.

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ’s Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!

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