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Web Design and Development Buyers Guide

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Alex Dubko
November 15, 2006

Alex Dubko
Alex Dubko
Chief Web Marketing Specialist
DreamSoft Inc.
308 W. Erie st. –  4th Floor
Chicago, IL 60610
DreamSoft: Web design, Chicago
Alex Dubko has written 1 articles for WebKnowHow.
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Getting Started:

When developing a website for your business there are many important issues which need to be considered.  I have made a list of recommendations about many of these issues so that you can evaluate your current project needs and how to prepare for them.  Your website is by far the most important aspect of your business marketing.  It is the face of your company which people from all across the world are going to see.  People base their opinion on your company based on the professionalism of your website.  If it looks cheap and amateur, people will simply think you have a poor business model and you aren’t making enough money to afford a professional web presence.  But if your site looks incredible, your potential customers will feel comfortable with you and give you instant credibility.  Studies have shown that a company’s website design has more influence on a potential customer than the products, functionality or written content within the website. 

Preparing Project Requirements

To start preparing for your project, first you must create a project requirement document for your exact needs of your project.  It is extremely important to be as detailed as possible when creating these specs because the future of your project depends on it.  Many times the company or individual developing your website design or web application does not take the time to help you build a spec, especially if you don’t pay them a consulting fee.  If you have the budget to pay for project consulting we highly recommend that you do.  It could save you thousands of dollars and months of wasted time.  Most companies will even refund your consulting fees once your project. 

However if you feel that you don’t need any consulting and you can write your project requirements on your own, then make sure you are as detailed as possible.  If you forget something it could cost you much more to have it added later.  If you would like some documents which can guide you through writing your project requirements please ask your web development company to provide them to you.

Also, you must write everything down in a word document format or in an email.  This is very important especially towards the end of your project when testing begins to see if all the requirements have been met.  If it’s not on your sheet, there is a great chance it won’t get done, and you’ll have a real problem convincing a company to do any extras for free unless it’s something small.

Choosing Your Developer or Web Company

Once you have your requirements the next step is to choose your developer or development team. This is a very crucial decision which must be well thought out.  Many people and small companies shop for these developers based on price alone. This is a big mistake. These low cost options tend to be college students, low cost offshore developers in India and other parts of the world, local web companies with weak portfolios, and large cookie cutter developers like www.register.com, www.networksolutions.com, or www.yahoo.com.

College students generally only charge $10 to $30 per hour and have very limited skills and experience. Anyone who charges this amount generally does so because they have no real experience and will take anything they can get their hands on.  College students only know the basics and usually try to cut and paste their way through the project using free scripts and templates.  The result is a website or application that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do and looks extremely amateur.  Also college students generally never finish on time, or at all.  They are not dedicated to your project because most of their time is spent doing homework, going to class, socializing, or working at a part time job.  These delays can cost your business heavily.  Also many times desperate college students will agree to take a project which is more than they can handle.  They try to get a friend to help them or do it themselves.  Once they fail, obviously you most likely won’t be getting your money back.  I have heard stories like these 1000 times over. 

Another cheap option to avoid is low cost offshore developers.  You will generally get hundreds of emails per year from these companies offering to work for $2 per hour up to $30 per hour.  99.9% of the time you are guaranteed to be disappointed.  Most of the time the offers are coming from India, China, Russian, Ukraine, or Mexico, so please try to avoid them at all costs.  They often reply to any ad posted on websites like www.elance.com, www.craigslist.org  or www.guru.com.  They usually reply to hundreds of ads per day in hopes that someone will actually give them a project, and then it’s just a game of roulette after that.  Many times they will supply you with a stolen portfolio of completed work, or a bunch of promises to give you the highest quality, blah- blah- blah, etc...  I have rarely seen anyone successfully do a project off shore without jumping through some major hoops to do it.  The time differences, the language barriers, and the lack of security alone should push you away from these options.  Many times they are just college students as well, and they can’t provide you with what you need even if they wanted to. 

The 3rd option to avoid like the plague is using cookie cutter companies.  These large “Do it yourself” corporations butcher the web.  Companies like www.register.com and www.networksolutions.com and www.fortunecity.com and many others, will offer you to buy a hosted solution.  They offer you the wonderful opportunity to build your own site for only $250 or something, and host it with them for a year for only $20.  This is a joke and all too many people have fallen for this.  When you are surfing the web and find a site that looks like a kindergartener built it, this is usually one of the do-it-yourself websites that some poor sucker purchased.  There is no functionality, there is no design template offered that is worth a look, and there is no way a real company or anyone serious about setting up a legitimate webpage would ever consider using this service.  However I can see how many people have decided to buy these sites.  They tried to use a college kid, and then tried some Indian offshore developer, and then tried their local low budget web or hosting company, and finally came to the conclusion that all of the quality was pretty similar to that of the cheap cookie cutter corporations.  So they fall for the marketing, and buy the cheapo template website and now their stuck looking unprofessional and their potential clients won’t take them serious. 

