Questions you may want to ask your web developer

Intro

Questions you may want to ask your web developer.

Note, this page is a work in progress. I’m publishing it warts and all now as it will take a few weeks to finish. The points are in no particular order at present; I want to get it out there.

This post could equally be titled ‘Questions a web developer should ask themselves’. If you are a web designer yourself it may help you focus on what value you offer, what you may miss, what your competitors are doing (or not) that you can do, or do better. It will also remind you that even the biggest companies in the world sometimes. There is always room for improvement, even at the top.

Rather than try and think up questions that are so obvious to me that I wouldn’t think to ask them, I did what everyone else does and Googled it. Then I took the top-ranked answers and pulled them apart.

To make a few things a lot easy I am making a number of assumptions.

Firstly, whether or not you know it, you want something using WordPress, or a similar CMS.

Secondly, your budget is at the lower end, so more like £20 a month at the low end, but more commonly £600, to ££1,200 a year, for better quality regular and eCommerce site. It pegs the top-end with agency work still being under £6,000

Thirdly, if your budget is closer to £60 a year or less, you can stop reading now. Unless you are really good friends with a web designer, all you can hope for is the web equivalent of generic baked beans.

Fourthly then, in this price range, you want something more or less off-the-shelf but customised to suit. Perhaps with extra toppings.
(Don’t be bamboozled, even the top agencies do it this way. The BBC, Sony, Disney and even Facebook rely on WordPress!)

Fifthly, you either don’t know exactly what you want or have been bombarded with spiel intended to befuddle and bamboozle you into paying a lot of money for crap. Both shysters and corporate sales pitches come to mind here. In this case, you just want it explaining simply and honestly. I have your back!

Lastly, actually, you do know your stuff, are comfortable with terms like ‘agile methodology’, you hanker after something in Joomla or even bespoke from the ground up, and – why are you reading this, exactly?

In the list that follows, I’ve defaulted to WordPress, but this can be interchanged with Squarespace, Joomla, Drupal, etc.


Links

(move to the bottom of the page at end)

The following sites were useful in creating this post

Frogspark (2016), 20 Questions To Ask Your Web Developer


Playing twenty questions

0. What do you need from me?

The answer to this depends almost as much on what you want and expect from them and, to a lesser degree, the amount of money involved.

If the expert is actually any good, after even a brief introduction, they should know in their head roughly what you need, have a ballpoint cost in mind and already be picturing the end result. They should be able to grasp your level of experience and understanding. From there will follow the questions. What they need from you.

For instance, if you already have a brand, printed stationery you are happy with, it is likely to will want this continuing to your web site. As such they will require access to the graphics and typefaces used, perhaps need to liaise with your printer or graphic designer.

If yours is a niche business or industry they will want input and advice on specialist terms. If you have an existing client base it will matter how they already interact with you, and whether you want the site to continue to engage like that, or whether you would like to consider new methods. This will further solidify the web designers idea of the features you will require.

Beyond this, they can require images, videos, filler content, details of your social media plans. The more background and understanding they have, the better a job they should be able to do.

This raises the question of who will write the content.

If you happen to be or employ a copywriter yourself, that would be you. But if you are a semi-literate gardener, then they should be able to write the content from your notes, albeit for a price.

Regardless, the web design should be able to proofread your content, correct any and all grammatical and spelling mistakes and produce polished content that matches your expected audience. (Keywords and SEO is related, but is a separate point).


n. What about images, photos, logos?

You would be expected to supply your own logos. However, if not, they should either have or know a graphic designer who can help you with that, for a price.

There are a number of free stock image libraries, typically they politely request a link back to the creator and this is a good source of free content. The web designer should be able to point you towards these or browse them for you (for a fee) if that is what you prefer.

Commercial stock images some at a premium. Lower quality ‘stock’ can be a few pounds each, but higher up the market, the price leaps into hundreds, even several thousand pounds for permission to one.

If you require video creation or product photographs, again, if they don’t have someone in-house, they should be able to help you find someone. Obviously, this incurs more costs.



How much access will I have?

This question, when I saw it, asked ‘Will I be able to change things on my website after its launch?’

The answer, in fitting with my premise, was that it absolutely should have a content management system, one that allows you to change content after it has been launched.

About that!

