In 2011, just having a website isn't enough. Unless your website is nothing more than an online billboard, you probably want people to take action there. Whether its product sales, lead generation or even blog comments, your website is successful insofar as it achieves that objective. Good design gives any website a stronger chance of success. Bad design makes it infinitely harder for a website to do its job - even if every other aspect of your company is flawless.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. If your website is awkward, clumsy or confusing, that's the impression visitors will have of your business. Is it possible to erase that perception? Sure, over time. But why start out five steps behind? After all, your website is yours - everything about it, from the navigation to the color scheme to the menu options is completely decided by you. It's one of the few business success factors totally within your control.
For this reason, it pays to make your website clean and easily understood to all visitors. No matter what else goes wrong, your website can always be one thing that goes right.
Most companies don't take a strategic view of their website. This is especially true of small, non-tech savvy business owners. Rather than determining exactly what purposes their website should serve and methodically creating it to facilitate those goals, they just dump everything about their company that they can think of onto a page. A mission statement here, a tagline there, some text about how cool they are, maybe a few images or links - it's all just 'there', with no overall objective behind it.
This is the wrong approach to web design. What you actually want to do is think of one (or at most, two) things that you want every page to accomplish. Replace sloppy and disorganized pages with focused 'paths' that advance one objective. The homepage, for example, might be aimed at getting people to the product page. The product page, in turn, might be focused on conveying enough information to get people to the order form. At each stage, there should be continuity between where people are now and where you want them to be.
Good web design also removes friction from your online sales process. Eye-tracking studies have proven that putting form labels (ie, 'First Name') above the form box, rather than beside it, makes them easier to scan. This might sound like a trivial fact, but anything that makes it easier for people to buy is an asset to your website. And this is just one example. There are literally hundreds of design-related decisions that enhance or detract from your sales process.
Keeping this in mind, your web designer (or the directions you give them) should seek to minimize sales friction. Do not add extra form fields or pages to your sales process because they 'look cool' or 'seem important.' Seek instead to eliminate everything that does not clearly advance the sales process and make it easier for people to pass through to the other side.
Good design isn't just about aesthetics. It also affects how your website looks on all the different web browsers people use. As a startup, you can't always predict which web browser your users will have. The only safe stance is making your site compatible with all of them. Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera - your website should be tested against and look good inside all of them.
Broadly speaking, CSS (cascading style sheets) are a better bet than the old, tables-based method of web design. CSS is inherently flexible and readily understood by just about every modern browser there is. Tables, conversely, are interpreted differently from one browser to the next and often render unpredictably.
Ease of Changes
Other than Google, just about every website you visit looks different today than it did a year ago. This isn't a bad thing. One of the major benefits of having a website versus a physical storefront is that it can easily be changed. Unfortunately, if your website is poorly laid out, changing it will be a lot harder than it should be. Think of the difference between replacing an outlet cover and replacing the whole wall.
There are innumerable ways to design your site with easy future changes in mind. One is to build the site around WordPress, placing a customized theme on top of their pre-made engine. WordPress is literally built with changes and expansion in mind. All of its modules and plugins can be quickly swapped in or out like Legos. CSS is also change-friendly, permitting relatively painless modifications (unlike tables-based sites, which might have to be torn down and completely rebuilt to accommodate modest changes.)
Valid Tracking & Testing
One of the not-so-obvious benefits of good, logical web design is better testing and tracking. Think about it: the whole point of tracking website activity is to draw inferences about what your visitors were thinking and doing as they moved from one page to the next. But if your website is confusing or unclear, are you drawing valid inferences from the data?
For example: let's say your homepage is cluttered with all kinds of information. New sales promotions, news about recent hirings, links to outside partners, on and on. You might conclude that every visitor who leaves didn't want to buy your product because that's the action you're focused on. But look at your homepage: it's throwing nearly half a dozen other possible 'paths' at your visitors besides the one you care about. Unless your site has continuity and each page is focused on just one thing, your tracking is not a valid measure of user engagement.