Practical Ecommerce

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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  1. SEOmom March 31, 2009 Reply

    I would also counsel site owners to be sure their sites are developed with SEO best practices from the ground up. Become familiar the the basic concepts and terminology of SEO before hiring a designer or developer.

    Be prepared to ask specific questions about what platform your site will be developed on and research whether it will be easy to find others who work on this platform or whether it is esoteric and will therefore be difficult to find alternate providers/be expensive to maintain in the future. Be sure to determine whether the platform is SEO friendly (which means search bots are easily able to crawl and index the pages on your future site).

    Determine whether the designer/developer understands the basics of SEO best practices themselves and will build into the design/site architecture, the elements you will need to manage everything from H1 tags and urls to images, sub-folders, content and more.

    Remember that you are building this site to make money. Keeping that in mind every step of the way will help you make wise choices about using html, flash, images, and text. It will help you understand how to name your urls, write headlines, subheads, identify images, write copy (text), choose landing pages for your PPC ads, and everything else that will bring money into your bank account.

    Too many sites are designed to wow and stroke the ego of the site owner while disregarding the basic tenet: this site is being created as a profit center for the client and must therefore be found in the SERPs) search engine result pages) when potential customers are seeking the products or services offered by the client.

    Do not be shy about saying, "I am a business owner; this is not my field of expertise. I am looking to hire someone who is not only an expert, but who can explain in plain English, the technologies involved. My livelihood depends on it. Please define the technical, industry-specific terminology you just used there." If you have to say it more than twice in an interview, the interviewee is probably not a good match for your needs.

    Here is a good place to start learning some basics about SEO, so you are not snowed by designers or devs seeking to obfuscate the issue. These articles on SEO are free: http://www.seomoz.org/articles. The free SEO blog, including hundreds of short videos on SEO topics, also contains a wealth of information.

  2. Armando Roggio April 1, 2009 Reply

    @SEOmom,
    Great point. Good SEO is the foundation for good search engine marketing. Good SEO can also have a lot to do with the shopping cart you select. Some carts are just better than others.

  3. Nicholas Burman April 2, 2009 Reply

    Fantastic article. And yes, SEOmom is also right.
    I would add that SEO should be a moot point. If a website can’t be found by search engines, it’s a waste of space and money.

    I am a designer, developer and reseller and am always 100% upfront about what and who I use. The CMS I recommend is the best I have found (SiteCM by IdeaLEVER) because they offer support to the end user. I like my clients to feel looked after and not left out on a limb.
    As a designer/developer I’m also totally honest about what I know and what I don’t know, which is why I partner with a programmer and a marketing specialist.
    However, I’m also sensitive to the fact that some people don’t want to work with any more people in the chain, and like to have someone who is professional, flexible and efficient.

    Anyhow, great post. Very informative!

  4. nirz April 2, 2009 Reply

    As a web designer/developer myself, I agree the article is very helpful to potential clients. I am happy to report my company meets all of the criteria stated in the article.

    I would be even more thrilled if you could write an article that specifically address issues designers/developers have working with clients that tend to not understand the process of building websites. An article that helps the public understand what is involved in building websites would be very helpful. A sort of, "how to work with your web designer/developer".

    Here is an article I found that summarizes in a vary hilarious way what we have to go through with some clients. As funny as it is it is also, sadly, true:
    http://boagworld.com/design/10_things_a_web_designer_would/

    Again, thank you for the very helpful article.

    Best regards.

  5. Armando Roggio April 2, 2009 Reply

    @nirz,
    Your suggestion about an article that described how to work with a designer/developer is a very good idea. I may take that up. I would also love to hear your thought about what would be in that article.

  6. nastacio April 2, 2009 Reply

    This article in combination with SEOmom’s comment were exactly what I was looking for.

    I am curious about hosting recommendations, on whether you would also ask your web designer/developer about guidance on where and how to host a new website, related fees, expected uptime and related metrics.

  7. Matty_Gr April 6, 2009 Reply

    Also be careful to understand who is responsible for planning the site strategy, developing the site map, writing the copy, etc.

    One of my [older articles for PeC talks about this.](https://www.practicalecommerce.com/articles/242-Web-Design-Multiple-Roles)

  8. Armando Roggio April 7, 2009 Reply

    @Matty_Gr,
    A very good point. In many ways, when I am doing design work, I also provide all of these services, but I was a marketing generalist before I was a web designer.

    I might have assumed that other designers also offered copy writing and site strategy, etc.

  9. BNRBranding April 14, 2009 Reply

    I think you make a critical error in an otherwise excellent article. When building a web site for a business or serious e-commerce venture you should not be making a choice between a developer or a designer – you should be hiring both. If you are hiring an agency you should make sure that they employ both.

    In the case of an e-commerce site, most shopping carts are going to need additional code to handle the stuff that doesn’t come with the basic install. Stuff like dynamic XML sitemaps, dynamic product feeds, search engine friendly URLs, plus anything custom that the client will need for their particular store.

    Developers are also going to be the guys that make sure your site validates and is coded to the latest standards. A good designer should no be messing around with any code work outside of the template used to implement the design, which means you’ll need a developer to handle the mechanics behind the template.

    In general, a good designer will partner with a good developer to produce a superior product for the client. You have to keep in mind that a web site is an investment and an integral part of the marketing plan for a business. Cutting corners by having a developer doing design work or a designer doing developer work is only going to increase your long term costs. If you skip on one today, you will surely need tomorrow when you have to fix the issues that would not have been there had you had a good team to begin with.

  10. Armando Roggio April 14, 2009 Reply

    @BNRBranding,

    Thank you for the comment, but I humbly disagree. For most ecommerce businesses, I believe a designer (particularly as I define them) will do just fine.

    A good ecommerce platform will include dynamic sitemaps (or at least Google site map integration), dynamic product feeds, URL rewrites, and just about anything a typical ecommerce business will need with only the basic install.

    I know I am sounding a bit like a broken record, but Magento Commerce, which I am very pleased with, does all of these things right out of the box. No additional development required. And there are other shopping cart/ecommerce platforms that will do quite nicely too.

    A merchant will save a significant amount of money by selecting a good ecommerce platform/shopping cart and not doing custom work.

    Developers are needed when you are building custom applications like the shirt application I mentioned in the article, but I believe that very few ecommerce companies will need that level of specialization.

    Bottom line, in my view, a good designer will fit the bill most of the time.

  11. smithm999 June 16, 2016 Reply

    Great post! I like how you differentiate between which role is technical and which is creative. I think a lot of people don’t realize how important this differentiation is, as it’s a matter of what each person’s strengths are.
    http://k2websitedesign.com/squarespace-website-design