Yesterday, a customer wrote in to tell us they loved our web site. They wanted to know what agency did it. This was quite flattering, because the answer is… us! 🙂
While everybody in the company is at least a little involved in everything we develop at BatchBlue, BatchBlue.com is more or less the brainchild of Michelle and me. We’re constantly making updates, looking for ways to refine our message, grow our reach, etc.
But for this customer (and anyone else), what I want to do is make a list of what I would look for in an agency if (gasp!) BatchBlue were to outsource the development of BatchBlue.com.
Make sure they work with web standards.
So, what’s the big deal then?
A web site built the old way just might do the trick for you. Unless, of course, you want to do anything with it. Like change your logo. Or change your colors. Or add page with some special offers. Or optimize the site for mobile devices. Or have another developer work on it. At this point, a site built the old way can be terrible to work with.
You can see where I’m going here. If you want a quick website thrown together that you plan to completely replace in the future (when the budget is bigger or whatever), then maybe your nephew’s FrontPage skills will be just fine. But if you want a web site that will grow with you over time, get someone who knows about HTML, CSS, lean code, and “bulletproof” web design (designing with future modifications in mind).
You should see how different BatchBlue.com is compared with a couple years ago. Because it is built with clean code and CSS, every change is really just a tweak. No full redesign has ever been needed. The same could be said about BatchBook… but I would never show you what BatchBook looked like two years ago!
Make sure they provide samples of their work.
Beware of agencies that only show a “client list” with no portfolio. It sure is easy to put a big name like Microsoft or Apple on your “client list”. But if you’re going to do that, you need to explain what you did for these companies.
When I was in college, Apple was on my “client list”. How? I was a campus representive for Apple. So, I pretty much made flyers for my school’s campus store (and some other campus stores). Big difference from designing Apple.com, but technically Apple did pay me.
Any web agency should have an online portfolio that shows screenshots of their work. I also look for descriptions of what they worked on and how they built it. I’m also curious about when the work was done, so I can look for improvement over time.
Lastly, I look for either a link to the live site or a link to a page of code to look at. Doing a “View Source” on these pages may not mean much to you, so see if you can find someone you know that “gets” web development enough to at least say the company seems to know what they’re doing. Hey, shoot me a quick email and I can tell you in a couple minutes.
Make sure they’re responsive.
Let’s face it… there are high maintenance clients and low maintenance clients. If you’re a high maintenance one, let the agency know up front. If the prospect of getting your money doesn’t motivate them to answer your questions as timely and in as much detail as you’d like, nothing probably will.
Now, if your agency is high maintenance, you might perceive this as a bad thing. But trust me, it’s not. The more questions an agency asks up front, the more likely they will:
- Give you a more accurate quote.
- Give you something you actually like.
- Give you something your customers will find useful.
My friend Marc Amos just wrote a great post about his experiences as a high-quality agency trying to compete with agencies that provide lower, inaccurate quotes and mis-deliver because they don’t request information about the clients. Definitely worth a read if you’re looking for an agency.
Look for a blog or other writing.
Having a blog is not a requirement to build a web site. But when a web developer has a blog, it can tell you a lot. It can tell you that the agency keeps up with the latest technological trends and how they impact client work. It can give you some insight into the development process, such as how certain decisions were made. It can tell you the agency is really passionate about what they do.
You can also try to get an idea of how it might be to work with the agency. After all, you do need to spend quite a bit of time communicating with these people. If you’re a pretty low-key person and the agency projects an elitist persona in their writing, it just might not be a good match.
Remember that it’s your web site.
This can be a delicate one, coming from a designer. The goal of your company’s web site is to be a useful resource to your customers (and prospective customers). That should be the #1 goal both you and the designer have all along.
But the fact is, it’s your website and you need to be comfortable that it appropriately reflects your brand. The agency also has a lot of experience to draw from regarding what makes a successful web site. Sometimes heads will butt. Here’s my advice: Get any differences on the design of the site early.
The agency will likely be looking for sign-off on the design before they build it. Don’t sign off on it if you’re not happy. This might make the agency a bit cranky, but the truth is they should be happy that you’re taking the time to nail down these problems now instead of complaining about them later. You’re saving them a ton of work and headache later.
There’s a growing trend among agencies to shake the old “provide the client with two or three design options” model and just show one. I agree with that. Only pay for what you’re going to use. But if you don’t like that design option, that’s when you can talk about modifications or perhaps a different approach (which will likely add to the cost, but could mean your happiness with the site).
It can be tough for a non-designer to figure out what specifically they don’t like about a design. But try to be as specific as possible. Look for areas like:
- Font choiceSerif fonts can have a more traditional and classic feel. Sans serif fonts have always traditionally been a more “modern” font choice while also being more readable on the web. However, with increased resolution and anti-aliasing in most browsers, the readability point is no longer a big deal. But if you have a playful site geared towards kids and the agency set it in Georgia (the font, not the state!), that might be why it doesn’t sit well with you.
- ColorColor can be tricky. If you’re looking at the design and you’re thinking “There’s just not enough color”, two things might be at play. It could mean, perhaps, that there just simply isn’t enough color. Adding a photo or graphic, coloring some menus, or another similar tweak may do the trick. Or, it might be as simple as changing the colors that are already there to be a bit richer. A client of mine recently asked if we could try a particular blue instead of the one I was using. She was right. The links and headers now jumped off the page unlike they did before. It worked.
- White spaceYou may think, “I’m paying for this website… I’m gonna use all the space I possibly can to convey my message.” That’s not the right approach, though. Many of your users are finding your site for the first time. If you overwhelm them, they will have no idea where to start. Let them ease into your website. Provide simple and effective messaging that will entice them to click for more.You may also be familiar with the concept of “the fold”. It’s an old print term that made it’s way into web design. Only on the web, “the fold” means “before scrolling”. Many clients used to designing for print want to cram everything they can above “the fold”. This is flawed in many ways on the web, though. First of all, no two devices are the same. A 13″ MacBook has a much different “fold” than a 24″ Dell widescreen HD monitor. You need to design for both users. So yes, things like a signup button, conversion forms and links to learn more should probably appear before the scroll bar does. But don’t try to get every bit of press or product info or whatever up at the top of the page. This is the web. People get the scrollbar now.
Perhaps the best way to tell if you’re going to be happy with the design an agency produces is by sticking with an agency with a portfolio you really like. In fact, if you see specific examples that you like, let them know. Not only will they appreciate that you like their work, it will also save them a lot of guesswork.
I hope this helps you in your quest to find a design agency! Have any more tips you came up with along the way? Let me know!