Firstly, a number of ‘web designer‘ – notably the ones that prefer page builders like to keep an air of mystery, to keep to out. To trap you, basically. I would be extremely wary of cowboys like that.

Secondly, suppose they give you limited access. They used a page builder! Now don’t get me wrong, while I am averse to the things, I know some are incredibly powerful, can make stunningly complex pages and… See, complex. You’ve come to a web designer because you can’t do it yourself. A standard CMS, yes, most of those are not difficult to learn, but page builders are slow, clunky and can have a gazillion option that can make or break your website.

If they give you access and you can’t use it, how much access do you really have?

Lastly – and I’m looking at you Colin – there are web designer that lock you out of the CMS partially or completely. We are talking about control freaks that won’t even allow you to apply security updates to the plug-ins they added, let alone add your own. (Then they charge you to manually update the security, after turning off automatic updates).

The less control you have over your own site, the more control they have over you. They are reasons not to let end-users meddle, those I fully understand and agree with, but the less control you have, the more it should concern you.


n. Will my website have a blog?

If it’s a CMS, such as WordPress, there is no reason for it not to be included free if you require one.

Blogs can be great, especially for SEO and for customer interaction. You post, you share. All good. Provided the content is good, that is, and the grammar and spelling. A bad blog can be much worse than having no blog.

If you require a copywriter and proofreader to assist with the blog, that is wholly separate from offering you a blog and should be charged accordingly. Or perhaps they can direct you to someone that can do it for you.


n. How much payment will you require up front?

The first answer I read warned against choosing a developer who asks for one upfront payment, pointing out that good web developers tend to ask for a small amount upfront, with the balance on completion. Personally, I’d argue yes, but it depends.

For select customers, I require payment in full in advance. So, untrustworthy? What if I pointed out that the fee is typically £12 to cover the domain registration?

In a world battered by Covid, money is tight, especially for small businesses. For these, I still require payment in full in advance. Unfair? Suppose I point out that fee is just £60 a year. That is less than people willingly, even gratefully hand over in cash to some fly-by-night plumber for replacing a washer on a leaking tap.

Further up the scale, it is common to ask for 50% upfront, the rest on completion. Depending on the work involved, I’d argue this is fair. For myself, I’d look to offer two methods, either so much a month, (say £60), or so much a year, in advance, but with two months free hosting and support (so £600, a saving of £120).

I think it’s more to do with ‘vibes’ and gut feelings. There is a feeling, it seems, that if you go with the bigger places you are in safer hands. This is not always so.

There was a pie shop in town, well respected, lots of staff. They made wedding cakes too, taking 50% and even full payment in advance. Right up to the middle of the day that they pulled the shutters down and told all their staff to go home, ‘cos they were bankrupt!

The directors knew they were in trouble, had known for months and hid it from staff and creditors, kept taking advance orders. Whether they were in denial and praying they’d weather it, or it a calculated was a mote point to all those customers (and staff) that lost out.


n. How long will it take?

The first answer I saw offered to this was “4 to 6 weeks”. I laughed. A better answer is, “How long is a piece of string?”

If you want something simple and come prepared with good copy and images, the answer is “about an hour.” An afternoon if it needs a few rough edges taking off it.

However, if you require a highly involved eCommerce site with extra facilities, want it optimised to corner the local market, are designing by committee, then it will indeed take weeks or even months.

But it needn’t.

For instance, the Open University likes to use the OU running club as their example in some of their web design modules. It’s changed a bit since I last looked but not that much, just include more javascript now. The functions were agreed upon by the committee and it was designed by an agency. It cost a few thousand pounds for this. We were asked to revise it for an assignment paper. After I ripped it apart for all the many mistakes (in my report), I sat down and redeveloped it from scratch, fixing security problems, making it more accessible, and responsive. It only took me an afternoon. I am still not impressed with their effort.

If you only require an off-the-shelf style WordPress site, even with eCommerce, it should not take long at all.

However, if you require re-designs, new logos, extra hand-coded features adding…


n. What if I’m not happy with the design?

Forgspark had this to say:

Your developer should be communicating with you at every stage of development right from the initial first design. You should use a web developer that will listen to your ideas and adjust your design until you are completely happy.

