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The Site That Took Three Years To Build

Our new site has been live for a month now. The feedback has been truly amazing. So many people mentioned how much they liked the site and many emailed us just to say that. I thought the site was good but the sheer amount of positive feedback really took me by suprise.

We have seen a 400% increase in sales and about the same increase in traffic. The traffic stats are a bit skewed because the old NexusPortal is now integrated with HostNexus so the stats include forum traffic and support traffic. But there is no doubt that a good site helps convert visitors into customers. I saw the same thing 6 years ago when we launched the old Ceonex site.

But how often should a company change its site? The net is an ever-transforming animal so there really is a need to change designs to keep up with the latest trends. Some people say once a year but I think that’s a bit much and I certainly wouldn’t be able to handle that. I think maybe every 2 years would okay for small changes. In our case it had been 6 years so a radical change was needed but believe it or not I set out on this mission to get a new site up for HN in June 2006 – yep, 3 years ago. So just how can a site take 3 years to build?

The Beginning – 2006

In the summer of 2006 I posted the job to redesign HostNexus on Elance. For those not familiar with Elance it’s an online marketplace where providers and customers come together. A customer posts a job and providers bid on it. After a week or so I narrowed down my selection to about 5 providers and asked that they do a concept or mock-up. I think most of them did and I chose a provider. They did a nice site that kept the theme of the old one and integrated the old flash presentation:

old_hn2

Over the next few months I worked with this design team. They had their own system for contact purposes and on quite a few occasions I would spend a few hours writing out layout ideas and examples and then in an instant all my writing would be gone. This was very frustrating. And when I’d write an update only a few things were worked on. The pace was incredibly slow and I had to repeat myself 3 of 4 times in some cases. After about 5 months I gave up. I paid the design firm what they were owed and took my files. They were pretty cheap – some Russian firm if I remember – but the continual banging of my forehead on the brick wall was starting to leave scars. Time to move on.

The Second Try

In December I found a new firm who agreed to take the files and complete the site. Not sure where I found them (might have been Elance again). This was an Indian firm and they were pretty cheap too. I was keen to avoid splashing out 20 grand on a site like we had done in 2002/2003 with Ceonex. They started off really well but we soon settled into the tired old routine of me writing for 3 hours only to have 5% of my instructions actually worked on. This went on until June 2007. In July I basically gave up. In August they uploaded the half-completed site and the project was dead. Two design firms, 14 months and a few thousand dollars later we still had no new site. :(

I’m sure you can appreciate how incredibly frustrating this was. I had spent countless hours writing huge messages trying to convey what I wanted and all for nothing. So I wasn’t exactly motivated to find another design firm. I resigned myself to no new site and forgot about it for 6 months.

The EnhancedLabs Story

In March 2008 I decided to attack the project again. But this time I decided not to use any outsourcing place like Elance. And the site originally designed in June 2006 was now out of date so I wouldn’t be using that but instead starting afresh. I spent a few weeks browsing CSS Design Galleries and slowly worked up a list of designers and example sites I liked and after a few weeks of communicating with a few companies I made a selection. I chose a reputable US based firm that were quite expensive, hoping that by throwing money at it I could solve the problem. That firm was EnhancedLabs.

There were warning signs from the very start. The contract was vague and ambiguous but I was swayed by the designer’s “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you” type of comments. I had afterall told him the story of the project to date and my disappointments so surely he wouldn’t let me down? It took a month of wrangling over the contract before I just accepted it, desperate to get the project back off the ground. They were also going to do a little side project (a brochure) and they did this first. Anyhow, the first concept of the new site was delivered in June 2008:

old_hn3

It was okay. It wasn’t 10 grand okay, but I thought it had possibilities. Over the next 4 weeks I worked on tweaking it, seeing how sub-pages would work out. On some things I requested EnhancedLabs just flat out refused which I thought was a bit weird – maybe they thought they knew better than me….

But after a month I reviewed the site, the money I was spending, comparing against sites on the net that I liked and I just wasn’t in a happy place. I asked EL to do another concept, something darker and more colourful. They said sure, but of course it was going to cost. Actually not only just cost more the whole contract was going to need “adjusting”. Whatever, in for a penny in for a pound. The next concept they did was the one you see now on the site (not 100% but almost). They did up quite a few sub-pages but not all and the ones that were done weren’t done to my specifications. As far as I was concerned I had sent them a huge document that detailed the scope of the project and just assumed they’d do everything listed on it. It took a further 3 months to get to the stage where it could be coded in CSS/XHTML (this was now November 2008).

So in November EL delivered their “final site” – all coded in CSS/XHTML. Except half the site was missing. A lot of the core content sub-pages were there but many were just templates with no real content. I spent a few days on a document that listed every page and the changes need in order to be complete (from my perspective). I’ll be honest and say there was some new stuff in there. As a project develops I tend to visualise things differently or see a different way something can be done but most of the document was compiled from the original project specs the developers had been sent.

