Anyone who has tried to develop a website, either their own or for an employer, can testify that Web design is not easy. If you've ever been stung by house builders who bewildered you with false claims, vague technical arguments and consistently missed deadlines, you've got the perfect background for dealing with website developers.
As someone who has suffered the ill-effects of both types of developer, it appears the ones with the ponytails and trendy specs are far more deadly. If you are unsure of exactly what you want from a website, or whether it's technically feasible within the constraints of your budget, and don't have a firm grasp of building techniques, all you will end up with is a money pit.
Your site will contain fanciful features you never realised you wanted and any objections you have will be dismissed in a relay of confusing technicalities, while the date of completion grows ever distant.
In project management circles, this is referred to as project creep (a reference to the project, not the Web designer). It seems like the only way you can stay in control of your project is by learning every aspect of Web design, lest anyone tries to run rings around you.
Failing that, the next best thing is to draw up a tight brief of what you expect. EBR has broken down Web design - from the customer's point of view - into 10 elements. We suggest you keep a tight rein on these.
1. Understand the concept
Keep it simple and make sure you have a clear understanding of the objective of the site. This is the most important stage of all and affects all other stages. Once you've defined your target audience, this influences your decision on content, branding and management of the whole project.
Devise a functional spec of what you want to achieve before you go on to any further stages. Sites fail when they try to achieve too much. It's better to have multiple URLs, each with a simple objective, rather than one site that offers everything and delivers nothing.
2. Ease of use
Like all design objectives, this follows on from point 1. Avoid the common trap of over complexity and annoying little faults such as broken links. If your site is to be pleasurable enough to keep people hooked online, you'll need to make sure you make appropriate use of navigation bars, site searches, shopping carts and directories.
It must be simple if you're to ensure fast, full-optimisation of the Web page. Login, travel (any important location must be accessed within a single click), purchase and checkout options (within three clicks) search and find facilities and onsite help must be easily accessible.
Content is what holds your visitors. Think how a TV screen holds the attention of the average UK household for several hours a day. People love a good story - if they are not entertained or inspired to stay on a website, they will leave.
The lesson here is that long texts simply won't be read from your site, unless you have encouraged the reader to print them out. Some online news sites insist that no-one will read more than 700 words onscreen. Many design agencies say 700 words is actually too much text. "You might possibly get away with 400 words on a screen, but people will probably only read 100 of them," insists Richard Graham, creative director of E-marketing.
Include some cash in your budget for a proofreader; grammatical errors, poor punctuation and incoherent sentences are inexcusable.
The end game is a well-organised site with good eye and thought flow. Avoid too much movement, music that won't shut off, for example, or graphics and backgrounds that are busy and distracting. What you want is a consistent graphic and audio metaphor (that's designer-speak for look and feel.)
You don't need to be a designer to recognise pleasing colour combinations and easy-to-read backgrounds and texts. If overseeing a site development, apply the three-sec/three-click rule. It shouldn't take more than three seconds to find the focus of a Web page, or three mouse-clicks to cross a link.
Your design options may be unlimited, but your customers' resolution isn't. If you are project managing a B2C site, no market research can eliminate the guesswork over the spread of devices and browser versions that will be used to view your site. So, minimalism is the watchword, advises Doug Smith, vice president of e-business at 1Europe.
Having said that, the more graphics variations you offer, the better; but this only works if your developers can set the system up to efficiently sense the browsers and capabilities of each user coming on the site.
Do use image maps, graphics that can be clicked in different areas for different results, to help navigation. But don't make navigation entirely reliant on graphics. Beware of applets and plug-ins. They might add functionality and pizzazz, but who needs the complication? Certainly not the customers using older configurations who will be shut out.
Don't design for your monitor to the exclusion of others, and use frames only if necessary.
6. Search engines and directories
The search engine market has become very complicated. There was a time when you could get on all the major search engines within days. Now you have to pay to work your way up the hierarchy.
Let's make some assumptions here. You don't have unlimited time and money to buy your way into every search engine's elite list. So how do you channel your efforts and budget most usefully? Copying meta tags (an HTML tag that uses key words or descriptions of a page) from other relevant sites is still an option, but not as powerful as it once was.
Traditionally, search tools such as AltaVista looked for a meta tag on every site. If you're in the book trade, and you copied all the meta tags from every other book trade website, you could build up an impressive range of words to attract the search engines.
But the newer ones don't work this way. Avoid putting key phrases or tag lines into databases, frames or graphics files, as no search engine delves into these. In short, there are two types of search method that will divert people to your site - broad-based search engines and portals.
Getting in with the portals for your industry should be a priority. The major directories are Yahoo, Looksmart and UK Plus. All sites submitted to a directory are edited by editors who are very selective as to what sites are listed on their databases.
Only your website address can be submitted to a directory. Given this, there aren't as many sites on a directory as a search engine. They will be listed in categories based upon their subject or type of business.
7. Content delivery
OK, so you have the sharpest, wittiest message, which has been edited down to the bone and proofread to within an inch of its life. How does it get delivered to such a diverse audience?
The office-based user will love those whizzy graphics, while the user at home will rage at the bottleneck they cause in his modem. The WAP user will have long since given up, since experience tells them that nothing ever fits their screen anyway.
Your customers are using a diverse range of bandwidth on an equally eclectic mix of screens. How do you cater for that? You could run parallel websites, but that's expensive.
Instead, you can buy software that enables your website to detect browser type and versions, along with the user's connection rate, and then send content appropriate to each user's needs.
Make sure you can update the content of your site easily. A recent Mori survey revealed that 74% of online customers value up-to-date Web content above all else.
Updating pages is not easily managed. You can trust it to an agency, but that will deplete your budget in no time. Doing it yourself isn't simple either. Content management is a major plank of Web design, if you are to avoid the nightmare of 25-stage approval processes and a constantly outdated and useless site.
Decide whether you trust your staff to update the site using a package such as ePrise, or whether you'd be better off using an agency.
9. Protect brand integrity
If you're about to launch a Web presence for a well-established brand, no doubt you will have had the brand integrity conversation by now. It's important you don't usurp decades of positive feelings toward a brand by presenting the consumers with a lousy, irritating website and appalling customer service.
Branding agencies will charge you handsome fees for consultancy on how your website can fully reflect the brand values associated with your company. But there is a cheaper option. Dissociate your new product from the existing business. If online bank Egg, for example, had been a disaster, the association with the Prudential would have been minimal.
10. Avoid project creep
One aspect of a Web project that can cost you dearly is project creep, where a project gets out of hand. The budget escalates and deadlines slip, usually because the person in charge of it has given too much rein to the various agencies.
Web designers, for example, are like those other site builders and can give you all kinds of technical reasons why something won't work unless you spend a bit more money.
Some will convince you it's really not a good idea if you update the site yourself. All of this can be avoided if you use a freelance project manager. There are plenty of them on the jobs market at the moment.