Too often, we hear stories of companies who retained firms to design and develop their website, but the results fell below expectation. Sometimes this can happen with a bait & switch on what you asked for versus what you really get. Sometimes it’s “the smart college kid” who does the work for cheap (or free) and then goes away to school. Sometimes you get what you ask for, exactly, because you don’t really understand what you need. Sometimes the web developer simply vanishes, leaving you hanging. And sometimes, the developer isn’t skilled in programming or design. In practice, you can hire a great web developer if you ask the right questions prior to an engagement. We’ve put together a list of ten areas to review when you want to hire a great web development agency.
1. Ask for Proof: Resume, Experience, References
We just had a conversation recently where a company had received a bid to rebuild their website, but there was no portfolio to review from the vendor. In this business, track record means everything. Check the portfolio, especially for businesses of your size or in your industry. Experience matters. Drilling deeper, ask for references and verify testimonials [do the testimonials align with the portfolio? are the stories believable? are the attributes important to your project? are the last names family members? :)]
2. Communication Counts
Throughout my career, I’ve seen a correlation between simple things like spelling and quality of work. For example, a programmer who misspells variable names in the code may be…sloppy. Attention to detail is critical in websites, and that begins with communication. Is the web developer clear, concise and friendly? It helps. Are the people at the agency responsive to your communications and empathetic with your concerns. It definitely matters.
3. Is There a Clear Division of Labor?
Before you sign any contracts, make sure you know about two divisions of labor:
- Who is responsible for project management for client & vendor, and what are the tasks for each. Who tests and how does the sign-off process work?
- On the vendor side, how will work be managed (e.g., subcontractors, team assignments). We see a fair number of cases where the sales team and the development team differ. The sales guys are “shiny and smooth”, and once the contract is signed, they introduce you to Igor (who has no communication skills) or the work is shipped to parts unknown, without your knowledge or input. We’ve fallen victim to this one ourselves, and it caused us unnecessary stress and slowed timelines.
4. Design vs. Development
When we were doing some keyword research for our own business, we noticed a strange phenomenon: users were looking for web designers rather than website developers. In our space, these are different disciplines, like in medicine, an anesthesiologist is different than a surgeon (yes, they’re both in the operating room…). Web design, to us, connotes graphics. Website development is a combination of web design and programming the site, a more holistic meaning. But the semantic searches are pointing to one. The lesson: know that you’re getting one or both services. Graphics are a subset, and a graphic designer might note code well. For example, we took on a project where a super-ornate design had been created that was horribly difficult to put into a responsive website. Looking good is important, but it’s more than the veneer on the outside of your website. Make sure the vendor can do both.
5. The Customer Journey
We’ve become obsessed with tracking the right metrics in websites. And as we have explained in our free online course Octagon of BOOM, there are a number (8!) of key ingredients to building a successful customer journey. The message is a critical part. The look & feel is another key piece. Does the vendor even ask you about the goals of your website? Do they understand the important measurements of success? And finally, do they know how to convert traffic to customers?
6. Understanding Search Engine Optimization
We were recently approached to “do SEO” for a website that someone built as a favor to a friend. Unfortunately, it was “too late”. A great web development agency doesn’t do SEO after the website is built – search engines are way smarter than they used to be, and the best techniques are at the foundation, not the surface. For many sites, search traffic is a heavy majority, and if that’s the case, you have to understand it up front to be successful.
Programming languages and software platforms co-exist like Catholics, Sunnis and Satanists. Programmers are zealots for their platforms. “C# sucks”, “The only good code is Python”, “WordPress is a hacker’s nest”, “Why in the world do you use PHP?”. Having been in the software business a long time, I know trends come and go. It’s important to find platforms and languages with a lifespan, preferably ahead of them rather than behind them. You should definitely concern yourself with what the platform will be. The worst feeling comes months after your site is live, when the college kid goes away, and you’re stuck with a site written using something no one else on earth uses anymore. If it’s a content management system (CMS), find out if there are others using it (lots of others) and what the costs are to maintain it.
8. The Long Term
Web development is rarely a one-off. To be effective, your website should be a living, breathing marketing tool. Be clear with your vendor about who updates things and who fixes problems (and how much it costs). If you can develop a solid working relationship with a great web development agency, you’ll be much happier over time.
9. The Hand-off
Presumably you’ll take over management of your website once it goes live. But are you ready? You need someone ‘technical enough’ to look after the site. You need training and documentation for operating the site. You need to consider issues like disaster recovery. Remember that IBM commercial from years ago? There’s a panicked scene in a conference room, where clearly a site is down. “Where are the web designers?” “Snowboarding…” Like it or not, issues happen, from servers going offline to databases crashing to malware making its way into your site. Know who you can call and what the policies are when you do.
10. Pricing & Warranties
If you have answers to all your questions about who-and-what, money remains the biggest question. You can often have your site built for a fixed fee (requires some sort of upfront documentation of deliverables), or you can pay hourly. The former generally works to your advantage, but the scope of the project must be in writing and agreed. Most vendors will charge for change requests and ongoing maintenance. Ask for a warranty period (30 days is typical) to fix issues that happen at launch and as users hit the new site. If you check references, ask about the vendor’s attitude about changes – a customer may alert you to unexpected charges or frequent extra bills.
Hire a Great Web Development Agency
Hopefully you can use this list to hire a great web development agency for your next project. You’ll be better equipped to ask questions that clarify roles, responsibilities, pricing and policies.
As a web development agency, we do our best to answer and score high in these exact areas. Over the years, we’ve had wins & losses, each a lesson for best practices. You can check our client stories to see the way our paying customers view us – as a long-term partner that cares as much about the site’s success as they do.