EnhancedLabs simply said all that wasn’t covered in teh new contract, blah blah blah. They were not interested in customer satisfaction one bit. I think they priced up a job (at $125/hour) and were unwilling to do a minute more. They made a nice site but would I recommend them? Absolutely NOT. They are expensive, have no real commitment to their client’s satisfaction in the end project and were generally slow. Plus they outsource all their coding so during that phase I felt like I was dealing with a middleman.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

So here I was again in familiar territory. I had a site that was half-complete and no developer. I certainly wasn’t going to continue with EnhancedLabs after dropping $12k and being told to complete the site would cost more. I posted a job on oDesk which is the same kind of deal as Elance. We were so close now to completing this job and had a decent site and I wasn’t going to be defeated again. I decided on a Philipino firm called DesignsKo, gave them the document detailing everything needed to complete the site and they started in December.

Straight away I was bowled over. One thing that I wanted was a tabbed design on our Solutions section and this was one thing that EL just refused and then ignored me on. DesignsKo showed me what they had done and it was better than I had imagined. This was the first time in many, many years that a designer had shown me something that was better than I had expected. THAT is what I am looking for when working with a designer. I had wanted the tabs to work in Ajax or jQuery kind of stuff but we had some technical issues with internal linking so I dropped that. Over the next few months they went above and beyond my expectations and even when I added new stuff they didn’t blink. They worked so hard that at the end of the job they had spent 3 months on it for such a ridiculously low price that I paid 3 times as much just because they deserved it (they never once asked for more money). It was an absolute pleasure working with them and I’m sure we’ll work together again.

At the same time, in the months December to February I worked with three other designers who did the skins/themes for our Forum, our Kayako Helpdesk and this blog. All of them were amazing to work with and I really couldn’t understand what was happening. After 3 years of frustrations and disappointments I was now surrounded by designers that really cared about their client’s satisfaction. So if you need a vBulletin skin, WordPress theme or Kayako skin please check out these people:

For a vBulletin Skin contact Hanafi at http://www.sultantheme.com.

Hiren at http://www.supportskins.com will hook you up with a custom Kayako skin. I found SupportSkins on Kayako’s own forum and if my word isn’t good enough just take a look at this thread and you’ll see many people recommending them. Fantastic stuff.

This custom wordpress theme was done by Michael at http://www.problogdesign.com. This guy is the don of WordPress customising and modding.

So there you have it. Ended up being long but if you’ve ever been through a frustrating design process then I think you’ll identify. Some great designers listed here and they aren’t that expensive so if you’re looking for someone I heartily recommend DesignsKo, SultanTheme, SupportSkins and ProBlogDesign.

Thanks for reading. :D

The HostNexus Blog covers company announcements and system updates as well as general ramblings about Web Development, SEO, Design, Hosting and anything of interest to our clients and readers.

21 Responses to “The Site That Took Three Years To Build”

  1. Jon

    April 25th

    Hello Laurence,

    You have no idea what a godsend your post is!

    I have been having equal frustrations on my project and want to make sure I quit getting screwed. Question for you:

    Do you think that Designsko is capable of designing an entire site, soup to nuts? I know you mentioned they tweaked your original structure, and am wondering if you can just say “own it” to these guys and have confidence that they’ll get it done.

    One more: Do they also do blog design? Why the need to go to Pro Blog Design? Again, I am trying to understand the scope of what Designsko can do.

    Thanks for your time and thoughts. You saved me a fortune [was thinking about going with someone else mentioned above]!

    Kind Regards,

    Jon

    • Hi Jon,

      I selected them because I saw their portfolio and they did great graphic work. I can’t say for sure they can come up with a good concept for you but I’m sure they’ll be willing to do some kind of mock-up for you for a small fee. Then if you are satisfied you have a winner because they’ll do a great job. If I ever have to find new designers I’ll always commission some concepts first.

      They might do blog design but WordPress design is much more than design. You have to know the template layout and there is always custom PHP coding necessary with a custom job (ours has a lot of hard coded PHP stuff like in the Status section).

      Good luck with your project!

  2. Jon

    April 25th

    Thanks Laurence. Very helpful.

  3. khalid

    May 11th

    Hey,

    Laurence, I really liked your post and we are going from the same situation but the only difference is our designers/developers is in house , its been 3 months and 4th mockup but i am not satisfy, i really like your website theme/colors/ every thing is soo perfect and hoping i will get too what i am looking for.

    keep the good work up guys…

    • I think it’s definitely best to wait for something you are 120% happy with. After all you have to look at it for the next few years and work on expanding it. :)

  4. Stuart

    May 24th

    Hi Laurence. Great post! If you ever need any minor help with anything just ask. You guys have been great to me and I will return the favour

  5. Steven T.

    May 25th

    Great post, Laurence.

