WEB DESIGN IS a lot more than copying and pasting information on a page on the internet. It is a balance between marketing, design, usability and technology, a balance many Hong Kong companies find hard to get right, according to veteran Web consultant Daniel Szuc. 'Many firms develop websites without a true understanding of customer needs,' he said. 'Often, designers are pushed to create a site based on what management and stakeholders want. But rarely do they create a positive user experience. I call it designing in a bubble.' Mr Szuc is the principal usability consultant at Apogee Usability Asia, a company that has helped firms such as Cathay Pacific, eBay and HSBC to improve their websites. However, the market had matured and there were signs that designers were thinking more about customer needs, he said. Web designs were looking more polished and sophisticated than they did five years ago, he added. Most of Apogee's clients were multinationals or large Hong Kong firms. Wilson Wong Ka-wo, managing director of internet solutions firm Apac Interactive, noted a lack of understanding of the value of the Web among small and medium-sized enterprises. 'SMEs think that all it takes is pasting information from their ad or brochure on to a webpage,' he said. 'They have no idea that a website can take months of discussing strategy and business goals in order to create the best solution.' While noting a growing demand for Web development services, he pointed out that a lot of education was needed to get SMEs up to speed. There were just over 280,000 firms in Hong Kong, and 98 per cent of them were SMEs, said a Trade Development Council spokesman. Figures from the Census and Statistics Department for last year showed that only 15.5 per cent of firms had a website, compared with 14.8 per cent the previous year. Of these, 72.3 per cent were large firms, 34.6 per cent medium-sized firms and 12 per cent small firms. Just over half (54.7 per cent) of all firms in Hong Kong were connected to the Net last year. Ida Mak, director of Lokomotive Communications (Asia), an interactive marketing solutions company, said most of her clients seeking Web development services were medium-sized and large firms. She expected these firms to be the company's main source of revenue. 'We do a lot of website development and maintenance,' Ms Mak said. 'But often clients don't really know what they want, so we advise them on the best tools to enhance their image. There's been a growing interest in CD-Roms, and we are also looking at mobile phone applications now that more people are using their phones as a mobile office,' Ms Mak said. She hoped that SMEs would gain in sophistication. 'We are getting more inquiries from SMEs, but most still think it's easy and cheap to build a website. One client was shocked when I told him how long and how much a project would cost. They don't consider Web designers professionals, and they think we are ripping them off.' Ms Mak believed the trend for online shopping would make SMEs see the need for professionally built websites. Census department figures showed that only 10.1 per cent of Hong Kong firms with a website or webpage offered online shopping or ordering services. Ian Li, managing director of internet solutions firm Smart-info, said he found the lack of talented designers more frustrating than the attitude of small firms. Most of the designers he interviewed thought that Web designers merely put information on a website. 'During the test, many of the designers could not build or even copy a website,' he said. He also noted a disinclination to communicate. 'Most of them are so passive they just don't talk. This business is all about communication. I think a lot of the problem comes down to the teaching culture in Hong Kong. Students are not taught to be proactive.' Mr Li thought declining standards in English were exacerbating the problem. 'We have a lot of overseas clients, but young designers these days can't communicate adequately in English.' Mr Li said the promotion prospects were good because the industry was growing fast. He advised those skilled in design to keep up with the trends. Other qualities that distinguished exceptional candidates were creativity and being able to think on one's feet. 'You don't need a degree to get into this industry, but designers do need to learn fast and take the initiative,' he said. 'This is the IT industry. Things change fast. There's no time to keep looking over your shoulder.'