In this Expert Interview, I am graced with Stepfanie’s presence to talk about all things web design, optimization, freelance tips, and more! Stepfanie McCaffrey is the Founder and Creative Director of The SM Collective — a boutique creative studio that specializes in website design and SEO strategy for entrepreneurs and creative business owners, with an emphasis on the interior design and hospitality industries.
The SM Collective is basically your digital one-stop-shop: they do it all! Which, by the way, is part of the reason I wanted to interview Stepf; I knew she’d have tons of value to offer you and she did NOT disappoint!
What you’ll learn in this post:
What you need to know about a web designer before you begin working with them
How to avoid client miscommunications
How to deal with scope creep
Stepfanie’s exact process for working with clients
The best and worst parts about using Squarespace
Other website hosting platforms worth using
Whether copy is needed before completing web design
The elements that make up a good website
The best tools for learning more about SEO
Expert tips for aspiring web designers
…and so! much! more!
A: I got into web design through my first job out of college. I was working for a new dining and entertainment district for a national hospitality company, and the staff was small, so my role was very hands-on, and one of my responsibilities was to update and manage the company’s website.
This was right around when mobile web design was becoming a thing, and once I started learning how to do it, I thought to myself, “hey, this is a lot of fun—I think I like this!”
I also dabbled with a little fitness blogging on the side, which helped me discover more about navigating web design and website optimization. I was hosting a lot of local meet-ups, which of course constituted corresponding websites, and helped me learn those skills!
A: I taught myself everything! That first job was so small-staffed that there was no training book, no guidance, it was just “figure it out!” So, I learned by doing. That position allowed me to learn a ton of new things, like Photoshop and InDesign. I loved it — I’m a very hands-on type of person, and I like figuring things out for myself, so it was a great opportunity that led me to what I do now!
A: That there’s a creative process, and a strategic process. It’s great to have a beautiful website with moving features and amazing visual design elements… but logistically, do those things make sense for your content? I ask my clients to tell me what their dream website is, and then I do my best to bring it to reality by making that dream into something that will actually convert and provide their user’s with a positive experience.
What’s trendy is not always what’s best for your business. And, of course, you can still have an absolutely gorgeous, highly-customized website — all I’m saying is that we need to focus on the design as much as we do on the optimization, the user journey, and the accessibility of the site.
After all, the goal is to get people to purchase your product, hire you for your services, stay at your hotel, or sign up for your event… and you wouldn’t want flashy, confusing elements of design to get in the way of you making money.
A: I’ve worked out a pretty good system for being able to decipher exactly what my clients want creatively, and explaining to them the importance of the strategic elements. It all comes down to effective communication. I ask specific questions, and I give specific answers.
Positioning myself as an expert that they can trust has been really helpful. When I explain things, I don’t use techy language, and I always give my why for a certain choice.
For example, I’ll tell my clients the exact reason I chose to include a certain color on their Home page, or why I positioned their About section above their newsletter sign-up form.
I’ve found it helpful to include sending a screen-share video to my clients as part of the review process where I explain every little element of their website and my corresponding reasoning for creating it that way. This limits confusion and follow-up questions, and I get to tell them all the ways that I was able to enhance and optimize their websites.
The more expertise and value we can provide as designers the better — this added bonus of gaining a beautiful design and an understanding really elevates the process and the final product.
Related: How To Create Content For Your Ideal Client
A: Scope creep! Scope creep is when clients begin to ask for services that are outside of your pre-determined agreement.
This is going to happen no matter what service you’re offering. Even though I send every client a contract that specifically states what the scope of work is, and I include a clause that says something to the effect of “any work above and beyond this is an additional X, Y, Z fee,” clients often begin to ask for more deliverables.
And actually, this is a very natural response if you’re a freelancer doing a great job! This means that they trust you, they see you as an expert, and they’ve seen your work & are happy enough with it that they want you to do more for them. They’ve built a relationship with you, and they like you, and they want to continue working with you, which is great!
As long as you’re still being appropriately compensated for your time and effort.
As freelancers, part of our job is fostering that relationship and connecting with people — sometimes so effectively that they become friends, and we pour so much of ourselves into their final product, that we almost feel bad charging them for additional work, and they sometimes inadvertently take advantage of that.
