All Posts in project planning

April 11, 2017 - No Comments!

The one thing your designer should do for you

In a previous post, I wrote about how to focus your design budget. In this post, I want to zero in on a difficult piece of any project - what to look for in a freelance designer, developer or creative shop to help you build what you need.

“Well that’s some bullshit,” you say to yourself.

You just spent 2 hours in a staff meeting, going around in circles talking about what improvements should be made, and how much should be spent on redesigning the company website. Only nobody at the table was a designer or developer. The current website hasn’t been touched in 3 years. One person had a nephew who was "pretty good at the internet.” A lot of them used the words “good design” but weren't really sure how it integrated within the day-to-day aspects of the company.

And then, they handed you their features wishlist, along with the task of collecting bids and hiring someone to redesign the entire website.

Great. You mentioned the need for a marketing person in the meeting. Apparently they heard you.

But you are awesome, and a hustler. So you put a post on Craigslist for the project, and get a bunch of responses. Half the responder’s clearly didn’t read your project description. Some can’t write complete sentences, and a few aren’t even from the same hemisphere. After checking out some portfolios, and narrowing it down to a few that seemed solid, you still feel a little uneasy. They all seem to use the same terms in different ways. Some offer more visual design chops. Others focus on the technical side of things. They offer similar-yet-different services, but call themselves different names:

  • Freelancer
  • Interactive agency
  • Web designer
  • Programmer
  • Coder or Developer
  • Front-end designer
  • Engineer
  • Product designer

All of them do websites. Some only do websites. Some make apps. Some do UX/UI design and make logos as well. Some talk about SEO and PPC advertising. Some talk about branding. WordPress, Drupal, CSS, Squarespace, Php, Ghost, Ruby, Weebly, Python, AUGH!

I get it. It’s pretty annoying. Even for everyone on that list.

You need to deliver some answers though. The team is counting on you. You want to be the smartest person in the room. The lynchpin. The tech/design savvy one.

You exchange some emails, and narrow down the list. Your site is built on a specific platform, so follow up with the folks who namecheck what you are familiar with. Maybe you check LinkedIn for good references. You will be inclined to provide a list of problems your team outlined, along with a request for estimates or hourly rates from your leads. You might get numbers, but each will be different than the next. Someone may bid $40,000, but some asshole low-baller may tell you they can do it for $950.

The one thing your designer should do

Wait, so what is the one thing? It’s this:

The real value of your designer or developer comes in their ability to get to know you and your company beyond the website itself.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hiring creatives. But as a rule for any project, anyone offering you a price based on an emailed description of your site's needs and no phone conversation, will probably not deliver the kind of value your team is wanting. Good designers and developers ask a lot of questions, and offer new ideas you hadn’t thought of. They should ask about every single item on your request list.

“Why do you want this?”
“Who will be updating the images?”
“What will you give them in exchange for email signups?”
“Will someone in your company be responsible for ongoing content creation?"

Your new favorite collaborator will ask about your company goals, it’s mission, and values. They should even ask questions about the individual roles within the organization. Because nothing sinks a brand new website like complicated workflows and new features no one is tasked with maintaining.

Good listeners

Most importantly, they should listen carefully. You need to feel like they own the project and can think and make decisions with your best interest in mind. You aren't supposed to know everything, but you should look like a damn genius to your team.

This is not to say your company needs to spend a ton of money. Rather, any money should be well spent. A good designer will ask up front what your budget is - not so they can get all of it - but so they know where your team's expectations lie, and how to approach developing a proposal with you. Even if you have a small budget, they should be able to pitch you a few key fixes that deliver value, and keep things efficient. Conversely, you may get hit with a price much larger than what you were hoping for. It should come with high value solutions, and make sense given the conversations you’ve already had with them. If this is the case, and your project has really complex needs, a smart designer will also pitch an initial discovery phase in order to help you develop a project built on clear objectives. This allows better project planning, so there are fewer surprises. It also creates an easy out for you, if by the end of the discovery phase, you know enough to pivot and change focus, or not proceed at all.

Again, the one thing you should be looking for is someone who wants to dig deeper than just your web presence. Your company should view the resources it puts towards a web project (or any design project) as an investment in the company itself. You’re not simply “buying a website”. Instead, think of your site as an employee with a job description. Just like good employees need ongoing investment and support to do their best (like free coffee, snacks! gym membership, health insurance, high fives), your site-as-employee needs ongoing resources and support to do it’s job. If it can’t meet expectations, it needs to be kicked to the curb - or at least be given a disappointed head shake and stuck buying everyone’s drinks on a Wednesday night.

