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Why do web design companies suck?

Here are some of the main reasons:

1. Web design firms are project-based, not account-based like traditional ad agencies or IT support companies. They may not have the people and process in place to provide the kinds of ongoing enhancements and support that clients inevitably need like a support team or account managers.

2. This is an industry where almost anything is possible, so clear communication is desperately important. Dozens of options may be discussed, each with pro and cons. This means misunderstandings are common…and sometimes disastrous.

3. Web designers are busy. Clients often need months to get comfortable enough to sign a proposal. That makes it very hard to manage capacity. And it’s a growing industry. A lot of web companies, especially the very cheap and very good ones, are slammed.

So what should clients do?

First, keep this in mind: when choosing a “web design team,” you’re choosing a project management approach, a process, a help desk and ideally, a long-term web partner. If something goes wrong, it won’t likely be a design or programming problem. It’s all about service, costs and communication.

I read a post called 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Web Design Company, but I’ll save you the research and summarize it here.

1. Check References. Just pick up the phone and call some people! As with job candidates, the best indication of future performance is past performance. Have a genuine conversation with companies the vendor has worked with. Or at the very least…

2. Read Reviews, but don’t stop there. Search around for a few minutes. Go to the Better Business Bureau website and see if there are any complaints.

3. Get a Demo. Of course, you’ll want a demo of the content management system, but also get a demo of the project management tools. Wait, they don’t use project management tools? Bad sign…

4. Are they taking notes? There may be indications of vendor chaos in the first meeting. They should be capturing goals and requirements in an organized way.

5. Meet the Team. Again, just like a job interview, nothing replaces the face-to-face meeting.

Lessons learned…

Many web design companies just aren’t focused on service and don’t know how to keep a project on track. A good designer and smart programmer can start a web company and make websites. But they may not truly realize what it takes to offer great service and most don’t at first.

25 Web Design Complaints

Inept, Old Technology, Slow, Non-Responsive
Non-Responsive, Disappears
Too Slow
Doesn’t Listen, Incompetent
Misled, Poor Communication
Technical Limitations
Never Delivered, Overpromised, Missed Deadlines
Rude, Short, Doesn’t Exist Anymore
Design Problems, Relaunched Site without Approval
Database Crashed
Company is gone, can’t access the site
Vendor was always slow, one-person shop, now retiring
Slow to respond, Poor Service
Overpromised, Over their heads, Going Out of Business
Out of their Capabilities
Couldn’t execute, Overpromised, Lack of Capabilities
Non-responsive, not committed
Didn’t explain Flash, SEO problems
No control, Developers won’t give access
In over their heads, CMS constraints
Can’t find developer
Had amnesia, Missed Deadlines
Delays, Lack of capacity, Over-promised
Communication problems, Designer fell off the earth.

How To Choose a Web Designer

5 Questions to Ask First

A meeting with a web-design company is an interview. You want to make sure their business is legitimate, and you want to get a sense for the personality and culture of the company.

Most of all, you need to understand their approach to the unique challenges you’re tackling with your project

In 5 minutes, these 5 questions will tell you more than any hour-long presentation ever could:


What is your approach to usability?
More than any other question, this will help you quickly differentiate between experienced web designers and novices.

Asking about usability will help you understand the company’s focus – namely, whether or not they have the most important thing in mind: the visitor.

A company without a good answer to this may build a site that they like, or one that you like, but that visitors find confusing or difficult to use. You want a web-design firm that thinks at the highest level: user-centered design.

The best people working in web design today will light up when you mention usability. They will be grateful for the question, and they’ll be glad to share their opinions, experience, and the latest research.

Best Answer:
“I’m thrilled you asked! We believe in user-centered design, and we conduct usability testing whenever possible. We’re visitor advocates and will defend their interests with concrete evidence and research.”


Can you show me examples of projects with similar goals?
Ask for examples of sites with similar goals and features.

Need an event registration tool? Talk to people who can show you one. That way, you can ask why it was built in a certain way, what the challenges were, what results have been measured, and how those results met the project’s goals.

Suppose they haven’t built a similar site before. Are they up-front about it? Do they have any ideas? What challenges would they expect?

Is design your main concern? Rather than searching for a firm with a portfolio piece that seems to fit with your needs, look for a company that can show you a wide range of designs. This indicates a healthy creative philosophy: a company that listens to its clients, considers the brand, and doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to the design process.

Best Answer:
“Of course. Let’s take a look at a few now…”

Follow-Up Question:
Is there a limit to the number of design revisions?


Can I meet the team?
This question will instantly reveal if the team is in-house or outsourced.

A lot of companies farm out the various parts of a project. Perhaps the firm you’re considering is a reliable partner company. Or maybe it’s an ad hoc team of freelancers who have never worked together before – and who may not be there down the road.

