6 ways to keep your freelance web design business sustainable in 2011

Author Avatar by Dave Harrison

Posted in , ,

Jan 12, 2011

We all face challenging times ahead. The industry continues to surge ahead with new innovations, more competition and changing customer expectations. On the whole customers are becoming more educated about what is available and I for one welcome this. Increasingly opportunities arise for experienced, professional hybrid designer/developers to position themselves as online solution providers. I believe that this is the direction all web design businesses must take in order to remain sustainable in 2010. I want to talk briefly about how to go about this.

“The industry continues to surge ahead with new innovations, more competition and changing customer expectations ” Dave Harrison

Each point could itself be the subject of an in depth article and discussion, but for the purposes of this post and in the spirit of the current trend in copywriting for the web, we'll have a list instead!

Meet Business/Organisational Objectives

A website must be part of an overall plan. It is of no value to exist for its own sake. I started my career in a time when we created websites and included the latest innovations, whatever they were at the time, because we could, and to impress our clients with our technical prowess, not because their inclusion offered any intrinsic value to the client. This with hindsight was a mistake and a misservice.

My new creed. Everything in a website must have a reason, and together every aspect of the site must add to the overall value of the site, producing synergy. No more 'bells and whistles', no fancy design for design sake. Everything must be measurable and provide a demonstrate-able ROI to the client. This is "effective web design" and leads on nicely to what I like to call the "3 O's"

The 3 O's - (All the Optimisations)

So in order to determine if our websites are effective we have to be able to measure stuff. Fortunately we have access to all the tools we need to do this. Analytics software is available in many guises, both free and paid for depending on your requirements. (a quick search on 'analytics', 'metrics' or 'usablitiy software' should put you on the right track, with options like google analytics, clicktale, crazyegg, clicky, mint and piwik all getting a nod from this author)

However, it is not enough to simply install this on a clients site and then walk away. It is not even enough just to offer your client access to the results or send some random statistics at regular intervals boasting about how much traffic you have helped generate for them. The value we can add as web professionals is to interpret the results, sort out the important metrics from the gimmicks. Make sense of what the figures show and act upon these findings, making recommendations for gradual improvements to our clients websites overtime. This provides true value for money and should differentiate you from the competition who are in it for the quick turnaround at low cost.

SEO - Search Engine optimisation

As this new decade begins I think that SEO will become the least important of the 3 O's, algorithms are in constant flux as the big players try to keep our results relevant and non-construed. However their battle is a tough one and they may be losing it. For example recently Google removed their "google business results" listing for the popular search term "web designers". I can only assume this was brought about as a result of too much manipulation from less than ethical web professionals.

No longer is it about optimizing search engine results and the new breed is going beyond just search engines to provide holistic systems that find and track customers not only on search engines like Google and Bing, but on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

While organic SEO will always be important and will necessitate the creation of semantic websites using clean and structured markup and the separation of content from style, only organic/natural SEO will have any value, coupled with good quality and up-to-date content. SEO as it still generally thought of today will disappear, replaced by the other 2 members of the 3 O's

SMO - Social Media Optimisation

Will become increasingly more prevalent and important (for some not all businesses, clearly it is not suitable for all types of business, depending on the user audience profile). I don't mean just creating a twitter account and a facebook page for your client, but creating on their behalf and instructing them how to make use of a bespoke social persona online appropriate to their business, target audience and culture. However be warned, despite the hype, a dedicated social media presence isn’t the answer to every business’s marketing dreams, and for some it’s nothing more than a waste of time, and potentially money

CRO - Conversion Rate Optimisation

Very much the new kid on the block, but clearly what we ought to have been doing right from the start. The science and art of creating an experience for a website visitor with the goal of converting the visitor into a customer. Applicable mainly in commerce websites but we shouldn't think only of conversion as percentage increase in sales or enquiries on the website, it could also be as simple as gaining a regular visitor to your community or having a satisfied user experience. However we interpret it I would go as far as to say the underlying principle should be carried into all web projects regardless of their objectives.

Further Reading

Generalisation over Specialisation

Specialise in lots of disciplines. I offer two reasons for this advice. Firstly it will allow you to provide complete and effective solutions to your clients. Secondly the greater your repertoire the more you have to offer your client and the more opportunities you have to earn. Ultimately invoices must be generated to stay afloat. Be in a position to continuous add value to your client and if you have a happy client you may continue to enjoy a fruitful relationship for many years. I would like to mention a talk worth watching given by Wilson Miner at build belfast, were he speaks about us as craftsman, offering quality at all levels, and introduces the idea of hybrid designer/developers. Simply learn the principles, and apply them. So what are the principles?

Additional Resources

Solid HTML5, CSS3 and JS Framework Skills

These are the bedrock of any hybrid sustainable web business. If you don't yet possess these skills yourself then at least try to collaborate with someone who does and as a matter of urgency set about adding them to your own repertoire. What were once the exclusive realm of the industry innovators are now becoming the expected standard. You must be able to employ these skills, progressive enhancement, microformats If you can't then you can't suced in the big league.

Additional Resources

Keep Relevant and Up-to-Date with Technologies

The important result of this that your clients will receive relevant and up-to-date advice. Mastery of or access to the resource. Keep up to date. We exist in a very dynamic industry. The trick is to keep on top of relevant changes and sieve out crud. Typography (big one), microformats (now quiet old), machinetags, API's etc etc jquery leads on to UX Design

Additional Resources

UX Design

What is it? In the web world, UX (user experience) is sometimes conflated with usability, information architecture (IA), and user interface (UI) design, all of which are components of it. Everything a designer does with a web design affects the user experience. Always remember visitors shouldn't have to think, I'm sure you have heard it all before, you may even have read Steve Krug's book "don't make me think" [an oldie but still a goodie], but if you haven't bought into this design philosophy the chances are you won't be around next year. Ultimately what your clients have tasked you to do when they employ your services as a web designer, whether they realise it or not is to communicate their message and help them achieve their objectives. You can achieve this with well thought out UX Design.

“Does this element support or contradict what I am trying to communicate to the user? ” Joshua Porter

Some useful usability tools


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