How to Choose a Good Web Design Firm: Part II

Picking a qualified web developer to either create or redo your website can be a very tricky and daunting task. Especially today where anyone with a laptop, a phone, an internet connection and someplace to work from (a table at Starbucks perhaps) can call themselves a web designer. Because of this low barrier cost of entry, it entices many (often unqualified) people to believe that they can make a quick buck at developing websites. So how does one determine who is reputable and who isn't?  Where do you begin?

How does one determine who is reputable and who isn't?

In Part I of this series we revealed that a good design firm usually has several employees working for it as usually one individual cannot be an expert in all areas.   In Part II of this series we will look at what characteristics and qualifications you should look at before selecting your web developer. It is not as daunting a task as you might think if you know what to look for.

Essentially there are four key areas that you need to assess.  These include the developer's technical knowledge, their design talent, communication skills and their references. These also happen to be the same qualities you would evaluate when conducting a job interview, which is what this is, albeit a very informal one. We will examine each of these areas in turn.

Technical Knowledge

Ultimately putting together a website is a technical exercise. This means writing HTML code, creating style sheets, setting a up a database, and providing additional functionality through the use of JavaScript or Flash (which means writing computer code). While there are several tools available that help hide or automate the most technical aspects of assembling a website, it doesn't eliminate the necessity of knowing the technical details. If something should go wrong with your website at a fundamental level, it is good to know that your web designer will be able to fix it promptly because they know how. If your web developer cannot explain how everything works and links together then that could be a potential problem as they will have to defer to someone else (usually an outside firm) to fix these types of issues which will cost you additional time and money.

Possessing indepth technical knowledge permits the developer to know what is and isn't possible and steer you away from potential problems. But how can you tell if the web developer you have selected possesses the required knowledge or not? Here is a list of the key technologies they should know:

  • HTML5 (the code that creates a web page)
  • CSS3 (the code that makes a web page look beautiful)
  • JavaScript (the code that adds functionality to your website - like photo galleries)
  • PHP (the code that glues everything together)
  • Content Management Systems (the system that allows you to easily manage your website)
  • Databases (like MySQL that stores all the information contained on your website)

By knowing these key technologies, they can build any type of website you can think of. Ask your designer if they know these components and what their expertise level is with each of them. In Part III of this series, we will show you how to verify their claims.

Communication Skills

Good communication between you and your designer is crucial in order to create a brilliant website. How well you communicate what you want, what you need, and what you expect is essential in getting the website you want. How your designer responds to your communications is equally important. They should be helpful, friendly and always willing to explain or clarify points you may not understand in a non technical manner. They should always be responsive to your queries and not make you wait days before they get back to you.

Having good communications is about creating real relationships. You want to be sure that you have found someone who you can respect, trust and feel comfortable with. This will create a positive foundation for effectively working with your web developer. If you find it's hard to communicate with your designer or they are slow in responding, or you mistrust them, then look for someone else.

Design Talent

To assess the talent of a designer, you should always look at their portfolio. Any designer worth their grain of salt will have a display of their work located somewhere on their website. This will allow you to get a sense of their design style and see if it meshes with your aesthetics. Some items to look out for when viewing their portfolio:

  1. Are the samples displayed sufficiently varied or do they all look the same? If they all look similar to each other, with exception of the colours and images used, then that is a good indication that the designer is using the same template over and over again to create their sites. This is usually an indicator that the designer either doesn't have very good design skills and/or does not have the adequate technical knowledge to create a fully customized website. Templated websites allow anyone to quickly change basic colours, backgrounds and other images in order to produce a generic website that somewhat reflects your brand. But no matter how you dress it up, the website still looks and feels the same as all the other websites created by that same template. If you are interested in differentiating yourself from your competitors then this is not the route to go.
  2. Do the samples in their portfolio reflect the features or functionality you are looking for?  If you are looking for an ecommerce site, does their portfolio include examples of ecommerce sites they have created? If it is possible, and it usually is, visit the actual site and test the functionality and/or features you are interested in. Is it easy to use? Is it visually appealing? If their portfolio doesn't have examples of the type of sites you are looking for, then that may be an indication that they lack the skills required to implement it. However, it could just as easily be that no one has asked them to create a website like the one you would like so always follow up with the designer and determine if they have the required skill to implement what you want.

References/Word of Mouth

You should always check references before hiring anyone. Unlike other industries, checking references for web design firms is exceptionally easy to do as most design firms openly display who their clients are on their portfolio page. If the company is reputable, they should be able to provide you a list of references upon request without hesitation. Cross referemce the list withe the designers portfolio to ensure that they are indeed past clients. If the names don't match up, then that could be a potential problem. Ask for clarification as to why this is so, as there may be a reasonable explanation for it.

Once you have the list, call those references. Some questions to ask might include: were they easy to work with? Were they personable and friendly? Were they quick to respond to questions and concerns? Were they happy with the result? etc. Make sure you are happy with the answers supplied and follow up on those answers that seem inadequate or vague.

Check their reputation online. This can be done by either visiting Twitter or Facebook or searching any mentions of their name (or online handles). If you should find any negative comments posted, then take note of them and ask the designer about them. Give them a chance to explain the comment before jumping to any conclusions. If the comment is legitimate and the web designer is reputable, they will explain the situation and how it was remedied.  If the answer provided seems satisfactory to you and you still have a good feeling about them then it should be a good fit. If the answer is evasive or defensive and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then it might be a good idea to find someone else.

If you found these tips helpful or have other tips to offer then please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.