The Six Questions to Ask Before Any Web Development Project

Posted by Corey Smith on Mar 10, 2015 9:00:00 AM

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Choosing the right web developer for your web project can be a daunting process.  I am confident that often time the reason why companies tolerate a sub-par website is because they simply don’t know where to go to get the right developer.

Do you choose Drupal or Wordpress? Do you consider Hubspot for the website and marketing together? Do you have a custom application that needs to be developed. When you find a developer, how do you make a decision that developer is the right one? What are the most important questions to ask.

Here are six key questions that you should ask before you make your decision. They are in no particular order as I think they are all important.

Can you talk to your developer?

When I say talk, I mean really talk. I don’t mean, can you talk to the person that sold you on the project. I mean can you drive to their office or pick up the phone and call them. More often than you think, you’ll have a local sales rep sell you a web site but the work will be conducted by a number of subcontractors, or worse, by a number of people out of the country.

If you have a problem, you need to be able to pick up the phone with the person actually doing the work. You might want to show up at the office. Minimally, you want to be able to get on a video call and see them and speak the same language. Not just English but know that you are for sure on the same page by real, actual communication.

Does your developer have a lot of experience?

The barrier to entry in the web development business is very low. It has been said that the only precursor to becoming a residential contractor is to have a truck and a dog. Becoming a web developer seems to be easier you just have to have a computer.

Becoming a skilled web developer is an entirely different matter.

If your developer is doing it on the side, just learning or simply just starting a business, be very careful. There are a lot of various problems that will crop up. I promise, there will almost certainly be hiccups along the way.  In fact, if there isn't a problem that needs to be solved then you have to ask, "What are we missing?"

Someone without experience may not be able to handle problems. Building a few websites before doesn't mean you have experience. I was once there in the realm of little experience and I was willing to put in the long hours to solve the problem but it’s a craps shoot, at best, to find the developer willing to spend the time to take care of you.

Is there a reasonable expectation they’ll be around for a long time?

In today’s business environment, you never know when a company will be vibrant today and gone tomorrow. I was talking with a potential client just last week who tried to hire a web developer for a rather large project last year. After he had paid nearly $8,000, the web developer filed for bankruptcy.

You may not necessarily be able to gauge whether the developer will be in business for a long time to come, but remember, he or she is running a business. All businesses have signs of success or failure. If the company is growing, that is a pretty good indication that they’ll be around for a while. If they are cutting back or saying things like, “Wow, times are tough” then you may want to do more research before making your decision.

Does your developer have a process?

Ask the person you are buying from to about their development process. Any project is far more efficient (thus better for you) if there is a defined process. A defined process for completion of the project will ensure that you can know exactly what still needs to be complete before your project is complete. It allows your developer to say that you are on step G and when we get to step Z you’ll be complete.

You might even consider asking what does your developer will do if you, the client, ask him or her to step out of the process and do something different. The smart ones will say that, “the process is the process. The process allows us to be efficient and timely on this project. It will cost more (in time, money or both) to step out of the process.” That may seem harsh, but remember, you are paying for a website to be complete, not a web site to be built. Think about it like building a house… what if you asked the builder to frame your house before the foundation was done?

One trend in web development comes from application development. You might hear something like, "We work in sprints." The idea is that they pick a set of tasks that can be done by working very hard for one week and at the end of the week it's done.

While the working in sprints has proven to be effective in application development, I haven't see one website built successfully using a sprint methodology because they almost never truly take into consideration the business and marketing goals for those sprints.

Does your developer understand your business?

You are trying to run a business. You are likely not an expert in marketing. You are likely not a developer or artistically minded. If you were, you’d be doing this yourself (well, you probably still wouldn't be if you were smart in running your business).

Your developer does not have the luxury to not understand your business.

You have a business problem... the solution to that problem might be a new website. It might not be. If your web developer doesn’t understand your business problems and doesn't take the time to understand exactly how to solve it, there will be a disconnect at the end of the project (or sooner).

You must know (not think) that your web developer can solve that problem. You may not have confidence in this until the first meeting after you sign where you can meet with the programmer, designer, project manager and SEO (search engine optimization) strategist. Be ready to stop the presses if that comes into question until that business question can be answered.

Does your developer understand the full gamut of the web?

There are many places that you can go to get a website. There are cheap products (free) and there are very expensive products. The reality is that most of the developers building them likely don’t have the understanding of all the components of the web. Maybe they are artistic. Maybe they understand programming. Perhaps they say they are an SEO expert or a social media expert (which are a dime a dozen).

Building a web site is technically easy. Building a web site that is artistically pleasing, has the right content that is compelling to your site visitors, gathers leads, gets found in the search engines and allows you an easy way to update your content when you need to if you want to maintain it yourself is much more difficult. It requires a special skill set.

If your web developer claims that he or she truly understands the full gamut of the web, he or she is not a loner. In your strategy meeting you'll have a variety of talented people. You'll have a developer, artist, marketer, content writer, etc. If they aren't present in the meeting for whatever reason, they need to be available  when the moment is right.

How thorough is the documentation?

Okay, this is a bonus number 7.

I've seen scopes of work for a web project as short as a simple order form. This is an area you can't skimp. You also will want to make sure you take time to read it. The documentation should outline the development process. It should outline the timelines to expect. Even though they can't tell you when it will be done because a portion of it will depend on you, it should give an idea of how things will fit together.

If there are questions, this documentation is your recourse. If they commit to something in voice but it's not documented, don't ever think it will happen. If you want something new or different, get an addendum and verify the cost so there are no surprises.

Ask questions like:

  • How do you handle out of scope items?
  • How much money do I get to hold onto if you don't finish the project?
  • How much time will I have to test the website and give you a punchlist?
  • What more should I know buying from you?

Bottom Line?

If you are thinking about hiring a web developer, make sure you know they understand you. They need to understand what your goals are and what your measures of success.

Above all, make sure you call the references. Ask these questions to the references about your developer. You are spending a lot of money. You need to spend it wisely.

Corey Smith

Written by Corey Smith

Corey Smith is the founder of Tribute Media and serves as the Digital Marketing Strategist. He is also the author of "Do It Right: A CEO's Guide to Web Strategy" and "Tweet It Right: A CEO's Guide to Twitter."

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