Beware of the Experts: Things to Ask a WebDesign Company Before You Hire Them

Feb 14th, 2012

So your potential WebDesigner or WebDesign Company passed all the tests in How to Choose a WebDesign Company (that doesn’t suck)? Or you chose to meet with them anyway because a face-to-face meeting is always better?

Or maybe you already had a meeting with them or were contacted by a sales person.
No worries! Ask to have a developer present during THIS meeting. If they don’t have a developer, you might get pretty pictures, but not functioning website.

Following are a couple of questions you should ask them during the meeting to see if they’re actually capable of doing what they say they can or will do for you.
Real professionals will have no problem answering these questions, and they will happily provide supporting information and documentation (You probably should ask for that. They could have learned the answers by heart).

Print out these questions (and the answers). See what happens.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Sure, everybody has to start somewhere.
But there’s no reason why you, your website, and potentially the success (or failure) of your business’ online presence has to be the guinea pig for an over-enthusiastic and under-experienced web-designer/web-developer-wannabe.
Ask for their experience and do not hesitate to check their references.

  • Make sure they actually CAN CODE

    Meaning, their developer knows how to code in at least 2 programming languages.
    Real programming languages, that is. And no, HTML , Flash or CSS do NOT count.
    And yes, no matter what others might tell you, the creation of a good website does require programming.

    Good answers: php, perl, C++, shell scripting, Python, Java
    Acceptable: jQuery or JavaScript (they do NOT count as 2 separate ones)
    NOT acceptable: Ruby (on Rails), HTML, Flash, VBScript (ouch)

    An untrained monkey can click together a Flash site. You don’t need to pay anyone to do that.

  • Ask them to name the 2 most common Server Response (Status) Codes

    When a visitor requests a page from a website, the server’s job is to deliver the content to the visitor’s browser.
    Most of the times this process works without any problem, and as a result the visitor gets to see whatever content he or she has requested by clicking on a link or by typing in an address into the browser’s address bar.
    But sometimes things don’t go as planned, and someone needs to know why. Thank God computers are really good at keeping track of everything, and one way of making sure a website performs without any issues, is to know about and track Server Response Codes.

    Good answers: 200 and 404 (or 403)
    Acceptable answers: Anything else than “uhhhhh”
    NOT acceptable: See above

  • Extra points: If they can give an example of a common cause for a 404 and a 403 Error.

  • Ask them to explain the difference between a 301 and a 302 Redirect

    On the internet, things constantly change. To keep visitors and Search Engines up-to-date with these changes, maybe after a major redesign of a website, webmasters can (and should!) use redirects to make sure old and outdated links get purged and the new locations are used instead.

    Good answers: One is permanent and the other one is temporary.
    Acceptable answers: Anything other than “uhhhhh”
    NOT acceptable: See above

    Extra points: If they know which one is permanent and which one is temporary.
    Double extra points: If they mention implementation via .htaccess and that a META refresh should be illegal.

  • Ask what methods they will be implementing to ensure speedy delivery of your site

    The rule of thumb is that a visitor will wait a maximum of 3 seconds for your site to load before he moves on or click the “Back” button.
    Every second counts, literally.

    Good answers: Image optimization, proper coding, future expiration times for static items, use of (server-side) compression tools like gzip and/or mod_deflate, (code) minification.
    Acceptable answers: Any combination of the above, anything else than “uhhhhh”
    NOT acceptable: See above
    Extremely unacceptable: Your website will be SO good, people will wait.
    Uhm, wrong. They won’t.

  • Ask them to explain the proposed (or envisioned) conversion sequence and the intended funnel leading to it

    You are looking to have a website built because you have a service to promote or a product to sell.
    Whether the website’s purpose is to generate leads or to enable visitors to make a purchase, there has to be a path leading to the successful conclusion of the transaction.

    Good answers: Identification (and isolation) of goals, creation of custom landing pages, implementation of clear Calls-to-Action, efficient navigation, user-friendly interface
    NOT acceptable: We make you a spinning and flashing thingie nobody will miss and then they simply have to buy from you.
    Extremely unacceptable: We integrate one of those really cool videos with someone walking around on the screen telling you what to do.

  • Will they be using a CMS (Content Management System)

    There’s nothing wrong with it, in fact, we suggest it and prefer it. But a developer needs to know what’s going on behind the scenes in order to be able to make modifications and to implement features that suit your special requirements.

    Good answers: Anything other than “We hate Content Management Systems”
    NOT acceptable: Content Management Systems never do what you want them to do.
    Extremely unacceptable: You do not need a Content Management System.

  • If the answer to the previous question was yes…

    This is a really mean one.
    But I didn’t just make it up, I got asked the very same question during a meeting once.

    Ask: What is the difference between an INNER JOIN and a LEFT JOIN?

    Good answers: Anything other than “uuuhhhhhmmmm” or “what??”

If they made it all the way through this list — Hire Them!

About the author:

Nina Khoury is a computer scientist, software engineer, data and information junkie and online marketer. She taught at various universities for more than six years and worked on projects for Fortune 500 companies including cisco, Intel and HP.

5 Responses to “Beware of the Experts: Things to Ask a WebDesign Company Before You Hire Them”

  1. Zachary D. says:

    Another great post! But, people should also consider putting these terms in the contract: timeline of completion, terms of satisfaction, compensation for failing to complete the website on time and on budget, daily/weekly progress updates, and also legal remedies (arbitration/ court room) should the website fail to satisfy or is severely delayed.

    • Nina says:

      Hi Zachary,

      I absolutely agree that everything should be spelled out – as detailed as possible.
      If you ever get a chance to look over one of our contracts – it contains all of the items you mentioned (and more).

      Nina

  2. Danny Vegas says:

    I thought HTML was code…it looks like code

  3. Lori says:

    Look at their Website. Try zooming in. If everything gets blurry, don’t hire.

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