E-commerce website development

How to work with an e-commerce web designer/web developer

It’s so easy, you can design your own e-commerce website

The main message that you get when Googling anything about setting up an online shop is that it’s quick and easy. Just use X, Y, or Z platform, pull in a template, add your products and you’re good to go.

Yes, in some cases that is true, BUT, what no one really tells you is how hard and time-consuming it can be because not only will you have to learn how to use an e-commerce platform and get lost in the website design process if you’re not careful, but you’ll also be confronted with many unexpected business options and decisions while setting up your shop (because these platforms offer it all and more).  It can quickly end up in a muddle and so it’s preferable to work with a web designer/developer right from the start to build your e-commerce website.

In all my years of web design, I have seen time and time again how clients struggle and falter in getting a successful e-commerce business up and running.  It usually comes down to them not seeing and treating their online shops as actual businesses and planning for it properly – so much so, that I’ve stepped away from e-commerce web design for quite some time now.

Let me explain what sometimes happens (worst-case scenario) from a web designer/developer’s point of view

During our first consultation, the client mainly talks about what the site should look like and what templates they like. They reference competitors or other similar websites and want to add anything and everything that those websites offer, to their own, regardless of whether it’s suitable or not for their specific business. Then they talk about SEO and the importance of getting first place ranking with Google, which they expect will magically bring in hundreds of sales from day one of their site being live on the Web. The reality is that proper SEO takes time and effort and that ranking first on Google can hardly ever be guaranteed unless you pay for Google Ads.

When I ask clients about any content other than their products for their website (content is super important for SEO!) such as pages or sections like “about us”, “our team”, “frequently asked questions – faq”, “why should you buy from us”, “testimonials” etc. they will skim over this very quickly, thinking that it will be OK to just string a few sentences together and pop them into the website.  Unfortunately, Google looks carefully at what you’re really saying in those sections and if it’s meaningless, your ranking will be affected.

Then, we move on to products. At this point, many clients are not even 100% sure which products will end up on the site at the time of launch (“maybes” lead to more and more products being added throughout the development process which of course means going over the project budget and time). They don’t have their product names and descriptions ready (very NB for SEO); they don’t have product categories sorted; they don’t have any proper product photos (photos copied from other websites are not OK!), they don’t know what their starting inventory numbers will be; they don’t have their prices and discounts finalised; they don’t know what payment methods they want to accept other than “online payments”; they don’t have a refund policy or terms and conditions; they don’t yet know how their products will be packaged – how big the packages will be and how much they’ll weigh; they don’t yet know how their products will be delivered to their customers, by whom and how much it will cost. Yet, they want to start with the website development right away in order to start selling by next month.

And so we get started with the project, just to get started.

Once we finally get all of the above information onto the shop setup (usually after many months of asking and asking for the finalised information and many, many changes and additions going way over the project scope), they don’t test their website themselves for every scenario that could go wrong (and right), even when prodded and asked to do so many times before launch, because now it has become critical to get the site up and get the sales in.

By the time of launch, they expect sales to roll in. They have no sustainable marketing campaigns in place other than announcing the launch or an opening sale on their Social Media pages (which normally hardly have any followers as yet);  they don’t have a dedicated person in place to take calls and answer e-mail questions. They don’t have a dedicated person in place to check activity on their website backend every day, twice a day, or even more (this is your business!). (Keeping an eye on dropped carts and stats that show many visitors but no sales are usually clear indications that something is wrong somewhere and you need to make adjustments either to the website or to your processes.) Furthermore, they don’t have any plans in place or money in the budget to maintain and develop their site further to improve it, which is imperative in order to grow.

And this is why an e-commerce website can take up to a year to complete and the relationship between web designer/developer and clients often suffer.  Clients are “planning out” their businesses while developing their websites, so the goalposts keep changing throughout the process and the designer/developer just keeps spending more and more time on the project with no end in sight.

What needs to happen vs what is happening

By the time you reach out to a web designer/developer for a consultation and quote to set up your online shop, you need to know everything about how your business is going to work. It is by no means any different than setting up a brick-and-mortar shop – you start with a detailed business plan and in that business plan you should have everything covered from branding to after-sales service. I cannot emphasize this enough!!!

Surely, if you open an electronics store in a shopping mall, you’re not going to just wing it? You’re not going to have a beautiful-looking store but your product lines keep chopping and changing because you’re not sure which ones you want to sell; with hardly any information about them; with no prices; with no idea how to deliver them to the customer’s home if they can’t walk out with it; with no-one to help the customer in-store with expert advice; with no cash register or card machine; with no stock checking, with no-one to check the feet against the sales every day – I could go on and on…

Customised web design according to your business needs

In my experience, clients focus too much on how “pretty” or “attractive” the homepage looks. A good-looking site is important, of course, but what looks good on another site or on a template, does not necessarily work well for your business and sales.

Let me explain: what your site looks like should be determined by what you’re selling and what your marketing goals are (at this point in time anyway, because these goals may shift later on as your business grows). So, if you’re selling electronic goods on a massive scale with discounts and Black Friday sales, your website can by all means scream “sale” – big headers and banners (calls to action) everywhere can work for this, yes.

If, however, you have a smaller electronics shop, selling only specific parts or items (niche) and you want to stand out from competitors as providing a more personalised and expert service, your website will be of no use to you if it screams “sale” everywhere. The message about your personal and expert service simply fades into the background and so you lose your USP. You would be better served with a softer approach (design) that highlights product information (think long and detailed product descriptions) and a blog with many advice articles as well as enough information about yourself and your business in order to satisfy the trust factor with your customers.

You design your business, your web designer designs your website

In order to set up your e-commerce shop relatively quickly and successfully with the help of a web designer/web developer, you need to focus on setting up and planning out your business and marketing the hell out of it, not what the homepage should look like. This means everything, from what the customer buys, to how it’s delivered and finally how you plan to get them to come back to your website to buy more or spread the word (sustained marketing). Only when you hand over all of this detailed and prepared information to your web designer/developer, will they be able to design/develop a website that is customised according to what you’re selling, how you’re selling it, and how you’re marketing it, i.e. a successful e-commerce website.

What you cannot do, is expect the web designer/developer to lead you in your business decisions according to what can be done on the website. It should clearly be the other way around and there should be a clear distinction between what your role in the web development process is (products and sales processes) and what the role of your designer/developer is (overall design and setting up these pre-determined processes in the website).

If this relationship is established right from the start, you will be able to work as a team and only need to make small adjustments during the website development process instead of having to invent the wheel.

To learn how to develop your own online shop, enroll in Insaka Ecommerce Academy’s course.

If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to contact me.