Now that you’ve been informed of all the bad apples out there, lets take a look at the companies out there who actually decided to take this route, then we will look at some companies who took the high road and made a professional site.  Please go to www.webpagesthatsuck.com and take a look at all the worthless sites that are out there.  This site is dedicated to convincing people how important your web presence is and what people will think of you when you publish low cost amateur sites. 

Once you’re done, let’s take a look at a few sites which were done professionally.   I will use a few examples of websites our company has developed, and to be fair a few other random sites other companies developed.  Take a look at www.dreamsoft.us, this site is very well put together with great use of colors, great structural layout, plenty of relevant content, reasonable use of flash and 3d, and overall you get a professional look and feel when you’re on this website.  Here is a www.completebirkenstock.com , nothing really fancy, very conservative use of flash, but yet it’s very professional and easy to look at with a top notch shopping system.  Here is a site from one of our competitors www.spiketv.com.  As you can see they have done an excellent job with flash animation and 3D graphics, as well as lots of content and functionality.  In my opinion its one of the best sites around, and I commend them on their good work.  Many people cannot afford this type of work, but it shows true quality.  Buying web development and services is like buying a car.  There are Cadillac’s, Ferraris, Old Clunkers, and everything in between.  The key is to find what’s best for your needs and taking the proper steps to get what you’re looking for.  

Negotiating Your Costs:

Now that you’ve chosen a few potential developers, its time to negotiate a fair price for your project, this is a very important step.  Generally for descent work you might be able looking at paying an average of $60-$300 USD per hour.  This depends on the company and the difficulty of the work you are requesting.  It is very possible to get the same quality for $60 USD per hour as it is for $300 USD per hour, so you want to look around and bargain shop.  This isn’t easy; you need to understand that many of these companies have new projects coming across their desks everyday.  And many times these companies spend countless hours consulting and estimating without ever getting the project they spent so much time on.  There are tons of freelancers out there who don’t want to estimate their own projects so they go out and bid it out to a few web companies who will put together a nice presentation and detailed estimation, which they take to their clients and pretend it’s their own.  This must happen 1000 times per day all over the world, its one of the oldest tricks in the book.  So don’t be surprised if your potential development company asks for a small consulting fee to see if you’re serious.  Usually it will be $50-$2000 depending on how large or small your project is, and it’s a good idea for you to pay the fee.  It shows that you’re serious, and the web development company will take you much more serious and it will probably lower you additional costs in the long run. 

Once you give your project requirements document to the developers, they will begin to dig through it.  They will most likely send you some questions to answer to give them a better idea of what you’re looking for.  Having a detailed requirements document is extremely important and can lower the cost of your project tremendously.  And make sure you have it all written down properly, don’t think you can just call and tell them over the phone.  Web developers hate when a client calls and just starts rambling on and on about what they want changed, so if you have any changes make sure to send it in an email or word document and clearly label it.  This can help you avoid any disputes later on down the line, and trust me there are always disputes over what the original requirements were and how they were conveyed.  Dreamsoft.us built a huge project management and document management system called Projectpro.us just to avoid these conflicts. 

As far as pricing goes, don’t be fooled or intimidated by hourly rates.  Its not as simple as it seems.  Just because company X charges $100 per hour doesn’t make them the wrong company to use, the same as company Z charging $40 per hour doesn’t make them your best bet.  For the exact same project, company X might bill you for 25 hours, while company Z might bill you for 100 hours.  So for the same project company X charges $2500 while company Z charges $3000, yet company Z looks more attractive because of their low hourly billing structure.  Don’t judge your potential developers by their hourly rates; you could drop a reasonable offer just because of some unnecessary sticker shock. 

Monthly Website Maintenance:

Also before choosing your developers you should consider the ongoing costs.  These can REALLY add up.  If you’re going to be paying maintenance on some web program, SEO campaign, or hosting, just make sure it’s reasonable.  Most web companies are pretty lenient about these fees, but expect to pay something.  Also if you feel you won’t need a lot of updates on a regular basis you can ask them to modify their monthly options to something smaller for your specific needs.  Generally your monthly maintenance needs will be around $350 USD per month and up. 

Web Hosting:

THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY.  Hosting is by far one of your most important issues as your company grows.  At first it’s always easy to just take the cheapest hosting company in town, or the most well known.  This is the recipe for disaster, almost every single time.  DO NOT host with the major hosting companies like Godaddy.com, Register.com, Yahoo.com, or Networksolutions.com.  Generally when you register your website you do it through a huge company like these, and then you sign up for the 1 year of hosting, and the ecommerce package.  These solutions are only for individuals who don’t know what they are doing and buy it out of convenience and low cost. 

As your company grows, you will need to add email addresses, add functionality, add software, change server requirements, change passwords, gain particular server access, and many other things.  These big low cost hosting providers won’t even pick up the phone, if you can find a number to call.  If there is a problem, it takes 2 weeks to 2 months before they can resolve it.  And when you try to switch to another provider they will ignore you as long as they can before giving in to your request.  They have millions of clients, only paying them a few bucks per year, so you can see they aren’t going to waste a few bucks having a customer service rep or technician help you out in a jam.  And when your company goes offline because of some technical failure, not even the president of the United States can get these people on the phone.  Meanwhile, your company suffers, and while people are trying to view your site, they see “Page not found”. 