Managing expectations and clearly setting boundaries is key to avoid scope creep. I always err on the side of over-delivering to make clients happy, but only to the extent that I feel comfortable with. If someone wants me to add in a small little thing like an email signature, sure, I like you, I’ll do it! But a whole laundry list of 3,000 more things? I still have to pay the bills.
Determining what you’re comfortable with including for no additional charge is completely up to you, and will likely change from client to client, as you consider your relationship with them, how much business they’re providing you, whether they’ve been kind enough to give you a great reference, etc.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, because your time is valuable, and you deserve to be respected.
BTL Note: the best way to manage expectations is to create something like a client welcome guide. By creating a handy, go-to resource like this, you and your client will have access to every single detail, from process to timeline to deliverables, so you’ll be able to avoid scope creep and stay within the original outlines of the project.
If your clients want to add more to the scope, be up front with them and ensure them that you’d love to help them with that, but it will be an additional fee.
A great way to respond to a request like that is with a sentence like “Sure! I can add that to your final invoice. My fee for an email newsletter is $200. When do you need it by?” By firmly stating that there will be a charge for the service (instead of being flaky and awkward and saying “oh, um, actually, I usually charge for that…”), you’ll avoid any confusion. The worst that can happen is they’ll simply not add the service on, and you’ll move forward with the original project!
A: By setting clear deadlines. Prior to beginning a new client project, I give my clients a few ‘due dates’ — always with a solid amount of time as a buffer, just in case — so I don’t have to chase them for the things I need in order to complete their project, like website copy or photos.
Here’s my exact client process:
Discovery call to learn about each other and discuss goals/visions for the project and to make sure that we’re a good fit for each other
Send a proposal to client with my recommendations for the services that best fit their needs and goals
Client approves the proposal, signs the contract, and pays their deposit to hold their spot on my calendar (I only work with one custom client at a time!)
Have a strategy kickoff call to review the questionnaire and any inspiration they’ve saved on Pinterest
Soft-launch the website and test its functionality for a day or two (just to make sure everything works on all sorts of different devices)
Send over files, style guides, branding elements, and anything else the client needs
Provide a training on how to maintain and update their site
A: I’m honest with them, and explain to them that the photos they intend to use will not perform well on their site. I tell them that the photos are not a good representation of their brand, and I direct them to stock photo websites, or suggest working with a professional photographer to help them take high-quality brand photos.
BTL Note: my favorite stock photo website is Haute Stock! They release a new collection of photos every week, and there’s something for every niche on there. They also have Instagram graphic templates for feed posts, stories, Reels covers, etc, as well as a monthly guide for members about things like social media, marketing, website tips, etc. I highly recommend joining their community! (And, no, this is not an affiliate link.)
A: In a perfect world, copy would come before design. Getting images and copy before beginning the design process makes it easier, because it means less rounds of revisions. Branding and design play into the visuals as much as copy.
Web design can often feel like “oh, I just need a website!” but there are so many other pieces involved to making the website presentable, user-friendly, mobile responsive… it’s more than just adding blocks and pretty design elements and calling it a day.
BTL Note: I love what Stepf said about branding, design, AND copy playing a role in bringing the best website to life. As a website copywriter, I’m gonna go ahead and say “retweet” to that one. It’s not ‘just’ a website — in reality, you need branding first, so you can clarity on your message, then copy so you can actually convey that message, and then branding to bring it all together.
Second BTL Note: If you need help writing your website copy, click here to learn more about my services!
A: Determining that you’re a good fit in terms of both aesthetics and communication style is really important. You’re going to be in touch a lot, and a website is a huge space for your brand, so ensuring that you’re able to have comfortable conversations (without any miscommunications) is key. You need to establish that connection so you can feel at ease with each other.
Here are some questions I recommend getting the answer to before you begin working with a web designer:
Have they done this before? Working with someone who knows what they’re doing will provide you with the best outcome. You’ll want to view examples of their work so you can see if you like what they produce, so check their site for a portfolio or ask to see samples of recent work!
Do they seem experienced? If you’ve never worked with a web designer, or if you’re completely new to the world of websites and design, you may not know what to even look for when you’re viewing their recent projects. Pay attention to the visuals and make sure it looks up-to-date (ex: you’re looking for impressive, customized design, not old-school glittery websites from the 1990s). If the visuals look good, great! As a designer, that’s their most important job. However, you’ll also want to look at whether the website is easy to use (aka you know where you’re supposed to click next; you’re not bored of scrolling or confused about where the website is directing you), and whether it loads quickly enough.
