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Prepare a Website Project Plan Before You Hire A Web Developer, Agency, or Studio
You are going to have a new website built. You need to decide on the individual or team that is going to do the build and design for you.
This is a critical decision and I have seen too many times, clients that hire the wrong people to build their website. The result can be lackluster to horrible. This is what this article is designed to help avoid.
Successfully Managing a Website Project
Planning is the very first step in any website redesign project plan. It’s not enough to say you want a new website, but you need to define what it is that this website is going to do. The more information you prepare upfront and share with the firms and individuals you talk to the better chance of success you have.
Your Website Redesign Project Plan
I recommend as part website redesign project plan you prepare the following and share it with anyone you are considering hiring to build your website.
1. Do I Have a Preferred Platform or Language?
The platform/language chosen is going to determine the future support options of the website. If you are going to use an open-source platform like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla then future support options will be abundant but unregulated.
If you choose an enterprise (licensed platform) platform like .NET, support and hosting may cost more but you will find support options more defined. If you choose a proprietary system or one with a smaller user base, support and hosting options might be limited but very well defined.
A developer is going to try to sell you on the platform they know best, and this is fine if you have no preference. However, if you have a preference, such as what your existing website is built on, make it known upfront and be sure your developer or team are experts in this platform.
2. Do I understand the difference between a commercial theme and a custom design?
Commercial themes are available for many different platforms and basically provide the design for the website. Commercial themes typically cost between $0 and $50 and allow a website to be set up very quickly.
These are great options for budget-tight web design projects but can pose many limitations to design, functionality, and performance (loading times). Customization will also be limited, determined by how the theme was built.
Custom designs allow you to define exactly what you want your website to look like and how you want it to function. However, this process can be timely and cost significantly more than an off-the-shelf theme option.
Ask your developer/designer how they approach the theming of their websites and what that means to cost, timeline, support, performance, and future scalability.
3. Is my website going to do something unique, complex, or special?
There is nothing wrong with an online marketing brochure and I highly recommend you keep things as simple as possible. Complexity is going to add cost, and time and require future support.
Document the features/functions your website will need to have and maybe even a few you would like it to have. Share these with your potential developer/designer so that they have a very clear picture of what they are to build.
4. What is my timeline?
We typically find that websites take 3-6 weeks to design and develop but this is a very subjective and very rounded timeline. The timeline can of course vary greatly by the size, complexity, platform, development/design team, or many other factors.
Share your deadline with your developer and express the importance of that deadline. In other words, did you just pick a due date because that sounded convenient (at the end of the month, before the new year, etc.), or do you have an event, marketing campaign, or another factor that is determining the deadline which cannot be missed without major impact to your business?
Share this with your developer/designer as this will be critical to the project management process. A good developer or team will be busy and need to schedule accordingly. Hiring a team or individual and then surprising them with a tight deadline is no way to start a project.
Web Design vs Web Development
People often lump design and development into a single discipline. This is in part because it’s hard to throw a rock and not hit someone who calls themselves a website designer and developer. They do this because they provide both these services to their clients. However, and I made this point earlier, I believe these to be very different skill sets.
Sure, there are people out there that do both fairly well, however, given the fact that there are also people out there that make a very solid living being just a designer or just a developer. I am going to argue that they are very different skills, and no one can do both equally as well.
In fact, these skill sets are broken down even further within the web development industry: UX/UI experts, designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, server “engineers,” etc.
My point is not to discourage you from hiring a single freelancer but to evaluate their skill set very carefully. Do not assume that because they say they are both programmers and designers that they are good at both.
Please take my warning when I tell you that I have seen some incredibly designed websites that are rat’s nests of code that cause the owners headache after headache and dollar after dollar. I have also seen websites that have gone to such an incredible level of programming that it would make even the most confident programmer question their skills but look horrible.
Personally, I would rather have a website built by a good programmer and an OK designer than the other way around. Design is subjective but clean code; site performance and reliability are not.
Please consider my comparison of skills between developer and designer as you give thought to your next website. This may affect your decision of whether you hire a freelancer, studio, or agency, but more importantly, I hope it affects how you think about your web development project as a whole.
Keep Things Simple
People have a propensity to complicate things. We all do it and I think when we are dealing with complex things like software and servers, we often assume that the complexity is “built-in.”
When redesigning your website it’s normal to want to do something new rather than stay with the old. However, try to avoid reinventing the wheel. Complex custom functions may not be necessary, an innovative design might answer some complex user experience challenges, or a simple email contact form might work as well as an API integration. Complexity adds cost up front and down the road when support is needed.
Challenging a designer to write complex custom software will get similar results as challenging a developer to do cutting-edge design. Of course, if you choose to work with a studio or agency, specialists may be available for your project, but think about long-term support and the effort and costs involved with that.
Will you be able to get someone to work within that fancy framework, that cutting-edge design, or complex custom software piece? What will it cost and what is the lifespan before the design is tossed aside as a short-term fad or the 3rd party integration must be overhauled because of an upgrade on the provider’s side?
Make sure your website provides the functions your audience(s) require and do so in a clean, easy-to-navigate interface. Keep things as simple as possible during your build and know you can always enhance the site over time.
This will help keep your budgets reasonable, your timeline realistic and your design/development team sane.
Remember, form should always follow function.
Your Website Development/Design RFP
You don’t necessarily need a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) in order to find a developer/designer for your next project. Agreements can be made on brief descriptions, pre-defined service packages, or whatever seems to fit. However, I am a developer for over 20 years, and I am here to tell you that you absolutely need an RFP (a good RFP) if you are going to get a custom website designed and/or developed.
The RFP is initially more for you than the developer and is a critical project management tool. It’s a chance to get all your wants, needs, and expectations in writing so that nothing is missed.
It’s simply not enough to say, “We need a small business website with a professional design.” You need to define the scope of this project. The project scope will allow you to set your own expectations as well as set those of your design/development team.
It’s Your Website Development Project, Define It
Your RFP should boil down to a checklist of criteria with no vagueness or interpretation needed. Your development team should be able to use this document to write a proposal and then you (and your development team) should be able to use this document to develop a detailed scope that can be literally checked off upon delivery.
Vagueness leaves things open to interpretation which leads to bad scheduling and pricing. Nothing derails a project faster than one party thinking they are paying too much, or the other party thinking that demands exceed the budget. It’s also important to remember that development is a timely process, and an accurate timeline cannot be given unless the criteria of the project are clear.
Of course, there is the argument that you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t think about this as a technical exercise (unless you are actually a technical person). Leave the technical stuff to the development team, and put in plain English what you expect from this project. Share this document with your team, coworkers, and/or consultants, and make sure it is as solid as possible before soliciting bids.
A detailed and concise RFP will greatly increase your chances of finding the right development team, getting an honest price, keeping your project on schedule, and in the end accepting delivery on a product that will last you for years to come.