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How to Choose the Best Web Design Agency

how to choose the best web design agency

Web design post pandemic is a different beast to even twelve months ago. In this article we’re going to discuss what’s changed and how to choose the best web design agency for your new site in 2021.

How the Web Design Landscape has Changed since Covid-19

If lockdown taught us anything at all, it taught us that many people could work from home perfectly efficiently and that by doing so, the possibility of bumping into a lurking consultant in the company cafeteria was significantly reduced.

In fact, the change was long overdue and forward thinking people in the business community were already looking for ways to leverage their websites to get more business. The point was that the “build it and they will come” attitude that epitomised web design in the early years has been proven to be nothing more than an empty promise.

These days a website should act as sales channel, salesperson, marketer rolled into one. There is a science to online selling that is still developing but can loosely be described in a customer journey.

Typically a potential customer will use the internet to do research on the thing that they want to buy. Let’s take bicycles as an example. You take to Google. and start looking for bicycles. As the idea firms up in your mind, the search becomes more specific. You start looking for electric bicycles and before you know it, you’re compiling a short list, comparing prices, and location. 

In the first phase, you are simply browsing. If a website comes up, you might look at it but you’re not going to rush to the checkout and immediately commit to a purchase. So that website needs to make an impression (awareness) so that when you reach the “getting serious” stage the business is revisited to get more detailed information (consideration). Once that shortlist has been compiled you are searching with the intent to make a purchase.

This pattern is true of almost every purchase made by people.

So website design needs to be deliberate in that a website selling any kind of service or product should tell you something you didn’t already know about the product. This is the art of providing genuinely useful information to a prospective client. They will thank you for it!

A Website should of course be memorable, and a lot of that comes from good graphic design, but more than that it should be fast – nobody these days waits for a website to load. A lot of the widget infested sites made in the last ten years will disappear and classic design practices will replace them. That is why we have recently changed our in-house design tooling to Kadence, a product that puts performance and clean design upfront.

And finally, a website should make it easy to commit. Whether that’s picking up the phone to make a call, filling in a contact form or buying something from an online store, the process should be clean and simple.

The principle change for many of our clients is that the old fashioned consultancy based sales methods are a thing of the past. With the information available on the internet there is no reason that anyone should take a cold call from a consultant. Your website is now the means by which you achieve visibility in the marketplace. But before we get into that, first, here is a near definitive list of the activities your new web designer should be providing…

Design and Preparation

  1. Discovery Session to understand your business and requirements.
  2. Choosing the most appropriate hosting service.
  3. Developing a prototype so that everyone can see what will be developed.
  4. Content Research – generating a list of keywords that will drive the content of the site.
  5. Creating or Sourcing Visual Content – Images, Video, Icons, Logos
  6. e-commerce – we like Shopify a lot, it’s fast, clean and can be easily embedded in a new site.

Platform and Theme

Choosing a theme and hurtling headfirst into content creation is a great way to create a muddled incoherent website. We believe every word, image, colour and layout should be designed so that the site is easy to navigate and the message is unmistakable.

Any agency that doesn’t offer to sit down with you and analyse the purpose of the site isn’t worth employing. We advocate a discovery process where we can understand your business and from that shared understanding start to build the wire frame diagrams that articulate the structure of your site.

We use a collaborative design tool called Figma to pull together the wireframes, prototype and document each page of the site. There are other prototyping tools, but what is important in this stage is defining the architecture of the site, the number of pages and the users journey through the site.

We will then decide on the platform, often WordPress, and the Theme. We mandate lightweight themes such as Kadence or Astra. With these we can create any design you can throw at us, even copies of themes from other vendors. The reason we do this is simple. Performance. Lightweight themes load faster than the previous generation and are more portable should you need to redesign down the line.

Hosting

Before the prototype is turned into something more permanent, you’ll need to think carefully about hosting. Some agencies will recommend hosting services, some will resell hosting, some will leave it up to the client. Whether you already have hosting or not, you need to have the discussion because website hosting is a volatile landscape and what looked like a good deal a year ago may not be quite so good in the current landscape.

We think that the key qualities that should be taken into account are hardware, user interface, support and reputation. On the hardware front there are a number of ways to go – shared hosting, dedicated servers, cloud hosting are the main flavours.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting has been the prevalent model for clients with small budgets for over a decade now. The principle has been to install as many websites as possible on as few processors and as little storage as possible. In many cases, especially at the cheap end of the market this practice results in sluggish performance, outages and gradual loss of reputation.

