5 Ways Web Designers Are Often Bad For Marketing

A good web designer is creative, highly skilled, and can capture and realize business clients' requirements for a new/updated website that are both aesthetic and functional. A great website production will be a great marketing asset for that client. Good designers are more than worth their high prices.

However, the work of web designers (often agencies) is often at odds with what a business needs from the point of view of digital marketing.

This is not all the fault of the designers, since many of the issues arise due to the ways in which clients approach their website development.

But it would certainly be nicer for everyone if more people in the world of design took note of some of these issues:...

1. Waterfall not Agile

For reasons of easily quoting fixed timescales and controllable costs, web design (or redesign) work is normally done for businesses in time-limited projects. That is understandable, but it has two implications.

Firstly, businesses get conditioned to think of website building as a one-off piece of work that "goes live" successfully, and is therefore "finished". This is far from the truth, since digital marketing is an ongoing and never-ending business function. The completion of a web design project should be understood as the beginning of the work and investment, not the end.

Web designers themselves are also conditioned in this view, since (rationally enough) they need to draw a project to a conclusion and move on to other paying clients. Web design agencies rarely offer a web design and build plan as one with several phases spread out over a year or more... yet that multi-release approach would be more likely to correspond with the needs of a modern business.

A time-fixed website design & build project means that there will be an attempt to cram in ideas for what the website should be and do, which only reflect the current thinking of a small part of the business at that point in time. Surely everyone can see the problem with that... the world of business is more about flux and adaptability nowadays! It's inevitable that unpredicted new requirements and priorities will arise practically on a weekly basis.

In fact, if marketing ideas (which will always involve the website at some point) are not constantly coming up from all parts of your organization, you are doing something wrong.

In waterfall mode, the business will self-limit based on cost implications, while the agency will provide bias towards certain patterns and interests of their designers. Worse, since both the business and the agency know that this one web design project is going to have to produce results which are valid for at least a year until the next budget is available, the tendency will be to produce generic and static website ideas and avoid design and content decisions that imply ongoing work to update.

This brings us to the second implication of doing web design work in finite projects. The default methodology in the world of web design is very "waterfall", i.e. a whole load of specs get decided and costed out, then that spec is frozen; the agency goes away by themselves to work on that fixed spec; it gets presented; there is a limited amount of revision discussion - very limited revisions, hopes the agency; and then it's pushed live, high fives all round, add a calendar reminder for the sales team to call that client to fish for more work in 12 months' time.

Meanwhile, the more Agile way of doing things would be to avoid being limited by rigidly fixed set of specifications, and instead involve the stakeholders in a more collaborative and short-duration-iterative design and release process.

In short, don't try to pack everything in to a monolithic one-off web design project that supposedly will be good for a year or more. Plan at least two or three smaller collaborative releases instead.

It is likely that such an approach will make the initial scope of a web design project smaller... So much the better, because:

  • it will force a prioritization of the most important content and functionality;
  • the preference for "early and continuous delivery" ensures that everyone is focusing on outputting actual results despite a shorter timeframe and smaller budget than a traditional waterfall web design project;
  • the process of creating one release will throw up many new ideas in context, which will be easy to pick up in future, compared to ideas which are thrown out of a waterfall plan never to be seen again;
  • by the time the team comes round to the second and third releases, inevitably requirements will have changed... but that's fine because you "welcome changing requirements".

It should also be obvious that making an agency contact collaborate with counterparts in a marketing or editorial role within a business, will result in much more commitment and empowerment for the people involved.

To quote from the Agile Manifesto, an ideal is to "maintain a constant pace indefinitely". For sure a company's marketing should be like that... and so the website should support it. As for professional web design agency work, if this is not going to be a continuous resource, at least a "more agile" approach can be taken involving smaller and more frequent projects.

The longer the likely gaps between professional web design work on a website, the more the designers should set up the site to be easy for the client to develop elegantly: see the next point.

