Village Life Nonprofit Services


    How to Find a Web Site Developer: Finding the Right Synergy


    By Jim Skillington

    Copyright © 1996-2012 Village Life Company

    Most successful Web development companies get the majority of their business by referral, not as a result of competitive bids. Because the Web is relatively new and changing rapidly, there are few accepted standards -- even the terminology is different from vendor to vendor.

    But in the business world there are established policies that require at least three bids when contracting with new vendors. Accountants and business managers, like to have uniform practices for all purchases.

    This is a reasonable policy when the organization is looking for something that easily quantified or clearly defined. For example, if the organization is looking for a new printer for its annual report, it is easy to develop an RFP with the number of pages, dimensions of the book, how many photos and quantity printed. The standards for printing RFP's have been developed over decades, the technology of printing, etc. changes slowly.

    Not so with Web development. Very little stands still long enough to establish standards. The technologies, methods, programing codes, and even browsers seemingly change overnight.

    The explosive growth of the World Wide Web -- means that as the number of sites increase so do the number of people who say they can create Web sites. What are some of the ways to cut through to clutter and find a trustworthy developer that will produce a top-notch site?

    It is unusal for any business to have a person on staff who really knows the ins and outs of Web site development. This means that either the organization selected becomes the Internet "expert," or a separate consultant is employed. Finding a computer or networking consultant has become relatively easy. Finding a Internet consultant is much more difficult because few MIS or computer consultants really know enough about the Web to make good recommendations and there are few lists of Web consultants.

    In fact, most of the competent Web developers are finding they have to constantly hire new people to stay on top of the constantly expanding workload. Few of these firms have printed brochures about their services -- their services may be outlined on their Web sites or you may find their name through a credit line on client's sites.

    The challenge for companies seeking to find the best Web development company is to devise a method to sort out competent alternatives.

    The ideal situation for nonprofit organizations is to use a consultant or "Circuit Rider" (a new term for people who advise not-for-profits on technology issues) to help the organization define its expectations, the size, organization and a realistic budget for the Web site.

    Depending upon the size of the site and its budget, we recommend a two phase process. (Organizations with Web sites that are expected to cost less than $8,000 to design and maintain for the first year may select a vendor at the end of the first phase and expect the vendor to provide consultation services as part of its bid.)

    A short document (no more than a page) should describe the goals and visions for the organization's Web site and invite letters of interest from Web designers/developers that appear to have the qualifications to produce the site.

    Someone should take a few minutes to interview these possible developers by phone. How long have they been in business? (Avoid firms that have been in business less than two years.) Does the company do Web development full-time? (Part-time developers or those doing other kinds of work are usually not the best choice.) Do they have an office or are they "virtually" located in someone's house. (A real office location is preferred because it speaks of stability.) What kind of formal training/professional experience do their designers have? What are the URL's of other clients?

    Talk to the present/previous Web clients of the developer. Do a Web search to find clients that haven't been provided as well as those suggested. What do past clients say about how easy the company was to work with, whether the firm met its deadlines and was easy to reach when needed.

    If the organization has developed a reasonable budget for this project, the goal should be to determine if the design style and programming features of the vendors' previous sites match your organization's expectations and if you depend upon the promises made by that potential vendor. The best Web sites are based upon the synergy of the relationship between client and designer built into this early phase.

    In larger sites with an annual budget of more than $8,000, the goal of the first phase is usually to cut the number of potential design firms down to three four companies that have the competency to design and maintain the new Web site.

    If a formal RFP is required, in addition to providing a realistic schedule and deadline for submitting a proposal, the RFP should address most of these issues:

    1. Background and goals for the Web site
      • Mission statement for organization
      • Attainable goals of the project
      • What expectations are there for the site?
      • The budget range for this site
      • Realistic schedule for production
      • How often will in-person contact be expected; where will they be held
      • Will training of Client staff be required?
      • Will special workshops be expected and will the developer receive a fee for for workshops/seminars
      • Confidentiality/non-disclosure statement
      • Terms and Conditions

