Why web designers suck (and how to spot good ones)

When I talk to people about their websites, it’s surprising how often they have a story of a poor experience with their web designer.

Surprised at screen graphicSome of them feel unsatisfied with the results, or bruised by the process, but powerless to do anything about it. Granted, those stories may have another side that I don’t hear.

But there are certainly all too many examples of sites that have a design company’s name at the bottom but are doing a poor job for their owners. (Who may not even realise it, assuming the designer has done it the best way.)

It singes my stoat to see good messages getting short-changed. So this post is to help people understand the territory better, hopefully leading to better working relationships and increasingly fab message channels.  

Who this is aimed at

This post is mainly aimed at people who get other people to make or improve their website (or are thinking of doing so). I hope it gives you food for thought and helps you get a good experience and a site that really acts as a channel for your message.

If you’re a web designer reading this, I hope it doesn’t piss you off too much. Maybe you’ll see some areas for your own development. (By ‘web designer’ I mean someone who makes websites for others. I know some people break that down into other role titles.)

Are you acting like a drowning person?

This piece is mostly about those web people, but it’s important to start by looking at you, existing or prospective site owners.

It’s very common for people to feel the need to have a website, but on their internal map that territory is marked as ‘Here be dragons’ and they have a fear of going there. Those conflicting pressures create stress, even panic. And that can lead you to grab on to the nearest person who looks like they can save you.

I wrote a post about Tech Fear a while ago. You might find it useful to read. Highlights: a lot of people have a perception that anything to do with computers is a scary Thing I Don’t Do. Often that’s the result of other people’s voices that they’ve internalised, like parents, teachers and social conditioning. It can block you from seeing the issues clearly and managing them, but that’s where you need to get to: being clear about what you can do, how much you want to do, and when to get help from other people.

If you’re clutching on to a designer and seeing them as a saviour who’ll make your fears go away (or, to put it another way, mean you don’t have to think about That Stuff), you’ve abandoned your role as manager of your own work.

You’re not making a clear judgement about what they can do and whether that’ll give you what you want. And giving them that elevated status in your mind will make it harder to question or challenge what they’re doing later on. I’ve heard a number of stories of web designers who went in an unwanted direction and, apparently, couldn’t be stopped.

The answer is to take charge of your website – recognising that you don’t have to do it yourself, but you also can’t dump the whole thing on someone else to give you a brilliant result through some kind of magic.

Look at a web designer as a member of your team. You’ll work together and complement each other, and hopefully both come out pleased that you did it. So, what sort of person do you want on your team for this?

‘Creating a site’ only requires a basic level of computer use and the ability to follow a process. Some people hang out their sign based on just that. They’re not the ones you’re looking for. Creating something really good requires a bunch of other skills.

Not all web designers have an eye for design

Never mind throwing words on to a page. The thing that will keep a new visitor on your site, rather than hopping off again, is if it looks attractive, easy to read, and relevant.

The visual design is the gateway to the things you want to say. It’s mainly made up of layout (columns, spacing, etc), colour scheme and typography (what fonts you use and how you use them). I have an e-course about this – What is your website saying about you behind your back? – and write about presentation a lot because I think it’s really important and often neglected.

If you go to a website and it looks like a computer studies experiment from the 1990s, are you likely to stay around? If the text is all crammed together? If it gives off the wrong vibe for what that person or organisation is doing?

Nobody is obliged to read your words. Good design gives a reading environment and atmosphere that makes them want to.

But so often sites by professional web design outfits fail to achieve that. I admit, it’s not something you can fully learn or teach as a set of rules. But you can look at lots of other sites, examine your reactions and question why, and build up a reservoir of good and bad avenues.

If a web designer’s site has examples of their previous work, take a look at a few. Are they clunky cookie cutter things? Or maybe they look good, but that designer likes to use a style that’s not a fit for you. If you find yourself wanting to keep reading a site, and feeling it’s a really good fit for its owner, that’s a good sign!

Not all web designers have the perspective for user experience

As well as good visuals, the design needs to put things where users need them to be.

And that means what’s in your audience’s heads. If your designer has clever, experimental ideas that don’t fit with that, they need to be willing to change.

One side of this is navigation. Are the links where a user naturally looks? Are they titled in a way that tells the user what they are? For each important part of your site, is there an obvious way to get to it? Is the info the user wants there in the first place?

The frustration of a few thwarted attempts to find something will drive most users away. Possibly to social media to let off steam about their bad experience on your site.

There’s also the way your site works for marketing/communicating the things you want it to. For instance, on the home page are the one or two most important things in a prime position near the top left where people will notice them? Or are they tucked away on the assumption that users will scrutinise every inch?

This gets neglected even in high-profile work. The people who make newspapers’ websites are presumably well paid, but there’s a growing trend to encrust these sites with extra information and pop-ups that get in the way of the reader having the experience they came for. They’ve become detached from their roots. (Those ‘clickbait’ sites with the ‘you won’t believe what happened next’ stories are even worse.)

A good designer will be aware of user psychology and behaviour, and will want to set things up accordingly. They should talk it through with you, get an idea of what you want to achieve and guide you on the best ways to make it work. However…

Not all web designers are good at customer relations

OK, it’s a stereotype that people who spend lots of time doing things on computers have poor social and communication skills. As a blanket statement it’s unfair.

But it’s true that what we practise, we become. Making a website is about creative problem-solving. If you specialise in that, like most specialists you may find it difficult to talk about your work in a way ordinary people can understand.

People at computerIt’s certainly true that most clients getting a site done are in unfamiliar territory with an unfamiliar vocabulary. It’s hard for them to vocalise what they want and how they want it doing. They need help.

The designer’s job includes understanding the client’s needs and guiding them through it. That can actually be really difficult, and involve a lot of time and patience. It can have quite a lot of emotional content. That’s not stereotypical nerd territory.

I’ve heard people tell their website stories as the designer forcing them to have something that wasn’t what they wanted. Or making something and then dropping off the face of the earth. Or both. Of course the people telling those stories are colouring them with their own perceptions and biases. But it does seem clear that something was wrong with the communication and customer service side.

(Life happens and changes happen, and web designers are prone to the same distractions and interruptions as anyone else. And if you come back to them after a couple of years, perhaps they’ll have changed contact details or be doing something else now.)

Does the designer you’re considering have testimonials from people saying they’re great to work with and really listened to what the client wanted? If you contact them, do you get the sense they listen to you and get the picture of what you’re trying to do? Do you feel like it would be difficult to work with them, or do you ‘click’?

Note of caution

Don’t choose solely on the basis of someone being pleasant to work with. They also need to be able to do a good job!

I remember seeing someone in a conference programme to do sessions about websites for self-publishing authors. Being curious, I found loads of testimonials saying how good they were to work with. But when I looked at their sites, they were done in a really odd way that would cause lots of problems (entirely as tiled graphics). Most of that audience just wanted to write their books, were probably looking for a tech saviour, and would just assume the ‘expert’ was doing it right. Buyer beware.

Wrapping up

Web designers are human, and humans tend to be good at some things and not so good at others.

The aim of this post is to get you thinking about which skills are most important to you. And to stop you clutching at the first person you find who calls themselves a web designer! Put the fear in its place, then do it anyway. (Apologies to Susan Jeffers.)

Do you have stories and ‘learning experiences’ around web design? Feel free to share in the comments (but no naming and shaming please).


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