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Designing your website

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The web-design industry is still relatively new and does not yet do a particularly good job of marketing itself. Web-design companies can range in size from one or two people working from a home office to full- service interactive design agencies employing dozens of staff. How do you find them and choose between them?

A good start could be to ask your Internet service provider (isp) or check Yellow Pages or the Thompson Directory. You could ask around your business circles and talk to people who have used designers in the past, or flick through some of the industry magazines and try a few of the people who advertise there.

The choice can be confusing, so my first step would be to contact your local Business Link, the number of which you can find in the telephone book or from your local Training and Enterprise Council. Business Links specialise in channelling advice and information of all kinds to small and medium-sized businesses. They will be happy to provide you with the names and addresses of a few local web-design companies that you can try. Even better, they may be able to offer you a grant to help with designing your web site. The levels of available grant vary, but I've recently set up a number of sites that have attracted between 30 and 50 per cent funding from Business Link.

Having found some names and addresses, it is a good idea to talk to at least three companies and compare their prices and levels of service. In approaching companies, it is always a good idea to have a written brief; last week's article covered what should be included in a good brief.

Many business people who are thinking about creating web sites do not really know in detail what is involved. So the web-design industry has a lot of education to do, and time spent on explaining to the client how and why things are done is an important part of the process. Some design companies may resent the time spent doing this - it is unpaid after all - but I think it is a legitimate marketing cost for their business. Don't be shy about taking this free advice! However, it will help the process greatly if you are systematic: here are some guidelines for approaching a design company.

Have a budget in mind and tell prospective design companies what it is. This will help save both you and them any wasted time.

Have a good look at work they have done in the past, and ask questions about how and why it was done. Don't be afraid to ask for contact details of past clients and take the time to talk to them. Spend time on your own going through their sites on the Internet: look for how long the site takes to load, how easy it is to find useful information and how complete the overall design appears.

Do not be put off if the design company has not done an architectural web site before. After all, most practices have yet to establish sites. A design company's skills should be adaptable to a wide variety of situations.

Do talk through the job in detail. Ask how long it will take to complete, get a good understanding of how the designer will create a 'look and feel' for you, how you will be involved in the proces, how they see your site developing in the future and what type of updates they envisage. Ask them to provide some templates so that you can add and update text pages to your site without great expense.

Get a written proposal and make sure it is more than just a list of prices. A good proposal will explain in detail how the task will be approached. Read this document in detail and make sure that it covers everything you want.

Once you are happy with the proposal, commit to it. Put your effort into the project as well - that means providing the design company with written copy and images on time and in the format agreed.

Finally, you should look to build a long-term relationship. Your site should not remain static, but should grow and develop as your understanding of the Internet increases. While the major capital investment will go into establishing the site, you should also allocate some budget to updating it and adding fresh information. Over a year this should at least match the cost of establishing your site.

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