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Web Design and your Online Business

Welcome to Everyone's blog where you'll find me musing about anything related to online business and web design. One of my favorite pastimes is interviewing other people in the industry about how they deal with the challenges of designing pages for their clients. You will hear about everything from how to attract people to your site to making the page behave for any browser, new or old. If you've got an idea for a blog, or for a radio show on Blog Talk Radio, please drop me a line at blogtalk@everyones.com or just leave a comment here!

What does it take these days to be a professional web designer

Myra Rhodes - Monday, March 01, 2010

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview professional webmaster, Chris Leckie about what it takes to be successful in the web design industry. Chris is self taught on Adobe Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Following high school, Chris took the Digital Media Design program at the Center for Arts & Technology. In school Chris was exposed to what he calls ‘the whole internet experience’. The school focused on apprenticeships. Chris was involved in the computer technician apprenticeship which allowed him access to assist with Cisco systems networking, computer repair and also the A+ program in addition to being involved in building computers.

He has worked in the industry for six years now while also working on his own online marketing business, LeckieMedia. Chris has worked for a couple of design houses locally and his main employment right now is with LuxuryHomes.com. Chris talks about the balance between design and coding. Back in high school he was building web sites for fun. And then it was the design aspect of the page that Chris enjoyed. His love for design allowed him to push the limits of Dreamweaver at the tender age of 16. In order to further his development as a professional web designer Chris has forced himself to work with the code side of web design. While he loves to see a site work and be functional, it is still the design side that Chris enjoys most. His day job at LuxuryHomes.com is focused more on the coding side of building web sites and he likes it that way so that at the end of the day when he turns to his freelance work he can still get fired up about the design of websites for his customers.

When asked what the most important considerations are when building a website, Chris quotes the old journalism adage, “who, what, why, when and where and how”.  Who is your target audience? What are you hoping to achieve with the site and how can you make that happen, tailoring both design and functionality for the direct purpose of the site? For example, if a company such as Toys R Us came to him, he would be looking at building a full-on online store, offering sales and flyers and creating much more of an interactive site. Whereas, a local store in his town may just want some basic contact information, letting visitors know, “hey, we offer this and that, and give us a shout”. So there is a wide variety of sites out there and there is a need to lay out what the needs of each one are.

Content, says Chris is another key issue. Many times people have come to him saying that they ‘want to have a web site’.  Through trial and error Chris has learned that you must hammer out the content and figure out what will be needed in the future. Is there going to be a need for the site to grow? Quite often Chris has been three weeks into the design process and in reviewing it with the customer, all of a sudden the needs of the customer has changed.  Chris jokingly compares it with building a house for three people. The customer has specified three bedrooms and two baths. And just as you are pouring out the foundation and laying out the framework, and you’re pretty much beyond the point of no return, the customer says, ‘oh, by the way, there’s going to be nine people living there now’! The lesson there is making sure there is room to grow as far as adding content or even taking content away for that matter.

The next important item is the timeline and setting goals.  At certain intervals, Chris will sit down with the customer and once again hammer out what the content will be. And for instance agreeing that he will get the initial design to the customer by a certain date. He finds that kind of goal setting helps to keep him on track with the customer. On large projects, breaking it down into stages with specific goals makes it easier to achieve.

Coming back to content, you’ve got to ask, is the quality of content really there? Many times the customer will come to Chris and say, ‘I’d like to put my logo up’, and images and so on. But if the logo is drawn on the back of a cocktail napkin and the images have been shot with a cell phone, there are going to be issues that need to be addressed because the quality of the content will not be something you want to put your name or your customer’s name to.

Then there are the technical considerations, such as the domain name, the server setup an other technical issues that need to be decided and established. You really need to get some idea of the amount of traffic expected at the site. A site like EBay for example, would need a tremendous amount of bandwidth and server space, whereas, Joe’s Hardware down the street will need something very simple and basic. So all of those things need to be looked at right from the beginning. This is the stuff they don’t teach you in school. In school they can teach you the technical side of how to design and code but not so much how to deal with the customer to make sure the planning of the design is conducted properly.