Or is it a team at all? The “company” you’re speaking with could in fact be one person offering to sell the project, do the analysis, design the site, program it, and manage the server. Is this person likely to be an expert in all those things?

For any site with serious goals, you should look for a team of specialists. If the team is in fact just 1 or 2 people, ask about their capacity to handle your project. Are they going to be busy selling new clients while working on your site? How important is your project to them?

Best Answer:
“The entire team is in-house and works together on similar projects all the time.”

2nd-Best Answer:
“There is a partner company involved, but everyone has worked together on similar projects.”

Follow-Up Question:
Have team members worked together before? How many times have they done this?



What if I want to make changes later?
One of the most fundamental differences among web-development firms is their approach to ongoing changes.

Every website will change over time. Some companies charge hourly for these changes, while others set up a content-management tool that makes it easy, fast, and FREE to update text, upload images, and add pages.

Best Answer:
“We’re going to set up a tool that lets you (or anyone with access) manage the site. You’ll never wait or get an invoice for basic changes.”

Follow-Up Question:
What kind of changes will cost money?

Even if your site includes a content-management tool, certain types of changes will require a professional programmer or designer. Ask if your content-management tool will allow you to add new forms, change animations, or create new types of page layouts.


How will we measure results?
It’s not a bad thing if the answer to this question sounds a little technical.

Listen for terms like bounce rate, unique visits, page views, time on site, inbound links, search-engine rankings, conversion rate, etc. If you start hearing jargon you’re not familiar with, ask for explanations in simple English.

Best Answer:
“We measure unique visitors, bounce rate, and conversion percentage. Our goal is to generate leads, so these are the most important metrics. We use an analytics tool to do this, and we will show you how to track these measures as well.”

Follow-Up Question:
What numbers should we expect?

Of course, there are so many variables that it would be hard for even an experienced expert to get too specific in answering this question. But if a company has done similar projects, they should have at least a general sense for benchmarks.


•Check references. Or better yet, meet possible web designers through referrals: people you know and trust who have worked with them in the past.

•Check the Better Business Bureau to make sure they have a high rating and good service.

•Ask if the pricing is an estimate or a firm, not-to-exceed number.

10 Steps How Not To Buy a Website

It happens to all of us. One day, we wake up and decide that it’s time for a new website. This feeling hits suddenly and urgently, like the need for a haircut. It looked good yesterday, but today I can’t wait for an overhaul.

What happens next tends to follow a pattern. It’s the process of finding and hiring a web design company. And there are big problems with the way most businesses approach the process. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes.

Lets look at 10 steps most businesses take when buying a website:

Step 1. The business owner or marketing team decides it’s time for a new site.

Step 2. So they search the web or ask around for referrals…

Step 3. They browse the websites and portfolios of potential vendors. If they like what they see, they fill out the contact form or call.

Step 4. During the initial call, they get a sense for capabilities. If the company sounds good, they continue the conversation, usually with a meeting.

Step 5. Once they see the company can build it, the next question is “how much will it cost?” If it’s in the range, they ask for a proposal.

Step 6. If the proposal satisfies the remaining concerns (timing, ownership, hosting, payment schedule), they sign and start the project.

Step 7. Now, for the first time, we find out what kind of service this web company provides. If it didn’t come up before, it does now! Hopefully, service is good.

Step 8. And now, the web vendor either delivers or they don’t. It’s time to launch, time for endless rounds of revisions, or time to fire them.

Step 9. Now that the site is live, a few ideas and issues arise. Here, for the first time, we see how good their ongoing support is.

Step 10. A few months after launch, someone asks about marketing and analytics. …And for the first time, we find out if this web design company knows anything about web marketing.

What Went Wrong?

Here’s the problem: the process is backwards. The order in which questions were asked and concerns were addressed did not lead to the selection of the best company. As a result, the most important criteria were de-emphasized.

So flip the process and do these things up front.

•Ask about service

•Get a demo of their communication tools. Do they have dedicated project managers? Test drive the content management system.

•Ask about ongoing support

•Find out the process for support and who your main contact would be. How are support requests managed? What is the turnaround time for changes?

•Look for marketing expertise

•This is a biggie. Learn about their expertise in search marketing, social media, email marketing, and analytics. Listen for an emphasis on results: traffic and conversion.

Find a Partner, Not a Vendor

When you think of the web team as a long term partner, rather than a vendor, you’ll think differently about the selection process. You may find that some of the things aren’t as important as you thought.

Client service is more important than contract terms.

Support is more important than code ownership.

Marketing skills are more important than hosting details.

There you have it. You can clearly see that a lot of thoughts goes into the process, and my story is the truth about my experiences and the end results.

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