Choosing a website designer is challenging! How do you know if someone is right for you? How do you know what questions to ask? How do you know if the designer understands your vision and will be able to translate it into a beautiful, functional website that will help grow your practice? In many ways, it’s a similar process to how families choose a doula – evaluating skills and experience, seeking a shared philosophy and an instinctual sense of fit.  It also requires that you as the website design client go into the process with clarity of what you want and need, commitment to the process and clear expectations.

Four Steps to Take Before You Begin Your Search

There are some key steps to the website creation process that should be completed before you reach out to a designer. Skipping these means entering the selection process without the clarity you need to make the right choice, and that can lead to confusion on the designer’s part and delays in delivering your completed website.

1. Identify your audience.  In business-speak this is your target market, but all it is, really, is the people you want your website to speak to and attract to your practice.  Do you serve mostly married couples having their first baby who choose organic food and plan to cloth diaper?  Do you want to work with more families who having their second or third baby who didn’t have the birth experience they wanted previously? Where do these families shop? What kind of information do they look for about pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period?  If you want to attract the second group, images on your site of siblings with pregnant parents will help them see themselves working with you. Your website may need to have resources for families processing traumatic birth experiences or links to sibling classes to meet the needs of these families. Whoever you want your new website to speak to, it’s important that you take the time to consider who they are, what they like, how they spend their time and money, what information they will be looking for to make their decision about which doula to work with, and how you can share your skills and experience with their needs.  These things impact the images, layout, organization and content of your website. A good website designer will be able to help create all of this for you, but they certainly can’t read your mind! Help them and the process by thinking through the top audience you want to attract to your practice via your website.

2. Be Clear On Your Brand. Once you know the audience you want to speak to, it’s time to get really clear on your brand. It may be that you have an established brand already in the form of logo, colors, tagline, fonts and the emotions you want your practice to convey to clients. Is it working? Does it align with your audience? If you are creating a brand from scratch or considering a brand refresh, spend a little time writing out what words you want prospective clients to associate with your practice. A doula practice that wants to evoke the feelings and ideas that they are comforting, supportive, guiding, informed and trustworthy will have a very different look than one that wants to be associated with professional, experienced, reliable and valuable.  Next, make a list of descriptions that you don’t want to be associated with your practice. This list might range from crunchy to unfeeling.

3. Define what a conversion is for you.  At the end of the day, an effective website will make your target audience take action to bring them one step closer to working with you. That action is called a conversion in online marketing terms. What action do you want prospective clients to take? If you want them to call, then using boxes that say “Call us for more information” with your phone number prominently on each page will help your phone ring way more than putting your number in tiny type in the footer. Would you prefer they complete a form on your website so you get some additional information about them? Great. Make sure to offer a button or link to that form that is visible, engaging and easy to find. Do you want people to sign-up for classes? Feature your classes on your homepage and link back to your classes page on as many other pages on your site as you can. You may not know a great deal about website design, but going into the design process with clarity about what action you want prospective clients to take is key to creating a site that converts website visitors to prospective clients.

4. Think Through Functionality. You may be at a place where you have an existing website but it just doesn’t meet your needs. If this is you, then you’ll find this step very easy. What do you need the website to do? Look back at #3 and the action you want visitors to take. Now think about how you want to receive the information. If you want to visitor to fill out a form, do you want to receive those answers via email? Store them in a database so you can refer to it later? Do you want to accept credit cards for payment for your classes directly from your website? If so, do you have a preference over platform (i.e. PayPal or Square)? Are there other things you want your dream site to do? Do you want the bios of your team to collapse to save space then with a click expand to show more information? Would you rather have a page dedicated to each person that is accessed by clicking on their picture on your About Us page? Do you need to have a calendar of classes for families to choose from? Do you plan to offer downloadable resources like PDFs? Are these available for free or are they purchased? This is all very important information to know upfront so you can find out if the designers you are considering have the technical skills to make it happen. You may find that what you envision is more difficult to execute than expected and adjustments will have to be made. Taking the time to think through the functional aspects of the site will help you and designer know what is needed and expected.

The Search for the Right Website Designer

social-media-1228024_640Once you’ve completed your homework, it’s time to begin your search. This is the fun part and follows many of the same steps as choosing any professional.  Just like we doulas can help families in their decision making process, the right website designer will do the same for you by following up with you on your inquiry, answering your questions promptly, clearly describe what their services include and don’t include, provide a quote outlining their fees and offer references for you to check. Lack of follow-up or clarity early in the process is a red flag when working with any professional and likely signals additional bumps and delays ahead.

Ask for referrals. Talking to people who have worked with the designer is key. What were they like to work with? How do they like to communicate? If the designer prefers to handle everything after the initial meeting via email and you work better with in-person or virtual meetings you both may be frustrated with the process. Were they responsive? Can they explain technical terms? Did they meet deadlines? Were there unexpected costs? What was their intake process like? Do they ask about target audiences and conversions? Not asking those questions can mean the designer is more focused on look rather than function which may not support the growth plans you have for your practice. Ask what platform the site is on and what tools for forms or credit card payments are being used. Designers with experience with the things you plan to use will be more confident and efficient. Is the designer willing to teach you how to update the site? This is key to ensuring you can take over minor updates without headaches or additional costs.

