It Hurts! Web Design Agencies' Most Prominent Pains.
By Ezequiel Bruni
Mar 9, 2016
We all know pain. As an agency, there are things you just can’t avoid. I mean, there’s the usual: death, taxes and requests to make the logo bigger. But then, there’s the stuff that must be done in order to ensure the success of any project, but still find annoying.
This might include some or all of the following:
- Time Management
- Content Creation
- Client & Project Management
- The Design Process
- Coding & Working with Developers
- Marketing & SEO
- Pricing Projects
Yeah, that just about covers every aspect of making websites, right? Well, we’re all different. One agency’s specialty will be another’s special pain in the neck. And even within our respective realms of expertise, we run into things that can drive us nuts. They could be problems that won’t go away, or tedious parts of the process, or something that you or your team simply just don’t feel like doing.
And then, maybe some of the things I listed above are things that you know you should be doing (like marketing), but have not, for one reason or another. Whatever the case, we’ve all been there. This article is an attempt to examine the things that affect a lot of us and look at how we can fix them.
There are tons of potential solutions. It’s just a matter of finding the right one for your agency.
Viewing Time Management As A Suggestion Rather Than Practice.
The thing about working in an environment surrounded by creative professionals, is that it is very easy to become distracted. I’d like to say the most of the time a distraction in the shape of high level design concepts and ideas but, more often than not, it is the latest find on Muzli, a cat GIF or scanning others Behance profiles. While breaks for inspiration and camaraderie are a good thing, it can easily turn into a time-consuming practice that derails projects.
We’re only human though, with lots to do and a need for breaks. It can be hard to get stuff done in a timely fashion, despite the best of intentions without this downtime.
Heck, I get by with a combination of reminders from Google Calendar, and these desktop sticky notes that sync with Evernote. The important thing is to be mindful, and take careful note of what works for you. Then, re-create those conditions and get your creative on.
Content Creation Conundrum: You Cannot Live With It, You Cannot Make Sites Without It.
The number of times I actually got the website content from a client on time or at all, is…not high enough. Either I would end up writing it (always charge extra for this!), or I’d get paid, but the site just wouldn’t go anywhere. After putting in a lot of work, that’s a sad thing.
When it comes down to it, though, most clients shopping around for a web design agency will not be writers, nor will they have the time or ability to come up with content that’s relevant, optimized for the web and on-brand. Furthermore, those that do request custom content creation might not actually realize that this is something that requires much effort and assume that it is free.
Even the greatest clients may forget about content, or put it off until the last second. It’s one of the most pervasive issues that agencies deal with today.
What to do about it:
Either provide copywriting as a part of the package you are offering, or know where to get it. Those are an agency’s only real choices if the client is not providing the content. There are no shortcuts. There are no tricks. There are no apps that will make good content for you.
Find or hire a copywriter that you can trust and make sure they research your clients and their competition.
Above all, make sure that clients understand, from the beginning, that the text and images have to come from somewhere - either from a shoot or stock sites - and it’s going to cost them. If you don’t, that’ll just be one more website that doesn’t end up in your portfolio.
If the writing is happening in-house, here are some tools can help your team to streamline the process:
- Site:search - This is a hack that runs a Google search that's limited to a single website. It can help with researching keywords.
- Google Docs Research Tool - Check out Google Drive’s built-in research panel while writing content.
- Grammarly - One of the most advanced in-browser spelling and grammar checkers out there.
- Hemingway - An app that helps to improve writing through analysis.
- Zerys - This is a platform planning out content and content campaigns, in detail.
If you are in need of hired help, check out some of these sites to find copywriters:
- CopyWriter Collective - Europe’s leading agent for freelance copywriters, they also do work in the States and have a good reputation timely, solid work.
- Upwork - Write clearly and precisely what you are looking for an within minutes, you’ll have freelancers knocking (pay attention to their Job Success score)
- PeoplePerHour - A special community of curated freelancers, you can manage, pay and communicate with the person you hire all from one place.
And, while professional photos are almost always the best option, they are not the cheapest or fastest. For a comprehensive rundown of sites with great, free stock imagery and the lowdown on permissions, check out The Great Debate About Stock Images: Should Professional Designers Use Them?
Unwieldy Project Management.
When you’re working at an agency, it’s vital to know who’s doing what and when. There is precious time lost looking over design/HTML/CSS from others trying to figure out where they left off and what to do next.
Whether you’re communicating with your team, your own future self, or your client, you need a way to stay organized. Gmail’s search functionality is fantastic, but you can easily lose time looking for information lost in a long email chain.
Constantly keeping an updated list of current clients and each project’s standing, can be a pain. But it’s worth it.
What to do about it:
This is one area where apps work particularly well. I mean, everyone could keep all of this information in a notebook, but why should they when there are so many great ways to keep on top of things. In a larger team especially, the advantages of an app justify the price, especially if your clients are not located in your area.
I’ve worked with quite a few software options for working on projects/with clients. They each have advantages and disadvantages, depending on your work style, but these are the best I’ve found:
- Wrike - Project management, decent free plan.
- Trello - Versatile project/information management software.
- Google Calendar - This is a guide that teaches how to turn Google Calendar into a project management app.
The Design Process As An Endless Cycle Of Revisions (And Emails).
What might be the single most annoying thing about client work is when clients don't quite understand what you are doing. There have been times when I’ve shown wireframes and/or mockups to a client, received approval and then was hit with an onslaught of requests for changes right before the project was “done.”
Sometimes, this stems from the client’s own insecurities but most often it comes from miscommunication. In either case, it can be incredibly frustrating and take up time that could be used to implement the design.
