Why ‘I just want a simple design’ does not equal cheap

Image showing the elements of website design“. . . Just a simple design,” they said. “An all-white background with a gallery below, of course the menu, our logo and a search function. . .”

I have had many variations of that ‘definition of requirements’ over the years and, these days, I generally walk away from them.

What they are actually saying is they want a cheap price. And, of course, once the contract is agreed that’s when the negotiation starts – in which they expand the scope at a hair-raising pace.

I once had a client, in my early days, with whom I had a meeting to discuss their requirements and then gave them a quotation. At the time I was offering a set of website packages, so they asked if instead of accepting my quote could they take a package.

Of course, I said, but none of the packages contain the functionality that you’re looking for.

That’s OK, they said, I just want something simple to start with.

So they took a package and immediately started trying to turn it into a bespoke design, in line with my original quote.

Needless to say, that did not end well.

Here, then, is an attempt to set out the process involved in creating, building and publishing a website – at least, the process Abledragon goes through.

Defining requirements

The foundation of a successful website design development is getting a clear, agreed definition of requirements.

This will take at least 2 meetings. The first one is where we tease out and document exactly what is wanted. This takes a long time, because in most cases clients don’t fully know what they want.

‘Something simple’, or ‘a clean design’ doesn’t cut it.

We need to understand exactly what is wanted. This involves colours, font families, font sizes, logo, positioning of the logo, use of images, use of testimonials, languages, information to be collected through contact forms, and a host of other items.

If we are talking to a company with a corporate/company style book we need to understand the requirements set out in that – and many of those are extremely detailed.

For example, one of our customer’s style book specifies the distance that must exist as white space around their logo and the precise position of the logo on the page – that is: margins from the edges, meaning sides, top and bottom.

All this information needs to be collected and, based on that, we will document everything.

The second meeting is where we go through our documentation with the customer to ensure we have accurately captured everything.

Many times a third meeting is required because either we have captured something incorrectly or, as regularly happens, new requirements are raised by the customer.

This eventually leads to an agreed set of requirements, and that enables us to produce a detailed quotation.

The quotation

At Abledragon we produce detailed quotations where each step and each requirement is laid out with its price. This is a laborious process but we have always prided ourselves on being as transparent as possible.

It also makes it easier to have a later discussion about the project price, because that simply becomes a question of identifying items that can be removed in order to reduce the overall cost.

A detailed quotation, at least in the way Abledragon produces them, also acts as a Statement of Work. So, at the end of the project, we can go back to the quotation and check off each item and confirm that we have delivered what we promised.

The initial development

Once the quotation has been haggled over and agreed, we can move on to start the development.

We always build new websites on a development server, rather than doing a mock-up using Photoshop or something similar.

This is because the client can view progress as the site is developed and they can see exactly what the published product will look like.

During this early stage of development we will create the page templates.

The number of templates we develop depends entirely on the number of different page layouts the customer has said they want. Some pages will have a sidebar, some will not, some pages will have no menu while some may require an additional (secondary) menu, some may display a search box while some may not, and so on.

A web page comprises lots of different elements (like building blocks) that come together to produce the appearance that a visitor sees. When a web page is requested by a browser all of the elements that made up that page are sent by the server and the browser has to assemble them in the correct order to display the page.

This includes not just the blocks that make up the template, but the content within them – images, text, forms, tables, galleries and videos.

All of these elements have to be assembled correctly in relation to each other, by all of the browsers that are in use – both current and, unfortunately, older browsers – in order for the page to be displayed correctly to the visitor.

This requires extreme accuracy in creating each of the page templates, so as to ensure the page loads correctly on any browser, any operating system and any device.

The ‘any browser, any operating system and any device’ statement also means that these elements have to re-position themselves based on the size of the screen on which the page is being viewed – whether that’s a hand-held mobile device or a 28-inch monitor.

This is called responsive design and, in its simplest form, is the process of saying that when the size of the screen changes each of the elements must position themselves appropriately so that the visitor gets the best possible display of the page.

To do that the code that defines the styling of the page has to tell the browser how to position the elements it contains.

Depending on the screen size, some elements may be dropped and replaced by others, and some elements may be dropped altogether.

This initial development stage, then, is focused on creating page layouts that meet the customer’s requirements in terms of element positioning and appearance, and it will include the required logo, fonts and colours – but no content yet.

The customer can still ask for changes if something is not as they like it. This still happens, even though we will have already signed off on the requirements document!

The refined development

The refined development is where we focus on content, and on the customer experience and user journey.

In this article I wrote about the user experience and customer journey being the most important aspect of an effective website. I urge you to read that – it makes some important points – click here.

I’ll summarise it here by saying that the aesthetic appearance of a website (colours and graphics) is secondary in importance to creating a good user experience and a smooth customer journey. I explain why in the article I linked to above.

The user experience refers to how easy a visitor finds it to move around the site and get the information they need – how intuitive it is.

The customer journey refers to encouraging the visitor through a series of steps (or pages) to the completion page – when the website will have done its job.

Creating an effective customer journey relies on knowing the task of the website and how each page must work towards achieving that task.

So the focus in this stage is on the actual content of the site, the positioning of links, the process of making sure the visitor knows what to expect when they click a link, and giving them the comfort and the confidence that they are safe and feel good about their interaction with the site.

Again, I urge you to read more on this subject here.

Approval and publishing

All the way through this process we ask for, and expect, the customer’s involvement to review and approve or ask for changes to what has been developed (we refer to this as our Agile Development process).

Again, because we design new websites on development servers, rather than Photoshop mock-ups, the customer sees exactly what they will get.

When they give their final approval and the site goes live, they will get exactly what they saw.

So once we get that final approval we take a copy of the website from our development server and upload it to the customer’s server.

Back to those requirements

Let me take you back to those ‘requirements statements’ I recalled at the beginning of this article: ‘I just want a simple design’.

That simply doesn’t cut it.

Even if your site has an all-white background, the fact remains that changing colours takes about 15 seconds.

Creating the templates, designing a good user experience and constructing a smooth, effective customer journey takes a lot longer and requires the same attention to detail, irrespective of the colours..!

Without a clear definition of, and agreement on, the requirements up front, the process of designing, building and publishing a website becomes a tortuous process that does neither the customer nor the developer any good.

In fact, it usually leads to tears, disputes and lost money – which no one wants.

And that is why I walk away from those projects where the customer says ‘I just want something simple’.

They never do..!


So the next time you’re considering a website – either a new one or a re-design – bear with the developer as they work through this extensive and detailed process.

Designing a successful website, one that fulfils its objective and delivers the value that you’re looking for, requires deep care and attention. Plus a lot of experience on the part of the designer.

But it is an investment that will bring you the returns you require. The old adage is as true in website development as it is in anything else: you get what you pay for.

At Abledragon we strive to provide as much free advice and guidance as we can – in the US they would call it ‘paying it forward’..!

So do get in touch to talk about your project – absolutely no obligation. Please:


Martin Malden

About the author: Martin Malden owns Abledragon, a WordPress agency that was established in 2009. Today it serves customers in Hong Kong, Australia and the UK. Abledragon websites are built for today’s Internet, with the mobile user in mind, and are known for security and speed. Successful Abledragon projects.