What’s their style like? If your brand has an elegant, elevated luxury feel, but the designer you’re looking into is a more whimsical, boho free spirit, you may not be aligned aesthetically. This is why viewing their recent work is important.
Are they confident enough in their craft to offer you thoughtful, knowledge-based recommendations? Let’s say you’re searching for the right platform to host your website on. Your web designer should be able to tell you that Shopify is for you if you’re a business heavily based in e-commerce, or that you may like Squarespace best if you’re looking for a platform that’s really easy to use.
A: It’s simple. Squarespace was what I chose when I made my first personal website nearly 10 years ago, and I liked the user interface and how it was a one-stop-shop website platform.
When I design a completely personalized website, I want to be able to hand it over to my clients and help them feel confident that they’ll be able to navigate their site and make small tweaks or updates down the road. Squarespace is user-friendly enough that anyone can learn it, and it isn’t overwhelming.
A: It’s an all-in-one platform. If you’re a busy entrepreneur, you don’t want to have 20 different web tabs open everyday, trying to shift back and forth between tons of different websites to get things done.
With Squarespace, the possibilities are seemingly endless: domain purchasing, website hosting, marketing, growing your email list, SEO optimization, scheduling, e-commerce… you get the picture. You can even create member areas now, allowing you to create members-only section of your website that only they can access, allowing you to deepen connections with your audience and create additional revenue streams for your business.
In addition to being your one-stop-shop for all things website, it’s also very affordable. Of course, there are additional fees for things like membership and e-commerce, but it’s still not breaking the bank in any way.
Related: How To Make Your Squarespace Site NOT Look DIY
A: Yes! And to be honest, every website platform has its own set of flaws. Now this may ruffle some feathers…but I am NOT a fan of the new Fluid Engine editor. So much so that I actually moved my site from Squarespace to Showit, but we’ll talk about that more later!
Fluid Engine does give more flexibility on the design front for those who are not web designers, but there are major issues when it comes to accessibility and SEO using Fluid Engine, among a whole slew of other things.
I won’t bore you with all the specifics now, but I have a super in-depth and raw blog post where I give my honest review of the new Squarespace Fluid Engine editor (can link to the Fluid Engine review blog post I have if you want!) that you’ll definitely want to check out!
Also, you didn’t hear this from me, but their customer support could be better… sometimes it takes them a bit to respond. However, if you’re a fellow web designer and Squarespace determines that you’re eligible to join Squarespace Circle, you get bumped to the front of the line. But like I said, shhhh, you didn’t hear that from me.
BTL Note: I second Stepf’s secret note about the customer support. I use (and love!) Squarespace, but their support wait times are a little dramatic. I’m very thankful Stepf is my go-to Squarespace support person. However, I’m a new member of Squarespace Circle (not sure how I got that invite, but I’m not complaining!) — their program dedicating to supporting, inspiring, and engaging their community of creatives, developers, and designers (yes, that’s the definition from their site) — and it’s true that they bump us to the front of the line, because they don’t want us to have to keep our clients waiting if we’re working on a new Squarespace website.
A: When designing websites in Squarespace, I start from scratch using blank sections and add the specific elements—like text boxes, images, scrolling marquees, and so on. After the shell of the design is in place, I’ll then go through and add any and all necessary code to truly customize the design.
I initially self taught myself CSS code and was instantly hooked! It’s this mix of strategy and creativity, sort of like web design and SEO, so it felt like a natural progression and integration into my skill set. I wanted to take my coding skills to the next level so I did invest in Squarestylist’s Standout Squarespace course. That course truly helped me expand my coding knowledge and streamline my process of custom coding websites.
A: With a 7.0 site, you have to select a template, that’s just the way it works! I almost always select the Rally template, because it has the most built-in features, and then I basically delete everything to bring it down to its bare bones, and customize it with code from there.
With a 7.1 site, templates aren’t a thing, because you’re building each section of the page. I’ll first custom build the desktop site, add in all the code, and then I’ll build the tablet version and the mobile version. I code each version and element of the website separately. It doesn’t get more custom than that!
