A friend of mine put it pretty well.
“Is getting a new website designed the worst thing you’ve ever done ever? Where everything you ask for isn’t done, where the things that are done are done incorrectly, where everything you ask them to give you advice on they can’t, where every decision they make they can’t back up because they’ve just guessed, where basic and fundamental pieces of code don’t actually work, where…”
I was inspired to write this post in response to a friend’s concerns shared on Facebook. He’s been having trouble with his agency for over a year now.
I hear stories like this a lot. Most companies we’ve worked with have previously had a bad experience with another agency. And I would be lying if I said that, when first starting up the company, we’d never provided a bad experience to a client. In the last five years we’ve come a long way, though, and along the way we’ve determined what makes the difference between a smooth project experience and a hellish one.
Think 'how' more than 'who'
Agencies will drop clients into their portfolios in order to get through the door with you. One of their designers might once have freelanced with Google, or one of their technical team might have had a stint at Amazon. Clients like these in their roster are not necessarily a sign of quality output.
Instead look for all the signs that you would want to see from a builder you’re choosing to build your next home. Look for engagement, look for attention to detail, and look for complex, creatively challenging projects completed with passion – and precision. Meet with them. Are they taking notes and keeping good documentation? Are they asking insightful questions? Do they seem genuinely interested in what the project will be with you? You don’t want to work with an agency who is desperate to put some work on their plate, but an eagerness to work with you and your project specifically will result in passion poured into every aspect of the project to follow.
Do things their way
Agencies all have different project management provision, and they all have different recommendations for platforms, technologies, languages and frameworks within which to work and produce your project. Alarm bells will start to ring for them if they recommend to you, for example, a particular CMS for your specific requirements, but your preference is to go another way. The best discussion to have with them at this point is about the relative merits of the different systems on the table. They might simply be keen to produce work in their preferred framework, but what’s more likely is that they want you to get the most out of your site that you can – and this is often by providing you with a CMS that is matched to your business goals.
Give them time to embed
Websites that must be launched in the next 8 weeks are rarely the most effective websites either for long-term company growth or to achieve short-term goals. The best websites result from an in-depth discovery process, even if you feel you’ve already carried this out internally. Many agencies will charge you for discovery as a separate project, allowing you to test their work ethic and put them through the paces of a ‘small’ project before committing to the entire website. Be wary of agencies that simply say “that’ll be £50,000 please” without having gone through this process. Often, three weeks spent on discovery can be followed by three months of smooth design and build, as opposed to launching straight in and taking six months and twice the cost to achieve a result half as desirable.
Be detailed with what you want
If you’re keen on having 16 different contact forms on your website – well – ask your agency about that before insisting – but that’s up to you. Each of those forms will have a number of fields, and each of those fields will have certain conditions. Tell your agency all of them. Without a doubt, the best way to make for a short and painful relationship with an agency is to allow the scope of your projects with them to creep uncontrollably. Each website needs to have a detailed set of what the industry calls user stories before an agency can ‘get going’ on its design and development. What these stories consist of is a list of all possible interactions between users and the system, and between the system and other systems. Only when knowing all of these (including that user who wants to go read the Terms and Conditions page) can an agency fully commit to costs and timescales.
A good agency will ask you a lot of questions designed to get this sort of information down on paper during discovery. A bad agency will take your brief, think “great!” and work with it without much further interrogation – leaving it on your head when something comes to light halfway through the project that you hadn’t thought of before.
Focus on your goals
The best agencies will help you design and build the right website to achieve your business goals. If you are a growing company, want want to continue that growth, tell your agency that and they should ask you what the bottlenecks have been so far, how they can help you, and what tools your departments need from their website to help them move forwards. Going into an agency and say “This is where we are. This is where we’d like to be. We see a website helping us in potentially these ways. What would you recommend” will allow that agency to come back to you with 1000 ideas, many of which will be out of budget, some of which you’ll choose to go ahead with now and save some for a ‘phase 2’ later. This is a much stronger approach than ‘designing solutions’ where you tell the agency that you want a certain type of functionality because you think that will help you achieve a certain goal – the chances are your agency will be able to recommend a better solution to that problem.
And, finally, see this as a first step
Your website won’t be finished when you have designed and built this iteration of it with your agency. Companies that want to grow and develop their digital capability should see their websites as a constant, continuing investment. Setting a £10,000 budget for the website and then hoping you can forget about it for five years is not what will help your business most. Agencies will love to work with you on an ongoing basis, so see this part of your website as ‘phase 1’ and then think about the roadmap. Maybe there’s a customer service portal to build on. Maybe there’s e-commerce to build on. Additional functionalities like this are what will help set you apart from the competition and the process of analysis, optimisation and continuing support from your agency will mean they are able to help you align your digital toolkit with your long-term organisational goals. It’ll also help you set up a relationship that could last for decades because your agency will be invested in helping you grow much more if the project isn’t a ‘design, build, launch, forget’ site.