Evaluate sample work. Look at the websites of those you are asking for recommendations. Does it have some of the functionality you are looking for? This helps you know if the designer has the know-how to create what you are looking for. Is the site encouraging action? A beautiful site is great, but if visitors don’t know what they are supposed to do next and can’t find contact information easily, then it’s little more than an expensive online postcard with no return address. Try not to focus on look and feel as much as what the site does and doesn’t do. If you have clarity on your brand (see #2 above) then that part will take care of itself. Look for diversity of design. If all of the designs look similar the designer likely has a very strong style and may not be willing or able to deviate from that for your site.

Choose your platform wisely. While a custom platform may sound nice, it creates major headaches later on and should be avoided. Custom sites mean that the chances another designer can help you with the site later are very, very small. What happens if this designer moves, decides to make a career change or the two of you have a falling out? WordPress is the gold standard for website platforms for its security, search engine optimization focus, flexibility for design, ease of use, the availability of lots of videos and tutorials to learn it and the number of designers who use it. It gives you the ability to edit the site yourself, which not only keeps your site updated, but will save you a lot of money in the long run. There are thousands of plug-ins available for sliders, shopping carts, forms, etc. WordPress sites can be customized to do and look however you like. Many designers will customize an existing WordPress theme for you at a much lower cost than creating one. Don’t dismiss this option; a customized theme simply saves them time (if the theme is chosen well) and you money. Your site can still have the unique look that you desire with this option. Other options like Square, Wix or GoDaddy don’t offer the same level of flexibility in terms of design and function and are well behind WordPress in search engine optimization. SEO should not be overlooked, it’s how prospective clients will find you, even searching by your name or practice name. Some of the featured designs on the other platforms can’t be found when searching for the business name in Google indicating major flaws in search engine optimization.

What to Expect

During your selection process, you will have gathered a great deal of information about the designer and how they work. Once you’ve signed a contract you should know what the designer will deliver and roughly when. You have a big role in keeping things on track and on time!  Respond quickly when your designer reaches out with a question,  and meet your own deadlines to provide images and written content. Otherwise you will end up holding up your own site! Here are few key elements of the design process with tips to keep in mind for each.

Design mock-ups These are often called wireframes and are examples of what the homepage and an interior page will look like. Two or three options should be presented so you can compare them and choose what features you like. If you get overwhelmed by too many choices, let your designer know and ask for only two mock-ups. Provide all your feedback at once rather than sending your designer multiple messages to ensure that nothing gets lost and your designer can work efficiently. Get input from others early but don’t make your design selection a decision by committee. It will slow things down and can take you away from the clarity you gained in the preparation phase.

Site map This is like the outline for an essay we had to write in middle school. It shows all the pages of your site and where they go. It’s critical for SEO, and the final version must be submitted to Google. During the design phase, the site map will help you choose which pages are in the main navigation of your site and which ones are drop down options or simply linked from other pages. When reviewing the site map, consider which pages should be interlinked as well. A page that describes your doula training will likely link back to a page that has the trainer’s bio so prospective students can learn more about her and her experience. Keep notes about these ideas to make sure they are included in the final site.

Written content Even if you have an existing site, you should expect to spend a considerable amount of time writing the text content for your website. Designers are usually not writers and they will not know your brand, voice or audience like you will. If necessary, find someone to copy edit your writing for you for grammar. Ideally your copy editor will know something about websites and can look for opportunities to link to other pages or help break down text into short paragraphs with headers or using bullets. People don’t read websites, they scan them and often from their phone so keeping the text in smaller chunks is important.

SEO Do some research on search engine optimization to make sure your text supports people finding you. Use words or phrases that clients are likely to search for.  For example saying, “Our training prepares you to support families and operate a successful practice.” sounds great, but it’s very generic. What kind of training to support families how? This sentence doesn’t tell Google anything about you.  “Our birth doula training prepares you to support families during prenatal visits, labor, birth and the early postpartum period and operate a successful practice.” is much more specific. If the words aren’t on your site then you won’t be found for them – it’s that simple. Don’t feel like you need to say the phrase “postpartum doula in Chicago” in every sentence. Keep your content as natural as possible, but don’t fall into the trap of using generic language that doesn’t help Google connect you with what people are searching for.

Adjustment, delays and excitement Just like labor and breastfeeding, creating a website is a process. The timeline may not end up being exactly what you were hoping for (sound familiar?). Clear communication between you and your designer along with preparation will help ease the process a great deal. There will also be adjustments, because your designer isn’t going to get it right on the first try every time. It may take a few tries to create what you have in mind. Once your new site is up, share it! There are a number of doula and birth community Facebook groups where you can get feedback along the way and reveal your new onsite presence. Doulas are great cheerleaders, and we’re always happy to support a colleague. Who knows? You may just inspire another doula to take the plunge for a new website herself!

— Adrianne Gordon, CD(DONA), MBA