So you’ve decided to hire a web developer to build a site for your business. Trouble is, there are lots of web development companies out there. From graphic design studios to photoshop studios to freelance front end developers on Upwork, choosing the right team (or person) can seem overwhelming.
There are even variations among freelancers and among agencies. Everyone does web design differently!
A lot of small business owners just sit back, shrug their shoulders, and say, “Well, that option makes sense. I guess we’ll go with it.” Then they hope for the best. Sometimes, it works out. But other times, well…
Let’s just say that many wish they’d chosen differently – or at least done more research before making such a consequential decision.
Just like buying a hatchback, trying a low-carb diet, or getting your kid a hamster, hindsight is 20/20 when you hire a web design company. You’ll have several, “I wish I knew ____ before ____” moments. It’s normal.
Unless, that is, you read through the 5 “wish you knews” we’re about to cover. And internalize them. And keep them close.
You’ll be far more prepared than the typical small business owner boarding the new website train. You’ll also be empowered to make the best decision for you, your brand, and your business. Let’s get started!
1. Web design and development can take forever… or no time at all.
Hire a big design agency with a complicated chain of command, and you’re bound to spend weeks or months waiting for your new website. That’s not the case all the time, but it’s common.
Big design agencies typically have multiple people working on your project. First, there’s the salesperson, who sets expectations for what the process is like and what your website might look like. Then you meet a project manager who gathers requirements. After that, you work with copywriters, designers, and the project manager at the same time as things get sorted out. There are wireframes, mockups, and weekly dial-ins. After that, they send your project off to developers. You typically don’t talk to the developers, though. They’re off practicing the dark arts coding in a dimly lit room.
And if your agency has high turnover, you might have multiple project managers throughout the life of the thing.
The good news is that you might really love your website after it’s done. The bad news is that you typically wait a really really long time.
You might think you can avoid this scenario by hiring a freelancer or, *gasp* using a low-cost website builder. Unfortunately, there are problems with these options as well.
A freelancer is not a freelancer is not a freelancer. Some are speedy and talented. Others are talented but also slow and unresponsive. And those website builder tools? They might not result in the website you want as quickly as you want it. There’s still a learning curve, and it’s not uncommon to spend days – weeks even – trying to make something that doesn’t look generic and doesn’t compromise on your vision.
With those concerns in mind, here are some ways to avoid an interminable website build process:
- Talk to a web design company’s past clients to find out how long their build process lasted.
- Ask companies on your short list why projects often get delayed. When you know the potential pitfalls ahead of time, you can take steps to avoid them (or hire someone else).
- Start with a requirement for when the website needs to be complete. Tell the companies you might hire, “I need my website launched by [specific date]” and see if they flinch.
We actually think one week is a reasonable timeframe for building most business websites.
2. Plan to collaborate.
Wouldn’t it be nice if hiring a web designer was like hiring a cleaning crew? You’d just greet them at the door, go about your business, and pay them when they were done. They get in and get out – no collaboration needed.
When it comes to building a new website, plan on having some pretty detailed collaboration with the web design company. Whether the collaboration occurs online or over the phone, you’ll be communicating with the company about:
- Brand attributes, including voice, style, and tone
- Specific business goals related to the website
- Logos, colors, and layouts
- Content, including language, images, and videos that appear on specific pages
And so on. The designer can’t know all of this stuff without asking you, so it’s a good idea to gather as much information as you can before the project kicks off.
Content, in particular, is something you’ll need to have a handle on from the get-go. Speaking of…
3. Content creation is hard.
Not only is it hard – it’s often the most time-consuming aspect of the website design process. Thinking back to #1 above, content creation (or a lack of it) is notorious for delaying a new website beyond its anticipated launch date.
That might sound scary, but you know what? You can avoid the “content purgatory” that plagues so many website builds. Here’s how:
- Choose a web designer that uses a content-first approach. The alternative is design-before-content, which could leave you with a design that fails to accommodate the content you need to publish. That scenario leads to eleventh-hour design tweaks, which means more waiting and more delays.
