Readers' Comments on Outsourcing Web Design

by Jakob Nielsen on June 28, 1998

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on outsourcing Web design.

I have received some interesting user comments on my June Alertbox on outsourcing.

Rob Grady asks:

I was hoping you might clarify something for me.

What scope of organizations does this [advice not to outsource] apply to? From the quote "For an Internet-focused company, the Web is the primary way it communicates with customers", it appears that it applies primarily for organizations who are utilizing the Internet to deploy their business model (i.e. on-line retail scenario). There are, of course, many different e-commerce scenarios but I was just trying to qualify the article.

Jakob's reply: Most companies are currently not "Internet-focused" - they don't view the Internet as the one main factor that will dominate business and drive change in the next decade. There are a few Internet-only companies that do think this way, and they may well end up as the victors because legacy companies are too slow in realizing the impending revolution .

To be Internet-focused is not simply a matter of selling online (though one definitely needs to do that). Rather, the Internet permeates every single aspect of the business, from internal work processes (extensive use of "virtual teams" spread across the planet) over vendor management (extranets; using XML for light-weight EDI for every single communication with outside firms) to changing the company's product and service mix to smaller units and continuous customer relationships (for example, a finance company might expand from offering $100,000 mortgages to also lending in $1 units for kids to buy ice cream).

A reader who prefers to remain anonymous writes:

My biggest gripe with outsourcing (and yes, I'm prejudiced, I work in a sizeable company as a web developer) is that the person/firm contracted to do the outsourcing never (to my experience) asks to see the log files -- they just stumble blindly on making a site that is a great showcase for their design firm, but never considers what is actually happening at the site. I started with my current employer approximately one month ago. I was brought in to do internal development work (inTRAnet) and they started asking me questions about the internet redesign that was being handled by an outside firm (the same firm which had done the current design). I spent a week with the log files, wrote a report, and now have a sizeable say in the redesign. The employer was none too happy to discover (for the first time) that the maximum percentage of visitors who were actually seeing product information on their site was 36% ( 16% of visitors weren't making it beyond the "splash" page ).

"Usability Strategist" -- I like that very much.

Jakob's reply: Well, having a splash page is a dead giveaway that the site is poorly designed . I am not at all surprised that it cost your company 16% of its potential customers. I am slightly more surprised that only 36% made it to the product info, but this result does shows the value of checking the log files. Your data also indicate a classic problem with Web design produced by people who are more interested in showing off their Photoshop or Shockwave skills than with supporting customers in achieving their goals.

The Value of Independent Web Developers

Michael Talman writes:

Your most recent Alertbox article, " Should You Outsource Web Design? " is considerably off the mark. Yes, if a company is in the Internet business, or is doing some form of E-commerce, they need to create and maintain internal core competencies in Internet technology.

However, your Silicon Valley point of view disregards the thousands of smaller companies and organizations that do not have the resources or technical orientation to develop their own Web presence. Most companies in this country (or anywhere) do not have the resources to staff an entire web development team in-house, and certainly can't afford to make the inevitable first-time mistakes that putting together an in-house program can lead to.

I prefer to view Web design and development using the advertising model. Like an ad agency, a quality Web design firm works very hard to understand and communicate their client's message. While the client determines direction and focus (with advice from the developer), the developer tends to the creative nuts and bolts of the project. In the process, it is up to the developer to educate the client on the possibilities and opportunities of the Internet.

I know of no web developer who wants to run somebody else's business - but some of us actually do know enough to guide and help others to an effective Internet presence. To be blunt, I think the majority of companies (especially non-tech companies) should outsource their Web development - at least in the beginning. Then, if their need for advanced Web technology expands and their developer is not up to the task, look into working with a different developer or create an in-house Web team.

There is a parallel here in Desktop Publishing - a great many companies in the mid to late 1980's decided that with PageMaker, a Mac and a laser printer any secretary could cook up a newsletter, brochure or ad campaign. The reality was that a lot of companies spent fortunes for crappy printed materials. As you know, the market for independent graphic designers has not gone away, but has increased due to the corporate realization that the first thing that vanishes in a corporate environment is creativity.

There is a strong need for independent Web development companies who cater to smaller corporate and organizational clients. We provide a valuable service in a market where most companies don't have the money and expertise to do it themselves. After all, even Sun doesn't do its TV advertising campaigns in-house - they outsource.

Jakob's reply: I completely agree that most companies are clueless with respect to Web design. I am not recommending that they avoid outsourcing in order to build sites with existing external resources: rather, I suggest that these companies build up their Web skills now in order to be prepared when the tsunami hits and business process change accelerates to an almost vertical curve. One good way to build up these skills is to either hire experienced Web experts or to work with folks like Talman and learn from them. The goal for any project where you do outsource is not to get a fish but to learn how to fish yourself.

On the Internet, the only constant is change ; and rapid change at that. The network means that new ideas and customer expectations spread around the world instantaneously. Companies that have not built up the ability to react instantly will be left in the dust.

TV commercials are not an appropriate analogy for Web design. There is no reason to believe that a company would change its business strategy, product offerings, or individual customer relationships simply because it were to build up a video production unit and hire actors. In contrast, the more you know about the Web and the more tightly your Web skills are integrated with your strategic business planning processes, the more your company will change to become an Internet focused enterprise.

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