Whether you're talking about building a new website from scratch, redesigning your existing site, or just rolling out some new killer apps, you're going to be looking at a rather large bill once a team of designers and developers finish bringing your vision to life. It's just the nature of the beast -- professionally built websites aren't free, even if some of the best tools around are so-called free-ware.
But whether your budget is $10,000, $50,000, or so big you don't even want to say, it pays to watch every penny because keeping prices in line will have a direct impact on the quality of your website. After all, a website is never really finished because technology changes too quickly, so there's always more you'll want to do. Having room left in your existing budget -- or avoiding huge budget-overruns -- will give you the freedom you need to launch the best website you can.
To help you make the most of your web design budget, we reached out to a handful of agencies that specialize in building websites for major brands. We asked those agencies what their clients could do either ahead of time (i.e., before hiring the agency) or during the project (i.e., how they managed changes, gave notes, etc.) to keep costs from going beyond the agreed-upon price. Here's what we found.
Think like a carpenter
There's an old saying that carpenters measure twice and cut only once. And according to Scott Holmes, managing partner of United Future, the interactive division of the WONGDOODY agency, marketers and their web designers need to think like carpenters before the first mockup is made or the first line of code is written.
"Oftentimes the client and web designer/developer do not have a clear understanding of the objectives, nor enough details of the requirements needed to achieve those objectives," Holmes explains. "The largest expense is change of scope; if the vision is not thoroughly understood upfront, you have to tear down part of the house and rebuild it."
QA yesterday, today, and tomorrow
Whether you've overseen the builds of a dozen website or none, you've probably heard that the quality assurance (QA) process comes at the end. That is, once everything is built, you spend some time making sure it works before you officially launch, right? Wrong, says Holmes, who believes that it's more cost efficient to check work (to the extent that it's possible to do so) throughout the process.
"In many cases, clients and agencies alike check the quality of the code after it's completed," Holmes says. "Most challenges, bugs, and overages can be addressed much sooner in the process if quality management is implemented throughout. Companies generally cut QA to save money, and oftentimes find themselves spending much more to fix what could have been avoided earlier in the development lifecycle."
Plan for obsolescence
It's a strange thing to consider, but if you're building a website, you have to know that your site will likely be out of date and behind the technology curve before you finish the first planning meeting. It's enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall. But, says Ken Chow, VP of marketing at R2integrated, those clients who don't get frustrated with the fast pace of technological change online are those who remember that change comes with the territory and plan accordingly -- even if that means planning for your current site's extinction.
"In order to stay current, you should make sure that your design firm provides you a platform that is as open and extensible as possible," Chow says. "Should you wish to add functionality, sections, or technology later, your site should be constructed in such a way to make this a straightforward process. Otherwise, you may encounter significant additional development costs."
But even if your technology lasts longer than you initially thought it would, the chances are good that you'll need to launch new products in and around your website. And again, that means planning your build to be as open and scalable as possible, says Brian Hull, group creative director at Organic.
"With any website, a final element you have to keep in mind is that interactive technology -- from mobile, video, and social aggregation tools to augmented reality applications -- change daily, and your site needs to be designed to be ready to ride this wave," Hull explains. "By building a site that is scalable, you will be ready for change, able to quickly adapt to these new advancements when they happen, and will remain fresh, all without having to break the bank."
It's not all about the build
Depending on your business, a website can do a lot of different things. But if your goal is to keep users returning to your site every day, you're going to have to put up fresh content to keep people interested (and coming back). And if that's the case, it might not pay to spend all of your time, money, and effort on the initial website build because you won't know what you really want or need until you start creating content and letting users tell you what they think.
"Today people tend to focus their efforts solely on site build and putting in place the most visibly stunning website," Hull says. "The truth is that for some businesses, website success relies less on the launch of a new site and more on creating a strategic and consistent flow of fresh new material capable of drawing in new and returning visitors. For these businesses, designers should put a greater emphasis on site maintenance, or the process of refreshing the site with new, simple, and compelling content that holds the interest of the visitor. It is success on this front that will generate visitor satisfaction."
Don't reinvent the wheel
There's a lot of really good technology out there, and if it's free, it pays to use it, Hull says.
"Depending on your budget, [you should] consider using the existing technologies and services that are at your disposal right now," Hull says. "Try as you might, you can't build a better photo aggregation system than what is offered by Flickr. The same goes for YouTube. These are proven technologies that are available to you now, and best of all, they are budget friendly."
The same advice is applicable to the platform you build your website on, says Ray Grady, EVP at Acquity Group. While you'll likely want a professional designer to build out from free platforms like WordPress, using open-source tools for the building blocks of your website can save you a lot of money. It also makes changes down the road simple and more cost effective.
"Using open-source technology can often reduce your software license fees by a factor of 10 without sacrificing any of the features and functionality," Grady says. "[The technology] has advanced to credibly compete with established, more expensive vendors, while including advanced plug-ins for social media initiatives, content management systems, and other types of advanced web apps."
That said, using open source shouldn't be confused with a shortcut, says Brian Snyder, VP of delivery technology at Worktank.
"Open source may save on licensing fees, but without solid documentation, your developer may have to burn up that savings trying to figure out how it works," Snyder explains. "At minimum, find a platform with a strong community, and plenty of plug-ins."
Remember to budget for user testing
Ever look at a sleek, new website and ask yourself, "Where do I click to find...?" Well, if you've had the experience of being totally lost on what looks to be an otherwise well-built website, chances are you're not the only one who feels that way. While it's a hard pill to swallow, the truth is that outrageous sums of money are spent on new websites without a single dime being budgeted for user testing. But finding out if users can, well, use your site should be of paramount importance, and it should have a line in your design budget.
"Don't forget to budget for user testing," Snyder at Worktank says. "Just because decision makers believe that a website is organized and content is labeled in obvious ways doesn't mean that your audience will understand and get it. Especially if your site includes calls to action, it's critical to test the design before pushing it out to the masses."
Know the price
While all of these tips will help you save money on web design, there simply is no substitute for transparent pricing, says Frank O'Brien, founder of Conversation. O'Brien believes that being able to make apples-to-apples comparisons is a factor of working with an agency that is comfortable showing its clients its pricing schedules.
"Work with an agency that can explain pricing levels," O'Brien says. "Most projects can be completed at a variety of budget levels. One thing that we do is tier out 'full Flash' versus 'lite Flash' versus 'non-Flash' [sites]. The model works in reverse as well, but the ability to truly budget lies with having an agency that truly knows the difference in costs."
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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