Your web presence is a reflection of the motivations within the organization. Your new designer should be willing to dig deep and find out what makes your company tick, and connect the dots during the discovery phase through to the final product and launch. This approach is our goal for every project. We like to think big so we can be precise with the small details. If you are on the hunt for a designer or team to collaborate with, we’d love a chance to ask you a billion and one questions, so we can build you a site that reflects the organization behind it.

Use our contact form and introduce yourself, or even better, schedule a 15 minute call and tell us about your project.

October 14, 2014 - No Comments!

Where to focus budgets for design & web projects

Focus your Budgets

As companies reach the end of their fiscal year, we get a lot of inquiries regarding potential budgets and project costs. Clients want to build a better web presence, or update the visual design for their company or brand. Most importantly, they need to sell their desires and budget needs to someone upstairs.

The purpose of this post is to lay out some of the key web development and design areas we see most frequently needing help, in order for you to better shape your annual design budgets.

Some organizations have a culture that accepts the “living” nature of the web. They know it’s constantly in flux, and the company leadership knows they need to create annual budget space for their online presence. Others still struggle with thinking of their website as something beyond an expense (rather than an investment - this is understandable, especially if you are bootstrapping your company). Some even shoehorn their online presence management onto an intern task list, thinking it is a menial job that anyone can do “in between real work”.

For a website, the overarching goal should be one of "Is it meeting our customers needs?”

Companies that want to invest in their visual branding should keep in mind that aesthetics are only one piece of the design pie. For a website, the overarching goal should be one of "Is it meeting our customers needs?” This concern alone should be what is guiding your web goals. Visual aesthetics should come after developing solid content and information solutions for your customers. When it comes to your general brand look-and-feel, consistency is key. We will talk about this more in a bit.

Focus your resources

Regardless of your organizations culture, or whether or not you have an ecommerce site or simply a hub for your company info, blog, and social media connections, there are some basic areas you should always expect to be working on regularly:

1. Building better content

If your content is not converting visitors to buyers, or providing some kind of value through information or community engagement, then it is probably driving them away. What differentiates you from the crowd should be clear and to the point, and should entice users to click through to “read more”, sign up for the mailing list, or both. If you happen to be a small startup, focusing on your “features and benefits” copy should be a high priority. You may need to examine your blog content, and make sure it’s the kind of info users are searching for. If you have an ecommerce site, your product copy should be focused on how your product works, and clearly outline key benefits for the user. Don’t just fill the space with marketing hyperbole-- you want to take time to craft relevant information and tell a story.

The more value your content provides, the longer customers will stay on your site.

A site with good content will have a strong foundation to build on. Our approach is always “content first”, and this determines everything from how info and pages interact with each other to providing the structure for your social media and marketing efforts. The more value your content provides, the longer customers will stay on your site.

2. User experience

Your website is a member of your team, and often your first and most effective customer support specialist. If a user has a bad experience on your website, they may not come back. For the uninitiated, User Experience (UX) roughly encompasses the overall experience (which can be both physical and emotional) a user has when they engage with a site’s architecture, information, functionality and visual aesthetic.

User ExperienceGood UX design involves research and planning. The goal should be to understand users’ behavior, what influences them, and how they engage with your site and it’s content. As a result, they should have an experience on your site that is painless and provides value.

Some key areas to think about:

Navigation - Does it make sense? Is it complex and following a logical hierarchy? On bigger sites, updating navigation can be a big job. The bigger the site, the more important it is to ensure your users are not lost. Don’t assume they will dig for what they are looking for. Most likely, if they can’t find it within one minute, they will go somewhere else.

Load times - A sluggish site is a great way to lose users. Google researchers show that page load times more than 400 milliseconds (a blink of an eye) can cause users to leave the page they are visiting

Responsive design - Your site should be available at all times on all devices. A responsive site is “device agnostic”, and this is important when mobile devices are quickly becoming the first place a user may encounter your website. Hint: On your own site, shrink your browser window from the lower right corner. If the content shifts in place and adapts to the new window size, it is responsive. Now, look at that same page on different devices to see if it is adapting accurately.

A messy house is no place to host guests.

Regular maintenance and calibration - Regular audits should be part of the annual schedule. Looking for things like plugins that need updating, broken links that may need a redirect, and missing images are basic issues that may need attention. Keeping categories and tags organized and focused, and making sure your image sizes aren’t slowing things down are also important to look for. These are all small issues on their own, but together can have a big impact on how your online home is perceived. A messy house is no way to host guests.


Your site should be a clear component of your brand. Through the visual elements, tone of voice, and relationship to your other brand assets it should instill trust and confidence in your users. Is your site inline with your identity style guide (more on that later)? While how your site looks is secondary to how it works, the underlying value of good visual design and it’s relation to a strong brand are very real.