2. Degrading over time

A common pattern is for a company website is that it gets released in a nice polished and coherent form by the agency, and over time seems to degrade in terms of aesthetics and consistency as the staff of the business continually add kludgy, non-professionally-designed content and functionality.

Clearly this is an extension of the "waterfall not agile" problem: the agency designs a "finished product" -- in their eyes a kind of perfect Gesamtkunstwerk ... which can only be messed up the more the client's staff and freelancers try to edit or add to it.

The fault is most definitely with the design approach here, since a website that is resistant to editing, and in fact gradually loses its coherence the more it is edited... is the exact opposite of what a modern business needs.

From the point of view of digital marketers, design agencies should be providing adaptable templates and CMS elements that non-web-designer non-coder content editors can continually build with, while the site's overall brand and UX is maintained successfully. Web design should deliver flowerbeds, plants, and tools... not flower arrangements. (It would be good if we could move the flowerbeds at will, too.)

The more aesthetic or fashion oriented a web design agency is, the more likely it is that their unique finished products will be a nightmare for the business to pick up and run with. It's a clear conflict of interest, since the agency wants the design kudos (and the commissioning manager may be motivated by design flashiness too) and causing the client to have to come back and pay hourly rates for modifications sounds better than the client messing things up by themselves.

This balance between customization / aesthetics on the one end of the scale, and an adaptable self-manageable CMS on the other, is something that should be discussed openly by the agency in the early planning stages with a client. The client should be able to understand the difficulty and cost involved in ongoing editing of the site... and veto design decisions that prevent them from easy DIY editing.

Except in defined cases there should be no reason for a web design agency to create a system that is so complex or fragile that the client cannot do the majority of content development by themselves. Clients should be able to do the majority of their ongoing marketing work in the website without resorting to billable agency time.

From the point of view of businesses working with web design agencies, it's a good idea to look at mockups or staging previews and plan which content and design elements are likely to need constant updating... and ask exactly how this is going to be done.

3. Priority principles of aesthetics and guesswork

The following are commonly the rationale for design decisions in a website:

  • looks cool
  • is modern
  • fresh
  • eye-catching
  • professional
  • polished
  • makes a good impression

Wonderful... but all of these are completely subjective and mostly visual criteria, not based firmly on marketing strategy, i.e. understanding the customer and how the business offers value to them. For sure, it is very hard to connect these two needs, but the business and marketing needs should come first.

Apart from the fashion-bound aesthetics of the web designers, the content of a new website is also likely based on guesswork, not on marketing. Content is defined and created by a small number of client side decision-makers without serious research... at best, since it is also common for the client to expect the agency to say what pages a website should have, or fail to say anything and let the agency make their own guesswork -- which is a particular problem with designers deciding about website navigation.

This problem is aggravated if the website is not going to be continuously developed, i.e. you get stuck with an ossified set of generic pages and assumptions about structure and navigation in the site.... for a very long time... and postponed improving... until the only way to tackle it is a huge redesign project that looks great but repeats the same mistakes of prioritizing aesthetics and guesswork. This situation is why there are still so many super-outdated non-mobile-friendly websites around.

This is not a problem unique to web designers, since most businesses presumably make most decisions based on politics, bias, seat-of-pants, and backs-of-envelope. But agencies could help by asking "why" more often. Push back to clients in planning / specification discussions. It's reasonable to say that every design and structure specification for a website should be based on marketing criteria, which everyone should be able to express and agree the meaning of... and prioritize on that basis.

4. Not enough attention paid to performance

The classic problem of aesthetics-focused web designers is a site full of gigantic images. Cutting page load time from bloated 5+ seconds down to speedy <2 seconds will make a significant difference to usability, engagement, conversion, and most likely SEO as well. This is most certainly within the domain of responsibility for the people building a website.