I’ll stop you right there and say I both agree – and disagree. In a moment all the web designers will be nodding, muttering, “Preaching to the converted, brother.”

As I say elsewhere, often the customer is clueless. Meaning no disrespect but you sometimes ask for things you do not need, do not understand. Some customers can be like toddlers in a toy store. They see something on a site that probably cost £25,000 to create and “So Shiny! I want that!” They want it for the same twenty quid a month they agreed for ‘everything’.

It’s feature creeping and occurs in programming, building, etc. Partway through, they tack things on, change requirements, but they still want the project completed on time, on budget. Corporates are buggers for it too!

If the design is a proverbial dog’s dinner, whether due to miscommunication on both sides, or due to the developer’s incompetence, they should make it right, or refund you fully.

If however, you get don’t know what you want, so they walk you through each stage and give you exactly what you request – and you then are not happy, well sorry, that’s on you. Do your research.


1. Will my site be secure, will it have a padlock, will it have an HTTPS address with a valid certificate?

If the answer is no, or if it costs extra walk away. They are cowboys!

Right there, right then, if – by default, regardless of how cheap it is, if this is not included in the price, walk away. No site should be developed without them. There is absolutely no good reason for it to be missing.

However, I will temper that by saying that if you want or need an upgraded certificate AND you understand why, what you are paying for, and how much this will cost per year, that is a premium extra.

If you are with a web developer and your site is not padlocked, if they can’t or won’t upgrade it for free, walk away. Find a better web developer.

Most hosts include Let’s Encrypt or similar free. It is in their own best interest to do so. If your web address is HTTP and not HTTPS, move! You may hear or have heard of it as SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), or its successor TLS (Transport Layer Security).

Hubspot have a good introductory article (A Beginner’s Guide to SSL: What It Is & Why It Makes Your Website More Secure), while The Comodo SSL store (UK) can give you more detailed information and prices

Verisign also offer Everything You Need to Know About SSL Certificates. However, while being informative, it also manage to miss you want one, even if it’s just landing page. It’s not just security, it’s because Google says so, because browsers say so. It affects how visitors see your page or site, affects how search engines rank your site.


2. Who will be working on my website

Is it a one-man band, a team, an agency?

Will you have a manager? What skills do they have? How much experience?

How long have they been in business?

You may assume that at each step the price can increase substantially. By substantially I mean it starts adding zeroes!


3. What’s the difference between a developer and a designer?

In the simplest terms, a developer meddles under the hood – with code, etc., while a designer is focused on making it all pretty.

Someone can be both and more, but really they are different mindsets. Imagine a burly, tattooed biker – in a tuxedo. They can do it, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Without wishing to further complicate matters, depending on your needs, it may be far more involved. Design is different from UX/UI considerations. Neither relates to SEO, which in turn has little to do with copywriting or proofreading.

A web designer is also different again from a graphic artist, though graphic artists can make great designers. So, if you need a logo, you don’t ask a developer or even a designer, you ask a graphic designer. But a graphic designer is not a photographer, so if you need product shots… Then you venture into social media, email campaign, digital marketing and PPC advertising.

See what I mean about those zeros adding up. Don’t add features unless you need them!


4. How much will it all cost?

As you’ve seen by now, it depends, but really, it depends on you, not them.

Working for free, I could develop you a site for £6. A functionally similar site from a sole trader or partnership would come in around £600, a team would expect £3,000, while an agency would want your soul as a deposit.

It is important that you understand that you don’t get what you pay for in web design, you pay for what you get. Using a car analogy, consider a Nissan Micro. The first is simply the car. The second is the same car, with a sticker on it. The third is the same card which, for some reason has been rebranded as a BWM. The last, again the same car, is rebranded as Bentley Continental.

Allowing for the same functionality, some businesses will charges you a hundred or a thousand times more than others because that’s the price they put on their service, their time. Sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes you get duped.

Just like builders and plumbers, some will give you a set price for the job, others will bill you by the hour. And some builders are just cowboys!


5. Will you use a template?

Let’s be clear unless it’s a really special custom ground-up build (and you are talking in terms of £50,000 to millions) is will be from a template of some description, sitting on top of a framework. Initially at any rate.

