When considering whether to hire a freelance web designer you are searching for a person with a range of skill sets including marketing, basic SEO, graphic design and communication. In many ways, the ideal freelance web designer is a 'Jack of All Trades' with an established history of exceeding client expectations. Here are 10 areas you can both assess a web designer by and use to learn all the many different things that come together in small business web design.
1. Communication Skills
A web designer's communication skills are on display right away when you first make contact. Whether you reach out to them or they reach out to you the way they write or talk begins to paint a picture of what it would be like to work with this person. Do they speak only in technical jargon? Do they ask technical questions that underline you? Do they actively listen when you explain your business and goals for your website? An active listener isn't using the time the other person is talking to think of their response to turn attention to their agenda. An active listener shows their communication skills by being able to respond reflectively to what is being said and making the speaker (the client in this instance) feel they have been listened to.
For a web designer to take over the conversation and leave the client feeling like nothing relevant is being said is an early red flag indicating a lack of communication skills and increases the likelihood of communication problems during a web design project - particularly larger projects,
Setting clear communication expectations
Each web designer will have their preferred communication method. Some might prefer emails, others WhatsApp or a phone call. As a client look to see whether a web designer sets clear expectations. For example, it can be really helpful to know when are a web designer's office hours. The health and productivity benefits of only reading emails at set points in the day are being increasingly understood. So it is alright not to expect a reply within the hour from a web designer but it makes a real difference for the web design to set expectations such as "I aim to reply to all client emails within 24 hours. I check my emails twice a day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I find this helps me stay focussed."
Good communication, of course, works both ways and it is up to the web designer to set clear expectations of when and how they expect to hear from you the client. It's not about them taking a dictatorial attitude, but as the professional showing good leadership by communicating to you the timely importance of project milestones and you agreeing together on how you will communicate throughout the project and how you will have mutual respect for one another's deadlines.
2. Share their years of experience
One difference between a web designer who charges £90 per website and a web designer who charges £2,000 per website is the experience they draw on. Amongst creatives, there is a popular meme that serves as a reminder that as a client you aren't just paying the creative for their time that is directly related to you but that their cost takes into account the years of experience and training that has lead to this point.
Therefore in exchange for your money you would expect them to be able to share and draw on their years of experience. In my experience there is no end to the range of questions a web design client can ask and it delights me to spend the necessary time talking them through their ideas and blending these with industry best practices when it comes to the visual design and behind the scenes code of web pages. A web designers ability to answer these questions and actively draw from their experience and past projects is a good reflection on the level of their experience and the ease they have communicating effectively with clients.
3. Cut through the jargon
No one likes to feel like they are being spoken down to but this can be the result of being at the receiving end of a stream of technical jargon and techno-babble. Having said that a web designer needs to demonstrate excellent communication skills and be able to draw on experience and how this is expressed cannot be overlooked. In your initial conversations, it is up to the web designer to gauge your technical expertise as the client and adapt their language in response. Has the web designer adapted their communication style to one that informs you without talking over or above you? You expect your web designer to have a firm grip on the necessary technologies that come under the headings of web design and web development so that they can confidently build, launch and maintain your website, but remember the reason you're hiring them: for the technical knowledge, skills set and for them to take care of it.
By judging how involved and experienced a client is, the web design can adapt the web design process that involves the client as little or much as they desire. Some clients will expect their web designers to unpack and explain technologies such as DNS, SMTP and cookies. It's the mark of a web designer's experience and communication skills that they can explain these things clearly and confidently.
4. Website content coaching and support
Unless a web designer specifically states they provide a copywriting service it is unlikely that they are offering to write your content for you. My perspective is, without enlisting the support of a professional copywriter, small business owners are in the best position to write about their business. But many are unsure where to start and require support to strategically think about what their key content for their web pages is. I believe a web designer can help by offering a content collection workbook that guides the business owner through structuring strategic content that will convert visitors into customers or clients.
I provide my clients with a Google Doc workbook that takes them through each page and each section of a web page that will be present in the final design. Over a video call, we go through the workbook and I explain the purpose and reasoning behind the content structure I have devised. When considering the navigation or menu bar and the content that appears above the fold (what a website visitor sees in their web browser before they have to scroll) my workbook guides the business owner to consider the user experience they are seeking to create. A high bounce rate (how long a visitor spends on a website before leaving) is detrimental to a small business. This is often a result of a poorly designed and structured website because the visitor makes up their mind in a split second whether the content is relevant to them before leaving and going to the next Google result. Good web design brings bite-sized key or cornerstone content above the fold and into the eye-line of the visitor.
