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6 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Web Development Company

Hiring a web development firm to design and build a website can be daunting—time consuming and resource intensive. 

Finding a development company to work with can feel a like finding a mechanic you can trust to work on your car. Here are six questions that will give you confidence to start the process today.

1. Where is the site going to be hosted?

Your site has to live somewhere, some organizations handle hosting themselves, but most don’t. I would argue that virtually none should. Hosting a website sounds trivial at first, but it can have a lot of hidden complexities.

You don’t need to have a host lined up before hiring a firm, but you should ask teams you’re interviewing for a web development project which host they recommend. Experienced teams will have one or more that they enjoy working with, and will steer you away from places they’ve had problems with in the past.

Some questions to consider when choosing a host are:

  • How are backups handled?

    Start with the assumption that worst case scenarios will happen frequently. If your whole site were to be erased, how much data loss is acceptable, and what is the minimum you need for a satisfactory recovery?

  • Do you want to be able to review changes privately before making them live on your site?

    Some hosts have a built in workflow that includes testing and development sites that are automatically configured. This makes it easy to review a site in a place that isn’t as public as your main domain name. Any development shop worth anything will set this up on their end to show you the site before making it live, but having this built into your hosting means you can try out changes yourself before making them live and/or your development site can survive past a shop moving on to other jobs.

  • How much traffic do you expect your site to get and can the web host handle it?

    Some organizations will get a handful of hits per month and virtually any web host will be adequate for their site, others will get a constant stream of hits and will need a robust web server that is configured to handle that volume of traffic. Generally speaking, if you’re getting more than a couple hundred hits a month, a shared server (GoDaddy, BlueHost, HostGator…) is off the table and should not be considered.

  • Hosting Cost

    Often we see clients looking for the cheapest hosting option, but we tend to warn them away from the cheapest. Cheap often comes with downsides: security vulnerabilities, performance issues and the additional costs associated with lack of developer tools. Usually paying a little extra for a better server and better tool sets will actually save you in the long-run. Think strategically. Cheap has its costs.

2. How are website software updates handled?

A content management system (CMS) is a software package. Just like your phone, or computer, it needs to be updated. These updates can have implications for ongoing costs to the site.

Security vulnerabilities will be found and your site can be hacked into if they aren’t fixed. If you’re thinking “That doesn’t matter to me, there’s nothing mission-critical on my website” then you’re wrong. Your website forms a part of your official identity, a hacker could alter the content of your site, or cause your site to redirect to material that could hurt your reputation.

If you have a technical person on staff you may be able to handle these updates internally, if not, then you need to have a plan for site updates. Some firms will offer maintenance contracts to handle site updates, some will tell you that you’re on your own. Either way, before you commit to working with a shop, make sure you know how you’re going to handle your site updates.

3. Who is responsible for writing your website’s content – internal or contractor?

Web projects can take a lot of time. Depending on the size that means weeks to months, maybe much longer.

While your developers are working on the designs and code for your site you should be working on the content. We advise clients to start writing content as soon as the sitemap is in place.

Other time sinks in the content process are: 

  • Finding good photography. Sometimes you need to generate more.
  • Passing content to management and higher-ups to approve writing.

Bottom line: Do not leave this until the last minute.

4. Who is your point of contact with the web development shop? Who is their point of contact in your organization?

Things will work easier if both parties have one person to serve as a point of contact for the other. If possible, these two people should be passing most of the communications to each other. This is not to say that this is the only direct contact happening, and it shouldn’t be. There will be times that an in-house designer will need to pass on design notes to the designer working on the project, or people in your organization testing the site will need to pass on bug reports to the developer.

But what you want to avoid is having people on your end communicating directly with the developer asking for changes to features, or even entirely new features. That can lead to absolute chaos, as people in your organization may not know what the scope of your contract with the developer is, and now could be asking them to change or build something costly.

I personally have gotten requests from people working for our clients that would have added thousands of dollars to the budget of a project. Anytime I get requests for alterations or additions from someone who isn’t the point person, I make sure to ask the point person about it and make sure it’s ok, but not everyone is going to be so careful.

5. What tools does this shop use to facilitate communications?

Big projects, no matter what kind, can be messy. They take a lot of time, involve a lot of people, and iterations of design, development, and testing.

Keeping your communications organized will be critical. Working with a firm that has addressed this problem and can tell you what tools they use is very important. If you ask about tools they use to facilitate communications and you hear, “Email” in the response, that’s a red flag.

At the very least you should have access to a task management system, hopefully one that can double as an issue tracker. Ideally, some kind of project-centric instant messaging service should be in there as well, but that isn’t as essential.

Generally, you want to avoid situations where communications can be lost, or multiple threads of conversations can happen about the same topic.

If I email the designer about a header image, and the designer emails you about it, that’s now two threads of communication about a single topic. The designer isn’t a super-human, that person needs to remember which decisions have been made about that header image. They may remember something got said in ‘some email,’ but can’t remember to who or when.

With a task management system you have a Header Image task, and everyone just comments there about the header image. Everyone sees everything being said about it, so you all remain on the same page.

6. What are you trying to accomplish with your website?

You need a website, but why?

What do you want out of it? A good web development shop will ask you this question, a great one will help you answer it by interviewing stakeholders, customers/constituents, and board members. But in all reality, you should have a handle on this before you even sit down with a third party.

A good place to start is by finishing this sentence: “When someone visits our website I want them to _____”.

We often suggest to clients to think about the top 3 things you want site visitors to see and do and focus on those. A lot of organizations can end up with unfocused sites—huge things that try to be and do everything. Or they end up with iceberg sites, where there’s a vast amount of content hidden beneath a deceptively sparse homepage. Think about it this way: Do you want people to be signing up for your email list? Then highlight the signup form so you see it immediately when the page loads.

Do you have a large media library you’re trying to have accessed? Don’t hide the only link to it in a dropdown menu, highlight it multiple times on the homepage with some kind of featured item area, and maybe a slider that highlights categories. Looking for donations? Make it impossible to miss the donate button and highlight what donations are being used for with your site.

A good firm will help you think strategically about your web development goals and flesh out a strong plan of action. Ultimately, you should have a handle on your goals before talking to anyone. No one knows your organization like you do, so getting this legwork done before hiring someone else will mean that you’re going to get more for your money in the long run.

Need Help? Contact Rootid.

Of course, if you need additional help, or have more questions.  Contact us!