1. What do you want to achieve?
The best starting point is to define what it is you really want to do. There are a number of questions that any business owner needs to answer. It's absolutely critical that you understand the goals and ambitions for your site.
What are you trying to achieve with your site, is it for selling or a marketing driven portal?
What is the proposition and image you are offering, or wish to offer to your customers?
Many people are too quick to turn to a designer or implementer without properly thinking this through. By defining your goals and objectives clearly, when you do turn to a designer they will have a clear remit. However learn to be flexible, shackling your designer with a definitive set of ‘must have’ requests up-front is a bad idea. If you are hiring a good designer, they will take your requirements and work creatively with them.
Don’t try to do their job, or you will diminish their value.
2. How do you find the right designer?
The choice of web designer is probably the biggest decision a fledgling online retailer will face.
Without sounding too patronising, web design is a fairly ad-hoc business. There is no common acceptance of any pre-requisite qualifications and anyone can set themselves up as a designer. As an example, I was a little shocked to discover a friend had a side business in web design. It’s important you understand who you are hiring!
Reference sites are great, but remember these are the sites your designer wants you to see, so do your own research. Ideally talk to previous clients to get a fuller picture. It’s even a good idea to try buying something from previous E-Commerce stores the designer has worked on to get first hand experience of being their customer’s customer.
3. Which E-Commerce solution?
Most designers will create your site from an off-the-shelf package. This could be a dedicated E-Commerce package, an open source solution, or a free CMS (Content Management System) with an E-Commerce plug-in.
Choosing a boxed solution brings many advantages: it should keep costs down and ultimately save time, and therefore money. Another plus is that you should be able to maintain the site yourself. Also if the designer moves on, your site is still sustainable.
Ask the designer what he will be using and expect to hear a specific product and vendor name that you can check out.
Do be wary of designers recommending bespoke or open source solutions. If your web business is a success this software will become mission critical and you do not want to be reliant on your designer to make changes. Or worse, if they disappear you are landed with a site that no one else wants to take over. Unless you have a substantial long-term budget or a real desire to reinvent the wheel, these approaches are best avoided.
Obtain a clear picture about what happens after your site is handed over. All too often I talk to frustrated store owners complaining about their lack of ability to add products or content. If you are planning on managing the site yourself, discuss training and devise a long term plan that makes you independent of the designer.
4. How good is the design?
The first impression you make when arriving at your site has little to do with how good you are. It's all about how good you look. Research shows a store gets three seconds before a decision on its viability is made. In those precious moments your site needs to do three things: make a great impression, establish your brand and build trust. It's a tall order, and the only way to do this is through the aesthetics of your pages.
However, a good E-Commerce implementer will remember that the number one goal of your site is to sell. Ask questions about optimising the design for product marketing and sales. Designs should be simple, e.g. look for answers about clear navigation and obvious "add to cart" paths.
5. How will visitors find your site?
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is key nowadays so ensure that your site is designed to maximise its visibility with search engines. Optimisation is a separate job so ask your designer if he offers SEO consultancy and Pay Per Click (PPC) advice and include it in the deal.
Beware of anyone that claims to "submit sites to all major search engines". This means nothing in practice and you need the designer who takes a hands-on approach to SEO during creation and deployment. A final word
Ecommerce is growing at a huge rate, but often getting started can seem like a difficult and precarious path. The golden rules are to do your research and understand your goals. Not knowing what you want from the beginning will cost a lot of money, either by retrofitting features that weren't planned, or by paying for features you don't need. Arm yourself with as much information as possible, research and enjoy the experience!
Benjamin Dyer, product development director at E-Commerce supplier, Sellerdeck. Originally published at is4profit..