In the first part of this series, you decided your AEC firm website update intent, goals, and who should be involved. The second part gets a little more technical by digging into the differences between website design and development, user experience, and considerations for hiring an agency or freelance consultant. Finally, we get to the elephant in the room – schedule and costs.
Website Design vs. Development
This might seem obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me when I managed my first website update. They are actually two different sets of skill sets used in website updating process.
Website design is the actual look (colors, fonts, images, etc.). Web designers typically use Photoshop to mock up webpages for review. Website developers, also called programmers, take those designs and make the functioning website.
It is important to understand the two needs and the difference between them. If you choose to hire an agency, they will most likely have both on staff. While if you hire a freelance consultant, he/she will most likely have only one of these skill sets.
User experience (UX for those techies) is a hot trend right now. It is basically how a potential client or job seeker will see, use, and navigate through your website. You can shape this experience through the website design. Good website designers will work with you to understand how you want your users to move through your website and design the pages, navigation, etc. for that experience.
This is where the goal of your website comes into play. The traditional AEC website has a static home page with an image slider and some introductory text. Then it has a menu at the top that includes: About, Projects, Markets/Services, Locations, Blog, Jobs, and Contact Us. This isn’t necessarily wrong.
You might want to think about how your homepage is designed to make the user experience more targeted. For example, if you are heavily recruiting, you may want to include a video about workplace environment on your homepage with a link to your jobs page.
Or, if you want to be known as an expert in equine architecture, you may feature a list of top 10 differences of designing for horses than people. Or some other similar thought leader piece. Have that call to action with a download to collect emails.
There are loads of resources if you want to dig further into user experience. Some articles and books are listed below.
- UX Books: The Essential Reading List
- Don’t Make Me Think Revisited by Steve Krug
- AEC Website Design Trends – The New Normal
- The State of UX in 2017
Hiring an Agency or Freelance Consultant
Chances are you will not be redesigning your website on your own. There are a few different options you can decide to go when updating your website. Hiring a website design agency is probably the most popular. There are some items to consider when reaching out to these agencies and freelancers.
- Website design vs. development – Remember the difference listed above? Some agencies claim to do both, but you need to check out what their actual skill sets are. You might think you are hiring an agency that does both, but then learn that they are more heavy on the design aspects (which is easier to sell to a design firm!) and very light on the development side, or vice versa.
- Content Platform – Agencies may steer you to a content platform that they prefer to work in. One of the most popular platforms is WordPress. I would strongly recommend staying with that platform. There are more plug-ins, connections to other software, freelance developers, etc. I have personally been steered to other platforms and have found it more difficult to completely customize and there are not as many plug-ins. Most AEC firms will be just fine using WordPress for their content management platform (CMS).
- Experience with AEC firms – Has the agency worked with other AEC firms? Does this matter to your firm? I am torn on this decision. On one hand, it is good that the agency understands our business and clients. On the other, I don’t want our website to look like all of our competitors. I think it more comes down to if the agency gets your intent and goals and you all personally get along.
- Portfolio – Review their agency portfolio. How is the user experience for each of the websites? Do the websites seem to function and have a good user experience? Do all of the websites look alike? You want to spend a lot of time reviewing their portfolio of work. Ask about the features, development issues, plug-ins, etc. You want to see how they handle challenges on the development side.
- Service Plans and Hosting Fees – Website design and development agencies make recurring revenue through service plans and hosting fees. While these are not all that bad, be careful. Ask a lot of questions regarding how and why these are charged before signing any agreement. Chances are, you can get your own hosting less expensive. Also, if you are using WordPress you can do nearly all of your maintenance and updates in-house. However, you will need to plan for this time. If you don’t have the resources in-house it might be better to leave it to them.
- Content – Even if you hire an agency or freelancer, you need to still plan to provide all of the content for the website. This is a time-suck that if not known in advance can really slow down your website update. Think about all of the content that is currently on your website. Then you will need to look at what needs to be changed, especially if going through a rebrand, merger or acquisition. Your brand voice will most likely change. Then there are projects, blog articles, photos, etc. This item can be a separate blog article!
You can also do the website design and development in-house. No one says you have to hire an agency. There are plenty of very well designed WordPress themes that can easily be customized for your firm. You may want to consider this first and then decide if the effort is too much to go either an agency or freelance route.
A great resource to find WordPress themes is Themeforest. This is a community of designers and developers that put their themes up for sale at reasonable prices (most less than a $100). The best part of this website is that if you find a theme you like, chances are you reach out to the author and ask them to customize for an additional fee. You can search by categories and tags to help narrow down the search. Some basic ones think I like are:
Up next we tackle the timeframes and costs.