You’ve determined you need a custom website built for your small business, and the time has come to meet with a designer or developer to get the job done. If you don’t know the first thing about coding or how websites are built, this can be an intimidating process. There  will be lots of new jargon to learn, and phrases like “server-side logic” and “white hat SEO” are going to sound foreign for a while. Fear not, though — is here to help.

First off, know the difference between a web developer and a web designer.

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(Photo via Mike on Flickr)

Web developer: These are the people who write the code that makes the web go round. They come in two varieties, for the most part; front end and back end. Front end developers write the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that is responsible for the looks of a site and any user-facing functionality — things like slideshows and contact forms. Back end developers, on the other hand, write code that lives on the server; this can include  things like database management and application logic.

Web designer: These people come up with the actual design of the site, and figure out how it will look and feel across different browsers and devices. They usually code, but they don’t have to — it’s possible for a designer to come up with a layout that they hand off to a developer to do the actual coding.

Keep in mind that while these are the standard roles for designers and developers, it is not uncommon for people to overlap between the roles. Most front end developers, for example, have to know at least a little back end development to get their job done; likewise, even the most technical coder will develop some design chops after they’ve coded a couple hundred layouts.

Determine if you need a developer, designer, or both.


(Photo via Thinkstock)

This depends on what type of site you’re looking to build. Do you need a simple promotional website for your small business? A web designer should be just the thing. On the other hand, do you need a complex e-commerce site with different payments options, user management, and email newsletter integration? You’ll be looking for a developer, and you’ll need a front end and back end developer, at that — or someone that can do both.  If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to go to the meeting with a list of things you’d like to be able to accomplish with your site and ask the developer if that’s in his or her skill set.

Don’t get caught up in buzzwords or specific technologies.

Chances are, if you read anything about web development or design that’s been written recently, you’re going to run into one or all of the following: HTML5, CSS3, jQuery, AngularJS, NodeJS or Ruby on Rails. While a basic understanding of the roles different languages play is good, and you should definitely make sure your website is being built with up to date best practices, shy away from urging that your site make use of specific technologies. Rather, have in mind the goals you want to accomplish with your site, and let the developer recommend the best way to go about achieving them. Similarly, avoid thinking that you need to use a specific platform. It’s been my experience that many clients automatically think they need a WordPress site, partly due to it’s ubiquity; while WordPress may be great for you, it should only be used if it is the best platform to fit your needs.

Do understand the basics of how the internet works.

You don’t need to know a single line of code, but you should at least brush up on the basics of how the internet works and what it takes to put a website online. A good developer will be able to translate everything into layman’s terms for you, but if you don’t know what a server or a domain name is you’re going to have a hard time following along. An hour or two of reading should be more than enough to get you up to speed.

Don’t spend time working on a list of features you want. Rather, spend time working on a list of goals or outcomes you’d like the website to help you accomplish.


(Photo via Thinkstock)

Software features can be funny things — sometimes seemingly small features actually take quite a bit of effort to execute well. Getting stuck on having particular features in your final site can add unnecessary cost and development time to the project. Instead of having features in mind, it’s best to have end goals — results you’d like to see from the site — and let the expert figure out the best way to get there.

For example, let’s say you want to grow your company’s email newsletter. Instead of telling your developer “Let’s put a popup on the site that prompts visitors to sign up for the newsletter,” tell them, “I’d like to drive more signups for our newsletter. What’s the best way to make that happen?” You’re paying them to be an expert in the web, so let them find the best path for you.

Don’t plan on cutting corners.

(Photo via smokingseagulls.tumblr)

Budgets for web development can be larger than you’d think. Just keep in mind that you’re paying another person, whose full time job it is to make and maintain websites. Websites take a significant amount of time and expertise to make, and whoever is building it should be compensated accordingly. Additionally, your website is an investment, a 24-hour storefront and marketing tool for your small business. A good website should make you more money than you spend on it.

 Do have a budget in mind.

All that said, everyone has a budget, and you should prepare some general numbers to be open to from the start. Being up front with a budget helps the developer figure out just how much he can do for you, plus it prevents you from being surprised by a big bill at the end of development.

Keep in mind that building and launching the site is only part of the cost of running a website. You’ll have additional server and maintenance costs. Most web development contracts contain an hourly fee for post-launch maintenance and changes, so be sure to check on that with your developer.

 Above all, keep an open mind.

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(Photo via Ante el Guernica on Flickr)

Remember, your site is for your customers, not for you. If you don’t like the design personally, but it fits with your brand and helps make sales, then it’s for the best.


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