Presumably web design agencies don't win any awards based on performance, but it's of high importance to the business and their marketers, not to mention the users/customers themselves. Web design agencies should let their creative folk do their thing, but that doesn't mean handing over and going live with websites which are bloated and technically un-optimized.

Apart from optimizing image sizes, there is a host of other more troublesome-to-solve pagespeed good practices which are well documented: the client shouldn't have to understand or ask for these one by one... the development/sysadmin work should be costed, prioritized and presented clearly in a website build plan... not skipped.

Publishing websites in http instead of https is another example of this technical factor ignorance on the part of web designers. In 2016 there is simply no excuse for professional agencies to lack the knowledge of best practices and ensure they're implemented, regardless of whether the client asks specifically for it.

The apathy of designers towards performance also includes technical SEO factors. Many issues like page content order, headings and metadata, link structure, and avoiding duplication are baked into a website's templates and thus difficult to fix. All too commonly, SEO is a an afterthought as far as web design agencies are concerned: someone does a token sweep after everything is already built (if not already live)... whereas the best practices are supposed to inform the code and template structure decisions right at the beginning.

5. Unclear or unrealistic scope

In a very simplified view, the long-term work of running a website on which some or all of a company's marketing depends, is likely to include the following areas of work:

a) Web design / styles / responsiveness / templates

b) Graphic design / imagery / video

c) Software development and integration

d) On-site SEO and perma-content development

e) Promotional content development and advertising landing pages

f) Site editorial control and coordination, user administration and support

g) Analytics and reporting

h) Sysadmin stuff: server / hosting, performance, uptime / resilience, DNS, CDN, https, backups, data security etc

These areas are all basically different skillsets and cost centres... and it is extremely unusual for a web design agency to be able to cover all of them competently.

The problem is that the client will often end up paying a monthly retainer to the web design agency after a website build is done, and in the absence of education / clarification from the web design agency, the client is likely to assume that many or all of the above areas are covered... because it's all "website stuff".

Since the design agency has a vested interest in minimizing the amount of development, support, and other tasks that are not in their main billable-hours business model and team skillset, what commonly happens is that much of the required work and coordination to run a website and support ongoing active marketing with it... simply doesn't get done. The web design agency can reasonably say "the client didn't request anything, and we did complete the things they requested", but part of the blame is on the agency for allowing the client to assume they are effectively the webmasters / gatekeepers, and not clearly placing the management and coordination responsibility where it belongs - with the client management or their marketing manager.

To make this situation more fair and realistic for the client, a web design agency should be more proactive in defining what they are going to work on, and what they are not. Since retainers are often defined/limited in terms of billable hours, this should be possible to categorize and list out.

Clients receiving new or updated websites from design agencies should be supported in understanding their own responsibilities in making use of the website and building it, going forward. If their own in-house resources don't currently cover this, a clear "we do this this and this, but not that and that" from the web design agency would go a long way to making them aware of what further skills they need to bring in, to actually market using their website.


Conclusion

The above complaints apply very widely but are possible to solve if (a) businesses commissioning web designers think a bit more clearly about what their website is for... i.e. put it in the context of a properly resourced marketing strategy and avoid magic thinking; and (b) agencies could stop being so passive and blinkered, and integrate more in a digital marketing oriented collaboration.

Corresponding to our 5 problem headings, here are 5 ways web design agencies can support digital marketing better:

  1. Develop more agile ways of working on website design projects that emphasize collaboration and multiple shorter release cycles during the year;
  2. Design websites to be self-managed by clients, and resilient to their inevitable technical and aesthetic incompetences;
  3. Ask about the marketing reasons for design, content, and structure ideas that are being realized in a website;
  4. Take responsibility for website technical performance, and bring these skills into your team if the best practices are not already clear;
  5. Proactively define what the scope of agency retained support services are, which should correspond only to the agency's actual skillset, and encourage the filling of missing skill areas via marketing team hires or 3rd parties, so that the client is empowered to expand their marketing activities flexibly.