- Start thinking about content long before you hire a website company. If you can’t have all your content ready before connecting with a designer, at least have a sense of the number of pages, their tentative titles, and what sorts of elements (text, images, video) should appear on the page.
- Even better: Write all of your content before the designers start creating wireframes. That way your design will definitely accommodate your content and there’s zero chance of a content-related delay.
And if the thought of writing your own content makes you want to hide in the corner, you can always hire a copywriter to create the content for you.
4. Flexibility matters.
So, why should you be thinking about a CMS before choosing a designer? Because choosing a designer who uses a proprietary CMS is usually a mistake.
And you might not know you’re stuck with a proprietary CMS until it’s too late.
What is a proprietary CMS? It’s a CMS that one company created and one company controls. Want to add a page? You’ll need to get in the company’s support queue because they’re the only ones who know how to add one. Need to fix a layout problem right away? Good luck. Get in the queue. Nobody else can help you except for one company.
It’s like buying an appliance that only one mechanic can knows how to fix. Oh, and he’s booked well into next month. Closed on Sundays, too.
And if the company goes out of business, well…
The point is that you want a flexible CMS. Something that lots of designers and developers use. Here are some things to ask prospective web designers:
- Do you use a proprietary CMS? If the answer is no, they might say something like, “We use an open source CMS.” Or they might say they use “WordPress” or “Drupal.” This is a good sign. Those are flexible systems that many designers and developers use.
- Does your CMS allow me to update my own content?
- Will you train me on how to use the CMS?
- Do I own my content if I decide to have someone else design my website in the future?
- Do I have to sign a contract?
- Is there a mandatory maintenance/hosting/support fee? If there is, how much is it?
You might be thinking that out-of-the-box website builders with low monthly subscriptions are a good alternative. They’re billed as “easy to use,” right?
The thing about those tools is they might give you lots of flexibility on content, but they don’t give you much flexibility when it comes to design. Can you easily add blogs posts and tweak page titles? Yes. Can you add a new page layout to accommodate a new service or promotion you’d like to highlight? Probably not.
In their own way, DIY website builders are just as inflexible as a proprietary CMS.
5. Quality varies among web developers so be sure to scrutinize.
How do their websites look? Good? For that matter, how does the web developers own website look? It’s important.
In one sense, quality is in the eyes of the beholder. If you feel like a website has a nice look, simple navigation, and an overall professional “feel,” that might be enough.
But there’s more to quality than how a website looks and feels.
There are also things like…
- Performance across devices – is the experience consistent on a desktop computer and a smartphone?
- Underlying code – is it clean and efficient or messy and full of scripts?
- Search engine optimization – does the CMS accommodate basic on-page SEO best practices?
- Previous projects – Do they have a portfolio of previous website projects they can show you?
- Time – How much time do their typical website projects take? And does it differ depending on if you need an express website job or if you have a large project?
- Job Status – Are they a full-time web developer or building websites on the side?
- Job Description and skillset – Are they a full-stack developer that knows different programming languages like Ruby on Rails and Python? Or just a developer that can build your website in Wix?
- Process – Can they handle building the entire website themselves or will they be working with different people to build the website?
- Payment – Do they charge by an hourly rate? If not, try to determine the starting point from a price perspective. Also, see if they break your website cost into multiple payments. Many web developers will create milestone payments which is simply a payment schedule that is aligned with the different stages of the website development.
You might not be an expert on these things, and you don’t have to be. But the designer you choose should know all about them and be able to explain why their websites excel on every quality-related front. The more they know, the fewer mistakes they will make when you hire them. Ask them!
Ok. There’s a number 6, too. We’re not quite done.
Here’s the other thing you’ll wish you knew before hiring a web design company: Just how much you were going to love your new website. Because you know what? You are going to love it.
You’ll probably even gush about it to your friends.
As long as you plan for a collaborative, content-first, timeline-driven, high-quality website built on a widely used CMS, you’re going to outrageously happy with the end result. Because if you insist on all of those things, you’re all but guaranteed to connect with a great web design company.
And the whole “I wish I knew ____ before ____” thing? You won’t have to go through all of that.
You’ll just be happy.