Notes & Thoughts

How To Select A Web Design Firm

Whether you’re an entrepreneur with a brand new idea or you work with an established brand looking to improve, finding the right development partner is a critical step in the success of your web project. The good news is you've never had more options. The bad news is it's never been more difficult to find the right one.

Don’t worry, though, there’s still hope. We’ll break down the process and give you a few tips to help you separate the good from the bad to find the perfect web design firm. Let’s start with the obvious.

1. Check The Portfolios

I probably won’t need to work very hard to convince you to begin the selection process by looking through vendor portfolios. You’ll know very quickly if the firm’s design aesthetic and messaging moves you.

There are other details you’ll be able to pick up on the vendor sites, though. Subtle but important details. How long the firm has been in business. Whether they build business systems or simply churn out brochure sites. Who they work with. Et cetera.

Don’t get too caught up in what the site tells you, though. Firms like to include logos of well-known companies. That doesn’t always mean they’ve worked that closely with them. In some cases, it just means someone on the team has worked with them at some point in their career. In other words, expect a little peacocking. Pay more attention to actual site links and case studies.

Don’t be discouraged if everything in the firm’s portfolio seems bigger and higher profile than your own project, by the way. It’s human nature to showcase trophy work. You can be a little concerned, though, if everything in the portfolio is smaller than your project.

2. Get In Touch

Again, I’m not giving away any secrets here. Your next step is probably going to be to send the firm an email. It might be tempting to just pick up a phone and call in, but providing some details in an email gives the firm very important context. It also gives you a great chance to test both the firm’s responsiveness and their interest. That initial reply will speak volumes.

The right team will ask to set up a call. Distance shouldn’t matter, but attentiveness definitely does. The team should ask to hear your requirements firsthand, learning more about you and your project. You’ll have your chance to learn more about them as well, but the most telling quality in a potential development partner is their ability to listen. They should be asking about you, not going on about themselves.

3. Ask About Communication Tools

Some of the most important aspects of a potential partner’s services probably won’t be spelled out on the firm’s website. They won’t be part of the firm’s elevator pitch. This is where you begin to separate the pros from the hobbyists, though.

The main thing you’ll want to know is whether a project manager will be involved to keep the project on track. It’s simply not realistic to produce a large web project without a project manager, but smaller projects benefit greatly as well. Don’t think of this as an added cost. The hours a project manager devotes to scheduling and defining will be made up in spades.

Ask what tools the firm uses for project milestones and collaboration (e.g., Basecamp). This should be a quick topic, but it’s incredibly important. Answers to these questions will let you know both how organized the firm is and how involved they want you to be in the process.

4. Beware Of Unnecessary Steps

Okay, grab your snorkels; we’re going under the surface for a minute to look at a few hidden services that can have a huge impact on project cost.

Lengthy discovery processes, user testing, wireframes, etc. will all add tangible time and cost to a project. The value of these added steps, however, is hard to weigh.

If a firm can demonstrate they consistently pull off complex projects without working through these extra steps, they’re going to save on time and cost to ship. Ask the firm if they’re able to work within tight timelines even if you have a little time to spare. A confident, rapid deployment team makes a great development partner.

5. Make Sure They Understand Business Objectives

At this point in your selection, you’ll know if the firm understands design and code. You’ll know a bit about their project cycle and workflow. The next thing to uncover is whether the firm understands what it takes to make a website successful. Sadly, this is where most firms are sorely lacking.

The right team will ask questions to make sure they understand your goals. Once your business objectives are clear, the firm can set up key performance indicators to measure against goals that tell you how well your site is performing.

Business objectives won’t be mapped out in the initial phone calls, but it should be clear that the firm understands goals and knows how to make them measurable.

6. Ask For A Proposal

An interested firm should be able to give you a set cost for your project. If it isn’t already clear, ask if the quote is Fixed-Bid or Time and Materials.

A Fixed-Bid Proposal will take the most work for a firm to put together but will result in the least chance for surprises for you. A Proposal will focus on the Scope of Work, so ask the firm to explain their hourly rate if it isn’t clear.

A Time and Materials Estimate or Evaluation will focus instead on the forecasted development hours. In this case, you’ll need to make sure you understand exactly what the firm is detailing.

Regardless of whether the firm is Fixed-Bid or Agile (Time and Materials), you need to make sure the proposed budget guarantees a finished product.

Comparing quotes is hard. Many of the details we’ve discussed up to this point can be multipliers in a proposal’s value, so simply comparing numbers is not enough. Don’t be afraid to circle back and clear up or reconfirm anything you’re unsure of.

7. Check References

This step can be quick. Ask for a few references and send them an email. The firm is going to give you contacts they know will talk them up, but simply knowing they have a few clients willing to do so is comforting. Just make sure a few of the references line up with the clients in the firm’s portfolio so you know you aren’t talking to poker buddies.

8. Consider Personalities

This is a professional relationship, but launching a website is very much an emotional endeavor. You’ll be working very closely with the team you choose, so you need to feel good about it.

You want a team to challenge and even push you in constructive ways. You want them to have a personal attachment, to care about your success. And you want them to be reliable, reasonable and fun.

A simple question to ask yourself is: if these were your co-workers – and in many ways they would be – would you enjoy working with them?

9. Repeat As Needed

If you’ve been through the steps and things aren’t adding up, don’t be afraid to move on and look elsewhere. Selecting the right firm is simply too important to rush into blindly. Few other vendor relationships will have such a dramatic impact on your bottom line since your website affects revenue, not just expense.

When you find the right firm, you’ll know. They’ll have a confident story and plenty of visible experience to back it up. It’ll feel good to make the decision. You don’t have to celebrate just yet, but feel free to throw a fist pump into the air or high five a stranger.

When you get it right, it’s a fun and rewarding experience.

Good luck!

About Electric Pulp

Electric Pulp is a full-service interactive firm focused on implementing mission critical solutions on rapid timelines. The creative, nimble team has been helping clients succeed online for nearly 21 years. Get in touch!

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