What to Look For in a Web Designer or Design Agency

Imagine you’re a business owner or marketing bod and you need to get either a new website or you want a redesign of your current, slightly tired looking site. You need to hire a web designer or design agency. How do you tell the good from the bad?

Web designers range from the top end agencies who have major international corporations in their portfolios down to someone’s neighbour’s kid who made a website for someone once. Chances are you want something in between – not paying over the odds and not getting something held together by sticky tape.

Agency or Freelance Designer

I’d say your first choice is knowing whether to go with an individual or an agency. Traditionally agencies would cost you more as they had an office with bills and marketing costs whereas an individual might be working from their room. Today, with more home working, those lines are a bit more blurred and some very good agencies might be made up of remote workers. An agency brings some reassurance, that if a particular person is on holiday for 3 weeks, off ill or leaves then there’s usually someone else to pick up your work, whereas with an individual you might not have that fallback. By the same token, some designers have very sound fallback plans – working with other designers, passing all relevant access back to the client so it can be picked up by another freelancer. It’s really a case of asking the right questions and making sure you feel adequately covered for what you need.

It’s all about how it looks

Look at what the designers have done previously. Obviously consider if the designs look appealing but look slightly beyond that. Is each design tailored to the content of the site or business it represents or are they trotting out the same template for all their sites? An overuse of templates suggests that they’re bashing out sites as quickly as possible for maximum profit rather than really caring about doing a good job.

Actually, it’s not about how it looks

Looks are one thing but how a site performs for you is much more important. It needs to load quickly and display properly on any device. Some sites have great home page animations or big images which cycle to promote things. Whilst these may look great on a desktop they’re a nightmare on a mobile device without WiFi. If a user has to wait 30 seconds for your page to load and then pinch and zoom to read your page, do you think they’ll hurry back? Fast loading and appropriate sizing for all devices is essential.

Ask about page speed and responsive design. If they don’t seem to know about this, or view it as an extra, run, run fast, far away. Responsive design is not a “nice to have” like it was a few years back, it’s critical. Even if you think you’ll never have any mobile visitors, 1) you’re wrong, by the way, and 2) having a site work on mobile is a key factor in Google’s ranking of search results. If it doesn’t perform well on mobile Google’s search ranking algorithm will lock your site in a dungeon and make it eat nothing but porridge for the rest of its anonymous life. Probably.

Relationships

You also need to consider if you’re looking for a one-off piece of work that’s signed off and shipped or an ongoing relationship where they will keep working on your site. Make sure you find out costs for any future work – new features or pages or tweaks to existing stuff – even if you don’t think you’ll need it. It’ll give you a good idea of how they operate.

UK VAT

This applies to the UK. I’m not sure quite how Value Added Tax or equivalents work in other territories. If you’re a small business, individual, club, etc and not VAT registered yourself it may pay to find a freelance designer who is also not VAT registered as it will save you having to pay an extra 20%. This does imply that they’re working at a lower turnover level but for a smaller project this might be a better fit.

Summary

To bring that all together in a nice to do list, ask about the following:

  • Fallback plans if the designer is not available
  • Use of templates
  • Page loading times, especially on mobile
  • Appearance on different devices
  • Ongoing or future work
  • Are they VAT registered (if relevant)?

What I Learned in 2015

I thought I’d do another quick run-through of what I’ve picked up this year. It feels good to show myself that I’m still learning at a healthy pace.

SVG

I’ve started using SVG more, creating some simple charts and building dynamic graphics for use with Google Maps. I made markers or pins, which have colours and characters set dynamically according to data. I think I’ve finally got my head around the whole viewBox, which took me a while. CSS Tricks provided me with some very useful SVG tutorials and introduced me to the work of Sara Soueidan.

Angular.js

I’ve been tinkering with Angular for a while but have really got into using it day-to-day this year. I found it hard at first because it’s so different to using native JavaScript or jQuery to manipulate the DOM. In Angular you basically set conditions in the HTML, e.g. show this when the data is that, and then to make things happen you just change the data. The data changes and the UI updates. It means you’re not making data changes and UI changes – just change the data and Angular looks after the UI. Once you’ve got that it’s actually a lot easier to manage than writing an app with jQuery.

React.js

I’ve done my first project using React. This is a very clever framework for updating the UI as quickly as possible. It checks what actually needs to change on screen and only updates the HTML nodes that require a change, making the UI very fast and, well, reactive. It’s based on building components which each have their own properties and state. The component or modular approach certainly feels like the way forward for building UIs.

