Over the last few years we have quietly, but at every opportunity, been asking this question to business owners, marketing directors and executives responsible for their company website whether for commissioning, developing or maintaining their online presence. We also asked if they were happy with the website that the developer had provided, or if they thought it was bringing tangible benefit to their business. The responses were sharply divided. It seems that the businesses’ experience of Web developers is like Marmite: you either love them or hate them.

Shockingly, over 80% of respondents reported a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ experience of working with a website developer or designer. Many made comments that were very uncomplimentary toward their web developers. Some stated that they felt they had been, “Taken for a ride,” by those who had either baffled them with technology and jargon, or had – deliberately or otherwise – raised their expectations beyond what was feasible with the investment they were making. One had invested tens of thousands with a web development company to build an online presence for their business and now has a website that not only makes no contribution to any business objective, neither has it produced a single enquiry. The overall impression that we gained from our research to date and a term used by more than one unhappy respondent was that web developers are: “A load of cowboys.”

These poor experiences have a knock-on effect, not just for those who have been unhappy with their outcomes but for the web development and internet marketing industries as a whole. It results in an increased conviction that all web developers were likely to be the same, and that there was no-one out there who could be trusted. In addition, the inclination to invest any further resources and capital on online promotion of their business was greatly reduced. “We’ve done that and it didn’t work,” was a common response.

What do the web developers have to say?

To balance the picture we also surveyed web developers and web design companies to see if we could identify what had created this tale of woe from businesses.

Many were unaware of the situation and some were quite frank in their derision of business owners. Common responses included

“They don’t know what they are doing,”
“We’re not telepathic you know!”
“They don’t understand what is involved.”
“We never get the right information.”
“They keep changing their minds, often before the previous changes are completed.”

Each side seemed to blame the other for what might be interpreted as a straightforward breakdown in communication.

So why does this happen? There are no doubt numerous reasons, but focusing on the communication issue, we asked the web developers if they ever asked for, or received, a web design brief from their clients. The majority response was: “Rarely!” The design briefs received mostly consisted of a single page of vague information that lacked the detail and specifics required. Although they usually included requests for things that far exceeded the budget or amount the business owner was willing to spend and were full of wish lists and ‘good’ ideas that require bespoke development or even new technology (for the words ‘bespoke’ and ‘new’, read – interchangeably – ‘difficult’ and ‘expensive’)!

So whose job is it?

Isn’t it part of the web developers’ job to write the brief? Actually, no it isn’t, it is the responsibility of the business owner to communicate their requirements, their goals, their current situation and future plans. After all, as more than one developer pointed out, “We’re are not telepathic you know!”

In addition, the pressure of trying to keep a small web development business running (let alone in profit) in this ever increasingly competitive industry means that there is no time or other resources to be teaching the business owner how to write a web design brief, even though it would create a better outcome for everyone. For the majority of situations, there is often no clear or effective communication, more a case of asking questions of the business owner – which they often don’t understand clearly, which is no-ones fault – to get some sort of outline and then on with the job of designing and building the website.

Our experience – Web developer

Our experience indicates that the majority of web developers really want to do the best job they can for their clients.

They have the skills and knowledge to build websites that could work for their clients’ businesses. They have the equipment and resources to carry out the work. We also observe however that there are web developers who mistake the functionality of the software that they use for their own creative skills. Ultimately over a period of more than a decade we have encountered very few who would deliberately, “Take their client for a ride,” as some businesses have claimed.

Our experience – Businesses

Websites for businesses create a particular quandary for the business owner, manager or similar. There seems to be a huge barrier of technology and jargon to break through to be able to even speak the same language as the web development world. In addition, it is very difficult for anyone without extended experience to make any kind of value judgement about what is good or bad. Consider a different situation: whether you eat in a restaurant often or not, because you do eat every day, if you go into a restaurant, it is possible to make some kind of judgement as to whether you had a good experience, whether the food was good, whether the service was acceptable or excellent. Of course this is subjective to your own preferences and experiences, but at least you understand what a restaurant is, what it is supposed to do or be for and so on.

In our survey we ask a further question of businesses: “What is your website for, why did you get a website?” Very few offered any kind of clear response, the most common being: “Because we needed a website,” or “Because our competitors had one.” We also hear: “To generate sales/leads/enquiries etc.” quite often, which is at least focused on business, but is nowhere near specific enough to be called an objective.

If it is not common for businesses to even understand what the website is for, or why they are getting one developed, how can it be possible for them to make a judgment on what is good or bad, other than it produces no results. Even this judgement requires something to measure the results – or lack thereof – against.

Management by abdication

In so many cases the business abdicates responsibility for the website to a web developer in the mistaken belief that ‘they know best’. While the web developer knows about websites, they are likely to know little or nothing about the client’s business and even less about the customers who will use the website. Together with the lack of communication between the web developer and the business owner it is not difficult to see why so many websites are poorly designed, deliver bad user experiences and ultimately poor or no results for the business.

Is there a solution

The first step to a solution is to address the communication problem. It is clear that there must be effective communication and the first stage of this would normally take the form of a clear and concise website design brief.

The website design brief

The last time we reported on web design briefs we had surveyed 57 web development companies, further surveying has now brought this number to nearly 100. While everyone does it slightly differently, they all had information requirements in common.

Remember that:

The document needs to be clear and concise,
The document is prepared for someone outside your business who doesn’t necessarily know anything about your business or industry. Even if they claim to have worked in your industry before, unless they are specialists, then you should assume nothing.

Its purpose is to state clearly your requirements, including:

A profile of your business, its existing image, brand and products or other offerings including future plans
The objectives of the site – stated clearly in terms that can be measured, not woolly ‘to generate enquiries’ or similar, think detail and be specific.
The target market – who will be the users of the site, what will be their requirements?
Functionality requirements – often expressed as an outline, and as a business owner you may not be able to describe this well, but for example, do you require online payments and if so are you already accepting credit cards in your business. – remember, adding functionality usually increases cost far more than increasing the number of pages in the site.
The scale and scope of the development project – how big, how many pages, who will provide what and so on.
What are the project constraints, budget, timescale etc.

This document is not a wish list (although you could include things that you would like to do as well as but not instead of the above), it is the document that the developer works to and effectively forms part of your contract with them and is therefore subject to discussion and revision before being finalised.

In conclusion

The commissioning of a website is a much bigger project than appears at the beginning. Websites are not ‘job-and-finish’ projects. You need to form a good relationship with your web developer because you will be working with them for a long time, and the first step to a successful relationship is sorting out the communication. It is your business, if you have articulated clearly what you want, why your business needs it, and provided all the information the developer requires including realistic expectations, budgets and timescales then if it isn’t delivered to the brief then you can blame the web developer. Otherwise accept that it is your problem, not their fault that they are not telepathic.

Furthermore, you need to take responsibility for the project, but also recognise that the development of a website is a team game, not something to be simply handed over and then moaned about when it was not quite what you were thinking of.

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