10 Tips to Finding Great Web Design and Development Services

Gain a better understanding of what to look for in a Web design and development company, how to ask for it and how to ensure that what you pay for is really what you need.

Waking up from a snooze on the way to Australia recently, I chatted a bit with my seatmate over prelanding tea. This well-dressed Englishman's work is to purchase a variety of IT services, and his company has a wide variety of needs and concerns. During our conversation, it became clear that, while he was aware of industry buzz terms such as Ajax and Web 2.0, he admittedly had little idea what they really meant, nor how to find top-quality Web design and development services and solutions for a fair price.


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As we chatted, it became crystal clear to me, as a long-time educator and advocate for professional integrity and best practices in Web development and design, that the buyers of services—the consumers, if you will—have been getting short shrift for a very long time. If I had one valid HTML page for every confused client who's told me something akin to "We paid for the most expensive of the three companies, and it turns out the least expensive is cleaning up the mess they made of our site," I could hand you back a very tidy Web.

Consumer confusion is the result of many individual problems when it comes to website design and development services, but in a nutshell, it boils down to the rapid growth of the Web and the lack of competitive measure available. There are few college degrees in the field and there's little to no relevant professional certification. Even fewer people are capable of measuring a company's quality against any professional standards since the entire field lacks that measure, at least for now.

In an effort to assist CIOs and other technology buyers who are required to make seemingly blind decisions as clearly as possible, I offer the following 10 tips. I hope that folks such as my seatmate on that flight will suffer fewer stumbles and greater wins when purchasing Web design services.

1. Cut through hype

The first step is to take a step back from all the buzzwords of the day. By the time buzzwords appear in the popular press, there's probably a bunch of us in the development trenches pulling out our hair and weeping.

Why? Buzzwords make a developer's life very difficult. Imagine this scenario, based on a real client conversation:

Client: "Hello, how's my favorite Web developer today? I gotta tell you, I just read about this amazing stuff called Ajax and I want it for my site. Can you put Ajax on my site right now?"

Me: "Well, we could examine what kind of interface changes might be enhanced by using technologies such as Ajax and decide from there...."

Client: "Whatever, whatever! Everybody's using Ajax and we should too."

If I asked readers to tell me what Ajax really is, many would be able to do so, but many would be able to give only a vague description. Neither is wrong. If your job is to work with those technologies every day, then it makes sense that you'd have a different perspective from a technology buyer trying to keep up with the latest and greatest website innovations.

For an explanation of the latest buzzwords, see ABC: An Introduction to Web 2.0 and ABC: An Introduction to Enterprise 2.0.

That different perspective impacts the way services are viewed and purchased. In my developer's mind, Ajax is a set of technologies that I might or might not choose to use some or part of to approach a given problem.

So, be wary of buzz, and cut through hype as much as possible. It's the first step to better communication between you and any prospective contractor.

2. Become familiar with key topics

This tip, while closely related to the buzzword concern, is not quite the same but it is equally important if not more so. After you identify potential buzzword issues, the next step entails doing some research on key development needs. This is very challenging, because typically there's pressure to get the website done. Often, that means cutting corners on research—and ending up in trouble down the line.

Because of this, you'll want to sit down and create two lists. The first is the needs list, which consists of such items as "We need some way to address credit card purchases" or "As a banking institution, privacy is of especially high concern to our customers." Make this list as comprehensive as possible, thinking both in terms of current known needs as well as potential issues within your knowledge base that might influence the scale and growth of your online resources.

The second list you should generate is the specialties list. This list will match the types of specialties your site requires as you are able. This will help clarify, for any potential company coming in, how to fill those needs and whether they are capable of addressing them.

3. Recognize that one company might not fit all needs

As your list of needs becomes clearer, the requirement for several types of services may emerge, since not all Web design and development companies offer the same services.

Let's say you end up with the following list results from your research (Table 1):

Table 1: Comparing needs and specialties in Web design and development

Need Specialty
Attractive, usable interface Visual design, user experience design
Secure e-commerce platform Security, commerce, electronic banking
Mobile device site option Mobile development and styling
Database-driven content updates Database development / data integration

This short comparison should make it very clear that you actually might be purchasing several different types of services. Visual and user experience design is one specialized area; database development and integration is a completely different specialty.

One helpful point to keep in mind is that many design and development services establish and maintain strong ties to complementary companies. For example, if you were to hire design and development from company A, that company will often give you a name or even several names of companies they like to work with that can address the widest variety of needs. Just keep in mind whether they're separate companies, so you need to evaluate each of them on its own merits.

4. Look at prior work and portfolios

Examining prior work and existing portfolios is a major phase in finding what you're looking for in a website. However, don't be fooled by attractive sites just because they look attractive to you! This is a very common pitfall for all of us; we each have our own tastes and sense of aesthetics.

