Questions to Ask Potential Web Developers

Investing in a website isn’t an easy decision to make, especially when it’s your first one and/or you have a limited budget.

Over the past few years I’ve had some great questions from potential clients – some of whom we ended up working with and some we didn’t. This is a roundup of what I consider the most useful and what I would ask if I was hiring a web designer or developer on behalf of someone else!

Who will I be dealing with directly?

This one is especially pertinent with larger agencies who have a sales person or team. If you’ve ever built a house you might have encountered this: someone promises you the world for a bargain, but when you’ve signed on the dotted line all the promises have not been communicated and you never see or hear from that salesperson again.

Ask them who will be dealing with you primarily throughout their process – and if it’s not the person you are speaking to, ask to chat with the project manager before accepting a quote.

Who does the design & development?

This is a similar question to the first but digs a little deeper. Here are three scenarios to look out for…

Scenario 1: Many agencies will have a large offshore team, and a local project manager with a good overall knowledge of the web design & development process who communicates your needs and wants, working with the team to bring your ideas to life and ensuring the work is up to scratch. As long as they have solid processes, hire great people and operate ethically, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as your project manager is a good communicator. Of course, that isn’t always the case – and I’d recommend looking for a recommendation or testimonial from someone you trust if you are going with this option. These agencies will often have high staff turnover and rely heavily on contractors.

Scenario 2: A Freelancer or small business who does everything in house. Often this type of developer will be at one of the far ends of the spectrum – either quite new at building websites for money or exceptionally good (and experienced) at what they do – basically a unicorn for hire. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is from a portfolio. If they are squirrelly about providing examples of their work they probably aren’t a unicorn!

New doesn’t mean bad, but you should be cautious if they can’t provide examples of their solo work. You may also want to do a bit of extra digging into what platform and/or stack they use.

Unicorns are pretty rare, and the only one I know personally ended up going to work full-time for someone else. Unicorns aren’t always great at sales, and freelancing is a tough gig – as is working alone forever! Burn out is common.

Scenario 3: I’m going to label these as micro agencies. My business, House Digital, probably falls in this category. To be honest they likely account for the vast majority of the web development industry and vary wildly in cost, quality and experience. I would classify any business with a small team (no duplicate roles – maybe a project manager, designer and developer) as falling in the micro agency category.

Some, myself included, started out as freelancers but realised they weren’t unicorns and hired those people they needed to fill specific gaps – either because they lack the knowledge, or the desire, to do certain stuff. For myself that was time management, repetitive work and complex programming.

My strength is UX (specifically information architecture) and project management. I’m a competent front end developer but I know my limitations – so I hire people smarter than me, more patient than me, or more organised than me. Liz is great at making sure emails get answered, calendars don’t get double booked, and tasks are prioritised efficiently. JR codes circles around me and can hold his own next to Ross. Lovely quietly gets things done so I can focus on the details that take something from good to great.

We are content as a micro agency and don’t intend to grow or expand beyond our little team and niche, but a lot of other agencies our size are aiming to build a business that can compete with the big kids (from Scenario 1). This can work in your favour if you get lucky, as they might be really competitively priced in order to win the job. It can also work against you though, as growing an agency often requires high throughput to be effective so attention to detail can sometimes suffer. a good litmus test is to find out if the “team” is casual, freelance/contractors, or full time. A micro agency relying heavily on contractors may indicate that they have grown a bit too fast or have a lack of in-house experience.

What do you need from me before we start in order to meet the target delivery date?

Be prepared for timeline creep when engaging a web agency: especially if you haven’t done so before. Set expectations up front about target dates and milestones but also be aware that most of the time clients are actually the bottleneck!

The three biggest offenders in my experience are:

  1. Delays getting content such as text and photos from the client;
  2. Feedback delays, especially if the provider and client aren’t well matched;
  3. Scope creep.

If you have the budget, I recommend hiring a copywriter who specialises in writing website content. You might understand your business or organisation better than anyone, but communicating that is a different story. If you can afford a photographer too even better! Otherwise prepare ahead of time by gathering a collection of stock images you love that your designer/developer can work with.

Find out what processes your provider has in place to combat these three risks, and consider putting some in place for yourself as well!

What happens if we find out we’re not a good fit after starting the project?

Nobody likes a breakup, especially when shared assets are involved. Make sure things like deliverables, milestones and payment schedules are clear.

I’d also suggest trusting your gut on this one, or testing the waters first. For example we often encourage prospective clients to do a lower cost but extremely valuable strategy workshop first, so we can work together a little before taking the plunge as well as avoid both surprises and scope creep down the track.

What happens after we launch?

This will often depend on the platform your website uses (WordPress? Wix? Shopify?) as well as what other tools (Plugins? Themes?) are used. Find out what long term costs you can expect in terms of licensing, hosting and support. If your developer will be hosting for you and/or providing ongoing support, find out how hard it will be to move your site to your own hosting or another agency/developer if you choose to in the future.

Find out as well how much you will be able to do yourself after launch if you want to change something. Find out how much you will NEED to do after launch – especially if you’re paying them a retainer. Will they be running backups? Software updates? Monitoring broken links?

Finally, if you have a custom built website there may be changes down the track you won’t be able to do yourself. Find out approximate costs and turnarounds for adhoc or out of scope work so you don’t get hit with any surprises later.

Final words of wisdom…

Trust your gut, but do your research. In our industry the only real measure of success is happy clients, so ask for referrals from people whose websites you like that are a similar scale to yours.

Good luck!

Candidates waiting for job interviews, full length, front

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