Finding the Right Site Developer

» 10 Questions to Ask Before Signing on

You’ve read that e-commerce is the fastest growing segment of the American economy and you want in. You made a few bucks day trading and now you want to leverage your windfall through the development of an e-commerce site. Only problem is, you don’t know a Meta tag from a dog tag so you’ve wisely started to shop around for a web development firm to do the heavy lifting.

But you’re a rookie at this. You don’t even know what you don’t know! And you’re not sure how to approach a developer. What questions do you ask — and why? Well, before you write the big check and hand it over to some guy with an eyebrow ring, here are some questions you should ask upfront, during your initial meeting.

1. Can you show me sites you’ve developed for others who have similar design needs?
It’s always good to look over previous work done by the firm under consideration. You may quickly discover that their tastes aren’t your tastes, or that all of their sites are for non-profits and you’ve got profits on your mind. Look for experience relevant to your proposed site so you can actually compare apples to apples.

2. What will you require from me (besides a check)?
You may be looking for a designer who can handle not only the programming and design of your site, but also the text, graphics and other site elements. Or, you may want to write your own text and supply your own pix. Before you sign that contract, determine your level of involvement. And, if you’re smart, choose a designer who encourages client involvement rather than the ‘expert who knows it all’. She may know it all when it comes to site development, but she doesn’t know bubkis about you and your vision. A good designer will be happy to work with you to bring your vision to fruition.

3. Do you guarantee your work?
Any reputable design agency will guarantee to deliver a fully-functional, bug-free site designed to your specifications. However, no design firm can guarantee to meet your expectations for income from the site. That’s another question entirely — and one to ask next.

4. Will my site be search engine optimized (SEO)?
The development, design and launch of a site is one thing. Getting your site noticed by search engines, like Google or LookSeek or Yahoo!, is another thing altogether, requiring a completely different set of skills. Some designers will build your site to spec, get it up and running, cash the check and leave you to your own devices, of which you have none. If you’re not up to speed on SEO, go with the designer who is willing to stick with you until your site is as optimized as it’s ever going to be.

5. How do I find a web host for my site?
The design firm uses software to create your site, writing lines of code, importing pix and graphics and making sure all the buttons are linked properly. The finished site is then placed with a web hosting service that will charge you a monthly fee for the hosting services they provide and for the amount of disk space your site takes up on their server. Again, some designers will do some hand-holding and help you hook up with a reputable, reliable web host. Or, better still, given your lack of experience in this arena, they may actually provide hosting services.

Known as ‘one stop shops’, these site design agencies, filled with chipheads and computer geeks, can handle the design and launch of a functioning site, optimize the site over a period of several months (based on how the site is doing) and provide hosting services as well. In addition, you’re likely to get a better price if you buy the full suite of services than if you cherry pick to find the lowest cost designer, the lowest cost SEO company and the cheapest web host. And, if you’re working with one designer, you can feel more comfortable knowing that, in the end, everything is going to work as it should.

6. Will I be assigned an account rep — a single contact for all interactions with the agency?
The last thing you want is Barney calling about color choices, Tiffany calling about your target demographic and Bob down in hosting asking how many gigabytes you’re going to need on the host server. You want one person, one telephone number, one problem solver. You should insist that all communications flow through your rep, both inbound and outbound.

And, if you’re not happy about something, call the rep and ask for changes. You should be as involved as you want to be (or don’t want to be). In either case, you want to keep it simple — one contact. The end.

7. Are your designs W3C standards compliant?
If the designer looks at you with a blank stare, head for the door and don’t look back. You want your site to be built to the open standards advocated by the World Wide Web Consortium, aka W3C. This organization has establish a set of uniform standards for site development designed to keep the site viable for longer, to make it SE-friendly and to save money when you move your site from one host to another (when you learn a little more about it). Open standards will ensure that your site will work anywhere and will be recognized by the major search engines. Anything less and you don’t know what you’ll run into six months or six years down the road. And if the designer isn’t aware of W3C compliance standards, thank him for his time and hit the bricks. You’re still looking.

8. Do you undertake usability testing as part of the project development cost?
Usability testing puts the site through its paces before its launch. Testers from various backgrounds and levels of experience navigate the site, clicking on buttons and links, looking for text typos and graphix that bleed over text. Usability testing (see related article under June releases) also develops useful input on questions of user-friendliness and questions of taste. Do the colors work? Is the landing page too busy — to much going on? Does the home page weight take 30 seconds to download, what with all of those Flash animations? If so, only 5% of visitors to your site will stick around waiting for the dreaded blue line to inch its way across. All of these problems will be revealed in usability tests and you want them fixed before the site is seen by the public.

9. What if I want to make changes once the site is up?
If you approved the site’s design after usability testing and the design agency successfully launched your site, they’ve fulfilled their end of the bargain. You got what you paid for and you approved it all every step of the way. Now that you’ve been open for business a while, you’d like to ‘change a few things’. Revisions to site’s design are expected and are built into the price of the project. However, once you’ve approved every element and the site’s working flawlessly, the design team has done their job. Expect to pay for refinements, upgrades and redo’s. But if you stick with the original designer, these improvements will take less time, meaning a lower cost to you.

10. How much?
Believe it or not, this is probably the first question you’ll ask, but it’s also the least important question for the serious entrepreneur eager to create a niche on the Net. Quality costs money. Maybe your nephew can get a site up for you, but will it have the look and feel of quality or will the typos diminish the credibility of the site? Low end, small, non-secure sites can be built for $2-3K. Larger sites, with lots of pix and graphics, a shopping cart, secure checkout, links page, free downloads and other features can cost as much as $15,000. And depending on your level of commitment and your confidence in your business model, that $15,000 may be the best money you ever spent. The point is, don’t let development costs be the deciding factor. As with all things in life and in cyberspace, you get what you pay for.

Finally, a word of advice: there are lots of e-tailers selling e-book downloads that’ll give you “everything you need to know about developing a successful web site”, selling from $19.95 to $199. Don’t throw your money away. Everything you need to know about site design, SEO, hosting, security and any other aspect of e-commerce, is available for free on sites like this one. Don’t fall for the ‘site in a box’, do-it-yourself site-building software. The user’s manual is the size of the Manhattan phonebook and, frankly, you should be focusing on the big picture while your designer handles the technical side of things.

So, ask questions and if you don’t get clear answers, free of geek-speak and in terms you, the novice, can understand keep looking. Soon enough, by asking the right questions, you’ll find the right developer for you.

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