10 Things to Consider When Hiring a Web Development Company
It’s notoriously hard to find good web app developers and web development companies – demand outstrips supply, resumes and websites are filled with technical jargon, and the best people are in such high demand that it can be difficult to even get their attention. Signing a contract with the wrong web development firm can cost you time and money, neither of which are abundant if you are just starting out.
If you’re looking to outsource a website development project to a web company, here are some simple things that you can do to mitigate your risk and avoid frustration in the future.
1. Know if you need a “conventional website” or a “web application”
Most organizations need a conventional website with pages of static information – or they need a blog or a shopping cart system, which can easily be powered by cheap, ready-made software. Others have needs that will likely require code to be custom developed for them – for instance, if they need to do the following things:
- streamline their company’s unique logistics
- let people log in and share data in highly custom ways
- develop an online product/service that exists nowhere else
- integrate with a back-end system, like a finance, ERP or payment system
If you’re in the latter boat, be very, very picky with the web development firm you choose. The lion’s share of a development firm’s customers will ask for features common to a conventional website; as a result, the majority of developers are well-versed in working with these typical website elements (blogs, shopping carts, etc.). Despite claims to the contrary, many web development companies do not have the expertise needed to create custom-built systems from scratch. Thus, if you’re building a web application that goes beyond ready-made components, be prepared to be picky; you will need to seek out a firm that has the full range of relevant expertise, which may include traditional web design, software engineering, user interface optimization, web analytics, and more. Knowing the scope of your project is crucial to finding a firm that can realize your vision.
2. Ask for references
It seems obvious, but many people skip this critical step. Don’t be sucked in by a flashy portfolio! Even if a company has produced websites and web applications that seem amazing, you can’t tell whether these projects were delivered on time and under budget. The stellar results might have arisen from tooth-and-nails conflicts between a development company and its clients. Companies with great looking portfolios should be able to give you at least two, or ideally three, great references from satisfied clients.
3. Make sure you know who will be doing the actual work
Don’t assume that those camera-ready designs highlighted on a firm’s website were built by the same development team who is assigned to your contract. Make a point of asking about the actual people who will be working with you. Since you should be getting references anyway, it won’t hurt to request that at least one reference be from a client who worked with the same people who are expected to be on your team. Before signing on the dotted line, make sure you’ve had a chance to talk directly to the primary members to ensure they understand and are excited about your vision. And make sure you understand their expertise.
4. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is
As in many technical domains, when hiring a web app developer, expect to get what you pay for – which is to say, if you pay very little, the quality, quantity, and timeliness of the project may suffer. If you are building something and you need it to be customized, quick, and complete, don’t be surprised when the estimated cost is high. This is particularly true for web apps that must be built from scratch – it’s more likely in these cases that your developers will need to come up with creative solutions to problems that they’ve never encountered before. That means you’ll need creative and experienced software developers. Creative and experienced software developers are more expensive, but they are also more likely to get your product right the first time.
5. Ask for source files
It’s amazing how many companies are unable to make simple changes to their websites after their relationship with their chosen web firm has ended. To prevent this from happening, be sure that you’ll get all the source files when the project is completed. These might be Photoshop and Illustrator files, up-to-date descriptions of your database structures, as well as access to code repositories, login credentials for site hosting, etc. This is particularly important if you expect to eventually hire your own development staff or take over site management yourself, or if you foresee a future need to change development firms. Add it to your contract and make sure the development firm you hire is absolutely transparent in this regard. By ensuring your access now, you’ll be prepared to take on a new web development company later.
6. Keep the communication channels open
Have a frank discussion with your team about their preferred channels and styles of communication, as well as your own. If you work best with frequent, detailed updates about project progress, make sure your project manager knows this and that he or she budgets time for these interactions. If you’d rather have occasional, brief, high-level updates and follow the progress using a project management tool, say so. Similarly, if your web development firm says they do their best brainstorming during real-time interactions with clients, make sure you set aside periodic chunks of time. Be particularly careful if you know that your development team works in a different time zone. Everyone benefits when communication is strong!
7. Respect the process
Ask your web app development company about what process they use, and resist the urge to switch them to your process if theirs differs from yours. Your firm should be able to give you a detailed list of delivery dates, milestones, and a list of what they will need from you at every point in time. Be sure to schedule enough time on your calendar to give them what they need, when they need it, lest you become the bottleneck in your own workflow.
8. Start writing the content NOW
If you will be providing your own content for your site or web app, be warned that this process – which seems simple – always takes much longer than you think! If you figure that you can bang out your website’s copy in a week, I suggest that you set aside five full weeks instead – and don’t forget to budget time for things like FAQs, Terms of Service agreements, legal disclaimers, etc. If that’s too much time, hire a professional writer, clone yourself four times, or invest in sophisticated time travel equipment that can travel backwards once the project is finished. Whatever’s easiest.
9. Keep your old search engine rankings!
Sometimes you will need to redevelop an existing website – whether because you are taking your company in a new direction or because you are adding a new service to a web app. When the structure of your site changes, it can create two major problems. First, you risk losing customers when their top search engine result brings them to a 404 (file not found) error. Second, any search engine optimization that was built around your previous domain and subdomain structure could be lost when your content is shifted into its new location. You’ve put a lot of work into establishing your existing business – don’t lose it! Make sure that your development firm sets up 301 redirects, which tell search engines to update their indices.
10. Consider hiring a technical advocate
You might want to ask – and pay – a trusted friend or acquaintance who has a background in technical strategy or software engineering to help you vet vendors, understand the technical jargon that web development companies might throw your way, make sure the work is getting done properly, and advocate on your behalf. Investing a small sum to hire someone for, say, an hour a week during the course of the project can save you significant money and time that might otherwise be wasted with a firm that isn’t equipped to complete your project.