As a website support company, we see the good, the bad, the ugly (and the really ugly). We hope to help organizations make the right hiring choices when it comes to having their next website built.
What to Prepare and Know Before You Hire a Web Developer or Designer
So you are going to have a website built? You need to decide on the individual or team that is going to do the build for you. Before you speak to one service provider or ask for one referral, do yourself a favor and answer the following questions:
1. Do I have a preferred platform or language that I want the website built?
The platform/language chosen is going to determine the future support options of the website. If you are going to use an open source platform like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla then future support options will be abundant but unregulated. If you choose an enterprise (licensed platform) platform like .NET, support and hosting may cost more but you will find support options more defined. If you choose a proprietary system or one with a smaller user base, support and hosting options might be limited but very well defined.
A developer is going to try to sell you on the platform they know best and this is fine if you have no preference. However, if you have a preference, make it known up front and be sure your developer or team is not learning on your dime.
2. Do I understand the difference between a commercial theme and a custom design? Which one do I want?
Commercial themes are available for many different platforms and basically provide the design for the website. Commercial themes typically cost between $0 and $50 and allow a website to be setup very quickly. These are great options for budget tight projects but can pose many limitations to design, functionality and performance. Customization will also be limited, determined by how the theme was built (I would argue even skilled developers can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear).
Custom designs allow you to define exactly what you want your website to look like and how you want it to function. However, this process can be timely and cost significantly more than an off-the-shelf theme option.
Ask your developer/designer how they approach the theming of their websites and what that means to cost, timeline, support, performance, and future scalability.
3. Is my website going to do something unique, complex or special that requires custom development, or is it essentially an online marketing brochure?
There is nothing wrong with an online marketing brochure and I highly recommend you keep things as simple as possible. Complexity is going to add cost, time and require future support. Document the features/functions your website will need to have and maybe even a few you would like it to have. Share these with your potential developer/designer so that they have a very clear picture of what they are to build.
4. What is my timeline?
We typically find that websites take 3-6 weeks to design and develop but this is a very subjective and a very rounded timeline. The timeline can of course vary greatly by the size, complexity, platform, development/design team or many other factors. Share your deadline with your developer and express the importance of that deadline. In other words, did you just pick a due date because that sounded convenient (at the end of the month, before the new year, etc.) or do you have an event, marketing campaign or other factor that is determining the deadline which can not be missed without major impact to your business? Share this with your developer/designer. A good developer or team will be busy and need to schedule accordingly. Hiring a team or individual and then surprising them with a tight deadline is no way to start a project.
Development vs. Design
People often lump design and development into a single discipline. This is in part because it’s hard to throw a rock and not hit someone who calls themselves a website designer and developer. They do this because they provide both these services to their clients. However, and I made this point earlier, I believe these to be very different skill sets.
Sure, there are people out there that do both fairly well, however, given the fact that there are also people out there that make a very solid living being just a designer or just a developer. I am going to argue that they are very different skills and no one can do both equally as well.
In fact, these skill sets are broken down even further within the web development industry: UX/UI experts, designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, server “engineers”, etc. My point is not to discourage you from hiring a single freelancer but to evaluate their skill set very carefully. Do not assume that because they say they are both programmer and designer that they are good at both.
Please take my warning when I tell you that I have seen some incredibly designed websites that are rat’s nests of code that cause the owners headache after headache and dollar after dollar. I have also seen websites that have gone to such an incredible level of programming that it would make even the most confident programmer question their skills, but resemble the interface to Microsoft Word – in 1999. OK, OK maybe I am exaggerating a little bit but I hope you get my point.
Personally, I would rather have a website built by a good programmer and an OK designer than the other way around. Design is subjective but clean code, site performance and reliability are not.
Please consider my comparison of skills between developer and designer as you give thought to your next website. This may affect your decision of whether you hire a freelancer, studio, or agency, but more importantly, I hope it affects how you think about your website project as a whole.
KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid
Humans have a propensity to complicate the hell out of things. We all do it and I think when we are dealing with complex things like software and servers we often assume that the complexity is “built in.” We also tend to want do something new rather than stay with the old. However, try to avoid reinventing the wheel. Complex custom functions may not be necessary, innovative design might answer some complex user experience challenges, or a simple email contact form might work as well as an API integration. Complexity adds cost up front and down the road when support is needed.
Challenging a designer to write complex custom software will get similar results as challenging a developer to do cutting-edge design. Of course, if you choose to work with a studio or agency, specialists may be available for your project, but think about long term support and the effort and costs involved with that. Will you be able to get someone to work within that fancy framework, that cutting-edge design or complex custom software piece? What will it cost and what is the lifespan before the design is tossed aside as a short-term fad or the 3rd party integration must be overhauled because of an upgrade on the provider’s side?
My point: do what you need to do. Make sure your website provides the functions your audience(s) require and do so in a clean, easy-to-navigate interface. Don’t try to impress them with new (mostly unneeded) features or cutting-edge design. Keep things as simple as possible during your build and know you can always enhance the site over time. This will help keep your budgets reasonable, your timeline realistic and your design/development team sane … seriously developers are notoriously moody people and we hate complexity for the sake of complexity or design for the sake of design.
