How to Choose a Web Design Firm

The insider’s guide to choosing a web design firm

The right online presence is critical to success whether you are running a start-up or fine-tuning an established brand. To do your web project right, you need a solid partner. One that possesses the combination of hard and soft skills needed to make sure your business website is not just another pretty face. There are plenty of agencies out there. It’s just difficult to sort through the crowd and get your hands on the best.

At Wodu, we are big fans of full transparency. So let us lay out the decision-making process for you here in a checklist of steps and basic guidelines that will make the task of choosing your web design partner a whole lot easier.

1. Take a Look at Past Work

Go through the portfolios but look past the pictures. Does the firm display a design sense that fits your company’s marketing philosophy, mission, and message? What about your gut response? If you find yourself automatically wanting to click the images and go deeper into the site, you could be on to something. The right design work will speak to you personally.

Dig deeper into the details. Do your due diligence. How long has the firm been in business and what have they been doing during that time? Look for indications of growth and refinement. You want a designer that keeps up with the times and technology. Check for function as well as form. Anyone can build an online brochure. But to create a holistic digital marketing system for your company, a design firm needs to have the ability and take the time to feel your vision then effectively leverage the creative skills required to take it live in the digital.

Be skeptical of the hype. You will see logos from top brands and companies. Sometimes all that means is that a design team member once wrote a code patch or took a picture for the big name shop. You can’t blame a design firm for trying to show their best face, but the links to actual sites and the project case studies are where a real picture of the firm’s work history can be found.

Look for scale in the portfolio. Has the firm handled projects that were at least as large and high-profile as what you are planning? On the other hand, don’t be scared away if your project seems insignificant compared to work the design firm has done in the past. It’s common for firms to present only trophy projects in their portfolio.

2. Make Contact

This looks obvious, but the correct approach can maximize the use of everybody’s time and result in more usable information for you. It is a good idea to resist the urge to just cold-call the firm. An initial email that lays out the key details of your project in a concise manner will make it much easier for the designer to address the specifics of what you want and need when talk for the first time. This is also a simple way to learn a lot about the firm. Did they email you back promptly? Good. Did they call you after reading the email? Very good. They haven’t even read the email? Bad.

And while you’re at it, how does their contact page look and work? Would you like to call it your own?

A web design project is going to be more stressful than successful if you end up working with a design team that does not value staying in close communication with their clients. People who want to earn your business will take the time and make the effort to respond to you. First contact with the client is the design team’s first chance to show how interested they are in hearing about and meeting your needs.

3. Check the Communication Systems

Your project will run better if there is a project manager involved. A good design firm wouldn’t have it any other way for large web projects, and a manager can bring a lot of benefits to small projects as well. Any upfront cost will be more than recouped on the backend when your project goes smoothly and comes in on time and budget. Besides making a project run well, an expert project manager is also your main point of contact when you need to know how things are progressing, give input, or make changes.

You also need to know how the firm handles collaboration and project milestones. Do they use Basecamp? Project Insight, Zoho, or some other tool? It’s an easy question but it gives insight into the firm’s approach to organization and collaboration.

4. Hold the Side Orders

Some design firms will try to add on a whole bunch of extra services. Each one costs time and money, and add-ons can really add up when it comes to project cost.

Extended discovery processes, endless user testing, and stacks of wireframes certainly add time and cost to a project. The question is whether they really add corresponding value. A good firm will be right up front about every detail of the build and more than willing to discuss each step, answer all questions, and put everything in writing.

You don’t want a design team that cuts corners, but a firm that can drop the extras and consistently produce quality outcomes on complex projects is a valuable partner. Ask about getting the project done and deployed within a tight time window no matter how much time you have to spare. A skillful, confident team will be able to deliver.

5. Discuss Your Objectives

By the time you are at this checkpoint, you will know if the firm understands how to design and code to your needs. You will understand how they organize and manage projects. Now the design team should be asking you some questions about your business goals and objectives. It’s time to discuss what a website needs to do to help you meet those goals and the key performance indicators that will be used to evaluate the site’s effectiveness.

It will take time to complete this step, but before moving forward you need to know that the firm understands your goals and has the tools and strategies for measuring them.

6. Get a Proposal

At this point, a firm that is interested in your project will have some idea how much it is going to cost. When they give you the number, make sure you understand whether it is a Fixed-Bid or Time and Materials quote.

A Fixed-Bid Proposal will take the most work for a firm to put together but will result in the least chance of surprises for you. A Proposal will focus on the Scope of Work, and if the hourly rate is not clear, ask for a detailed explanation. This way you can carefully consider the match between the bid and the time that is likely to go into the project.

In contrast, a Time and Materials Estimate or Evaluation will focus on forecasted development hours. Make sure you clearly understand the project components that are being allocated hours. High-priority items need to be done first in case implementing the project requirements takes more time than expected and the job runs up to the edge of your budget.

No matter which type of quote the firm delivers, get a guarantee that the proposed budget will result in a completely finished product.

Simply comparing quote numbers is not going to give the entire picture needed to make a decision. Many of the details leading to this point can add to or detract from the value of a proposal. For example, if two proposals A & B come in at nearly the same cost but proposal A includes the services of a project manager while B does not, A is the more valuable. Check with the firm to clear up any hazy details.

7. Check References

Every firm will give you only the contacts that will say good things, but the fact that the team does have at least some satisfied past clients tells you something. Be sure to look for matches between the firm’s references and portfolio projects.

8. Look for People You Can Work With

A website is the face of your business and in some ways a personal expression as well. The process of building one can involve a high degree of emotion and attachment, and you will be in close collaboration with your chosen design team for an extended period of time.

You need professionals, but the relationship has to be open enough to allow constructive disagreement and negotiation. This is how ideas are generated and creative boundaries get challenged and expanded. The design team needs to be willing to make a personal investment in your project. They need to live by the axiom that your success is their success.

A team of people who are reliable, reasonable, interesting, and fun will optimize the project design process, improve the final product, and make the whole experience pleasant instead of painful.

9. Do It Till You’re Satisfied

Finding the ideal web site design firm for your needs is well worth the effort it takes. The people who build and run the online face of your business have far more influence on the bottom line than most other vendors. Remember, your website affects revenue as well as expense, and a well-built one is going to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.

After working through these steps, if something comes up missing or you just aren’t quite satisfied with a firm, move on to someone else. You don’t want to rush, because choosing a web design firm is one of those things you just have to get right. When it happens, you will know because your site build will be a fun learning experience that results in a product you can be proud of.