How Do I Talk to the (Graphic Designer/Coder) Animals?
March 18, 2009 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Teach a person without a creative/coding/CSS bone in his body to talk at least semi-intelligently to graphic and web designers.

I need creative and web-design work done that will integrate branding, product information, detailed application/use information, and the actual ecommerce sides all together cohesively. I've got the content, but not the looks. Unfortunately, my "research" (OK, I've been googling and reading AskMe) has given me a dangerously semi-ignorant knowledge level about some of the actual tools of the trade (i.e., joomla, wordpress, virtuemart, templating, etc...) to have some probably poorly preconceived notions about how to implement this. (Example: webwise, what I think is needed is a well-coded, templated CMS that I can put the content into as the product line grows and develops). I have examples of other companies in the industry who do it well and many who do it poorly. Beyond that, I need professional design guidance. So I've made some connections with local designers/web types (for lack of a better descriptor - see how ignorant I am?) and have initial meetings set.

Problem is, I don't have a clue about what to look for to figure out if they know what they're talking about or not in their respective field(s) of expertise. (e.g., "show me your portfolio" doesn't give much guidance because I am design illiterate and therefore don't know what I'm looking at beyond "oh, cool, it's orange."). I also don't know what they'll need from me to make this a productive relationship during this process. So, it's a two-parter:

1. What should the design/creative/coding-illiterate potential client be asking about and looking out for when talking to creative types; and,

2. What information will a good creative professional want from his/her non-creative client to help make the final creative/design deliverable fit the client's expectations (or, if appropriate, to dissuade the client therefrom)?
posted by webhund to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's ok, you shouldn't need to know squat about the tools: that's their job. Your job is to clearly communicate what problem it is they need to create a solution for.

That you know a bit about CMS's now is good for YOU - you'll at least have a foggy idea of what they're talking about if they say "CMS" to you - but if you don't know the terminology you're still perfectly well placed to communicate what you're after, if in different language. You don't need to know what a CMS is to say that you want to be able to update certain, or all, pages of your website yourself. You don't need to know Flash or jQuery exists in order to say that you want a list of your product's benefits to be displayed in the sidebar, that gives more info on each point when moused over by opening out accordian-style like they do on Blah Website... and to show them that website to make it clear what you mean if you can't get the words out. In some ways I'd argue you're even better placed if you're entirely ignorant of the terms, honestly: because you're using a language that's natural to you and words whose meanings your clear about, whereas with techie terms it's like speaking another language: you can use the words but you're not going to understand the subtle differences in meaning between that and a very similar alternative that you don't know of. Saying you want them to use Joomla or whatever could be bad because it could close off an alternative that might have worked better for your needs.

So my suggestion re: 1 is that you should ask your creatives what it was their clients came to them with asking that they solve; then ask them how the design they're showing you achieves that. Listen to that, and weigh it up against how you feel about the example you're looking at. Re not having a design bone in your body etc, it's possible but I doubt it. You don't need to be able to produce it in order to respond to it: the whole design and advertising world is founded on this fact. Do the Apple ads make you want to go and buy an iPhone? Then you're responding to good design -- in a way that you're not for every other mobile phone whose billboards are trying to grab your attention. So something's going on there in you, even if you can't articulate how they're achieving it.

And re: 2, it'll really depend on the designer but at the very least they should ask you the above: what's the site to do? Who's going to be using it? Why would they come to look at it/use it? What do you want to be achieved by them using it? What's your company about and what do you/what do you want to communicate about the company? How does your existing marketing do that already? Why do you think it's failing? What sites do you like? What ones do you hate? Why?

They may not fire questions at you as such - this could all come out just in conversation - but this is all stuff they need to know in order to produce a good solution for them, so you want to be sure it's something that's coming out in your discussion, and that it's stuff they're taking note of. You want to feel that, to them, these things are relevant. Because ultimately, you want to walk away knowing that they've got a good grip on what it is you want to achieve, and that your aims are going to be important to them when they sit down to work on your project.

And, of course, that they're good at thinking about it and coming up with good, sound and successful solutions for what people need to achieve.
posted by springbound at 10:36 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, for getting a rudder on the creative stuff some good, short books are The Non-Designer's Design Book and Don't Make Me Think.

