Investing in a new website can be a very expensive proposition. Before you settle on a website development firm, make sure you know what you're getting into! I highly recommend asking an exhaustive list of questions to each firm you're considering working with. Try these on for size:
1. Do you handle all development work in-house? How big is your team? How long have they been working together? Many design firms do not have in-house development teams. This is typically a sign that the person selling you the website doesn't understand the technology that drives your website. Additionally, having a middleman between you and your developers is a recipe for disaster. You're actually buying the work of a third party that you know nothing about. Make sure the firm you hire has their own staff of web developers. Additionally, it takes years for a team of developers to settle on a set of technology and become experts. If a team has been together and focused on the same core set of technology for three or more years, they probably have a reliable web solution.
2. How long have you been deploying this technology? Can you show me the back-end of similar sites you've deployed? Getting an early peak at the "back-end" (content management system) will be very informative of what your experience will be when you get your website. Being able to quickly and intuitively edit your website is critical to the long term value of your website. If you have to contact your design firm every time you want to edit a word on your website, you're going to lose your shirt in costs.
3. Can you build the site responsive (so it will work on mobile devices and tablets). Over 50% of all websites are now viewed on mobile devices. Your website should be built mobile ready. These days, that means that the site is "responsive." In layman's terms -- the site design changes (responds) to the dimensions of the screen on which it is viewed.
4. Is your content management system (CMS)/technology proprietary or open source? What types of licensing fees are there? There are many content management options on the market. Software that is "open source" means it's created and maintained by the developer community at large and free to use (although it still costs money to implement) and frequently means there are more people that are familiar with it and use it. This drives development costs down. Proprietary software owned by a specific company and may be so custom that only the creators know how to work with it. Imagine buying a car with a new engine design that only one mechanic knows how to work on. It's expensive and risky. You want the cheapest, most widely adopted technology that gives you the functionality you need. When it comes to content management systems, for most small to medium sized businesses, that solution is WordPress.
5. Do you offer a warranty? If so, how long is the warranty good for? Maintenance plan? Service Plan? Hosting? What are those costs? A website is like a car. It requires ongoing maintenance and support (you have to change the oil!) Every single day the world wide web is changing. Web browsers are being updates, new viruses are being born and new functionality is being introduced. Your site may function beautifully today, and be broken tomorrow. You need to prepare yourself for ongoing costs. It's best to know how the firm you're going to hire for your website development is going to handle that.
6. How do you base your pricing? Will this be hourly, or flat-fee based on the project? How frequently do your projects go over budget? What is your payment policy? Is there a clear procedure for billing for extra features or work outside the project's initial scope? It seems to be common practice in this industry to do little up front discovery, underbid a project and then jack up the price on clients as the website is being built. Our clients frequently tell us: "Wow, your proposals are big!" Our proposals are big because we do exhaustive up-front discovery and write extremely details scopes. We want to know exactly what we're going to build before we give the client a price. This way, we can guarantee that we'll hit our deadlines and meet their budget. If the website development firm you're getting a quote from doesn't ask a ton of questions and write a detailed plan as part of their proposal, beware!
7. What is your estimated timeline to build this site? This is another good item to ask references about. What timeline did they give the client versus how long it actually took to build the site. Speed for development also goes back to question #1. A team that has worked together and on the same technology has probably encountered most bugs and can work quickly. A third party developer working on new technology is probably going to encounter new bugs and miss deadlines.
8. Can you talk me through your design process? Process is critical! A firm's processes and systems are a great sign of reliability, consistency and quality. At Go Media we may go a little overboard. We have a detailed 32 step process for our web development. Ok, we go way overboard with our systems and processes.
9. Will I have access to all my design source files for internal use? I've seen some firms hold their clients hostage. Know who owns the design files. My company's policy is to send our clients all their files (including design source files) at the conclusion of every project. If you ever have a falling out with your graphic design firm and realize you aren't in ownership of any of the design files, you'll really regret not asking this question up front.
10. How do you track the success of your websites? There are many ways to track success of a website deployment. Success may be traffic, conversions, sales, etc. Whatever your metric for success is, make sure that you have ways to track it and make sure the firm you hire includes that in their proposal to you. When the website launches, it should already be built into the site.
11. Can you provide references? I don't need to say much about this. This is just a good practice before making a major investment.
12. How long has your firm been in business? How big are you? You're going to want to stick with your web design firm for a while. Generally it is difficult for development teams to get into other firm's work. There is a ramp-up time that will cost you money. So, you want to work with a firm that isn't going anywhere. Size can also be a factor. Big or small they both have their pros and cons. Typically, the bigger the firm the more expensive the service. But size has it's advantages. If one employee at a large firm has a family emergency, there are other workers there to pick up the slack. I suggest picking a firm that is six or more employees. At six employees, a web development firm should have at least two designers and two developers. It's a nice layer of protection for your project.
13. Do you have a dedicated project manager that will be managing this project? It's very helpful to have a dedicated manager on your project. They build timelines, schedule meetings, coordinate feedback, review and organize content, etc. If the firm you work with does not have a project manager, be prepared to spend a lot more time dealing with web development minutia. And understand that most web development delays occur because of the minutia. It's the little things that cause the biggest delays!
This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.