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Commissioning your ecommerce website

website design and buildHow do you select a website designer that fits your business and what are the questions you should be asking?

Benjamin Dyer, of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck, has the answers

If you’re just starting out in ecommerce, then choosing a web designer to turn your business concept into reality can be one of the biggest decisions you will face.

Before you go on Google, there are a number of questions that any business owner needs to answer.

What are your goals?

It’s absolutely critical that you understand the goals and ambitions for your site before you even approach a designer.

  • What are you trying to achieve with your site — is it for selling or is it marketing-driven?
  • What is the proposition and image you are offering to your customers?

It’s important to define your goals and objectives. However, be careful not to shackle your designer with too rigid a set of requests up front.

A good designer will take your requirements and work creatively with them. Don’t try to do their job, or you will diminish their value.

Who are you hiring?

Web design is a fairly ad-hoc business and anyone can set up as a designer. Getting references and checking out the websites that designers have produced is always a good idea. But remember these are the sites that your designer wants you to see, so do your own research. It can be very beneficial to talk to a designer’s previous clients.

It’s even a good idea to try buying a few items from previous ecommerce stores that the designer has worked on. That way, you can get some first-hand experience of being their customer’s customer.

How will people find your site?

Once you have chosen your website designer, don't be tempted to jump straight in at the deep end. It’s easy to get into site aesthetics before giving any thought to how people are going to find your website in the first place.

Discuss search engine optimisation (SEO) and ensure that your site is designed to maximise its visibility with search engines. It's vital that SEO is part of the creation process from the start. Many sites look great but fail the basic test of attracting visitors, and often retro-fitting SEO features can be expensive.

If you are planning to use pay-per-click (PPC) advertising such as Google AdWords, discuss this with your designer.

Larger design agencies may have a dedicated internet marketing consultant who can help determine how your new site fits into your overall marketing strategy. Again, the key is to make sure you get this up front and not as an expensive add-on.

What solution is being implemented?

It’s more than likely that a designer will implement an off-the-shelf package. It could be a dedicated ecommerce package or a free CMS (content management system) with an ecommerce plug-in.

Choosing an off-the-shelf solution brings many advantages — it should keep costs down and ultimately save time. It will also mean you should be able to look after the site yourself, and if the designer moves on, your site still has a future.

Don’t be afraid to ask what it is you are paying for — the answer you are looking for is a specific product and vendor name.

I am always amazed when people opt for bespoke or badly-maintained open source solutions. If your business is a success, this software will become mission critical. Do you really want to have to reinvent the wheel if you fall out with your designer?

How good is the design?

You website needs to make a great impression during the first few seconds of a user's visit, establishing your brand and building trust. It's a tall order, and the only way to do this is through the design of your site.

Once you have a prototype of your design, spend time with friends, family and (if you’re feeling brave) customers, and get some input. The question you should be asking is ‘How would you approach buying from this store? not ‘What do you think of the design?’.

If your designer is mocking up an HTML prototype, ask them to use a heat map such as Click Heat. This free heat map tool will show clicks on a web page, displaying both hot and cold zones.

Make all this research available to your designer and make sure they take it into account when designing your site. If they are not interested in this information, maybe they aren’t right for you.

What about multi-channel?

In our own research at SellerDeck we found more than two-thirds of small retailers take orders via mail, catalogues and the telephone and more than half of them process more than 50% of their orders this way.

You may also have a traditional bricks and mortar store. If you fall into these categories then whatever solution you adopt for your online store should be integrated across all of the channels where you sell.

The largest retail operations often have similar requirements to smaller business. It’s just a question of scale, and a great example is Argos. With Argos, a customer can order online, in store or via the telephone and then choose a method of delivery or opt to collect in person. The concept of multi-channel retailing is now becoming a widespread expectation.

Getting your channels into sync with each other is not easy. A good ecommerce designer should have multi-channel experience, so you need to review them and only opt for a solution that fits. Could your new ecommerce store be the catalyst your business needs to offer a competitive advantage?

How will you handle payments?

If you are planning to sell online, it’s more than likely you will require the ability to accept credit and debit cards. This can be an absolute minefield and highly confusing for those new to ecommerce.

It’s important you do your research. Card security and banking regulations such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI-DSS) are your responsibility, not the designer's. It will be you that’s fined by the banks if the solution doesn’t comply.

If you are in any doubt, discuss the situation with your bank. The simple shortcut is that you can use a third party like Worldpay to process payments, making you pretty much fully compliant.

Don’t discount other payments services such as PayPal either. Research shows they can add up to 10% of sales, because some people prefer to use these methods.

How will the site be maintained? 

It’s important to obtain a clear picture about what happens when you take control of your website. Do this before the end of your project and definitely before the designer has moved on to new clients.

Very often I talk to frustrated store owners complaining that they struggle to add products or content. If you are planning to manage the site yourself, discuss training and devise a long-term plan that makes you independent of the designer.

Last word

Remember, not knowing what you want from the beginning will cost a lot of money, either by retro-fitting features that weren't planned, or by paying for features you don't need. Arm yourself with as much information as possible, research and reel in the sales!

More on building a ecommerce site:

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