A: Funny you ask this and I sort of hinted at it earlier…but I did actually switch from Squarespace to Showit when the new Squarespace Fluid Engine editor was released. It wasn’t an easy decision! I’ve been a Squarespace user for nearly 10 years so it sort of felt like a part of me, as cheesy as this sounds.
But I had to think about not only my business, but my clients. And although I love that it’s a one-stop-shop platform for small businesses, there were many red flags with the new editor that I couldn’t overlook. I also wish they had improved upon some of their current features to make them more robust, like ecommerce capabilities for example, before adjusting their editor.
So all that to say, I did migrate my Squarespace site over to Showit. I love the platform but I do miss the easy integration of blogging in the same platform. There’s also not as much need for custom coding but I do try to integrate it when I can since it’s something I truly enjoy.
For e-commerce, I’d definitely use Shopify, hands down. There’s more code involved and a few more hoops to jump through in terms of customization, but it’s unmatched in terms of e-commerce capabilities. If you have a lot of products, Shopify is for you.
A: I’m not a huge trend follower, because as I previously mentioned, I like to focus more on the specific client’s needs rather than follow what’s *trendy* but I definitely think that there will be a lot more movement in websites this year. I do see a shift to more streamlined and clean designs. The last couple of years have featured a lot of motion and interactive features that to me, feel outdated and a bit too much. Using video in your web design is a great way to add motion and interactivity without feeling like you’re on a trippy rollercoaster ride scrolling through a website.
I also think we’ll start seeing businesses truly stepping into their brand and their audience, embracing a bit of color in their designs. I’m a neutral girl at heart but even I have added a bright pop of green into my brand over the last year or so to add some life and vibrancy to avoid things from falling flat.
In the web designer world, I think we’re going to see less custom designs and more website revamps or template customizations happening. A custom website is a huge investment! And new businesses most likely don’t have the capital for an investment like that. Plus, they’re just starting out—they’re business is going to grow and shift a lot throughout their first few years in business, so the need to invest in a custom 6+ figure website just doesn’t make sense. I could sense this shift happening last year and I even adjusted my services a bit to provide both custom website design and template customization (can link to services page if you want) to be able to cater to this shift. Website templates have come a long way! They provide a great foundation for a website whether a business owner is customizing it themselves or working with a web designer like me to do so. Even with my template customization service, I still take the time to customize various sections or pages to truly create a unique digital home for my clients.
Although this isn’t a design-focused trend, I do see more emphasis being placed on optimizing websites—and that’s not just because I’m an SEO strategist! With the many shifts happening in the social media landscape, people want to be able to own their own content without having to rely on trending audio, lip-syncing dances, or posting 839272495 times a day on rented land. The world of SEO and content marketing is going to grow even more this year.
And I couldn’t mention content marketing without mentioning AI! Yes, it’s trendy and all the rage right now—everyone and their Grandma are talking about AI and ChatGPT. Are there some cool things these AI platforms can do if you’re in a creative rut or looking for some inspiration? Sure, absolutely! But there are SO many ethical ramifications associated with it that I hope people don’t overlook. To me, AI is the new and shiny object that everyone wants to be a part of. It feels like an easy button option…but not in a good way. I’m still exploring various AI tools and platforms, but personally, I’d rather write my own content to share my thoughts, my experiences, my unique processes than rely on a robot to copy 50% of it from other published articles and content.
A: That it takes time! With platforms like Instagram, you get access to your analytics right away. It’s an instant gratification platform where you can see likes, comments, views, etc right away. With SEO, you have to give search engines like Google the chance to learn your site, get to know your content, and determine whether it’s worth recommending to their users in a search result. It. Takes. Time. Especially for a new website or a brand new company without an existing digital footprint.
But that’s where working with an SEO strategist like me can help you get quick wins on Google by ensuring you’re focusing on the right keywords, creating the right content, and ensuring your website is optimized from top to bottom.
I mean just recently I noticed a HUGE gap related to SEO settings (can link to the blog post if you want…it is Showit specific and I know this blog post is Squarespace focused) and I was shocked at how little content was available on it. Most of the content on the topic was saying the same things—and some of the top-ranking content was sharing the wrong information which truly hurt my soul! So I created a blog post on it and in less than 24-hours I was ranking on page 1 of search results. It wasn’t just any blog post, it was more in-depth (it’s 6,000+ words!), included detailed yet easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions for optimizing your site, images to visually represent the steps, and so much more.
