In the modern landscape of web technologies, it’s incredibly easy to feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and misinformed when approaching an agency to take on a web project - so how do you make sure you pick well?
With the web becoming such a lucrative revenue stream and business platform, it’s become a necessity to have a great website as part of a joined up digital strategy - this means constantly staying ahead of your competition. With a huge variety of site builders, social automation tools and out of the box solutions, the first question you may ask yourself is, why do I even need to approach an agency?
Why do I need an agency?
As previously mentioned, there are a vast amount of out of the box solutions to enhance your online presence. Although these may seem great, they are often a short term solution to your problem.
Modern web technologies are evolving so fast, it’s increasingly difficult to keep up, the idea of a seamless internet is now essentially a reality - with combined mobile and tablet usage recently overtaking desktop for the first time, it’s now more necessary than ever to have a fully scalable web presence. A responsible agency is a positive first step to make it all a bit less daunting.
There are a few things you can do before approaching an agency that will help them (and you) understand your needs.
Assessing your needs
What are your end goals?
“What’s the fundamental and most important purpose of this website?” - figuring this out will potentially be key when approaching an agency, for example, you may be looking to sell your products online, with this in mind you can tailor your search around agencies that have past experience with ecommerce projects.
- Your end goals should be the main reasons for taking the project on
What do you want to achieve?
After you’ve figured out your end goals, you’ll want to have a solid idea as to what you’d like the website to achieve on a business level. A couple of examples may be:
- Enquiries directly from the website
- Number of sales
- Signups to some form of application
- Visitors per day/week/month/year
- Social engagement
Having a solid understanding of this will help an agency approach the strategy, the way they work and the cost incurred.
How will you measure success?
Similar to the above, you’ll want a good idea as to how you’re likely to measure success. You may break this down into monthly or yearly goals
Now you have a pretty solid understanding of what you want from your online presence, it’s a good idea to get clued up on what to look for in an agency. The questions below are a good starting point for any project, no matter what the end goal.
How do they start a job?
This may initially seem like a simple question, but it can be helpful in spotting potential early warning signs when approaching an agency. A great agency will often want to schedule an initial meeting in which they can discuss the project in depth, this will allow stakeholders to communicate what it is they are looking to achieve, and is the best way to approach a new project.
After an initial meeting, a great next step would be to perform a discovery phase. Simply put, a discovery phase is a period of collaborative research and analysis before the build phase of a project.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some agencies will jump straight in and produce design concepts without taking the time to fully understand your company’s objectives.
Do they have case studies?
It’ll be quite common for agencies to have case studies of previous work, this is a great way for you to understand how they approached projects in the past, and (if you’re relatively tech savvy) gain an understanding of how their build process works. A good idea is to ask if they’ve worked with clients similar to you in the past and ask them for their specific case studies. If they can’t provide anything it’s usually a warning sign.
Another approach (if they don’t have public case studies) is to ask for examples of problems other clients have approached them with and how the dealt with them.
How much of their work is done in-house?
There are many moving parts when it comes to building for the web, so it’s a good idea to get a feeling for how much of the work will be done in-house. Outsourcing development is becoming quite a popular trend with many agencies (often to save time or money) but it can sometimes cause issues related to miscommunication which will extend the timeline of your project build, as well as make future updates more difficult.
Ideally, you want a good internal team working solely on your project from the beginning, projects generally run much smoother when all people are invested in a project from the beginning.
What Content Management System (CMS) do they use?
A content management system (CMS) is simply an application that allows you to edit the content on your website. A good agency will be able to demo the CMS they suggest to you, which will be a good overview of whether it fits your needs. There are a variety of different platforms out there, all with their own unique features, a great agency will be able to suggest one tailored to your specific needs
Do they design and develop mobile-first?
As previously mentioned, combined mobile and tablet usage recently overtook desktop for the first time in history, meaning it’s now even more important than ever to be developing mobile first. Historically, designs have generally been mocked up from the biggest screen down to the smallest - meaning that the focus and strategy would be specifically tailored and designed for the full desktop view, often meaning mobile would have important features removed.
The mobile-first design philosophy essentially revolves around approaching the design process with mobile considerations and constraints from the very start, and then working your way up from there. This way the designer ensures they are including the primary features for mobile, and additionally adding secondary features to the desktop experience.
There are a multitude of reasons you should be prioritising this methodology, but the main and most important is speed - nowadays speed really matters, Google recently started looking at loading time as an optimisation factor, and less recently started prioritising mobile friendly sites on mobile search.
Do they use version control?
Version control, also known as revision control or source control, is the management of changes across documents, programs and large websites. Using VCS (Version Control Software) allows web developers to keep a versioned copy of their codebase in a repository, making it incredibly easy to collaborate on, roll back and update. The most common VCS is called Git, which provides a fully-fledged repository with complete history and full version tracking abilities independent to network access or a central server.
This is a key factor to look for when choosing an agency, a good agency will offer full integration of version control which will allow you to keep track of development changes, easily collaborate at a later date and handle the issue of security when it comes to your code base.
What’s their QA process?
Quality assurance (QA) is a way of preventing mistakes or defects in manufactured products and avoiding problems when delivering solutions or services to customers. It is a very important factor to consider when developing a website, with a multitude of different browsers, operating systems and mediums to view websites on, having an intricate QA process in place should be essential.
QA boils down to bug finding, code review, and making sure the feature or product does what it should do, while looking at the product through the end user's eyes. A good agency will want to take pride in their work, and gain a reputation for high quality work - having a solid QA process is a vital step to making this happen.
A good development focused process would maybe look something like this:
- Multiple development environments to test in - ideally a development, staging and live environment. This will help when releasing features, bugfixes and updates as you’ll have a bridge between environments.
- Automated code tests - these will help find common bugs and issues before live code is actually deployed.
- Peer based code reviews - not necessarily just to catch bugs, but also to give a second human opinion on the structure and efficiency of the code.
- Version controlled, branched features and hotfixes, this will allow multiple developers to keep track of revisions.
- Thorough component and browser testing throughout the entire duration of the project, not just a final thought at the end.
Do they fit your budget?
Web design and development is an intricate process that requires time and collaboration between client, designer, developer and (often) marketer. It is a common misconception that these services are sold as a product, when in reality they are more of an ongoing service. This misconception often leads to the impossible question of “how much is a website?”
Pricing of a website, much like a car, can differ massively depending what you’re after. Without getting too tied up in the details of website pricing, the most important thing is that you’re approaching someone whose price fits your budget and who are comfortable with taking on your project. A couple of things to take into consideration are:
- Agencies take different approaches and charge different prices
- It is incredibly hard to provide a fixed price for a fixed ‘product’ on a scalable, ongoing web project
- Is the agency you’re talking to a good fit to your scale and budget? Do they have past experience with similarly sized projects / quotes?
- Are they massively over or under other quotes? If so are they offering more or less, can they justify the price? Being cheaper isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Finally, do you actually like them?
All of these questions are pretty important, but the bottom line is do you actually like the agency? It may sound trivial, but web projects can often take considerable time and lead to genuinely great business relationships. If you’re initial thought is “these guys are dicks”, we’d recommend going elsewhere.