8 Questions to ask before signing a website contract.
Have you ever worked with someone who avoids answering your questions or who dismisses them with lines like “you don’t need to worry about that” or “leave this to the experts?” While you should trust your team’s expertise, that only comes after you’ve established trust. Furthermore, a professional web design company and development team should always be ready to answer your questions, and you should be able to learn a lot from them based on their answers.
In many ways, the web development industry is a lot like the car industry or the housing market. Consumers have a significant need, but their lack of knowledge makes it hard for them to make an informed decision. Risk is high, which puts trust at a premium.
However, in the housing and automotive markets, consumers have the option of turning to a third party for an outside opinion. Before I buy a used car, I might take it to a trusted mechanic and have that person look it over for potential repairs. And when I enter the housing market, I have realtors and inspectors at my side who know what questions to ask and were to look for potential problems.
The online community doesn’t have such a system in place, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean you have to make a decision blindly. Instead, look for web designers who prioritize transparency and are willing to earn your trust instead of taking it for granted.
Important questions to ask before signing a contract should include:
1. Ownership: Who owns the website and its content?
The answer to this question should be: you. You should own your website and its content. Your web developer should share all access codes to the site with you, as well as any relevant contact information for third parties such as the hosting company. They should also include a tutorial on how to use your website so that you don’t have to rely on them for updates.
2. CMS: Will the website be build on a Content Management System (CMS), and if so, which one?
Twenty years ago, websites were hand-coded, and owners needed to have an understanding of the web code to update them. These days, competent web designers use CMSs. (Anyone who doesn’t shouldn’t be trusted with your website.)
The most popular CMS in the world is WordPress, which is what we use and recommend. Other popular choices include Joomla and Drupal. Avoid sites such as Wix or Squarespace: while they’re fine for individuals or small businesses with low budgets, their template designs lack functionality for larger businesses and they often don’t support content migration for users who want to switch platforms.
3. Design: Will the developer be using a custom-built theme, or a template?
Templates have their uses, and they can be a great way for individuals and small businesses who are just starting off to save some money while still gaining the benefits of a nice design. But they do have limits in terms of functionality, and you certainly shouldn’t be paying custom prices for them. Another downside of templates is that they tend to be bloated. A custom-designed theme starts from scratch and only adds the features you need. A template comes with a lot of stuff built in, and you need to decide what to remove, which makes it harder to create a clean design.
4. Hosting: Where will the developer be hosting the website?
Occasionally we encounter a company who hosts their website on internal servers. This is a bad idea. Your web developer shouldn’t be hosting your website on their servers, either. Instead, they will have a web host that they work with whose services they can recommend. Web hosting companies have far more resources at hand to ensure security and redundant backups, not to mention an infrastructure that can offer greater stability for your traffic flow.
5. Functionality: What does your website need to be able to do, and does your developer have experience building websites that perform similar functions?
People need websites for any variety of reasons. Some want to launch an ecommerce store while others want to create a membership-based site. Maybe you have a new idea for a social media platform, or you have a Software as a Service (SaaS) business and want to run demos on your site. Many of these features will require custom-built functionality. Talk to your developer about their credentials and see if they have the experience to pull off the project.
6. Plugins: What third-party plugins does the web developer plan to install on the website?
Most websites require some form of third-party plugin. These are often simple programs that keep developers from having to build certain areas of a site from scratch. Others add back-end functionality that is often invisible to front-end users. For instance, we use a plugin for forms and another to check on-page SEO. It’s normal for developers to use plugins, but they should also be transparent about what plugins they install and what their purpose is on the site.
7. Scalability: Can my website grow with my business?
Websites are an investment. While some parts of the front-end design will probably need a refresh every few years, the bones of the site should be more durable. If you’re a small ecommerce store launching with just a product or two, then you will need less functionality than a large retailer with thousands of products. But if you have ambitions to grow into a larger ecommerce store, you should talk to your web developer about how their site can be build to accommodate that growth.
8. Usability: Do they do any usability testing and do they understand basic principles?
Websites are for people, and a good design team will put users first. Talk to your team about how they plan to build a usable website, including ways in which their design will be accessible for all visitors.
Questions can go on forever, and this is just a start. Beyond discussing the technicalities and deliverables of a website, you will also want to perform some due diligence background work. A trustworthy developer should have references ready for their work to go along with their portfolio. You can also check their website for testimonials or case studies. Their past work will help you understand their capabilities and will give you an idea of their design style.
Once you find a team you trust, trust your team.
A good design team will always listen to customer concerns and work to address them. But they will also offer professional advice, and you should encourage them to push back on your ideas if their experience tells them to. Remember that you hired your design and development team for their expertise. If you spend a lot of time overriding their judgment, you’re losing half of what you paid for.
Invest in outcomes, not actions. Focus your energy on understanding the results, not in dictating process.