It's always a good idea to start with some reconnaissance work. Perform online searches to find companies in your area if geographic proximity is important to you and ask professional peers for references. Additionally, if there are websites (in your industry or not) that you love, check out who built them and add them to your list.
Once you have a short list of possible web design agencies, take the following steps for a successful engagement.
Visit the prospective agencies' own websites. The site a web design agency builds for its own company is a good indication of its design style, capabilities, and technological expertise. Do you like the site overall? Is the site responsive? Does it meet your standards for design aesthetic and ease of use? It’s OK if the design of the site doesn’t exactly reflect your own style—a good web design company will cater to your brand guidelines and style aesthetic, not their own. The important thing is that the site looks up to date and is visually pleasing, highly functional, and offers a good user experience. If you expect new content to be part of the website project, look for professional, engaging writing on the company’s web pages and in the blog.
Check out some of the websites they’ve built. Many web design firms will have a portfolio section on their website so you can easily see some examples of their work. Are the websites they've developed professional-looking and easy to use? Do their featured clients seem comparable to you in terms of size? Do the sites seem similar in scope?
Call them to talk about your project and set up a meeting. Pay attention to how they handle the call—are they accessible and friendly? Do they ask questions about your company and the details of the project, or do they immediately launch into a hard sell? This is a company you will be working with for months, so chemistry is important. While the person who answers the phone might not be the one you end up dealing with the most (or at all) once you have signed on as a client, that person still reflects the overall personality of the company, so be sure it feels like a good fit.
Once you’ve set up a meeting, here are 7 questions to ask a prospective web design partner, and the answers you should be looking for.
Have you built any other websites for companies in my industry?
What their answer will tell you: Working with a web design company that has experience in your field can be a benefit, and seeing other sites they’ve built for others in your industry can give you a good idea what to expect from your own project, but there’s also something to be said for going with a company that is new to your industry, so all the competitive research they do is fresh, and they won’t be influenced by previous projects. If the company does not have experience in your industry, be sure it can show you a wide range of experience in various other industries—you don’t want a firm that deals in a narrow niche that doesn’t include your field.
How does user experience factor into your web design approach?
What their answer will tell you: A strong web design agency will know that user experience is at the heart of every successful website, and will assure you that they are firm proponents of user-centered design. Ask about their specific approach, including what methods or tactics they use to make sure they are putting user experience at the center of their design.
What content management system (CMS) do you work in?
What their answer will tell you: Most web design firms specialize in one or two CMS platforms. Most websites are built in an open-source platform such as WordPress, but some web development companies have their own in-house CMS platform. Every CMS has its strengths and weaknesses, and a good web design agency will be able to objectively discuss the pros and cons of each to help you make the best decision for your business. For more on which CMS is right for your project, see our blog post
Can I meet your team?
What their answer will tell you: Many web design “companies” are actually a single salesperson who outsources various aspects of the project, or even a group of freelancers who will bid on portions of the work. In these cases, asking to meet the team might cause some hemming and hawing about availability and remote locations. For the best communication and continuity, choose an in-house team with experts who are accustomed to working together, have longevity at the agency, and will be available to you for the duration of your project.
What steps would the project involve?
What their answer will tell you: An experienced web design agency will be able to quickly and comprehensively go through each step of the process and explain how things will work and what you should expect. Unless you have already given them a very firm idea of what the project will entail, they probably won’t be able to give you an exact time or cost quote, but they might be able to give you a range.
What happens if we want to make changes or updates to the website after the project is complete?
What their answer will tell you: A full-service web design agency should include a basic training session for your team to explain how things work and show how to make changes and updates. Have a list of things you think you’ll need to update fairly frequently (events, forms, page content, etc.) and ask which of these things will be editable in the content management system. For changes that require programming or design help, the company should provide a quote for the amount of time the change will take, and a rate for the work.
Do you do ongoing digital marketing?
What their answer will tell you: A lot of effort goes into building a website, but just as much effort goes into optimizing it, promoting it, measuring its performance, and making improvements. Unless you have an in-house digital marketing team ready to take over every aspect of digital marketing once your new website is complete, look for a web design firm that also specializes in digital marketing, so you can be sure that the new website is delivering the results you want. Ideally, the selected agency's team would be available to you should you wish to deepen your engagement with ongoing digital marketing or periodic enhancements or refreshes.