    2. Audience, Content, Functionality
      • Who are the visitors you hope to attract?
      • The outline of the new site: how many documents, etc.
      • Where will content come from?
      • How will it be provided for the vendor?
      • How often will content be changed?
      • Who will update the content?
      • What technologies are acceptable?
      • Does the vendor use proprietary software?
      • Will a database be included? Databases used with dynamic online interfaces make it simple to update the site. Does the developer have experience in database integration?
      • What minimum browser level will be assumed?
      • Navigational element requirements
      • What security issues exist?
      • Is there an adequate budget for maintenance?
      • Who will market the site?
      • How will the site be hosted?
      • Will a listserv be expected?
      • Will the site be translated into other languages?
      • What are the long-term plans for the site?

    3. Style of Design
      Any established design guides the site should follow:
      • Quality and orgin of the graphics
      • Use of specialized programming: Javascript, databases, etc.
      • If it is a large enough project, the developers selected are sometimes paid in exchange for a proposed "look and feel" of design elements. Remember, the firms that you probably want to produce this site, may stay very busy just with new referrals and it takes a lot of time to prepare a proposal on a large site.

    4. Marketing and Maintenance
      • What are the expectations for the visibility of the site?
      • Define marketing: will the developer register the site with the top search engines? directories? design and content contests?
      • Who will be responsible for writing the meta tags (content descriptions)
      • How often statistical reports should be available and how much detail the reports should contain.
      • How often internal and external links should be checked and what kinds of back-up reports will be required.
      • How quickly changes in the site should be reflected by the developer.
      • Does the client expect the developer to regularly suggest modifications or new ideas for to expand the effectiveness of the site?

    5. Web Hosting
      • Does the developer recommend one platform for Web hosting? Can your Web site be hosted on Unix, Linux or NT? If the developer has a preference, why?
      • Who is responsible for keeping up-to-date backups of the site. It is not a matter of "if" a Web site will be hacked or the hard drive will become corrupted, but "when." A current backup is a must.

    6. What the developer should be asked to include
      • An executive summary, including how the developer will approach your project.
      • Corporate information including names/affilications if related, of corporation officers (i.e. for faith-based nonprofits it may be helpful to know the denominations of board members).
      • Corporate status of developer: is it a corporation? a nonprofit? owned by another company?
      • Qualifications including previous clients with contact information and relevant URLs.
      • A description of the developer's Web site development process.
      • How the developer communicates within its organization and with its clients
      • How preliminary designs will be presented.
      • Project stages
      • Quality control including browser compatibility.
      • The proposed design team and its qualifications.
      • Outline how the site will be marketed, what assistance it will provide in creating meta tags, and what reports will be provided.
      • Expected costs and payment requirements
      • Terms and conditions

    Remember, selecting a Web development company is an attempt to find a company that the client can trust. During the development process the developer will make mistakes and so will the client. The client will be late with copy or approvals and it will take the development company longer to complete a phase than anyone anticipated -- building a Web site is a creative process. It is almost impossible to quantify everything in the RFP, but it needs to suggest how the organizations will work together -- and what will happen when when a mistake is made.

    Clients nearly always say that they will have everything available when the contract is awarded. Developers nearly always say they will meet contract deadlines. IT NEVER HAPPENS. Even if everything is available, as the design process begins, sections are added, the need for photos expands, links are incorporated. The client misses a deadline or it takes longer for the board to approve a design, or changes mean the developer has had to take the work of another client first, etc. There will be changes in the copy: what looked good on paper, looks horrid on the screen. If the copy the client provides includes errors, who is expected to pay for correcting them?

    Creative projects must be able to be fluid, but to protect everyone, the RFP needs to state what will happen when either the developer or the client is late or mistakes are made.

    Nearly every development company is now using freelancers and part-time help. Developers on the short-list may need to be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and the RFP should be copyrighted. The client needs to have some control on who sees the request and the details it contains.

    If the client can detail exactly what it wants in the Web site -- that's really great and very unusual. Technology changes too rapidly for most people to keep on top of it. The purpose of a Web development RFP is to find a company the client can trust to guide them through the process. The best Web sites are based upon the synergy of that professional relationship.


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