Your website should visually fit with, and support, your other brand assets.

Design is a critical strategic asset that can provide your business competitive advantage, help reinforce customer trust and loyalty. Your website should visually fit with, and support, your other brand assets. Ideally, a design strategy will exist for a business from the very beginning. But it’s never too late to develop a solid identity, create a style guide, and/or unify your company’s visual elements.

3. SEO and Accessibility

Our view is that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) packages sold by a lot of marketing agencies are a bit of a shell game. That said, if you’re not on Google you don’t exist, so the need for a sound SEO foundation and strategy that supports your business model is itself a very real thing. Again, if you are creating content that is based on what you know your users are looking for, you’ve done a lot of the work already.

Salvadore Dali

Good SEO makes it easy for the surrealists to find you.

When it comes to working keywords into your content, keep in mind that your users are searching for you on their own terms, and not necessarily using the same words that your industry may use to talk about itself. Get to know what your users are searching for, and how they’re thinking about your product or service. Doing some keyword research, gathering direct user feedback, and using tools like Google Analytics and can help with this process. This way of thinking should extend into your other channels (Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc) as well. Above all, the purpose of keywords is to help users find your content, and should never be obtrusive. Blatant “keyword stuffing” diminishes your credibility and is just plain tacky.

In general, page content and blog posts should contain at least one (relevant) image. Using too many images or trying to mess with the layout (i.e. by using an HTML table to place them where you want them on the page) can make your pages load slowly and look wrong on smaller screens. There are some very good reasons to make well-written content your primary concern:

  1. Pure text looks good on any any device, loads fast, and can be zoomed in or out without pixelation (important for people with vision problems).
  2. It's accessible to the visually impaired via a screen reader program, and can be automatically translated to other languages.
  3. It's easily indexable by search engines. The content is structured with HTML tags that indicate the order of importance of the information.
  4. Social media strategy and reach

The key to a successful social media practice is to first be authentic, and secondly, not make it merely a checkbox on a to-do list. Your social media strategy should fit within the limits of what is reasonable for you and your team to manage, and is at the same time effective for your business.Trying to provide content for every service under the sun will only lead to burnout, and nobody feels confident in finding a business or brand that has inactive social outlets.

The key to a successful social media practice is to first be authentic

Above all it needs to be structured, consistently maintained, and given proper priority to get anything out of it. And please, whatever you do, don’t give the job to your admin assistant or intern.

An authentic social presence means being aware that you are there for your users first. "Being where they are" means being there for them, on their terms. Provide valuable or interesting information that is relevant to your users. Answer them respectfully when they complain or ask support questions, and ALWAYS follow through.

4. Visual Identity and Style guides

Regardless of the kind of project we are doing, we will always begin by looking at a client’s identity. For better or worse, your identity is the representation of your company; the thing that first carries your brand message out into the world. On a project level, it introduces us to the kind of visual framework we, as the creative team, have (or not) to work with. Perhaps your identity hasn’t taken a visual form yet. Maybe it’s only stated in the company mission. Either way, having some definition of “this is who we are” laid out in advance will really help give shape to any design project.

Identity DesignOne area we see companies frequently struggle with is visual cohesiveness. Maybe they are starting from scratch and need a whole identity system developed and implemented. Perhaps they have a great logo, but the website colors and details feel unrelated. Maybe disparate typefaces are used throughout print collateral and on their website.

The visual pieces of your brand or company need to be consistent, yet flexible enough to be able to create impactful communication. Budget-wise, visual cohesiveness should be prioritized within the context of everything else - content creation, copywriting, and social media activity. The development of a style guide can help inform all projects going forward, and save time and money by providing a clear visual roadmap for future employees or vendors working with you.

style guide is a document that can be anywhere from one to hundreds of pages long, depending on your needs. It’s goal is to outline and structure your public-facing voice, including everything from logo-use guidelines to print and web color designations, fonts, website buttons, link colors, etc. Once developed, anyone should be able to reference it and shape their project with clarity, and your identity will maintain consistency wherever it shows up.

Remember, this key is to prioritize budget resources based on need. Don’t do everything at once. We are happy to go through any of this with you or your organization, and help you determine which areas would be most beneficial to focus on first.

If you are on the hunt for a designer, developer, or agency to help you build something awesome, read "The one thing your designer should do for you." It was written to help guide folks make good decisions when hiring creatives.

Got questions about this post? Leave them in the comments below, or introduce yourself via our contact page. We'd love to hear about your project and see if we can help.


The End