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LIBRARY

Questions To Ask A Potential Website Developer
by Dr. Robert Martin, Ph.D.


If you are planning to create a website for your business, or upgrade an existing business website, you undoubtedly will need the assistance of a professional website designer/developer. Here are some critical questions you should always ask before you agree to work with anyone.

1. Experience

How many years has the person been in this line of work? How many actual websites have they designed/developed from the ground up?

Keep in mind that some website design/development companies might employ several people, and so the person you speak to initially may not end up being the person who actually works with you on your website project. Ask for specifics about the experience of the person who will actually be working with you, not the experience of the company overall.

Of particular importance is to determine how much experience they have "designing" websites as opposed to simply developing/building/coding them. The best website designers/developers have both knowledge of not only how to develop the code for or "program" a website, but also skills at graphic design--the artistic component of website development. More specifically, they will have knowledge about what will be visually appealing, what colors are web safe, what colors will work well together and which ones will not, how to organize a website that is accessible and user friendly, what works well for visitors and what does not, how to use state of the art graphics tools, and so on. Many would be website developers are quite knowledgeable when it comes to the technical aspects of website development, e.g., coding, but lack any skills at the "artistic" or "design" elements. Some website design firms may have these skills available to them through different members of their staff. In any event, if you just want a passable website that will do the job, you might be able to get by using a developer who has limited design skills. But if you want a website that looks professionally and credibly designed and that will be creative and distinctive, and be an interesting place to visit, you should make sure your designers at least have website specific graphic arts and layout and design expertise at their disposal.

2. Samples of their past work

What are the websites they have created from start to finish?

Ask them for the URLs of websites they have designed/developed that you can take a look at to better assess their capabilities. Make sure these are websites that they actually built from scratch and not just websites they revised or updated. Look for websites that are comparable to what you have in mind in terms of complexity. For example, if you want a state of the art ecommerce site, and they have only designed Blog sites, that could be a problem. Also, look for designs that are stylistically similar to what you have in mind for your website. Even better, ask if they have ever done work in your particular industry. And while it may not always be an indicator of the quality of their work, if a large number of the websites they have designed/developed are no longer online or have gone out of business, that should be a cause for concern.

3. Industry exposure

What kind of industries have they been involved with? Who are their clients?

It may be important that they be able to understand your industry and create a site that will suit your needs. And always ask for references and contact information for previous customers. If they decline to provide it, or don't have any, move on to another developer.

4. After sales service

What kind of service do they offer clients once the site is up and running? How long after the site goes online will they be willing to make corrections, additions, revisions, etc?

Many website designers/developers will provide such support for at least 30 days; others for as long as a year.

5. Future website management

How exactly will the website be constructed? What types of code will be used, e.g., HTML, XHTML, PHP, JAVASCRIPT, FLASH, etc.  How will it be possible for you or anyone else to make changes, additions, revisions, etc., to the site once the free support period has ended? Will a design/management tool such as MS FrontPage or Dreamweaver be used? Will access be limited to FTP? Will there be any type of Content Management System included in the development project?

Any type of website will need periodic updates, revisions, additions, new pages added, etc. So you, or someone else, will need to be able to occasionally access the website by some means in order to do this work. Making sure you understand up front exactly what will be required in order to do this work in the future can save you a lot of headaches and stress.

6. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

During the design/development process, what exactly will be done to optimize your website for listing in top search engines? What experience does this developer have in designing/developing websites that are highly ranked in key search engines in critical keyword categories? Will the site be submitted to search engines on your behalf once it is completed?

You can have the best looking and most content rich website in the world, but if no one ever visits it, what good does it do you?  Getting your site highly ranked in key search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com, and AOL, will be critical to getting visitors for your site. Most website designers/developers should have some basic familiarity with things such as designing websites that are "search engine friendly" (e.g. using menu structures and internal links that are easy for search engines to follow and index), avoiding design elements that are in violation of key search engine rules (e.g., text that is hidden by making it the same color as the background color for the page), developing and installing metatags, optimizing page content for "indexability" and "keyword depth", etc. If your developer  is not at least familiar with these issues, you might still use them. But you will then also require the services a professional SEO provider. These issues are too important to ignore.


7.  Traffic monitoring

Will the development of your website include the installation of some easily accessible method for you to monitor traffic to your site?

In most cases, this will be in the form of a link or page that you can access 24/7 using a web browser that will show you view critical traffic stats such as unique visitors, page views, referrals, referrals from various search engines, keywords used to find your site in search engines, length of visit, depth of visit, etc. Some popular tools for this type of information are Urchin, AWStats, WebStats, etc.


8. Duration

How much time will they require to do the design, layout, and set up the website? Does the website need to be completed and online by a certain date? Given what would be required to complete the project, is it even possible to complete this project by the date specified?

This will of course vary depending on a number of important factors.  But generally speaking, a four or five page website shouldn't take more than a few days to a week to complete. More complex websites or ecommerce websites should probably take no more than a month.

However, in the latter case, the amount of custom programming required, the type of shopping cart system being used (e.g., pre-existing software or one custom built from scratch), the number and type of products to be added to the site, the amount of detailed information to be added for each product on the site, or other similar issues, will also influence the amount of time required to complete the project.

And of course, the inclusion of special features that might require additional work, frequent changes in project objectives, requirements, or plans by the client, and the amount of time or attention devoted to the project by the client, can also impact how long it will take to complete a website development project.

If, after discussing these issues in depth, it seems unlikely that the project could be completed by a specific date that might be required, it is probably better to err on the side of caution and find another developer or put the project on hold. Despite their best efforts, any website developer might not be able to meet a set deadline because of unexpected or unanticipated problems that might pop up.

9. Fees and charges

What exactly will you be charged for and how will you be charged? What will be the total cost for the complete project? What partial payment amounts will be paid at what point? What tasks will need to be completed to your satisfaction at various points during the process before a partial payment is made? Does the development cost include domain name registration? Does the development cost include website hosting?  Does the cost include designing, editing, and installing required software?

Getting all of these questions answered up-front, preferably in writing, can save you a lot of frustration and agony.  But that does not mean that the cost needs to be set in stone. As the project proceeds, you may decide you want some feature or capability that had not occurred to you before. Just understand that this may result in an increase in the amount of time necessary to complete the project and/or the cost of the project. As long as you and your developer discuss the options and costs involved along the way (and you get the information in writing) before you make your final decision, there shouldn't be any problems.

10. Ownership

Who will own the design, logo, and images that have been used on the site?

Make sure to let the developer know you wish to be the sole owner so that you can move the site to another host if necessary. Even better, get this in writing. Also, try to ensure that you have details of where the developer may have have obtained images and photographs used in the development of your website. This may save you problems in the future.


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