To understand this better, I suggest a trip to CSS Zen Garden. It’s an old site, almost lost in time in some ways, but it’s the easiest way to understand this concept. There are hundreds of ‘sites’ all wildly different. Depending on your taste, some are beautiful, some ugly, some quite bizarre. But they all use the identical framework and template but edit the style sheet.

If you are a gamer you’ll understand this better as reskinning. Your character never changes, your weapon, functionally, never changes, but apply a reskin and your rusty sword can turn into a katana, or a flaming tulwar.

A better question is this: do you use a generic theme, a custom theme, or a page builder, and is it maintained?


6. Theme? Page Builder?

You really need to know which and what you are getting for your money.

Most WordPress themes are free, or relatively cheap. Not all are maintained, so become increasingly less secure and, with WordPress updates become less stable. They’ll do the job, but they won’t be remarkable.

Next up is professional themes. These will have a range of features, be customisable, and be supported by their developers. Note that the default theme is supported by its creator, not modified versions.

So if a web developer creates child themes by modifying layers of code, it’s up to them to keep those changes patched.

Finally are page builders, which in the case of WordPress I am applying to plug-ins and similar constructs that use drag and drop components to build templates and individual pages. These include the likes of Divi (which I can’t abide), Beaver Builder, and arguably the best, Elementor and Nimble builder.

Here are a few examples

Elementor:

 

 

Beaver builder

 

 

Others use shortcode plugins to do all the work

Nothing wrong with this, unless the plug-in developer that’s maintaining the code, in which case you will want to get rid of it. All the shortcode content on your site then breaks. I had this happen to me with a highly-rated gallery plug-in. It happens too often.

This next one is one I’ve noticed a lot of low-end web designers using. I didn’t really until I saw it, but it was an ‘aha!’ moment. I’ll be honest, it’s impressive, even tended myself, but I have two reservations. Firstly, it uses javascript – you want as little of that on your site as possible. Secondly, it appears to use a LOT of CSS. Absolutely nothing wrong with that except it increases your page load times. If you only use a fraction of its potential, you are better doing it yourself.

So, the question here is this: why is the web designer using something like this instead of coding? For your convenience? For theirs? Or because they can’t hand-code like that?

Still, it’s very highly rated on WordPress and has features that will appeal to many, so I’m throwing a link in for it. Shortcode Ultimate plug-in on WordPress.

Shortcodes Ultimate: Getshortcodes website

 

 


7. Is my new website going to be responsive?

If the answer is no, or if it costs extra – anything extra – walk away. They are cowboys!


n. How can I measure site performance?

That’s a whole nest right there, and some specialist companies can and do charge a lot for just that. Far more the cost of your site being developed.

I have covered this elsewhere on a post about SEO, but in simplest terms, you want to know:

How many people are visiting my site?
Where are they coming from?
How long are they staying?
What pages are they visiting?
What pages do they leave on?
How many visitors are spending money?

These are specialist options beyond web design.

At the absolute least, the web developer should be offering and including options such as Jetpack, Cloudlflare and certainly to install Google Analytics.

It’s fair to leave you to sort it out after there or charge accordingly. Or direct you to a specialist firm, depending on your requirements.

If you are a plumber getting word of mouth work, it really doesn’t matter, it’s just a brochure site. If you are an online store, one spending thousands a month on Google Ads, then it’s critical.


8. Is my new website going to be accessible?

This one is trickier to answer and explain. The best answer I can give is it should be, at the basic level, because it’s a legal requirement.

However, I would have to ask why you want to know, because it makes a difference, especially to the cost. Platforms are getting better natively at incorporating and implementing accessible features. At the same time, accessible devices are getting better at interacting with the Internet. Decades ago very few knew, fewer still cared.

Take colour-blindness, for instance. It affects 1 in 12 men; in the UK that tots up to around 2.8m, globally that equates to 325 million. Are your designers aware of this? Do they test for it for each type of colour-blindness? Remember, it is a legal requirement your site is accessible. As it only affects 1 in 200 women it’s not as critical if that’s your only target audience, but it still needs to be taken into account.

Then there are other restricted vision-related accessibility issues, such as contrast, size, clarity. e.g. At nearly sixty, even with corrective glasses, my eyesight is not what it was.

Some people, by choice, or due to physical factors (e.g. a broken arm, stroke, palsy) may need easier interaction or text to speech support.