However, from what you describe: I need creative and web-design work done that will integrate branding, product information, detailed application/use information, and the actual ecommerce sides all together cohesively a web designer alone is not at all what you need. A professional web designer will have only tangential familiarity with those subjects; branding is a marketing topic and the other items are the sort of thing that a web software developer would handle. You do not simply need a CMS system, at the least you need extensive software integration services and you may need a fair amount of custom software development.

If you sat down with someone who really is just a web designer to discuss this project, they'll simply nod and say "yeah, sure!" to everything you tell them you want the web site to do, then they'll massively overcharge you and run off and try to subcontract all of the technical / software engineering details to someone else, and the project will end up way past deadline and overbudget if indeed it is ever completed and the web site will never work the way you want it to.

Ideally, you want to find either a very large web design firm that employs software engineers or a large software engineering firm that has considerable experience building web applications and employs web designers. Someone like this will still massively overcharge you but they're much more likely to set realistic expectations with you and hit within two or three times the schedule and budget to deliver whatever system they actually promise.

If you can't afford that, be prepared to spend quite alot of time doing researching for and managing this project (and still probably quite alot of money) - definitely expect to handle any marketing aspects yourself - and do the following: buy two guns, find a web designer / small web design firm whose portfolio you like and who has good recommendations, and a web software developer / small web software development firm with a similarly good portfolio (of web site functionality in this case, of course - look at a web shopping cart they've implemented, for example, or a product directory site) and recommendations. Hold the guns to their heads and force them to work closely together on your project. Do not let each of them do their work separately and toss their deliverables over the wall to each other - they will want to do that but it will cause a mess and require lots of going back and forth and extra expense when the pieces they each make don't fit together properly. You will need to ride their butts and work them like a slave driver chasing down every little detail.

Oh, and you'll need a good web hoster who can provide extensive technical support services. In fact, you should probably make sure you've got a very technically competent web hoster and before the project starts pay for the web hoster to provide someone who can serve as the technical project manager and make sure that the pieces from the other two guys fit together and that everything runs well. If you can have a contractual arrangement making some third party like that responsible for completion it will take some of the pressure off of you, but don't let your guard down.

(So, if someone tells you that they can do it all for you themselves, find out whether they really actually have both web designers and software developers in-house - they probably don't, they'll probably have to subcontract at least part of it. They still might be okay to work with, you just want to be aware of things like that. Especially if you find out you're working with a web designer who thinks he or she is going to find a subcontractor overseas in Europe or India or China to do the application development super-cheap, for example.)

I'm saying all of this from a great deal of experience as I am a professional CMS software engineer and consultant.
posted by XMLicious at 1:24 AM on March 19, 2009

P.S. You may also run into people who are neither professional web designers nor professional software engineers, but who claim to be qualified to do anything at all on the web and hence can build the entire site for you.

It's theoretically possible that someone has such a skill set, or would be smart enough to navigate the pitfalls of setting up a large site even if they've only done small brochure-ware CMS sites before. But such an individual is going to be pretty rare - it's like running into a handyman who not only can fix your leaky sink and frame out your unfinished basement but can build you an entire house from scratch.
posted by XMLicious at 1:35 AM on March 19, 2009

There are Dummies books that will bring people like you up to speed.
posted by JJ86 at 5:22 AM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I could not disagree more with XMLicious. There are plenty of us out there who do end-to-end delivery of what you're looking for - branding, design, development, integration, basic SEO and even online marketing. I don't know, maybe it's a niche thing, but virtually all of the startups and bootstrapped companies I work with need exactly that. These are the customers I vastly prefer to work with.

I think perhaps the most important thing for you to look out for is someone with a lot of experience. I say this because there are actually very few new problems. Virtually every single client thinks his project is a special snowflake with a unique set of criteria, but with the exception of large scale enterprise projects, that is hardly ever the case.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:03 AM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, what you appear to need is a house whose Web designers also comprehend Web standards. The leader of the pack there is Happy Cog (i.e., Zeldman), but there are now many others in numerous states, provinces, and countries. These designers understand the visual presentation needs of your site and either can code it themselves or talk intelligently to the other people on staff who can.

You, as a client, should never have to get into that kind of detail, and with these kind of Web shops, you won’t have to.
posted by joeclark at 6:05 AM on March 19, 2009

DarlingBri - I guess it's just that most of the people out there who claim to do all of these things appear to me to be dabblers in each of these areas. There are certainly lots of people who can, say, do an out-of-the-box installation of Drupal or something, do the web design and coordinate the hosting and and other IT concerns and all the other pieces and do a very good job at that - but that's a small, simple project, even if you're putting a few hundred pages in Drupal and installing a few other out-of-the-box applications. That's what I meant by a "brochure-ware CMS site".