I asked Chris, ‘what are some of the common mistakes that most people make with the design of their site?’ His response in eight words or less, ‘skipping any of the previous things just mentioned’! Chris emphasises having a solid base because there will always be a change. He guarantees that and he stresses that if you have a solid plan, it really does help in dealing with the issues that come up.

He also talked about the importance of not over promising in terms of functionality of the site goes. Chris admits to a tendency to want to promise ‘the world’ and then finding out that he suffers on the revenue end of thing because in those cases he spends much more time building the site than anticipated. It is easy to under estimate the learning curve when implementing new or untested code. He also points out the importance of being interested in your own industry. The learning experience is ongoing. A web designer must be up on and interested in the latest developments, such as HTML5 and CSS3. He warns, however, that a web designer must beware of jumping on every bandwagon that comes along or not utilizing some design configurations properly.  Chris values the use of white space. It is important to use the space you have wisely, rather than over informing and over using the space on the page. And finally one important step that many people forget is testing before going live, everything from proof reading the content to the technical functionality of the site.

When asked what kind of challenges he faces when working with customers, Chris replied that he has had some amazingly great experiences as well as some nightmarish ones. It’s all about making sure that you can deliver what the client really wants or needs. It is easy to come across some stumbling blocks in that regard. One important lesson Chris has learned recently is that it is sometimes ok to refuse a client, or even fire a client for that matter. If it’s not a mutual growing experience for both you and the client, sometimes some relationships just don’t work out.  In those cases sometimes you’ve got to say, it’s best if we both go our separate ways. That may be difficult at times but Chris feels that sometimes that is what’s going to be better for all parties in the long run. Quite often the business side is more difficult than the technical and those kinds of situations are more trial by fire, something not really taught in school. That can make it tough. And (a little tongue in cheek) Chris hopes that by the time he’s 50 (he’s a long way from that now) he’ll have the business side of it down!

Then there are those clients who think they’re great designers also.  And if they’re not, then they have a friend who’s an ‘expert’ in web design. And Chris wonders, ‘well, why exactly did you come to me then?’  In these situation Chris recommends having a portfolio to back yourself up and to say, well, ‘these are my successes’ and to recommend the best route based on his experience.  The ideal customer is one who recognizes that this is what Chris does and the customer wants to provide him with what he needs and then gets out of the way. In those situations Chris finds he can really attain the very best results for his clients. Those are the rewarding experiences, because those customers are generally very happy with his work and he can feel pride in what he has created.

Another mistake that web designers can make is talking over the heads of their customers.  That’s when the business managers need to step in. According to Chris, communication is huge when dealing with clients. Dealing with situations, being professional and not letting the difficult ones get to you is what it’s all about.

With regard to cool stuff out there on the web Chris enjoys exploring the Dreamweaver Exchange through adobe.com. There you’ll find a huge number of add-ons and extensions for Dreamweaver to enable you to do a lot of higher end scripting, using utilities and having functions perform on your site. Chris recommends for anyone who is looking for more advanced functionality to go to the Dreamweaver Exchange. It even covers some basic stuff like pull down menus for states and provinces. Chris particularly recommends one exchange site that allows you to convert your site and design for mobile applications. Even Chris has noticed a shift in his own browsing habits. Rather than booting up the computer and sitting down in front of the screen to look for some information is not nearly as efficient as just looking it up on his blackberry. The site that Chris was recommending for the extension for mobile applications for people using Dreamweaver and Dreamweaver Exchange is http://www.adobe.com/cfusion/exchange/index.cfm?event=productHome&exc=3&loc=en_us.

If you have any questions or comments for Chris you can enter them here or contact him at chris@leckiemedia.com or visit his site at www.leckiemedia.com.

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