The problem isn't the quality of visual design per se but the ability of a designer to create the correct interface for your customers, not for themselves, and not for anyone on your team. Aesthetic judgment alone is misleading.

A pleasing portfolio is an excellent first step, but do go the full distance. Is the company capable of providing programming and related services as well, and to as high a quality? The same is true of the reverse: If you're talking to a company that seems very strong in terms of programming, challenge its aesthetic offerings.

Again, a company that shows strength in a given area, such as user experience design, might not have employees capable of providing some of your other needs. As such, they likely have associates they can recommend to fill in those roles, should you find the "perfect" portfolio.

5. Word of mouth may be your best friend

Often, I'll ask clients who've found a great contracting relationship how they did so. The answer is almost always that they heard about them through a friend or colleague. In the early days of your research, I highly recommend asking around about what other folks have done and what has or hasn't been successful.

I still suggest doing the research and analysis detailed here, but word of mouth can, and most likely will, end up being your best friend when it comes to finding the right services for your company.

6. Require RFPs

I hate RFPs. I hate writing them, doing cost analysis, time to project analysis—all the non-joys that RFPs and their counterparts require of contractors. However, as the consumer, using RFPs can be an excellent way to sort through a wide range of companies that are expressing interest in your business.

It's also an excellent way of figuring out what kind of rate ranges and costs could be involved in your site. That's helpful in your own planning, and very frequently is a point of contention between companies, as there are no pricing standards in the field. As a result, we can't, as illustrated earlier, make decisions based on price; the adage "You get what you pay for" doesn't quite apply in Web design and development the same way it does elsewhere!

For more on RFPs, see Truths and Tips on the Flawed Request for Proposal Process.

7. Conduct interviews with at least three suitable companies

Once you've sorted through potentials and possibilities, it's time to conduct interviews of potential contractors. This is an excellent way for perceptive managers to get a real feel for a company's integrity and its ability to address challenges. The better your "BS detector," the better you can tell when someone isn't answering a question with clarity, even if you don't have technical expertise.

Face-to-face interviews are ideal for this, and I suggest that most professional companies capable of handling your business and interested in working with you for the long term will accommodate that need within a reasonable time frame. This is especially key if your company's needs are great and require long-term management. The face-to-face activity can be an important source of relationship development and communication style for the work to come.

8. Record interviews

At the face-to-face meeting, ask candidates if they are OK with the sessions being recorded. I have found that recording interviews really assists me in listening for any strengths or potential trouble spots that I might not catch during the initial meeting.

You can also use the interviews later on when discussing potential contractors with colleagues and in-house staff. This way, you can get a variety of experienced ears on the candidate's approach, and come to a more comprehensive understanding of the candidates from whom you will be making your selections.

9. Research the online presence of potential candidate companies

With the rise of social networking websites, there are plenty of ways to find out about individual and company candidates. If they have an online presence, go take a look and see what you think. The LinkedIn site is especially good for professional information, including references, company and individual overviews, and the like.

10. It's a small world after all

One area that is greatly difficult for IT buyers is measuring quality. How can you tell if you're getting good service?

There's a very disconcerting story about a buyer a few years ago working for Disney Store United Kingdom. Two years prior, the site had been brought up to date with an excellent e-commerce platform, standards-compliant markup, accessibility features and attractive interface. After two years, another company that offered a redesign and a new commerce platform approached the buyer. The results caused worldwide uproar, citing the resulting online store as "devolutionary design."

The story is an especially sad one because the buyer asked all the right questions. "Will you maintain the standards set forth?" and "Will you keep our site accessible?" were met with the answer "Yes." The buyer, a trusting soul, sadly got burned because, while he knew the right questions, he had no reasonable means to measure the results and unfortunately ended up with some less-than-noble consultants.

Which brings us to the final tip, and that is, should you have any question at all as to how measure quality of work, please spend the consultancy fee for a few days and hire someone with a known ability to evaluate and measure the choices you've made. Typically, you can find such individuals on sites such as LinkedIn (mentioned earlier). Many of the standards groups, such as The Web Standards Project or The Web Standards Group, are excellent places to start. They have many knowledgeable members working worldwide who can provide resources.

Finally, a request from me! Please share your experiences regarding buying Web design and development services publicly. The best way we have to ensure that consumers are fairly represented in today's confusing world of buzzwords and rapidly evolving technologies is to communicate openly with others and tap into the social and networking resources that the Web itself provides us all.

Molly E. Holzschlag works to define and create effective organizational standards and best practices to thousands of developers and designers working on the Web via her books, articles, conferences and consulting. Molly has 20 years of online experience; her strengths lie not only in the technologies and practices of today, but in understanding the complexities of how challenges emerged, and ways in which to manage those challenges in the rapid evolution of today's Web.

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