What to do about it:
You can’t just show your clients how a design looks, though that is important. They need to know how it works and especially, why it works. They often keep asking for irrelevant, or even dangerous, changes because they don’t know why certain things need to be done according to best practices.
To help you explain that, and save your design team extra hours, I strongly suggest the use of prototypes. You could make these quickly in a code-free web design app, or a proper prototyping app like Invision. Keep in mind that prototyping apps often have the advantage of feedback systems, giving your client the ability to leave comments and questions about specific parts of the design in-context.
The Time And Money Pit Created By Working With Developers.
But, even in such an ideal world, writing code, hiring developers or outsourcing this work is often time-consuming and tedious. Not to mention the cycles of revisions and updates needed to get the design to a point where it is reasonably close to the original concept. While precious time could be spent doing other design-related tasks, working with developers often takes up to 70% of the budget for a given project and sometimes that’s just too much.
In our less-than-ideal real world, the problems only get bigger. It doesn’t have to be this way, though.
What to do about it:
Code-free design software is the key in this case. While sites with app-like functionality will always require the skills of a developer, a very large number of sites simply don’t need their services. That’s where user-friendly, code-free, responsive, online design software comes into play.
Most code-free software on the market has developed to such a point where designers are able to craft, manage and host sites with W3C-validated code. Ideal for the small team to the large agency, these types of drag’n’drop design tools are forging a revolution in the industry by cutting out this pain from the traditional design workflow.
You know which one I'd recommend.
When Becoming A Rocket Scientist Is More Appealing Than Dealing With Marketing And SEO.
Whether it’s for your own business, or for a client, everyone has to market themselves. I’ve found myself slacking on this one, because it seems daunting. I mean, isn’t marketing basically just throwing your voice out into the void and hoping people will like you enough to give you money?
Plus there’s SEO. Search engine’s still drive huge traffic numbers and so-called “SEO gurus” have long maintained that it’s difficult, maybe a bit like magic and for ten payments of $19.99 your can learn how to reach a number one ranking. Well, don’t listen to them.
What to do about it:
What makes your agency unique in the design world? If you don’t have something unique to sell to your clients, you need to come up with something now and sell the heck out of it. Then, have strategic content with smart SEO-friendly keywords.
If you can do those two things, you’re halfway there. The rest is about connecting with people on an emotional level, whether through your agency’s website, social media channels, or actually going out and networking in person.
Here are some tools and resources to get started:
- Moz Open Site Explorer - Use this to see how your agency’s site is ranked by search engines, and discover new linkback opportunities.
- Google Trends - Use this to find keywords to target.
- Google Webmaster Tools - Make your agency’s site easier to find with these tools.
- SERPs Keyword Rank Checker - Analyze keywords on your agency’s site, and find out how the site ranks for them.
- SEO: The Free Beginner’s Guide - A beginner’s guide to SEO. Hey, it’s in the title!
- Buffer - An app that helps you market your agency on social media with posting schedules, research tools, analytics, and more. It has a great free plan.
Goldilocks And The Three Bears Is Your Frame Of Reference For Pricing Projects.
Pricing projects correctly is one of those things that everyone wants to get right, but most people get wrong. Too high and your agency might scare away work that you should have been able to get. Too low and your operation doesn’t seem professional (also, you get less money for office snacks and such).
The end result is that a lot of agencies end up stuck in a cycle where they’re taking on too much work for too little pay and they may not have time for work that pays better.
There are several reasons that agencies misprice their work. Usually, if it’s a new firm, the fear is that experience is a deciding factor in how they charge and they’re underpricing. When you don’t feel like your skills deserve that much money, why would you ask for it?
Other ways that pricing can go wrong include:
- Marketing to the wrong clients
- Not having an accountant or someone plugging the numbers
- Underestimating the amount of time certain tasks take to be completed and the number of times that each team member touches that task
What to do about it:
Start by determining, more or less, how much you want to make per year. Figure out how many medium-to-large projects your web design agency could reasonably complete in a year. Price projects accordingly. Base the price on the amount of time and effort each member of your team spend on their site as well as the cost any basic tools, software, utilities the agency will use as a part of the workflow and then let the clients decide if you’re good enough.
Still stumped? The NuSchool has an online pricing class for designers that will teach you how to increase prices while getting more clients to say 'yes.' Not actually getting paid? Check out their free eBook, Pay Me Or Else.
I would look at the various price calculating apps out there as mere “suggestion engines.” Most are based on the needs and intended market of the design studio that created them, after all. That may take some trial and error.
Pro tip: When calculating the initial estimate, be sure to include some extra time. You’ll need it in case of mistakes, delays, client indecision, acts of god, the zombie apocalypse, and the unlikely release of Half-Life 3.
If one part of the project goes a lot faster than expected and that time isn’t used, you don’t have to (read: shouldn’t) put it on a final invoice. Just remember that Murphy’s law reigns supreme and Murphy hates you.
Every problem has a solution and each solution can be a little different. We are all dealing with some sort of pain in our own agency workflow, as web design is such a young industry. The good news is, although the kinks of the process might not yet be worked out, it’s because web design is such a new field that there is a ton of room to grow and for solutions to arise that will aid you on a path towards a pain-free design experience.
While the advice in this article is a place to start, but it is by no means comprehensive.
Let us know below which of these parts of the website-building process you find the most difficult at your web agency. Tell us about any we missed. Tell us how you get around your problems.
Ezequiel Bruni is a UX designer, writer and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he's not up to his finely-chiseled ears in wire-frames or front-end code, he makes mouth-watering tacos. Give him a should out on Twitter @ezequielbruni.
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