Choosing a web design and development firm for your next project is a challenging task that carries a lot of risks.
Making sure to ask the right questions to prospective firms can be the difference between an innovative, mobile-friendly website and dozens of unimpressive pages that are not intuitive for your users. Also, asking the right questions can prevent endless design revisions, billing disputes, and unmet expectations on both sides. Using the right approach can result in a true partner relationship with a project that’s on-time and under budget.
Below, we’ve listed some of the top questions to ask your prospective partners along with explanations of their importance. Feel free to either use these questions simply as inspiration when writing your next RFP or using them during initial discussions.
What does your process for design and developing sites look like? Will we be able to see prototypes/mockups before moving into development?
Any reputable web development firm will have an established process for their projects. Make sure you understand their process and your responsibilities as a client during each stage.
You should also make sure that the process begins with a discovery and prototyping phase before you move into development. You wouldn’t start building a house without identifying what was wrong with your current dwelling, taking a look at your neighborhood, and creating blueprints, so make sure you do the same before you start building your website.
A good web development firm will start by conducting user research, employing UX testing, and analyzing the stats of your current site. They should use this as a starting point to create mockups or prototypes for feedback before you invest in heavy design work or development. See if the firm uses a tool, such as Axure, to create high-fidelity, clickable prototypes to make sure there’s no question about what a particular button does.
On what content management systems do you develop? What technology stack do you use?
Websites these days aren’t like your old Geocities site- static pages aren’t going to be efficient for any size operation. Web development firms today build websites on content management systems (CMS). Widely used products, such as WordPress, Drupal, Umbraco, Sitecore or Episerver, or proprietary systems created by individual firms.
Content management systems tend to be designed for different user types (eg. WordPress for small, single editor environments, and Episerver for large multi-editor content and ecommerce) and have different levels of system integration capabilities. If you have systems you wish to integrate, ask if their preferred CMS uses a suite model (where all of the additional tools have to be purchased with the CMS) or a best of breed approach, where a CMS is plugin friendly, so any type of marketing automation or CRM system can be integrated easily, offering more flexibility.
Once you find out a firm’s preferred CMS, you can research it on your own to make sure it’s a match. Be wary of firms that profess to be an implementation jack of all trades- it’s hard to give your developers solid experience if they’re forced to develop for ten platforms and have ten developers. Be wary of those pushing a proprietary CMS as well- developing a site on a unique platform will make it significantly more difficult if you’re forced to move to a new developer.
Finally, if you’re not sure, ask what technology stack they develop on. If you’re a .NET shop, your IT department isn’t going to appreciate you pushing a CMS on using something that requires Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP (LAMP) stack.
Can you integrate my site with my backend systems, such as our CRM, marketing automation, or ticketing system?
Make sure integrating your website with your back-end systems isn’t a second thought. Chances are if you want to generate sales or leads with your website, it will need to be connected in some way to your existing systems. Don’t make integration an afterthought, or assume that an existing plugin will operate exactly how you expect.
Make sure to find out whether your firm has experience with complex integrations, and ask for examples of integrations that are similar to those that you want to include. Some more traditional agencies that have a heavy marketing focus may not be able to handle complex integrations- in this case, ask if they have a development partner that they could bring in for support.
Do you build eCommerce sites?
On the integration note: Don’t assume that just because a firm can handle web content sites that focus on lead generation that they can handle complex ecommerce solutions. Building an ecommerce site to handle even a hundred SKUs or products with an intuitive user interface isn’t a task that just anyone can handle- or for which an out of the box solution will be the best fit.
Ask to see examples of some of their ecommerce work, and find out what platform the ecommerce system for each was built on. It often makes the most sense to use an offering that’s coupled with your CMS. Many of the leading CMSs offer an ecommerce platform, including Episerver and Umbraco.
For large ecommerce projects, find out if the firm has experience working with a PIM (product information management) partner.
Will my website be mobile-friendly? How will it be mobile-friendly?
There’s no point in building a website today that isn’t mobile-friendly- more than half of today’s internet browsing is done on mobile devices, and Google has started penalizing websites that aren’t mobile-friendly in their search results. If the firm suggests not creating a mobile-friendly site, run out of the room.
Even if they say yes, don’t stop asking questions there: there are different ways to create mobile-friendly sites, so make sure your site will be responsive or adaptive. Responsive design is the current standard for mobile-friendliness and ensures that you won’t have to maintain a separate mobile instance and that your content and commerce is being delivered to users the way they prefer, intuitively. Additionally, new approaches such as adaptive design and progressive web applications are gaining traction.
Will I be able to talk to my developers?
Make sure you have the option to interface with the developers on your project team directly. Some development firms will hide their developers behind a firewall of project management and request forms, which inflates project management hours and forces you to play a game of telephone even for small tasks and revisions. Connecting directly with your developers and building relationships is especially important as your website transitions into the maintenance and support phase, as you’ll have someone to reach out to directly if your site goes down at a critical moment.
What’s your browser and device compatibility standard? How would adding additional platforms to expand the project scope?
This always an important question to ask and bring back to your IT team. With the incredible variety of internet-enabled devices and browsers (including many out of date ones) in use today, it’s impossible for a development firm to guarantee support for all of them.
Many firms will have a standard that includes a limited number of common devices and the most recent versions of the major browsers (Internet Explorer and Edge, Safari, Firefox, and Chrome). This should be all you really need- except when you discover that one department of your association is still using Windows XP, or that the CEO expects to be able to view the site on his or her Kindle.
If you need to add another platform, make sure to test the waters to see how that would expand the project scope.
Will my website design be consistent with my established brand?
A smaller company might be looking to reinvent itself online, but many larger organizations have well-established, powerful brand identities. Make sure you find out how a design or development firm can preserve the character of your brand online, which is more than just following your branding guidelines.
Ask to see examples of some sites they’ve designed or developed where maintaining a brand identity was a key project goal. What sort of research went into designing the site to make that happen?
What sort of hosting options do you offering? Do you have a cloud option?
Hosting isn’t one of the more glamorous parts of most web projects, but it’s always good to know what hosting looks like going in, if only for one reason: you should know about your cloud hosting options.
These days cloud hosting is the top choice of many firms that are eager to get rid of expensive rack space in hosting facilities, so don’t be surprised if a firm leads with the cloud when you discuss hosting. Sometimes, the CMS provider will actually provide the cloud option for a monthly fee instead of a traditional fixed-price license.
While the idea of a single payment sounds nice, going with the cloud model can mean significantly less hassle with maintenance and support down the road: no hardware to purchase, no fighting for attention from a busy internal IT department, and automatic product upgrades.
How do you measure the success of a web project?
As we mentioned in the introduction, you should avoid any development firm that’s looking for a purely transactional relationship. You want a development firm that has a partner relationship with their clients. This relationship should include helping the client to understand the success of their website after the launch- invaluable for communicating the success of your project back to senior leadership, and for setting the standard for tracking the ROI of the site going forward.
Ask what stats the firm uses to measure success. They should suggest not only the sort of stats that can be found in Google Analytics but also more concrete KPIs, such as sales and leads generated.
After you find out how they measure success, ask what’s perhaps the most important question in this list: What will success look like for me? Don’t forget that you’re building your new site for a reason.
No firm should promise exact numbers, but they should be able to give you a general idea based off of their past projects. If the outcome doesn’t sound impressive, maybe they aren’t the firm for you.
As we’ve hinted at above, a successful web project isn’t just about finding the right agency, it’s also about choosing the right content management system.