THAT’S how powerful SEO can be.
When I explain SEO to my clients, I use the simplest terms possible, and include analogies to break it down. It doesn’t have to be such a tech-heavy topic. People get so worked up about SEO, and one of my goals is to shift that curve and make it more approachable.
So instead of just saying “you need to optimize your title tags and meta descriptions” (can link to blog post on metadata if you want), I’ll take the time to explain that title tags and meta descriptions are the elements that appear in search results—so if you’ve ever used Google, you’ve seen them in action! I’ll go on to explain that title tags, or page titles, are like the first impression for the pages of your website while meta descriptions, or page descriptions, are like the elevator pitch to help entice people to click to your website vs others in the search results.
I’m only one small fish in the pond, but if I can help educate people about a topic that they were previously scared to learn, then I’m going to! I even developed my signature SEO course, The SEO Blueprint™ (link to course sales page if you want) to teach others all about SEO and optimizing websites. I think it’s important to add female voices to an otherwise male-dominated industry.
BTL Note: why is Stepf so good at explaining things? Another *retweet* from me. I’m joining her on her mission to educate about SEO and make it more approachable. To learn from Stepf about SEO, click here! And to learn from me, click here!
A: There aren’t as many as you’d think! Here are the tools I use to stay up-to-date on all things SEO:
Following Google on Twitter to keep up with the algorithm’s changes
BTL Note: here are some of my favorite blog post from The SM Collective about SEO:
SEO For Beginners: Glossary Of SEO Terms Explained
A Beginner’s Guide To Google Search Console For SEO
How To Connect Your Website To Google Search Console
Additional pages I recommend adding are a custom 404 page (the easiest way to spot a DIY’d website is if the Error page isn’t customized), and an Instagram landing page (as opposed to giving away your precious web traffic to a third party like Linktr.ee).
Based on your business, build the pages from there, by adding things like Services, Shop, Podcast, etc.
Your website should have a clean navigation bar in your header, including only the basics. Everything else can be included in your footer. And here’s a pro design tip for you: don’t include Home in your header’s navigation. Instead, put your logo in your header, and link it back to your Home page. Your users will know to click there to return home.
When it comes to the usability of your website, as a rule, the less clicks a user has to make to get to where you want them to go, the better. Keep it simple to maximize conversions.
Related BTL Resources:
The 5 Questions Your Home Page Must Answer
Purchase Website Terms and Conditions
A: Ooh, I have lots of advice! Here’s what I’d tell a new designer:
You’ll likely work with people that have big ideas, but aren’t sure how to articulate them. I like to ask my clients to draw what they’re envisioning — even if it has to be on a piece of scrap paper that they then take a photo of and send to me — because it’s easier than trying to verbalize what they want. This takes a lot of guess work and mind-reading out of the picture.
I also recommend learning how to speak in plain language, and explain the necessary elements of a solid, functioning website to your clients. Things like SEO and coding are hard to understand, so if you’re able to easily explain it to your clients to help them see the value in those things, you’ll be very successful!
Don’t be afraid to try something new. Being willing to try new things and learn new skills will help you bring your business to heights you never knew were possible. It might take you a little longer to learn some skills, like writing your own code or mastering a new platform, but you’ll be glad you did it (and your clients will be, too)!
Set due dates for the requested supplemental materials that you need in order to do your job. If you clearly communicate when things like questionnaires, mood boards, website copy, or brand images are due, you’ll limit the ‘chase’ of having to ask for those things, and you’ll avoid having to pause your progress due to waiting for them.
I told you Stepfanie didn’t disappoint with the info! I feel like she could write a freaking book with all of her knowledge! I loved chatting with her about web design, Squarespace, and SEO, and am very thankful she agreed to give you access to all of her valuable info. She is a great friend to have in my corner, and I’m happy to share her with you!
To learn more about Stepfanie, The SM Collective, and her services, click here, or follow her on Instagram here!
If you liked this post, stick around! I post Expert Interviews every month with a different genius, just like Stepfanie, ready to give you allll of their must-know-info. Subscribe to be notified about the next one!
If we haven’t had the chance to *virtually* meet yet, hi! I’m Sara Noel—website copywriter and marketing mentor for creatives, copywriters, and all-around cool people. If you like my content and you want even more BTL in your life, here are a few ways you can connect with me:
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