Jekyll

I built the previous incarnation of this website using Jekyll. It’s a static site generator. It works in much the same way as any content management system with templates and a build process but spits out static HTML so it’s faster for the user. It took a lot of setting up on Windows and involved some scary new stuff for me, like Ruby, Python and using the command line. It is an amazing bit of software for building fast sites and very flexible. Definitely worth trying. I eventually moved away from it and back to WordPress as it was just easier to update – I can update from any device anywhere without having to have the complicated local set up. As my content is mainly just text, I didn’t feel the performance gains balanced out the usability for me as an author.

Markdown

Using Jekyll also introduced me to using markdown. It’s a quick way of writing HTML without having to use tags. It keeps the content clean and easy to read, whilst containing formatting. It kind of lets you write HTML without having to break your creative flow to think about formatting. It also enables non HTML savvy authors to publish formatted content easily.

New JavaScript Syntax – EcmaScript 6

I haven’t used it yet but started reading about ES6. There are a few good introductory articles, which show off some of the new features without getting too bogged down in the details. Here’s a good basic ES6 intro. It feels like a lot to learn but it becomes evident very quickly that we’ll be able to write less code and it’ll be easier to understand. Win win.

Google Analytics Event Tracking

I’ve used Google Analytics for years but have just discovered how to use event tracking. I can now track clicks on a particular UI element to see how it’s used, check pre-defined user preferences by reading data out of the browser’s localStorage, measure download numbers for PDF documents. It’s opening the doors to a lot of previously missing data with regards to user behaviour and can help me make better decisions on designing the user experience.

Responsive Web Design

I’ve made big strides forward this year with responsive design. I’m starting, late I know, to think about it in everything I do. It’s a lot more work but leads to much more usable UIs and often forces me to keep the design simpler than I would otherwise, which is probably a good thing.

Bootstrap

I’ve actively avoided Bootstrap for the last few years. I always had 2 major concerns with it: 1) that my sites would end up looking the same as everyone else’s and 2) that I was loading up a hefty framework and then only using a fraction of it, which would be very wasteful.

A colleague reintroduced me to it and I was delighted to find that it’s now possible to create customised builds so you can choose the parts you want to include (no waste) and even set colour schemes, default padding, etc. in the build, replacing the defaults, so there’s less needed to overwrite in a custom theme.

I’ve started using it as its grid layout makes responsive design so much easier than handling each page element and I know that the ready made components and UI elements are accessible where my own might not be.

Codepen

And finally, Codepen. I’ve covered this in another post, Developing in Codepen. In short, I use it every day, it’s awesome.

What I Learned in 2014: Part 3 – The Best of the Rest

This is the final part of a three-part article looking back on new things I’ve discovered in 2014. This part is just a round up of all the other bits and pieces not mentioned in the other parts and a bit of a look forward to 2015.

Google Analytics

I’ve used Analytics for years but haven’t really used it in any depth for the last couple of years. It’s changed. Quite a lot. All in a good way. It can do a lot more now than before. It seems to be moving closer towards the Webmaster Tools and used well can actually help you improve not only the user experience through design but also the performance of your site through the Behaviour > Page Speed data and suggestions.

ASP.NET MVC

I don’t do a lot server side but colleagues of mine have made excellent use of the EditorFor functionality and partial views to create reusable dynamic page components.

My biggest discovery has been Bundling and Minification of JavaScript and CSS assets. It allows you to create bundles of files and then concatenates them into one long file before minifying it and changing the references. This could mean one single request for all JavaScript, which is then cached – much better for performance and page loading times.

Responsive Web Design

I still feel like I’m quite new to this but have made some good progress this year. I now understand the basics of mobile and viewport sizing and scaling. I’ve also got the hang of media queries for changing font-sizes and positions of elements based on screen width. I’ve kind of taught myself by looking at the code of sites that do it well rather than by using any tutorials. It seems to be a good shortcut for now. There’s definitely a lot more to learn here but I’m pleased how painless it’s been so far.

Brackets

I’ve recently started using Adobe Brackets, which is an open source code editor available from brackets.io. It’s got everything I need, looks good and from the progress I’ve seen in its first few months it’s going to move pretty fast. The thing I love about it is that it’s built in front end technologies – HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

To Do List for 2015

So, now I see how much I’ve learned in the last year it’s time to start thinking about what’s next for 2015.

One obvious area for me is learning more about SVG. It would be nice to reach a point where any graphic that isn’t a photo could be created in CSS or SVG. I’d quite like to move away from icon font libraries in favour of SVGs to reduce a bit of bloat.

The other big area is responsive web design, in particular responsive images. Sending large images to mobile devices is bad news and should be a quick win on the performance front.

I’m sure there will be a lot more that crops up in 2015 as I find a need for it and I may even start learning things that haven’t even been created yet.

I hope I can help others to learn more too in 2015.