    What a story, reading what you have gone through. I’m a professional web developer/designer based in the U.S. I believe most educated professional and reputable designers (in the U.S. at least) do care about their clients, and your case seems to be an isolated one. There are a few things to be aware of when working with a designer.

    Good design does not come cheap, and there’s no cutting corner on this part. Although many products can be manufactured and assembled cheaply in China or India, most of them were designed in the U.S and Europe. This is because “good” design requires creativity, sophistication, discipline, and sensitivity, which will take many more years for other countries to catch on (maybe they’ll never.)

    You’ll find well imitated design done from cheap sources. That’s because copying is easy–coming up something original and unique is much harder. Companies in the West spend lots of money to create their unique identity. Design is one of the few areas Western countries do well and unlikely to be outsourced like the manufacture sector.

    A good designer has his or her own creative mind. They don’t work very well if you have the entire plan sketched out for them down to the details. It’s better to give them some “room” for creativity. You may not get 100% of what you envisioned from the beginning, but that’s beside the point. Because design is a process of exploration, and there’s not one correct answer to solve the problem. In the end you may end up something wonderful and unexpected. That’s the whole point of creativity-create something out of nothing.

    ***

  6. Thanks for the comment, Steven. I’m no stranger to the design process and have worked with firms from the US as well as “cheaper” outfits in eastern Europe, India etc. My recurring issue has always been about finishing off the smaller parts of the site that make a site whole in my opinion. A designer’s version of complete always conflicts with mine. :mrgreen:

    • Steven T.

      May 27th

      I see what you’re saying, Laurence. I guess then for your particular problem it all comes down to the work contract. What’s being “delivered” should always be spelled out clearly so there’s no mis-expectation from both sides in the end.

      It’s a problem i sometimes face working with “picky” clients. I quote a project with an estimate of 50 hours of work for example and can end up spending 70 hours on the project. It doesn’t matter how much detail you provide on your task list, if it is not part of the contract, or the developer has not seen that part “prior” to signing the contract, that can be hours of extra work.

      So the more well defined what’s being delivered the better it is to protect BOTH the developer and the client. The goal is to make sure everyone is happy in the end.

      cheers } stv

      • I just think all designers, programmers etc should quote a job that allows the job to run over. 20 hours on top of 50 is a bit extreme but 20 hours on top of 200 is not. Ultimately it’s all about customer satisfaction and if you complete a job when the client isn’t satisfied then the job might end up costing you more than if you’d just eaten the extra hours. For instance I could have been a bit vindicative and slurred EH’s name across the net but I have the capacity to step back from a situation and look at it from all perspective so I did understand their position even though I didn’t agree with it. My punishment was complete silence and refusing to tell people who designed our site (until now). But if I had left the project totally happy I would have been a one-man PR machine for them. When you are dealing in big numbers you also don’t have a lot of clients at one time so it can’t be too hard to ensure 100% customer satisfaction. I tried thinking of some web hosting analagies as we also deal in customer satisfaction but the main difference is price and volume. A lot easier to keep 2 or 3 clients happy than 2 or 3 thousand. :)

  7. KeHoeff

    May 28th

    hey this is a very interesting article!

  8. KrisBelucci

    June 2nd

    I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

  9. Oleh

    June 16th

    I’m doing web design/development stuff, and one of conditions of my contract is posibility of increase up to 30% of agreed work hours.
    This business has bit from art, and you simply can’t always make straight measurement in hours or cash, if you’re not overcharging, off course.

    Oleh’s last blog post..Recover document after CorelDraw crash tip

    • Steven T.

      June 19th

      I agree with you, Oleh. Design is a very tricky business. In programming (or hosting services for that matter), either something works or doesn’t. In design, it’s 90% subjective. How can you argue or justify something right or wrong if the client either “likes” the design or not? Mostly it’s a personal thing. And the process technically can just go on forever. There’s gotta be a line drawn somewhere. So the service terms and the proposed budget gotta be well established and thought out. If you go too high, your competitor will get your lunch, and if you go too low, you end up eating dirt. :)

      cheers } steven

  10. Carlos

    June 17th

    Good job!!! Interesting read. Many lessons to be learned in the story.

    I read it and could see some CEO writing about going from this cheap host to that cheap host. And then finally finding a good host like Host Nexus. So it is true for your industry as it is in design, and everything else.
    :)

  11. Michael Martin

    July 7th

    Hey Laurence,

    I’m a little late in reading all this, but wow, that sounds like you couldn’t have had much worse luck in getting this project going! :eek:

    I’m glad it has worked out so well in the end. DesignsKo really did do a great job, the site looks fantastic!

    And thanks for that comment! Definitely the coolest complement I’ve ever had! :D

    Michael Martin’s last blog post..Design Review: Real Estate Theme

  12. UB

    September 6th

    3 years is a long time!
    .-= UB´s last blog ..September 09 Press Release Free Roller Banners the September Give Away =-.


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