How The Heck Do You Hire a Web Design Agency?

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Steven Trwoga wrote to me with a perfectly reasonable question:

I have an idea for a website I would like to have built. I believe it would fall into the category of “large project”.

I have spoken with, and been quoted by some web design agencies in the UK. However I am not convinced by what I am being told in terms of what can be built and cost.

I have no experience in web design, but I have spent a lot of time reading to help me grasp what can be done and to get a sense of the scale of the project.

I find it to be a minefield trying to find a web designer (or team) by just using search engines.

What advice could we give Steven?

I certainly know some web design agencies. I’ve worked with Sparkbox recently and that was pretty great. Just last night I met with some folks from Graydient Creative where I live here in Milwaukee and they seemed like good folks. In the UK I think of Clearleft.

There are thousands more.

But first, this reminds me of a current situation I’m in. I want to redo the front porch on my house.

I know what a porch is, but I don’t, like know about porches. I don’t have a good grasp on what porch renovation costs. I don’t know exactly what I even want, other than that my current porch looks kinda crappy and I want to make it more beautiful and more useful.

So I’m in the position of hiring some kind of porch company. Are there porch companies? All I can do is web search for stuff and ask around. I have a few leads, but I’m not even equipped to evaluate who is a good lead and who isn’t. I’m going to have to do a lot of meeting and talking.

We can probably look at our situations similarly.

Do you have a plan?

Two things: a vision for what you want to do and a budget.

You think that this new web project is a good idea and will benefit you.

But how firm is that vision? That might affect who you hire. If I had full schematics and blueprints of the exact porch I wanted, I’d probably be hiring a construction company who just exactly complies to my firm plan.

In my case, I want a porch company that guides me through a process. I don’t know exactly what I want, so I want to be guided there, involving me in that process.

If you have a mockup and exact plan of what you want, you should be upfront about that when hiring an agency and you are hiring them to build a thing you have a firm plan for. Some may be into that, some may not. “Discovery” and “research” are a big deal to some agencies, and aren’t into jumping into projects where they don’t use the full process they normally use and believe in.

How do you know exactly what you even want?

You’re thinking website, but maybe when you explain your idea to an agency, they think native app. Are you open to that? Maybe what you’re doing, a Facebook Group is actually what makes more sense. Who is using this thing? Why? Where? How?

Hopefully the agency can guide you through the choices you’ll have to make.

Like I said with my porch, I don’t know what I want. I hope they can show me other interesting porches. I hope they can tell me what considerations people normally have with porches. I hope they can use their experience to make smart decisions on my porch that I would have never thought of. Does my water main come in under my porch? I have no idea, but I hope they do.

How do you know which things affect cost in a big way and what doesn’t?

I don’t envy this position.

I know that with my porch, the materials are going to have a big effect on cost. Different types of bricks; different types of wood. It’s the same amount of work to lay cheap pine slats or lovely cedar planks. That, I understand.

With web work it’s so much harder to wrap your head around.

A static website is a long way away from a customized CMS is a long way away from a site with public users that processes data in some custom way.

I imagine my porch will have cost variables that I don’t even understand yet. Maybe scheduling is a big deal? Maybe the existing porch factors in in a big way? Maybe access to the porch affects what kind of equipment they can use and that’s a big deal. I don’t even know yet.

I hope we get to work with people who can explain these things to us very clearly.

How do you know they are any good?

I guess we’ll have to look at their portfolios.

Just as importantly, I’d like to feel like they are strong communicators, have my best interests in mind, and come recommended.

Will the result be drastically different depending on who you choose?

Probably! Isn’t that scary? I know it is for me. We can’t A/B test entire projects. We’re going to have to do our due diligence and then trust our gut and go for it.

What would you suggest?

Do you have more considerations for Steven? Recommendations?