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What you should expect from a web developer (and what you need to do yourself)

Small business owners establishing an online presence often turn to professional web site developers for advice and assistance. Being clear about what is required for the process to flow smoothly can help you avoid a bad experience or an expensive mistake. So, what should a small business owner expect when they consult a web developer?

1. Information about their skill set

Web developers can have a diverse array of backgrounds and qualifications, e.g. graphic design, programming, marketing, business information technology, management consultancy… There is no certification process or standard qualification required to call yourself a web developer! If you are looking for sound advice about e-Business strategies, don't choose a 'geek' who only knows about technology. If you want a specialised, complex site, you'll be needing programming skills, not just someone who offers you a range of templates to pick from. Also, remember the person you talk to initially may not be the one who does the work: find out about the whole team, including sub-contractors.

2. A list of client referees

You need names and contact details of previous clients, and you need to take the time to talk to them. Don't just look at their web site – confirm that the web developer did actually build what is currently at that address and that the client was happy with the result and the service.

3. Curiosity about your business
The web developer should have a lot of questions to ask you about your business. They will want to find out what you are selling and what makes people want to buy it from you; what are your customers like; who are your competitors; how does your business operate; is there scope for improving the efficiency or effectiveness of how things are done? Even if you don't have all this written down as a formal business plan, you'll have it in your head. You need to talk, and the web developer needs to listen carefully.

4. A collaborative approach

Hiring a consultant doesn't mean you get a solution on a plate. It should be a collaborative partnership, where both of you end up learning something along the way. If you tell the web developer what you want, and they deliver only that, you've missed your chance to expand your ideas about web strategy options. If you sit back and let the web developer decide what's best, you're unlikely to get a web site that reflects the real distinctiveness of your business. A web developer who happily takes a pile of marketing material from you and doesn't get in contact again until the web site is finished is going to deliver brochureware. By 'brochureware' I mean a site that is static and superficial, as opposed to a site that enriches your business by taking good advantage of the Internet's unique communicating powers.

5. A proposal document

Meeting with you to find out about your business and discuss the objectives for your web site, the web developer should prepare a proposal describing the work to be done, the time it will take, and roughly how much it will cost you. Expect the proposal to also contain details about the web developer's business: how long it has been in operation, what resources it draws upon, and information about their web site design and implementation process.

6. Clarity about what you will receive

Compare proposals, you need to be sure what's included in the price. Copywriting? Graphic design? A content management system allowing you to make your own changes and additions to the site? Domain name registration? Hosting costs? Is there a 'warranty period', during which bugs and errors will be fixed without charge? What hourly rate does the web developer charge for maintaining the site content?

7. A way of handling changing requirements
Software development is an iterative, evolutionary process. It takes time to come to a shared understanding of the issues and work through the possible ways of addressing them to arrive at the best solution. If the web developer is working to a specification at a fixed price, you can expect extra work to cost extra. If the additions are extensive, they may need to be treated as a new project. Establish the scope for minor alterations to specifications to occur without charge.

8. Best practice advice

Discussing the implementation of your site, the web developer should talk to you about ensuring that it:

* loads quickly
* is compatible with a wide range of platforms and browsers
* has an attractive and consistent 'look and feel'
* has well-structured, well-written and comprehensive information
* is easy to navigate and use
* includes appropriate interactivity
* displays privacy/security policies
* is 'sticky' (entices visitors to prolong or repeat their visit)
* is regularly updated
* is well-ranked by the search engines
* collects statistics about visitors and their behaviour
* is well-promoted

9. An ongoing relationship

Web sites grow and change. Ideally, neither you nor your web developer will regard your web site development as a one-off project, but rather see it as the foundation task for a mutually beneficial partnership, based on trust, communication, satisfaction and cooperation. However, be aware of the degree of 'lock-in' you have with your web developer, in case things do go sour. It will be easier to switch to a new web developer if you took the precaution of asking for CDs of source materials for your site.

10. A contract

Small business owners often prefer to keep arrangements with their web developer informal. But without a contract or a letter of agreement they find it much harder to deal with the unpleasant issues that can and do arise, such as: failure or incompleteness of the project; budget over-runs; lack of clarity in mutual responsibilities; problems with payment options; disputes over intellectual property; and unmet expectations regarding timeliness, quality and support.

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