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Productivity / Professional development

4 big lessons I learnt as a website developer

Most small business owners undertake the role of website designer at some stage, purely by necessity. Coming from this former professional designer, there are simple tricks to being a successful designer, and none of them involve design skills!

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Cash flow is such a sticking point for all small and start-up businesses; as much as we would like to think we are swimming in a pool of money after the first day of trade, we actually know it takes a long time before that happens. 

In that time, in order to save a little coin, we small business owners take on the role of accountant, marketing manager and, quite often, website designer. 

Though it isn’t ideal, and we long hold out for the moment we transfer the responsibilities of certain tasks to a professional, we know that being our own website designer is just another role we need to undertake. 

However, learning how to be your own website designer isn’t easy. As a recently retired designer, I have met many struggling business owners who have undertaken the website designer role as a necessity. I intimately know how many hours are spent struggling in front of the computer screen, sweating over the process, researching, giving up and taking it up again. And through it all, it doesn’t seem to get much easier.  

From my own experience as a designer, here are the four most important things I learned from being a full-time website designer, and how you can impart my to better your website, your design skills, and your ability to push through when designing gets too much! 

1. Learn to be as ruthless as possible

A good website designer doesn’t get attached to their work; designers possess a thick skin when it comes to their designs, and, most importantly, they learn when to edit, and when not to edit. 

However, most small business owners find it hard to be ruthless when it comes to website design. Most of my clients were so proud of simply putting elements onto the page that they became instantly attached to the design, which meant they became unable to act as cutthroat editors and actually cull what wasn’t working. 

Sounds familiar? 

So, how do you be ruthless? Well, it’s easier said than done. But here are my tips for designing ruthlessly (and, as a result, more successfully):

  • Forget you were the designer and become the boss again – when editing the design, ask yourself if this was a staff member or contractor, would you approve of the work? If the answer is no, changes need to be made!
  • Give yourself a break – being ruthless also means knowing when to stop and walk away. The creative inspiration doesn’t come at the times you expect, so if you aren’t feeling it, take a break.
  • Don’t get attached to the design, ever! – You may love it, you may only see the hours of blood sweat and tears when you look at it, but you must disconnect yourself.  
  • Don’t make decisions about your design when you are feeling sentimental, or nostalgic. Those feelings only leave you feeling sympathetic for your work, when you need the heartless boss in you to come out.
  • Don’t edit on an empty stomach. If you have ever done this, you will know what I am talking about!
  • Leave yourself a day between finishing the design and editing. Enjoy the self-sense of satisfaction and then move on.
  • Give yourself a break when you feel yourself becoming too invested, also. Learn to add separation in your work. 
  • Take out content that doesn’t look right to you, even if it took you hours to create – the delete button should be your friend, even if it breaks your heart to use it. 

2. Think like your customer

Being a ruthless designer for your business is a lot easier when you are in your customer’s shoes, and not in your own shoes. I know that sounds cold, but the role of a website designer is to create a website that meets the needs of the business, what the customer will love, and to avoid creating a design that is personally pleasing.

  • When I designed for a client, I used to ask my clients questions like:
  • Who is your customer?
  • What message are you trying to convey to your customer?
  • What does your customer want from the site?
  • Who is your competition? (we will address this why later)

Why did I ask these questions?

Because what I learned as a website designer is that a website is designed for the customer using it, not the owner. And with these questions, I am trying to get the answer to a simple question: what does the customer really want? After all, the website is for your customer to love, so in turn, they will love your business and want to buy from you. 

Self-designers can become too preoccupied with what they want from their site, forgetting that it isn’t for them. When it comes to thinking like your customer, actually think like them. Here are my practical tips to thinking like your customer, from my experience as a website designer:

  • Ask your actual customers what they want and like
  • Ask your actual customers what they think of your website before you make changes or go live
  • Put yourself in the shopping mind frame; what are they thinking? What are they experiencing when they shop with you? Or go to buy a product like yours? What triggers them to buy? How can I replicate that positive buying experience? 
  • Listen to feedback, in all forms. Analyse all of the feedback you have from your customers and look to resolve their issues

3. Learn to ask for feedback

You may not think a designer needs feedback, but we do! What I learned is that you need to be able to ask for feedback on your design, especially from the people who count. 

If you aren’t sure you are making the right edit, or addition, to your website, I learned that it’s dangerous to ponder the thought alone. Asking for feedback is the way your business will grow. When you create your next design, before you hit publish and go live, show your new idea to your family, friends and loyal customers. 

Ask them to honestly critique your changes. Up until the day I finished designing full time I asked people for feedback, and I wouldn’t have been anywhere without it. 

The best method of gauging honesty from these people is to present them with the site and ask them to navigate it for five minutes, uninterrupted by you, and without any prior knowledge of the changes or intentions at hand. After five minutes, ask for their thoughts, issues, and concerns. Act on those concerns, especially the comments that are similar across the board.

Here are my tips for asking for feedback from customers, friends and loved ones, so that you get honest feedback, and how to handle that feedback:

  • Bribe your customers for their feedback – thank them with discounts, free products/services or a thoughtful gift
  • Actually implement their feedback, so customers will be more likely to give more feedback in the future
  • Direct your customer to give you feedback that is poignant to you; ask them specifically about the site design, functioning, and engagement process. If you aren’t specific, they will start telling you about the information that has nothing to do with the website
  • Don’t ignore anything they say to you; everything is relevant to your success and a valid point may be hiding amongst what you already know, or don’t want to hear
  • Be completely open to the feedback. You are asking it for a reason, so there is zero point if you then ignore it 

4. Look at your competition seriously

There are people in business who would advise against looking at your competition and what they are doing; I believe those people are naive. It’s silly not to look over your shoulder and see what they are doing, especially if they have been doing it for longer than you and if they have been doing it better than you. 

What I learned is that this principle is applied to website design; you must fit into line with what your competition is doing, you need to be competitive with your design, and your functionality must surpass the competition. 

How do you expect your customer to pick you, based on your website, if it doesn’t push the market? If it doesn’t better the market? Or if it doesn’t even meet the market expectations? Remember that good isn’t good enough. Be the best and beat the others, or die trying.

Now, this may all sound like a pep talk, cliché, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to know what you are facing. I have engaged with too many clients who don’t even know they are competing with, or they think their competition is the big businesses out there (like Kmart or Sephora) when they are really competing against the little store next door (the hair salon or the local two dollar shop). 

As a website designer, I learned how to research the competition, to understand the limitations within the industry, and to be able to identify what gaps can be addressed on the website I am building. 

Here are the ways I assessed my customer’s competition:

  • Compile a list of the direct competitors; who are they, where are they, when they operate
  • Compile a list of what they have done well on their website and assess why
  • Compile a list of what they haven’t done well on their website and assess the solution to it (to make sure you can offer it on your website)
  • Find the gaps in your competitor’s website – what can you offer that meets their gaps?
  • Ignore the competition after that; don’t become obsessed or hooked on what they are doing.

Ellen McRae

feels most herself in front of a piece of prose, deep in the chapters of a book, or when submerged in pop culture and fashion publications. However, her entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and as a business owner, she loves exploring the balance of passion and logic. Connect with her on Instagram.

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