There is a lot more to creating a professional website than many people think. Clients are often surprised when they are given a timescale of over a month for a website build & launch, but they really shouldn’t be. While there are many tools out there to aid the development of a website, the manpower and the collaboration required to do it to a professional standard is often underestimated.
In this article we will lift the lid on the process. By explaining how we work with a client to deliver a professional website, we will give you a comprehensive insight into each phase of development, taking in research, design, implementation and ongoing management.
The success of a new website is nearly always determined by the quality of the communication between the client and the developer. Our first meeting with a client is the most important one we will have, as it sets the tone for the whole project. By the end of the meeting we will know how the business operates day to day and exactly what the expectations are for delivery.
The nature of the discussion will vary depending on the size of the business. With a small business just starting out, we may be asked to effectively create an entire brand where the website is the focal point. For a more established business, we may be liaising with a marketing team and consulting style guides to understand how the website will fit into an existing brand.
This is where a creative web agency really comes into its own. While there is no shortage of web designers and coders who can build good-looking websites from templates for next to nothing; can they deliver a website that truly serves an individual client? By default, a low price point would suggest they can’t, because of the amount of time required to fully understand the needs of a client. A significant proportion of any quote from a professional website builder will account for client-liaison time.
It is vital to consider how users interact with your site. A user experience is about so much more than how a site looks and the information it contains. These are the kinds of questions we would ask of a client:
- What do you want visitors to do on the site?
- How do you intend to capture leads? Will this require something more specific than a contact form?
- Is there another platform you need the site to plug into? (i.e. a hotel may need to integrate with a property management system)
- Do you need to embed a pixel in order to retarget your site visitors with Facebook marketing?
- Apart from being able to update pages and manage a blog would you like authorised users to be able to create other content (i.e. a resort may want to organise reviews they receive)
Pro tip: Agree on a set of requirements with the client before starting work.
A website is a lot more effective for a client if it is seen in the context of the marketplace it is going to appear in. There is so much free advice out there for how to do it and how not to do it - it really does pay to take the time to weigh-up the pros and cons of the competition. This is normally a joint effort between the client and the web developer, where the client nominates their main competitors and indicates what aspects of the design/functionality they might like to incorporate in their own site, while the developer conducts their own research in order to better-understand the marketplace. It’s certainly a lot easier for us to work to a brief where there are clear reference points.
The site should only be designed visually only after research is completed. A common mistake we see is for the visuals to be done first, and then the rest of the project is made to fall in line with the original visual idea. When functionality comes second to looks, the results can be disastrous.
Having incorporated the necessary functionality into a visual theme, the theme must then be incorporated smoothly on different-sized screens. Mobile traffic now accounts for over 50% of all web traffic, so it’s vitally important that a site works just as well on a small screen as it does on a large screen.
Mobile-first design is a good methodology to follow here. By working within the parameters of a small screen from the beginning, the user experience of the site is likely to remain efficient on screens of any size.
This is where the magic happens - where a design becomes static pages, and static pages become a functioning website. For this to happen effectively, we make sure there is constant feedback between the designer, the engineer, the project manager and the client. This is known as Agile development. The purpose here is to ensure the project remains on track and delivers on the original objectives agreed in the research phase above. If any problems arrive they can be identified and compromises can be agreed at the earliest opportunity. We believe this is a more intuitive way of working than the more conventional Waterfall model, where the engineer will execute the design spec in isolation, only to be checked against the brief upon completion.
There are some great tools out there to aid the feedback process, such as InVision and Zeplin.
By enabling all members of the team to give their input on any given part of the project, these collaboration tools form an essential part of our project management. Instantaneous feedback is king!
Once the site is constructed, it must be tested thoroughly. Even a well-designed and well-planned site is likely to face teething problems. As well as the look and feel, the ultimate success of a site can be defined by the platform it is built upon (we use Ruby on Rails to build all of our sites - see our blog post on the benefits of Ruby on Rails). Ideally, someone impartial to the process should be in charge of testing the user experience of the site, taking in all of the above. Before launch, a site must be tested on different web browsers, different platforms (i.e. Windows or Mac OS), and different screen sizes from mobile all the way up to widescreen desktop.
We have some simple tips for the deployment phase:
- Make sure your site is accessible and available in all the locations the target audience is located in.
- Where is the site hosted? An optimised site can still perform slowly if the server is in a country on the other side of the world to most of the traffic.
- Aim for zero downtime if you are switching over from a previous site.
- Understand your website hosting - it should be easy to update a new version of your website. A hosting tool like Heroku can aid in the process. Heroku also offers the ability to scale the amount of traffic a website can handle.
- Consider the value of your security. You can host your site for as little as $5 per month, but can cheap hosting offer you automatic security updates? Is it actually secure in the first place? There are places to save on expenses, security is not one of them.
A website should not be a static object. All sites should be future-proofed in the beginning to ensure they can be updated as necessary. It’s important to agree with the client at an early stage who will be updating the site on an ongoing basis, and what the likely nature of the updates might be. Armed with this information we can agree with the client what user interface is required as part of the build, as a minimum they should be able to update pages and manage a blog.
The ongoing management of a site is often what sets a professional web agency apart from a freelance web builder. Many clients decide it is worth paying extra for ongoing maintenance, security updates, round the clock support and guaranteed up-time. If there is a problem with a site, it can be hard to know where to turn. Having the peace of mind that there is expertise on-hand in the event of a crisis or simply to help update some text can be very useful indeed.
Active development is another important part of the equation here. If a website is not geared up to grow in line with the growth of an organisation, it could cause major problems. To have the resource in place to constantly develop new features and improve existing ones ensures there will never be a management headache as the organisation evolves.
The design and build of a professional website can be a long and arduous process, but this should be seen as an investment. By investing time and money in the beginning, you can save a lot more time and money in the future.