It sounds to me like the OP is asking for something more complicated than that - it sounds like webhund is describing a database-backed (or at least semantic-web-CMS-backed) product catalog integrated with an ecommerce system, which knowing how these things go will probably also involve a guided search mechanism and some level of online community / personalization / usage tracking scaffolding. But I certainly could be wrong. And it's also possible that he or she could get along with something much less sophisticated than what is being envisioned in the mind's eye, but I want to properly set expectations for what experience tells me is being envisioned.

Exactly as I put it above, I simply run into a great many people who are basically web technology handymen and do not have the depth of experience it takes to pull off a large project on-schedule and on-budget. And I am not talking about strictly "enterprise-level" projects - a good integration of an off-the-shelf (even open source OTS) CMS, ecommerce system, guided search infrastructure, et cetera, along with back-end systems like inventory or accounting, is in no way small potatoes or run-of-the-mill, even for a small company.

Your assertion that there's nothing new under the sun and the bit about clients thinking they're "special snowflakes" makes me a bit skeptical. If all of your customers turn out to to need exactly the things you have experience in and find it routine to deploy it makes me a bit curious about how thorough your requirements-gathering phase is. (If you're cutting your costs by being selective in the projects you're taking on that's good business practice and more power to you, but don't pretend that in a business this complicated it's a one-size-fits-all deal from the customer's perspective.)

My own perspective also comes from the fact that I've often been hired to clean up the mess made by someone who promised alot but didn't know what they were doing. IMO webhund ought to be very, very cautious and attentive to every detail and piece of the project; doing otherwise in his or her situation would practically be asking for lots of nasty and potentially disastrous surprises.

(And also, I was talking about someone who is strictly a professional web designer. If you're doing all of the different things you say you're doing successfully and professionally for the startups and bootstrapped companies who are your clients, DarlingBri, I would say that you aren't simply a web designer, in the same way that someone who builds small residential houses and does it well isn't simply a carpenter or simply an architect. Especially if you really never find yourself needing to do the sort of subcontracting of technical pieces I was describing above.)
posted by XMLicious at 11:31 PM on March 19, 2009

Another little note here: observe that webhund is referencing what is seen on the sites of established competitors in the industry (some who do it well and many who do it poorly.) This is a major clue to me that what webhund is envisioning is probably not the brochureware site of a startup but probably a sophisticated, tuned, and fully-functional ecommerce site of the sort that is fielded by an established company: not just the kind of thing a hard-working independent web designer tosses off with only a couple weekends in overtime.
posted by XMLicious at 11:56 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: it sounds like webhund is describing a database-backed (or at least semantic-web-CMS-backed) product catalog integrated with an ecommerce system, which knowing how these things go will probably also involve a guided search mechanism and some level of online community / personalization / usage tracking scaffolding.

Yes, that does sound like what webhund is asking for more or less. My point is that these days that's a very standard spec, well-served by any number of ecommerce applications. There used to be a division between catalogue application, cart application and checkout application, for example, but that's no longer the case.

If you have the fundamental skills to pull off good design, integrating any design with the building blocks of something like Magento or ECT or whatever the best ecomm system for the client spec might be is straight forward, though time consuming. Sure it may break your brain for an afternoon, but it's entirely achievable.

I've built numerous "sophisticated, tuned, and fully-functional ecommerce sites of the sort fielded by an established company" and I just reject out of hand the notion that this type of requirement is so complex in the contemporary dev world that it requires the type of team or agency being recommended in this discussion. You think it's big potatoes and I think it's standard potatoes, and we're probably not going to meet in the middle on that - and that's fine.

My point about the snowflakes is that it is virtually irrelevant how unique your snowflake is - the basic selling mechanism will be the same whether you're selling widgets or perpetual motion machines.

