In Part 2 of ‘Lessons from building a programme website (Read Part 1 first!), web developer Dru Riches-Magnier offers advice on what to consider when developing your organisation’s website.
(Almost) everything you need to know about working with a web developer… by Dru
I have been working with the Malaria Consortium for over 10 years on developing their website. When they became a partner in another consortium, COMDIS-HSD, I was hired to develop the COMDIS-HSD website. I worked on that for 8 years in total, from setting up the initial site right through to the final days. Both sites are very different, but the lessons for working with a web developer are universal. So here are some tips based on questions I get asked regularly.
Before you begin:
- Be clear about web development timeline and launch deadlines from the outset. When turnaround time is tight, it can be a good idea to develop the core, essential areas of the website for the launch, and then add further functionality afterwards when you have time and money.
- Decide what tone you want for your website. What adjectives best describe the feeling you want to convey for the different parts of your site? Whether or not you feel confident about how to describe ‘tone’, it’s always helpful to give your designer/developer links to websites that you instinctively feel achieve the kind of tone or feeling that you’re after. And it’s equally helpful to provide links to websites that you feel are definitely not what you want, with as much information as possible about what you think doesn’t work. This range of ‘good’ and ‘poor’ helps your designer/developer to gauge what they can include and what they should avoid altogether.
- Give your developer a breakdown of your key target audience. If you can’t narrow it down then prioritise, and consider how to cater to important audiences with different sections of your site. Audience description can include geographic location, age range, professional categories, industry niches, etc.
- Highlight and discuss any functionality you might want that would go beyond the standard boundaries of an ‘off the shelf’ basic website and need to be tailored to your site, e.g. file repositories, forum/chat areas, membership areas, interactive tools, staff intranet, etc. Be as specific as you can from the outset about what functions you need and who will need to access these areas. A common mistake is to assume that some function you’ve seen on another site, or another platform such as Facebook, can easily be included in your own project. It may actually be tailored and require more planning, time, and budget than you expect.
- Be sure to clarify where the responsibility lies for different aspects of the design, for example the structure of the website (how all the sections work together), versus the graphic design (e.g. colour, typography, illustrations, logos). Some developers/agencies handle both design and development, others may not, but if you are using both a graphic designer and a web designer/developer they need to work together too.
- Be clear about how often you will communicate with your developer/agency and your expectations for turnaround time for any instructions you send them.
- As Nilam points out, web developers aren’t copywriters, so be clear about how you will add content and how frequently you will expect to communicate.
- Build into your schedule and budget enough time and resources (money and key people’s time) to test the website during the development phases. These needn’t take long, but the more users surfing/checking the website functions and links in the early stages, the better. Nilam, as project manager, used to get everyone in her immediate team to spend time checking new functions and links and then send me the collated feedback, and clear instructions on what to change, which was really helpful.
What’s the difference between a web developer, a web hosting service, and a web designer?
A web hosting service provides the technology – the space on the internet – to host your website. Websites are hosted on servers, so a web hosting service will sell you space on their servers so that your website can ‘sit’ somewhere on the internet and be visible to others. For COMDIS-HSD, the website host was the University of Leeds and its servers.
A web designer is just that – someone who designs the look and layout of the website, and who may or may not have any coding experience/knowledge. Sometimes a graphic designer will do this for you. In some respects, clients inadvertently become web designers, as they often come to me with a basic design or vision that they want to create. For COMDIS-HSD, it was Nilam who led on what the site should look like and the broader design parameters.
Web designers focus mainly on the aesthetics of the website, though some web designers are also web developers and they can make any design function in the way you want using coding. With the growth of blogging, it’s possible for anyone to be a designer and a developer – if you’ve ever set up your own blog and played with the design and functionality, you’ll know what I mean.
Questions you should ask potential suppliers
There can be some overlap between the services offered by a web hosting service, a web designer, and a web developer. They are eager for your business and you might not know what they can provide until something goes wrong and you need them to do something at short notice. For this reason, it’s important that you ask lots of questions before hiring someone to host, design, or develop your website. Below are some questions that will hopefully help you make your decision much easier.
The importance of full access
Full access to the Content Management System (CMS) allows you to make design and content changes to any part of your website in-house without relying on any external suppliers. Full Secure File Transfer Protocol/Secure Shell (SFTP/SSH) access allows you to make environmental and file changes or transfer your website to any other hosting service without restrictions.
The importance of knowing the development framework
A web development framework is a platform on which to build a website. Examples of web development frameworks include WordPress, Angular, React, Laravel, etc. You’ll need to know which web development framework a particular web developer uses, so that you can share this information with any new web developer you hire in the future. A web developer will need to know which development framework is currently being used so that they can incorporate the correct third-party plugins or feeds into your website.
The importance of keywords and phrases
It is important that you know how to include within your content (articles, blogs, news) any search terms you think your audience will naturally use. You should bear in mind that writing for websites is different to writing for print in this respect. The old ‘keywords tag’ that sometime sits below a blog post is becoming redundant these days. What appears to be more effective is integrating keywords and key phrases naturally into your narrative, for example: ‘In fragile states such as Myanmar…’, the key words in this example being ‘fragile states’ and ‘Myanmar’. The same principle applies to headlines; using keywords and phrases in headings and subheadings will help your website be placed higher up the list in online searches.
Top Tips from Part 1 of this blog:
1: Carve out dedicated time each week/ month to progress website development.
2: Treat your website like the essential communications tool that it is.
3: Make sure you include your website name in the subject line when you email your supplier.
4: For larger or long-term projects, meet your web developer beforehand.
5: Good communication and understanding between you and your web developer is key.
Don’t miss the latest from R2A!
Contribute to R2A: We welcome blogposts, news about jobs, events or funding, and recommendations for great resources about development communications and research uptake.