May 01 2017

Don’t Design Without a Developer – Here’s Why

Thinking you should hire a branding or design agency to design your next site and then hand off to a digital agency for development? If you haven’t committed to the idea 100% yet, it may not be too late. Getting a design from one agency and then seeking another for development will end up taking more time, costing you more money, and may disappoint your customers. Pretty much always. Don’t believe us? Read on.

Blue Acorn is a digital agency. Right now, we’re working with an online retailer who’s a few months further into your situation. After spending money with a branding agency to create the designs, it will now take over a thousand hours for us to theme because the “simple looking” designs actually require a large amount of custom development on their desired ecommerce platform. Why is there such a discrepancy?

Blind to Platform Limitations

If you don’t know the limits of an ecommerce platform, it’s tough to accurately predict the cost of developing on it. It’s an intuitive point that design-only agencies like to gloss over. Imagine an architect who designs a building with no understanding of building materials, your property, plumbing, electricity, or physics. It takes only moments to sketch something if you aren’t concerned with how and where it will be built and the implications on cost, data, and system integration.

For example, a designer might decide that they want to change the flow of the checkout, or they may design a checkout according to their own personal aesthetics. A designer at a digital agency would know that changing the flow is very intensive for any platform because of security concerns and the number of integrations on that page. Moreover, he or she would have a ballpark idea of how a specific change would affect a specific platform.

Recently a medical supply company came to us with a minimalist design. It was inexpensive to design, so he assumed it would be easy to develop. Because the design team paid no attention to the native flow of the ecommerce platform, the cart alone required over 200 hours of development work. Typical theming for the cart and checkout page takes less than a tenth of that time! In some of these cases, the client presses forward despite the costs. Others spend money to adapt their design, and a few wind up doing nothing at all.

Designing Features that Aren’t Native

Many designers might assume that your chosen platform will have QuickView. Mocking that up is a matter of a few seconds, but that often means custom development. Depending on the design of the QuickView feature, we’ve seen the development portion of this feature go from a five to fifty-hour project.

Consider CMS pages. Your designer might mock up a different structure for the about us page, the shipping policy page, and FAQs. Each of those CMS pages will be designed and developed from scratch. Meanwhile, a digital agency’s approach to CMS page design will be to build a page framework to where you can use blocks and code structure to build as many CMS pages as you want. That allows you to maintain brand standards and maintain the flexibility to create as many pages as you want on your own. If you go with a designer first, you might get three or four cool pages, but chances are each page will have to be themed from scratch and they will not be reusable. Costly and inflexible.

One more: promotional messaging. We see this all the time. Designers will put promotional messaging throughout the site on category and product detail pages and in the checkout: “Buy three more and get XXX” or “Get 10% off with valid options.” Unfortunately, many platforms don’t offer this functionality. In such a case, you pay for custom development, or you alter your design to accommodate the missing functionality.

Do your designers know the platform well enough to design around it? Do they not know these features? What else don’t they know?

Not Following Ecommerce Best Practices

In addition to features and changes that impact scope, some design decisions fly in the face of ecommerce best practices. When you have behavioral customer data to back your decision, it’s alright to do something that goes against the grain, but design agencies rarely know how to interpret data to understand your unique shopping funnel.

In an effort to do something innovative, it’s okay to take a risk. If you consciously make that decision, you can monitor analytics when you launch and alter the design if the metrics go sour.

For example, a new algorithm means that pop-ups on mobile are now punishable by SEO death by Google. It’s easy for your digital agency to let you know after the fact, but at that point, you’ve already paid for the hours to have the pop-up designed. A digital agency would know the difference.

A large, retail jewelry chain came to us with designs for their site and, before meeting with our team, decided adamantly that they had to have a custom jewelry maker on their site. The designs were easy to put together, as they were based on a major competitor, but nothing in their behavioral data suggested that they needed the product builder. In fact, we informed them that the competitors they were imitating had not seen any lift in revenue from the very expensive feature. In their corner was the design agency, who wanted to see the designs come to life, regardless of the cost or lack of impact for the client. Meanwhile, the agency fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy and insisted the builder be developed.

Lack of Scoping Knowledge

At our agency, we have solutions engineers, ecommerce strategists, and project managers who are experts in ecommerce and have access to our development team. They think deeply about estimates and they still are a little off sometimes. Meanwhile, a branding agency might offer you dozens of services like:

branding agency services

…And then they say they just need somebody else to “theme” it. Great. The one thing an online retailer needs to capture revenue and fulfill orders is relegated to a single word. If a full-service digital agency can’t estimate perfectly, how good a job do you think a design or branding agency will do? I can tell you that they never overestimate the hours.

Still, hiring a branding agency (and sometimes a design agency) can be a great thing. In this follow-up piece, I review the options you have when choosing an approach to design and development partners.

Matthew Rickerby

Head of Marketing

Matt began his career in ecommerce at Blue Acorn over seven years ago. His areas of expertise include persona development, account-based marketing, and content marketing. He has co-written speaking sessions for Bronto Summit, DIG South, GIANT, and Revolve, and received multiple awards for videography, blogging, and copywriting.

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