Another problem is when you add some new functionality to your website, and it requires that the server needs to run a certain program.  Although it might take 5 minutes to install it they will bill you for 2.5 hours (because they have minimums) and they know you can’t do anything about it. 

I suggest using someone reliable, someone local, someone you know and trust.  This is truly one of the most important aspects of having a web presence is making sure you have reliable hosting and registration. 


Don’t forget, when registering your domain name; make sure the “administrative contact” is in your name with your email and your contact info.  Don’t let web or hosting companies hold you hostage.  If the administrative contact information is in their name, they have total control of your site.  I have seen this done once before with a fairly good sized web development and hosting company in Chicago.  An acquaintance of our CEO had their site developed by a local web company.  This acquaintance then asked our CEO if we could do some Search Engine Marketing for them.  We agreed to the task, but when we went to get access to the site from the local web company, they decided that they were going to take this marketing project and refused to grant us access.  Our customer called the web company and asked them to switch over the hosting rights to us, and they refused.  Although this is illegal for this company to do this, there is nothing our client could do.  The domain name was registered originally by this web company, and they kept the registration in their name (which is also illegal).  But it takes 6 months and tons of court costs to get it back, so our client had no choice but to stay with the ones that refused to let him leave.  This happens on a daily basis and the best way to avoid it is to use someone you trust. 

As far as the cost, it ranges from $250 per year, up to $5000 depending on what programs your running and how much space you’re using.  99% of sites usually only need the basics which is around $250- $350 per year. 

Development Contracts:

Once you’ve made all your important decisions and found the right company to do your project, make sure you get everything in writing.  And you must make sure that there is an attachment to the contract specifying the exact amount of time until the completion of your project, the total cost, and the project requirements.  This will ensure that you get exactly what you paid for, and get it on time.  Make sure to have a signed copy for yourself and also make sure the start date is clearly stated.

During Development:

Now that your project has begun, there is no time to relax yet.  Although everything is clearly stated in your project requirements sheet, you must provide the developers with the necessary materials they need in a timely fashion.  I am telling you this from a web developer’s standpoint.  When a project starts, the development company has allocated tasks for its individual developers just for your project.  So if you wait 2 weeks to send materials, then the company must allocate other tasks for their developer to keep him busy earning money for the company.  This can cause major delays in your projects completion time.  The materials you need to have prepared are images, content, and anything else which the web developers cannot provide for you.  Please understand that developers cannot read your mind, don’t just expect them to just miraculously build what you foresee in your mind without some direction from you.

Be attentive and always check your email.  Web developers will send you updates and have multiple questions, sometimes on a daily basis, so you need to make sure and not neglect them.  Sometimes they hit a brick wall, and cannot move forward without your comments, especially during web application programming or design.  Many times if you don’t respond within a day or so they will just keep trudging ahead and many times in the wrong direction.  Then when you tell them to erase all the work and do something different they will get pretty angry.  So to avoid any conflict try to check your email at least a few times each day, especially during business hours.  Always send your responses by email.  I cannot stress enough how irritating it is to have a client calling over the phone to tell you everything.  This just makes the developer have to write everything down and there can be errors using this method.  If you must talk on the phone, then call the developers, talk to them, then go back and recap the discussion on an email so they know what you want. 

Project Completion:

Once your project is near completion, you need to start testing.  Don’t be angry to find small glitches or bugs, this is very common.  You might find links which don’t work, images misplaced, spelling errors, or other small inconveniences, but this is common when the project is coming to a close.  The developers will wrap everything up and make everything look good, so don’t get discouraged.  When they tell you its finished and you still find something, don’t get angry, just let your developers know and they will surely fix it quickly.  Usually these little things take only a few minutes to fix and developers overlook them because they know it’s just something minor and they usually concentrate on the major functions.  Some companies have testers which do “quality assurance testing” for the client, but these are only the larger companies, and even they miss things occasionally. 

Project Payment:

The web development standard for any project is 50% up front and 50% at the end.  In my opinion over years in this industry it’s truly unfair that the web development company gets paid in this fashion.  But at the same time paying slowly via milestones is also a pain in the rear.  Now for larger companies the 50/50 deal is fine, but for small 5 employee IT companies this can be life or death.  I remember years ago when we first started we couldn’t eat if a client decided to pay late, or of the project dragged on for weeks past the due date because our clients weren’t responsive enough, or they haggled over tiny details to delay the payment. 

In my opinion no matter what size the company is, make sure to pay when the project is near completion, don’t drag it out, its not fair to the developers who worked so hard to get you what you want.  The margins in the web business aren’t what they used to be and some of these small fry companies may be doing great work, but they get killed on delay of payments.  We recommend paying via bank wire to all our clients, and we are a company of over 40 developers. 


To wrap things up, I wrote this article in hopes of helping people understand how the web development and web design industry works.  Most people who are getting ready to start a web project should read this, a lot of the information you read here you wont find anywhere else.  It gives you an inside look at how a web project actually gets done, and hopefully you will avoid the pitfalls by having a better understanding of the process.

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