Remember, form should always follow function.
Your Website Development/Design RFP
You don’t necessarily need a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) in order to find a developer/designer for your next project. Agreements can be made on brief descriptions, pre-defined service packages or whatever seems to fit. However, I am a developer of 20 years and I am here to tell you that you absolutely need an RFP (a good RFP) if you are going to get a custom website designed and/or developed.
The RFP is initially more for you than the developer. It’s a chance to get all your wants, needs, and expectations down in writing. It’s simply not enough to say, “We need a small business website with a professional design.” You need to define a scope for this project. The project scope will allow you to set your own expectations as well as setting those of your design/development team.
I will tell you that I have talked a lot of people who are not happy with the team or individual that initially built their website and the number one complaint is typically, “they just didn’t get what I wanted.” So let me ask, who’s fault is that? Sure, there are people out there that just don’t get it and I am the first to admit that developers are a stubborn group. But if they weren’t “getting it,” why was that? I’m going to bet, after much experience in the client services space, that it’s not that they didn’t get it because they were stupid, but that they didn’t get it because it wasn’t communicated effectively, expectations weren’t set, time got long and money got short.
Skip the BS
Write an RFP, do not skip this step! However, please skip all the bullshit phrases like “mobile first design,” “social media integrations,” “database control,” “dynamic,” “fresh,” “should be able to make changes to the site without paying for support,” “efficient design and development cycle,” “must allow third-party API integration” and “easy to navigate.” These are all bullet points that I have seen more than once in RFPs over the years. Here’s the thing, these phrases mean nothing to your developer or at least don’t set a true expectation. Let’s translate some of these, ie: turn them from meaningless industry diarrhea into meaningful RFP points:
Mobile First Design: Website should be responsive and display cleanly on devices of all sizes from desktops to mobile phones. (Your developer should have said “duh” to this one and if not do not hire them.)
Social Media Integrations: Visitors to our site should be able to share our blog articles to their social media accounts, links to our own social media profiles should be prominent within the design and we would like our latest Tweet to appear within our blog pages as well as our home page.
Dynamic and Fresh: We are looking for a clean simple design which includes text and images and allows our content to take center stage. We do plan on using video more in the future but do not currently utilize video within our content. Here are some sites from within our industry that we like various features of … in particular, we like the sticky navigation feature and the blog layout. If you do not know the terms for elements you like, take a screenshot and grab the URL to include in your RFP.
Should be able to make changes to the site without paying for support: We would like to use a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress so that we can easily edit and add content to the website without relying on a programmer. In particular, we would like the ability to add executive bios, blog posts, and new pages to the website.
Efficient design and development cycle: Our business will be attending a trade show on April 15-21, 20—. This is a high visibility opportunity for us and we hope to have the website up and finalized by then. We would like the website to be launched 2 weeks before the event so that we can deal with any critical issues or refinements prior to the event. Please make sure your team is aware of this “soft launch” and is available to continue work post launch to finalize the site for the show.
Must allow third-party API integration: Our organization uses Salesforce to track sales leads and we subscribe to the Enterprise plan with Salesforce. The website contact forms must integrate with Salesforce. In addition, we use MailChimp for our newsletter and the newsletter subscribe form should add new signups to our list in Mailchimp.
Easy to navigate: Our organization is very much focused on our executives and their publications. We would like to ensure that site visitors are able to access these executive profiles and white papers quickly and even highlight a sampling of each on the home page.
It’s Your Project, Define It
Your RFP should boil down to a checklist of criteria with no vagueness or interpretation-needed. Your development team should be able to use this document to write a proposal (“price” because we all know you will skip all the text and go straight to the pricing page) and then you (and your development team) should be able to use this document to develop a detailed scope that can be literally checked off upon delivery.
Vagueness, such as the all too popular meaningless points I refer to above, leaves things open to interpretation which leads to bad scheduling and pricing. Nothing derails a project faster than one party thinking they are paying too much, or the other party thinking that demands exceed budget. It’s also important to remember that development is a timely process and an accurate timeline cannot be given unless the criteria of the project are clear.
I have had clients (mostly in my early years) that assumed that a new website would include content, images and hosting. You know what they say about “assume,” don’t ya? The point here is to put absolutely everything you are going to need from our service provider into this RFP document. Do not assume that they will know anything. I often tell my clients that I work like the computers I program for: I only do only as I am told.
Of course there is the argument that you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t think about this as a technical exercise (unless you are actually a technical person). Leave the technical stuff to the development team, put it in plain English what you expect from this project. Share this document with your team, coworkers and/or consultants and make sure it is as solid as possible before soliciting bids. Again, think “checklist” not concept or idea.
A detailed and concise RFP will greatly increase your chances of finding the right development team, getting an honest price, keeping your project on schedule, and in the end accepting delivery on a product that will last you for years to come.