A few weeks ago I needed a designer to produce some HTML/CSS and Photoshop templates for a web project I'm working on. While I have good working knowledge of HTML and CSS, I am not very interested nor efficient at working with it. And even worse, I'm quite poor at coming up with graphic designs. This is a project I'm willing to spend some money on, so I figured I should hire a designer to come up with something slick and good looking. I'm very aware of how important an attractive looking design is for a website! What I needed I had a pretty concise idea of what I was looking for - the theme, and so on. I also was pretty sure that I only needed one or two individual page templates and that I could fill in the rest myself once the overall design was fleshed out. I originally hoped I could work with one of my friends who is an excellent designer - I would happily pay a friend a decent amount of money for good results. Unfortunately it turned out that my friend was too busy to take on my project. So I decided instead to try outsourcing the project. There are plenty of outsourcing websites out there, I happened to have heard good things about Elance.com, so I went with that one. Doubts about outsourcing I certainly had some doubts about outsourcing this project. Would I be able to specify it clearly enough, and would the provider give me decent results in a timely manner for a reasonable price? I imagined that communication could potentially be very difficult, given language barriers and text-only communication. However, I figured it was definitely worth trying. Even if it was a horrible failure, I would at least have learned something about the realities of outsourcing. Specifying the project Like I said, the scope of my project was quite narrow. I just needed a design template in PhotoShop (so I could change the graphics myself, or give it to another designer) and converted to HTML/CSS, so I could start making nice looking Pylons templates for my web project. In my specification, I was careful to repeat myself in different ways to ensure clear communication. I made sure to emphasize the fact that this was a single template consisting of a single page. Repetition is key when dealing with outsource providers, indeed this is true when dealing with just about anyone. I used to be a great fan of writing extremely concise emails - but have learned from experience that adding a few more layers of redundancy in the form of repetition - greatly aids communication. I learned the skill of close reading of text during my French degree - the simple fact is that most people do not have this kind of training. It never hurts to rephrase what you are saying a couple of times, with plenty of examples. Choosing a provider Within 24 hours of posting the job specification on Elance, I had ten different providers bidding on my job! I was quite surprised by this response, and even overwhelmed. How are you to choose between ten different providers? Of course, Elance helps you somewhere here - providers have ratings, and previous clients submit reviews. However, they all looked pretty much the same in terms of ratings. The main place they differed was in price - offers for my job ranged from $100 to $500. I took a quick look at their portfolios. The work was slick and good-looking across all the providers. Test responsiveness I decided to test communication. I slightly reworded the specification and sent it to each of the providers to ensure they understood what was involved, and also to measure responsiveness. Most of the providers had clearly "got it" the first time around, and they all replied quite promptly (< 24 hours). In one case, the provider actually lowered their price by $100 after I sent the re-worded spec. The bottom line Ultimately, I decided to just go with the cheapest provider. I was aware that I might not end up with optimal quality, but I was treating this as an experiment. Worst case scenario was that I would end up with sub-par work and slightly out of pocket. Best case scenario, I get great results for an exceptionally good price. Pushing work forward So I give the job to my chosen provider, and then what? I decided to give him a couple of days to chew on it. He had said he would have it done in a week. Day four Three days later, he has a mockup design which I like the look of. I tell him I'm impressed and to go ahead and chop that up into XHTML and CSS for me, using the perfect 3-column layout with no CSS hacks. Day five Nothing from provider. I decide to send a status request message. Asking for updates often is a must. I imagine that these providers have several jobs underway at the same time, and whoever prods them the most gets their attention. Squeaky wheel gets the grease and all that. Be a little pushy. Day six Nothing. I send another status request. Day seven Get an apologetic reply from provider saying he's going on vacation for three days and will have it when he gets back. I'm not in a huge hurry so I don't really mind - I'm only paying $100 afterall. Day twelve I send another status request. Day fourteen Nothing from provider. At this point I'm getting a bit annoyed about the unresponsiveness. I consider my options, and decide to reduce the amount for the job to $0. Elance allows you to do this - its essentially a way of canceling the contract. The provider has to agree to it however, if you are stuck with an utterly unresponsive provider, you can ask Elance to step in to resolve to conflict. Day fifteen It appears that my attempt at cancelling the job has succeeded in escalating priority of my job. Provider sends me a very apologetic and message including tear jerker story about being in the hospital with injury etc. Impossible for me to verify any of this of course, but I just want the work done. I decide to give the guy another chance to finish the job. I'm not in a huge hurry, but at the same time I'm itching to get the nice template into my project. Day sixteen Provider finally sends me full XHTML/CSS source for the template along with the PhotoShop image file I requested. I'm happy with the work he's done, and release the funding from escrow. Job complete! Conclusion I think I got the website template done for around 20% the cost of hiring a local designer. I was ultimately very happy with the final product. However, there were periods of uncertainty and a quantity of headache involved in getting the work completed. I would definitely use Elance again, and recommend it for this type of work. However, its important to have a very clear idea of just what you want, and also you should be prepared to have to prod the provider regularly to get the work done.
Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at FrozenRidge.co.Tweet