Questions for Selecting The Best Web Development Partner
Dave Gibson | Founder & President
Choosing a web development partner can be difficult and stressful. After all, your website is one of the most valuable properties for your organization. And there are so many web design firms. Some good. Some, not so good.
I’ve been running a web development firm for 25 years now in Burlington, Vermont. Having partnered with hundreds of companies over these years, I’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t. I hope my unvarnished perspective from the agency side may help brands find a web design team that will be a solid partner for years.
So how do you choose the best web design agency?
By asking good questions.
I recently wrote this article about preparing for a website redesign project and how to write an RFP. And someone asked what questions they should be asking to help with their selection process.
What a great question! And not an easy answer since every team and website project is unique. Yet let me offer some points about what to focus on, and offer some questions you might ask to flush out the good from the bad.
Of course the questions will differ based on the scale of the organization, its website and the budget. I expect some of these points will also apply if you’re looking for a freelancer to build a $3k Wix site or a six figure website, but in this case, I’ll tailor the discussion for an organization with an in-house marketing department and a website budget between $20-$100K. This is the zone I’m most familiar with.
I know this is vague and I’m not even sure what the best question would reveal the best alignment either, but I do know that the relationships between key team members must click for projects to run well.
And while it's key for the client’s marketing director and executive team to feel the vibe with the agency’s leadership, I think it’s more important to have the project teams on both sides feeling those happy vibes. In particular, the project managers.
As an owner, let me repeat this. I’m not the key person to feel the vibe with. It’s my project manager. She (in my case) runs the show and will be the primary determiner of the success of the relationship.
Team bios can provide a very light intro and social media sleuthing can reveal more, but I wouldn’t think it wouldn’t be crazy for your project leader to have a casual get-to-know-me meeting with the project manager he or she will be working with before making a final decision.
Honestly, it took 12 years to realize how important process is. When you have a disciplined process, you can accurately scope work and schedule work. And as a client, that means that you can better trust that your project will cost X and be delivering on Y.
So as a client, you should care about the agency’s process. This will reveal the maturity of the organization.
Can you walk me through the process?
What if we discover we need to add a feature?
How do you handle change orders?
Creativity & Portfolio
Of course, every brand wants to partner with the most creative web design agency possible (or say they do, until you diverge from “normal”). And while the style of the web designer’s website, office space, and attire may be cool, what matters is their portfolio. Do their websites tend to share the same layout and styles, or does each succeed in revealing what is unique and awesome about the brand - and its audience? Fresh or canned?
Some questions for the agency’s creative director or the project designer:
Do you start with a template, or design from a blank slate?
How do you approach a blank slate?
Where do you draw creative inspiration?
Outsourcing and Subcontractors
It's very common for web development companies to use subcontractors for design, development, and web accessibility testing. And that’s fine as long as they’re contractors they know well and have worked before with. If they sub project management, that would give me pause.
Designers - Graphic Designer vs Web Designer
Longevity and experience - not just the agency but team members
Sure our web development agency is 25 years old now. Big whoop. What matters are the team members. How long have they been in the field? And perhaps more importantly, how long have they been working together? In our case, everyone has been working together for between 7-12 years. As a result, they’re a machine.
There are frontside developers who take a design and turn it into what you see onscreen. Then there are backend developers who connect databases and third party systems that feed the variables and content of the website. Here again, what matters is experience. This is not a movie. The 18 year old coding all night in the basement is not who you want coding your website. The more scar tissue, the better.
Long gone are the days of web agencies hosting on their own servers. Everyone outsources to data centers. So what data center do they use? Cloud? Is it a shared platform with umpteen other websites? Do they offer an SLA?
Disaster Recovery Plan
What happens if a tornado blows out the data center hosting your website, or your website gets hacked - especially for open source platforms? What is their process and how long should you expect to have your website restored?
Speed matters. And a slow site will affect mobile users in particular, and how Google ranks your site. Ask where performance testing fits into their process, and what methods they use for increasing speed.
Data protection - GDPR, CCPA, CPRA, COPPA… etc.
It's very rare for any website not to collect some type of user data. Even cookies count. Yes, many of key functions of your site - newsletter signup to ecommerce - are third parties and each should have this locked down. In any case you should discuss data protection with your potential web developer and get a sense of their knowledge, and respect for privacy.
An extra credit privacy question would be what they think of the upcoming CPRA, which amends CCPA to further protect California resident’s privacy by requiring that all websites that collect personal data to comply with all laws (not just those that sell data) starting in January 2023.
Web Accessibility - The ADA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
Saving the best for last here. Digital accessibility is near and dear to us. This is what we specialize in and have a separate team of web accessibility compliance specialists on our Accessibilty.Works team. Assume that your website must comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for ADA or 508 compliance. This is important because these lawsuits are hitting everyone.
How do you test for accessibility? This will surprise many... Others may have this baked into their process by now, but will rely only on automated tools. Very few will utilize qualified human testers - simply because it costs a lot, and unless the degree of testing is established in the RFP, they’re forced to take the lowest cost approach in order to be competitive. You, the client, need to ask for it and be prepared to pay.
Would you recommend using an overlay widget? If they say yes, then red flag. Despite the claims of each and every overlay provider (I won’t name names), they will not magically make your website accessible. Nor will they protect you from lawsuits. This article explains why.
These are the questions I’d ask to flush out the best web development companies. I enjoyed this exercise and look forward to hearing what questions you would ask.