I'm not against the approach you recommend, mind - if you have the bank for it, then your choice of firms is wide open. But I still want people to know that if you have a small budget, there are small design/development people out there who can work with you to deliver within your budget.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:18 AM on March 20, 2009

Much of my perspective is coming from seeing the disconnect between the out-of-the-box functionality of most CMS systems and what my clients were expecting if they began the process with a web designer. However, I'm definitely biased on that note - my business is doing the customizations, so perhaps I'm geared to see mismatches between customer requirements and OTS software that aren't actually there. (Though I think I'm being realistic, of course. ;*)

I think that the amount of traffic on the forums of any CMS or ecommerce product's home page corroborates what I'm saying: lots of customization is very, very frequently necessary.

An afternoon or two is what it usually takes me to do a best-practices install of a piece of web software, even one I'm familiar with. So I just have difficulty believing that anyone is going to accomplish more than dumping the product out of the box and pulling off the plastic and styrofoam packaging in that amount of time. The likelihood that an out-of-the-box installation of a product is exactly what a customer needs seems pretty low to me - but it's clear from my experience that this is what happens most frequently because this is what is easiest for a small web shop, not because it's what the client usually needs. (And sometimes, it's not even in the ballpark of what the client needs.)

And that, of course, doesn't even get in to OTS software itself being poorly designed or not matching any particular customer's requirements well, which is none too uncommon.

(Also, returning to the "special snowflake" question - DarlingBri, do you use one of those ecommerce systems to sell your own services online? Or do you just happen to be one of those special snowflakes? Because I myself couldn't use an off-the-shelf system for the online sales interactions I have with my clients.)

So to webhund I would say that the sort of services DarlingBri is describing may be the best investment for your money if you can find someone who is professional and competent and experienced the way it sounds like DarlingBri is, especially if your budget is on the smaller side. Just be aware that IMO you'd be getting a pretty cookie cutter product in that case (except for the cosmetic design, probably) - think of those residential housing subdivisions where every house is identical, to perpetuate my building construction analogy. You should be very attentive to making sure you have in your head:
  • exactly what it's going to be like for someone to shop at your web site (run a wide variety of scenarios) and check out or request a formal quote or whatever
  • what it's like for you to add new product content and do your inventory and accounting post-sale
  • if you have a pre-sales qualification process that will involve visitors filling out forms on your web site and / or downloading whitepapers, get down the details of what that will be like and how you will retrieve the data and connect it to the rest of the sales process; in this case you may need what's called a CRM (customer relationship management) system
  • what sort of emails you, your staff, and your customers will receive
  • if you have sales reps what their interaction with the web site will be like
  • how you'll set up a special sale or introduce a new product or service line and what it will look like to the web visitor
  • what the customer service process from your vendor(s) will be like if something stops working or worse the entire site is down
etc. - because in that situation I don't think any of it will be quite like what you're imagining right now.

Also, I know that many of the people here are urging you to find ways or contractors so that you don't have to think about anything but one thing you definitely should not do that with is the requirements of the federal CAN-SPAM Act (if the site's going to be sending out emails) and any other regulatory requirements that cover your industry - there are some things you can't just throw up your hands and trust your contractors on.
posted by XMLicious at 7:39 PM on March 21, 2009

Oops, that bit about CAN-SPAM Act should read "(if the site's going to be sending out emails to customers and/or prospective customers)" - if it only sends emails to your employees it's not a problem (though how you manage private information you receive is a whole other ball of wax and probably also regulated in your jurisdiction.) Also, CAN-SPAM is a U.S. law technically only applying to people with U.S. customers.
posted by XMLicious at 7:53 PM on March 21, 2009

A store is a store is a store. All the changes you want to make are cosmetic.

And the more uniquely-organised your store, and the more unlike other stores it works, the less likely visitors are to be able to figure out how the fuck to give you money. Make it look nice by all means. But, imho, XMLicious is just flat-out wrong in giving the impression that it's even wise to deviate from expected UI patterns.

It's not art, it's your livelihood.
posted by genghis at 9:40 PM on March 24, 2009

XMLicious is just flat-out wrong in giving the impression that it's even wise to deviate from expected UI patterns.

Not sure where genghis got that one; I don't think I said anything about user interfaces at all. But btw the book Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug I recommended above is a reknowned book about web usability and a good resource for getting a perspective on how visitors will react to any user interface that a designer or engineer might propose to you. (Or for evaluating the UIs of off-the-shelf software, which often are quite poor, when you've got multiple products to choose from. But as far as customization the UI is usually the last thing that needs to be worked on in an integration of multiple software systems.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:13 PM on March 24, 2009

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