Ecommerce Know-How: Selecting a Web Designer or Developer

Often with ecommerce sites success is not a matter of how good you are but rather how good you look.

Consumers often judge how professional and how trustworthy an online store is by nothing more than its aesthetics. While many online retailers are experts in their field (i.e., apparel, tools, and toys), they are not necessarily experts in graphic design or website development. They know all about the products they sell, but they may not know much about, say, white space, alpha transparency, or PHP.

In this “eCommerce Know-How”, I will (1) explain the difference between a web designer and a web developer, (2) provide five tips for selecting a professional web designer and/or developer, (3) offer my opinion about situations you should watch out for when hiring one of these professionals, and (4) set some expectations about price and quality.

Know Your Designer from Your Developer

For me the terms “web designer” and “web developer” describe two very different but related professional skill sets. Although you will often get both skill sets from one agency or individual, understanding the difference can help you make the right choice for your business.

A good web designer is capable of creating visually pleasing website designs and also has sufficient coding skills (i.e., HTML, XML, CSS, PHP) to implement that visually-pleasing design using any number of web tools or platforms.

A web developer is expert in one or more coding languages (i.e., PHP, Ruby on Rails, XML, ActionScript, Python), and is capable of developing applications, custom platforms, widgets, and so forth from scratch.

Put another way, web designers create the visual aspects of a site and use a standard tool set to implement that design. By contrast, a web developer creates applications or “tools” that can be used to develop or improve a website.

A great real world example of this dichotomy can be seen at Creative Advertising USA. Most of the site—its home page, testimonials, contact us, and product pages—would be the work of a web designer, as it is essentially a standard web platform. But the site’s custom design tool, called Creative Canvas, is an application and was the work of a Flex developer using Adobe Flash and ActionScript.

Having carefully made the distinction between a designer and developer, I am going to muddy the waters. As I mentioned above, oftentimes design and development skills are wrapped up in the same agency or individual. Some developers are capable of doing web design work and many designers can develop basic applications or integrate standard ones.

So when would you use a designer versus a developer? If you are trying to open a new ecommerce store, you probably want a designer, not a developer. The designer will use an already existing shopping cart/content management system and dress it up with a handsome design that reflects your industry and your business’ values. If, however, you want to create a new iPhone or Google Android application from scratch, or you want a custom tool like the one on Creative Advertising USA’s site, you’ll need to hire a developer.

Five Tips for Choosing a Good Designer/Developer

  1. Check references. If you were opening a brick-and-mortar store and you were hiring a contractor to build it from the ground up, you would ask for references. No one would trust a commercial construction project to someone they hadn’t checked out. Do the same for the contractor that will be building your online store. Ask for and follow up with at least three references. You want to know about the quality of the designer or developer’s work, how well they maintained schedules, and how easy they were to work with.
  2. Research shopping carts. An ecommerce shopping cart is the backbone of any online retail business, and it is the content management/order processing/reporting tool that you’ll be left with after your designer is off to other projects. Compare carts based on their features. Once you have narrowed the field of shopping carts, look for designers that specialize in the cart you want. Generally, avoid any cart (or designer) that claims it can have your store up and running in an hour or less. You won’t be happy in the long run.
  3. Bring challenges not solutions. The web designer or developer you hire should be an expert that can translate your goals and objectives into a feature-rich, customer-pleasing online shopping experience. If a designer or developer has nothing to add or does not ask a lot of probing questions about your business values, differentiators, and goals, they are either not really interested or they are not really informed. A web developer or designer should have an opinion and should add value. Hire a professional that can transform your business objectives into a successful design, not one that simply does what you say.
  4. Get a statement of work. Before you enter into a contractual agreement (and yes it should be a contractual agreement) with a designer or developer, get a statement of work. A statement of work should detail the designer’s understanding of your project, spell out an estimated time table, enumerate the exact services the professional will be providing, and provide a specific price estimate as well as an estimate of how extensions or expansions to the project will be handled. You will want to go through a short iterative process with the professional to be sure that the statement of work accurately describes your project and meets your expectations. If a developer or designer cannot describe the project in a statement of work, don’t hire them. It would be like trekking through the wilderness without a map or a GPS.
  5. Experience matters more than credentials. Web design and development is often a trade of the self-taught. So while a designer with a master’s degree in art should certainly know his stuff, don’t overlook the self-taught professional. As an example, the very best graphic designer I know (and I know several dozen) does not have a college degree of any kind. Yet Fortune 500 companies seek him out and galleries across the U.S. display examples of his work. If you judged him only by his academic credentials, you’d be missing out on a great professional. Experience and talent is more important than a degree.

Three Situations to Watch Out For or Avoid When Hiring a Professional Designer or Developer

  1. Your designer is also a reseller, but doesn’t disclose it. It is a customary practice for designers and developers to also be resellers for the licensed or hosted tools they use. In fact, this is a very good thing since their share of licensing fees can offset upfront costs. As a specific example, I personally resell web-hosting services. When I help a client develop a site, I always let them know about the service I use and about two or three competitors that I recommend. They can make a conscience choice which hosting provider to use. I am upfront about it.

    But some designers like to keep their reseller relationships secret, a practice which usually indicates that they are trying to overcharge you. For example, I know a site owner whose designer charged him $1,100 for a Miva Merchant shopping cart license that he might have otherwise gotten for free from a hosting company. Ask about reseller relationships, if a designer was concealing them, don’t hire him/her.

  2. Your developer or designer is a close friend. Almost all of us know someone that works on the web or is a web professional, and sometimes that relationship can save you money when it comes to developing a site. But often times professional relationships, particularly contractor relationships, can put a lot of strain on personal relationships.
  3. Your designer is not nearby. Some folks advocate using services to hire developers or designers from China, India, or Indonesia, but in reality your design project is too important to be left to email. You need to be able to have at least one or two person-to-person meetings with the developer or designer you hire. Avoid working with anyone outside of your region.

How Much and How Often Should You Pay A Designer or Developer?

Every web development project has three distinct factors: price, quality, and time. As the website owner, you get to control any two of these factors, while the designer or developer gets to control the other one. If you want great quality and a low price, don’t expect to get your store anytime soon, since no good designer will work for cheap. If you are in a hurry (time) and you want a great user experience (quality), you’ll need to pay more (price).

Next, you will need to pay your contractor throughout the project. For example, if it is going to take four weeks to design and develop your new ecommerce store, you should expect to pay your design or development contractor as he hits milestones. For example, once the graphic design phase is complete, you might make a partial payment. Later when the shopping cart is up, you would make another payment, and finally once the site was live, you’d pay in full. This is a normal practice, so expect it.

In terms of an hourly rate, in 2009 you should expect to pay web designers somewhere between $65 and $150 per hour for building your ecommerce site. Don’t be surprised it takes from 20 to 200 hours depending on complexity.

For a developer, you should pay between $80 and $400 per hour depending on the language and complexity of the project. For example, if you’re asking for an xQuery-based content ingestion, normalization, and retrieval tool to integrate with an asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) user interface, you’ll pay $300 to $400 per hour. If you want a Flash application based on Flex, you should pay $120 to $170 per hour. Integrating a PHP-based shopping cart with QuickBooks via a web service should run you $80 to $120 per hour.

Finally, you would be wise to retain your web designer or developer to handle problems or make small changes in the future. A normal agreement would have you paying the designer or developer for one hour of work each month. You would accumulate unused hours for up to 12 months. So if you needed to make changes after your store had been up six months (and you had been paying your retainer), you’d have six hours worth of work already paid for and your designer would be obligated to get the work done.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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