In safe hands, there is nothing wrong with shared hosting, the problems only arise from companies looking to squeeze more profit out of less investment. We recommend SiteGround for clients with no wish to engage in the technical side; for small sites they are affordable, have excellent technical support and in terms of uptime, are extremely reliable.

A good hosting service will offer access to a CDN (important if your audience is international), performance enhancing facilities such as caching and site optimisation tools and some level of security over and above the local site security.

Dedicated Servers

This model is all but dead in the water now. It is too expensive, horribly wasteful of resources and in a swiftly moving market, ages terribly quickly.

Cloud Hosting

Cloud Hosting is the up and coming model that has all the advantages of shared hosting and none of the disadvantages. It is more expensive than shared hosting and more technically demanding but in safe hands its probably the best model available to larger sites and e-commerce sites where performance is mission critical (have you ever abandoned a shopping basket because performance was slow? Me too).

Development Activities

  1. Building with WordPress and a fast building technology such as Kadence Theme and Kadence Blocks
  2. Integrating your e-commerce solution with the website and associated channels eg Facebook
  3. Providing multilingual support if necessary.

Choice of Platform

We are WordPress specialists, but for e-commerce we prefer Shopify to WordPress. We also choose the platform to suit the project so we have done Moodle development for a client last year who needed a series of courses to be built. See Learning Cultures Online

Translation is often done automatically these days – we use a plugin called WeGlot, TranslatePress is another option.

Optimisation Activities

  • Speed
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
  • Security

Speed

  1. Use of lightweight theme and plugins chosen for clean code, recent updates and ongoing support.
  2. Install caching and optimising plugins
  3. Configuring CDN to cache content closer to the client browsers
  4. Reviewing the GTMetrix score and optimising as needed

Out of the box, WordPress performs reasonably well but the impact of themes, plugins and custom code can be significant.

We optimise pre-emptively by choosing the most efficient themes and plugins. Our go to theme is the Kadence Theme with Kadence Blocks plugin.

We optimise pro-actively by installing a stack of performance enhancing plugins starting with Imagify and WP Rocket and continuing with Perfmatters and OMGF to remove any redundant scripts and calls out to font providers.

The effect of this phase is significant, in our post How to Improve Core Web Vitals for WordPress we documented the reduction of one of our legacy sites’ load time by several seconds.

SEO

  • Install SEOPlugin
  • Set up Google Analytics and if needed, Google MyBusiness
  • Improve page speed score (see above)

We recommend an SEO plugin for all of the sites we design and provide training in its use. Rank Math is the best SEO plugin by a distance, the free version will guide you through the process of optimising posts, we set it up before handover to create the sitemap, inform the search engines, provide guidance for page content.

Security

  1. Install a Security Plugin
  2. Set up 2FA (2 Factor Authentication)
  3. Change passwords

Do not leave it to your hosting provider to deter hackers. They will deter entry through the back door of your site via the database or file system, but 90% of successful hacks are via guessing the user name and password of the admin screen. We recommend Wordfence for our sites.

Handover

  • Documentation
  • Google Analytics
  • Google Search Console

When we handover a website, we don’t simply throw you the keys and disappear into the distance. At minimum we provide detailed documentation in the shape of a “style bible” that documents your colours, fonts, sizing etc. and a formal handover workshop with your marketing team to train them how to create posts and new content in the site, how to use the SEO plugin and how to use Google Analytics and Search Console to understand how your website is performing. We also train you how to research and find new keywords for fresh content.

Post-Project Options

  • PPC
  • SEO
  • Content Creation
  • Social Media Marketing Campaigns
  • Website Maintenence

Google PPC is the quickest way to generate website visitors and a well designed campaign strategy that includes awareness can lead directly to your business being short listed in the consideration phase and ultimately to potential customers starting the conversation.

SEO is about keeping your site visible in the Search Rankings. We design for optimal SEO performance.

We create content including articles, brochures, photography and video for many of our clients. Our background in commercial photography and television sets us apart from our competitors and because we don’t outsource these activities, keeps our pricing competitive.

Social Media Marketing is much more than creating images of cats and blasting them out on every social channel you can think of. We run campaigns that are measurable, effective and designed to drive customers to your website and to keep your products front of mind.

Check out our article on Data Driven Marketing.

WordPress is a platform that requires maintenance. When we supply hosting we bundle one hour a month maintenance. That is how long it takes on average to update plugins, update WordPress and make sure that everything is working as well as it was when the site was handed over.

Conclusion

I’ve tried to bundle everything in here that I would expect myself, to be confident of getting a good website and building a good relationship with the agency.

If this has been useful, pop a comment in the box below, we love to get feedback as it helps us provide a better service to our clients.

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