5. Graphic design
Graphic designers are a role and profession in their own right but like many of these skills an eye for design and knowledge of who to use the key tools and web design software are just as important for a web designer. A website can be perfectly developed on the backend, with every other vital element in place but without a design that professionally reflects your business you will loose customers through frustration and miscommunication.
A good web designer will draw on their graphic design skills to build a website that accurately represents your brand and instils trust in your industry. Not every website will be as minimalist as a lawyer's or as creative as an artist's or photographer's. Your web design should ensure that their design work reinforces the feel of a website that matches with the future goals and prospective clients or customers of that business. This process is known as creating a visual design language and it can be completed for example in Adobe Photoshop or directly on a web server as part of a live build using WordPress page builders like Elementor, Divi or Oxygen Builder.
Web designers should have a basic understanding of colour theory. For example, how to use colour effectively to draw attention to parts of a website such as 'call to action' buttons whilst ensuring the website remains accessible for visitors with accessibility issues such as colour blindness, inverted screens or screen readers.
6. Web Development
7. User experience
What does a visitor first see when they land on your homepage? What do you want to guide them towards? Perhaps a contact form or newsletter sign up. A web designer must take on the roles and responsibilities of a UX designer (short for user experience). Once again a beautiful website can still let you down if the journey a visitor takes on your website is not considered and planned out. UX design puts your business goals at the heart of each element on a web page. If you want visitors to sign up for a newsletter make sure this is clear and the user's flow is unhindered. If your number one goal is capturing new leads, how easy is it to find your contact form and is the form intuiative to use and submit. In a Discovery Call, I help a business owner create user personas by examining and fleshing out who their target audience is.
For example, a simple brochure website may have two key audiences. First new customers begin by finding the website and using the website to understand the services or products on offer. Second, returning customers or clients looking to find out more about the business or make a second purchase.
UI design (user interface) also has an important role. Not for your website's visitors but for you the client. Does your web designer create your website with web design software that allows you to edit your website? Of the many web applications to choose from including Webflow, Wix and Squarespace I find myself going back to WordPress because of how flexible it is as a content management system. I find that if a client already managers their social media accounts they can be taught to edit a website using WordPress.
8. A responsive web designer
Some estimates state at around 50% if not more, web traffic now originates not from desktop or laptop web browsers but a mobile device. Once upon a time, you would have to create two websites: one for desktop users with larger screens and another for mobile users. However, with additions and advances in CSS, a single website that is responsive to different screen sizes will do.
Responsive web design as it is known uses a combination of flexible widths, stacking columns and breakpoints at certain widths to ensure that your website's content is not just readable but looking good on any device. Web browsers now come in all different shapes and screen sizes, just think about the range of screen sizes and aspect ratios with handheld mobile devices alone.
My web design process places responsive web design near the completion of the website. This is the best way I've found to establish a strong and consistent design from page to page that is approved by my client and finally, I adjust and go through each page and template by testing on a range of screen sizes.
9. Digital Marketing
Digital marketing is another broad term that includes the use of the internet, social media search engines and other methods to reach consumers. At its heart, your website is a digital marketing channel. It, therefore, makes sense that the web designer who guides you through creating your content, who builds a new design and launches your website should have digital marketing experience. For a digital marketer UX design, web design and graphic design come together to make the best possible experience for each of your website's visitors. Check to make sure that your web designer has your business' goals in mind for each creative decision they make.
10. SEO Strategist
SEO is short for search engine optimisation and is commonly broken into two groups: on-site and off-site SEO. A web designer will focus on implementing industry standard best practices for on-site SEO. An SEO optimised website will count on the accumulative effect of ticking many small SEO best practice boxes in the hope to boost a website's Google ranking. A web designer with a basic knowledge of SEO will structure page HTML and build in meta descriptions that will give your website an SEO head start. Other behind the scenes SEO basics a web designer should include are site maps to guide search engines through indexing your website.
So there we go! The field of web design encompasses many disciplines to create functional websites for small businesses.
If you've found this article helpful why not check to see if I'm available for an informal conversation about your website requirements.