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Creating an Effective Design Review Process for Website Development

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Throughout my life, I’ve lived among fitness addicts. Many of my friends have been working out for decades; they’ve witnessed every trend come and go, from aerobics to Crossfit. ® A lot of them possess skill sets which rival those of people who train for a living.

The other day, I was having coffee with one of these friends and he let me in on a training secret. He told me that, long ago he’d given up self-training. Instead, he relayed, he’s been paying a trainer three times a week for many, many years. “Why,” I asked, “would someone who has been training his body for 3 decades, spend $200 a week on a personal trainer?” His answer was, simply, “Because, if I didn’t hire a trainer, I’d never go to the gym on my own.”

That answer, while surprising, resonated with me as a design professional. The bottom line for many of us is that, in the absence of externally imposed will, we will not achieve all we’d like. But more on that later…

As a firm that designs websites, our ongoing challenge is to provide our clients with products which satisfy both functional and aesthetic goals. Getting our clients from a spreadsheet or Word document filled with requirements to a set of layouts which makes them happy to pay our fees is a process with many pitfalls. In the interest of both clients and vendors, I thought I’d offer a list of five strategies we’ve found have helped us guide our clients get from ideas to execution.

  1. Get to know your client. We begin all client engagements with with an ‘Audit & Assessment’ phase. During it, our goal is to get both a quantitative and qualitative feeling for our client’s needs. Quantitatively, we ask them to complete a brand audit which consists of several pages of questions and answers. This gives us a snapshot of their history and current marketing activities. Qualitative conclusions are drawn both from informal discussions and our request that the client show us examples of digital work work which resonates with them visually. It’s easy to collect facts from your new client, but the ‘qualitative’ component is really intended to give us a gut feeling for what our new client prefers, in terms of look and feel. Finally, as part of this process, we try and determine the relative weight our client gives to function versus form.
  2. Develop a visual prototyping system which begins with charts and ends with layouts. When we first started designing websites a decade or so ago, we were not swayed by the conventional wisdom advocating for a 3 step approach to layout development — starting with the development of sitemaps, moving on to visual block layouts and finishing with finished, visual mockups. For our smaller clients, we often skipped the second step, moving straight from site map development into the layout phase. What we quickly learned though, is that creating the sort of block diagrams that tools like Balsamiq create with ease, answers (and raises) many content layout questions which we’ll have to address in the last phase anyway. It’s one thing to note that there’s a ‘Company History’ page on a site map. It’s another thing entirely to outline what content will make that page up and how it will appear on the page. Our initial skepticism has been replaced by enthusiastically embracing a process which usually starts with a site diagramming tool like MindMeister, moves on to a tool like Balsamiq and might even include a tool like Style Tiles, to further clarify consistent visual elements for the entire site. Lastly, we move on to the layout phase, where we still use Photoshop but find ourselves, increasingly, supplementing static layouts with working web layouts or examples which can demonstrate Javascript-dependent interactive elements.
  3. Be clear about what your design process includes; offer additional layouts at additional cost. We live in an era where budgets are scrutinized and anguished over. The tightening economy has changed the way we write our contracts, allowing us to break out services into a more ‘a la carte’ menu format. One useful feature in our contracts these days is a ‘per layout’ line item. Basically, we feel that, if we’re able to follow a regimented design process (as outlined in the previous step), we’re pretty sure we’re going to produce layouts that our clients will ultimately love. This allows us to offer additional layouts (beyond either a standard one or two) at additional costs. This pricing flexibility allows us an advantage, as well, as we can ‘reduce’ our bid prices, for jobs where we think we need to reach for a pricing advantage.
  4. Think about the client’s content creation needs. These days, most of our sites are built off a content management system. As the tools we use have evolved, we find an increasing benefit to developing a ‘design process’ for the CMS-facing side of a website. How the CMS client portal is designed has a direct bearing on how easily the client will be able to add new content to the website. Just like the visual design phase, we tend to diagram unique aspects of their new site’s content creation process and how that will look and feel for them.
  5. Set a review schedule; conduct in-person meetings if possible, play the role of coach.At the beginning of this post, I talked about seasoned fitness fanatics who still rely on trainers to help them keep in shape. Much of that reliance stems from an innate need most of us have to summon an external force or ‘mentor’ to keep ourselves on track. We’ve learned through the years that sensing this need and embracing it can often result in a more streamlined, schedule-driven process for our clients. It sometimes seems counterintuitive for an agency to assume the Alpha Dog role in the design process. After all, we’re serving the client, not vice versa. However, it’s important to recognize that one of the reasons clients hire an agency in the first place is to provide clarity, structure and discipline to the design process. Being able to sense this need and respond to it can make for a much smoother client/agency relationship.

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