Others may rely on Braille readers. You can’t be expected to support everyone and everything, but if your target audience requires this level of specialised testing and support, you need to be sure the developer is up to the task.

We are all used to the idea of kids playing on iPads and the like, but imagine if you are blind or visually impaired… Imagine, to make matters worse, you have developed hearing problems. Thing how isolating that would be. There are solutions though. Taking just one award-winning product, Blitab (https://blitab.com) is a Braille tablet that uses a disruptive actuating technology. It creates tactile text and images in real-time, uses touch navigation, has text-to-speech, and other features. Braille smartwatches have been out for a few years too.


9. Who will own my website?

The answer should and needs to be YOU. Certainly in terms of the domain name.

Taken in total though, this can be tricky, and deserving of a word of caution, especially in the case of unscrupulous companies, and indeed for honest developers that run into trouble.

We have to consider this by levels because it is far trickier than you might imagine.

Take the top level, the platform, WordPress in this case.
You can’t own that, neither can the developer, regardless of their size. It’s unimaginable, but if WordPress pulled the plug on it WordPress.org, besides the Internet going into hysterics and trillions of dollars being wiped off the stock markets, you’d lose everything. Even your backups would be of questionable use.

The theme or template then.
Again, unless you pay for it to get the design from scratch, the developer owns it, or the company the developer got it from. You are paying for a SERVICE, not a product. In most cases, the developer pays for a license and applies it to your site.

If you decide to move elsewhere, don’t expect the design to come along. You can work around this, buy your own license, have copies of customised, as agreed in the contract, so forth, rebuilt it.

The content
Did you supply it? Did you commission them you write it for you? Who supplied the images, and under what license? If you created the images, they are yours; if you commissioned them, it may depend on the contract. However, if they are stock photos, say from Getty Images, then it depends on the license. You may be able to continue using them, but they still belong to Getty, not you, and not the developer.

The domain name.
This is the real stickler. Domains names can and have sold for millions. They are literally the digital version of a ‘bricks and mortar building and its deeds. If it’s important – and it usually is – you need to be 100% sure that you are in control of the domain, that it’s registered in your name.

Here are a few scenarios.
You have a new company, selling customised keyboards. You call the business Qwertylicious, and you get a web design company to make you a web site – qwertylicious.co.uk (It is free at the moment. You’re welcome :))

Now, it’s a little technical, but honestly, it is really easy to sort this yourself (I recommend GoDaddy). This is scenario one. You have secured this. It’s yours. However, you need to remember to keep renewing the registration, or you lose the address.

How awful would it be if you let the domain name expire and your main competitor – legally – snapped it up and redirect all your traffic to their website. Fortunately, you can renew for up to ten years at a time, and can set domains to auto-renew.

Funny but true story – in the next this week Google forgot to renew one of their domain names and someone bought it. Google Argentina went offline for several hours until they got it back and repointed to the right nameservers. It happens to even the biggest of companies.

Scenario two is the web company sorts it.
Maybe they manage it for you, charging you accordingly, or maybe they buy it themselves and really, it’s there’s. They own your site. If they then decide to raise your charges 100% or 500% you either pay the extortionate fees, fight it in court, or walk away and start over. This is not a place you want to be!

Now – and this is serious – it gets more complicated. Suppose the web developer is as honest as the day is long but goes bankrupt, or the main person in the company dies. Unless you know which registrar hold the domain and can log in, it will expire. You can follow scenario one and buy it up yourself, but it would still be an unnerving experience.


n. Do they manage the backups?

Backups? It’s complicated

The simple answer is it they are not automatically doing at least basic backups – for free or included in the quote – walk away.

However, staying with the ‘developer going bust’ thread. What if?
If they fail to pay their hosting provider, that company WILL purge all the sites on the server. And the backups. You can lose everything.

Less likely, but if the host goes bankrupt, same again,
If the web developer dies, and only they or one person in the company controlled the backups, you lose everything.

If the developer refuses to allow you to make your own backups, you might way to ask why. And be very wary. It may simply be that they are cautious, WordPress plug-ins need to be solid, messing about with settings can wreck your site. Maybe they are being cautious. Or maybe they are making sure you have almost no choice but to stay with them.

Finally, for backups, even if you have them, do they work? Do they restore as expected? Have you tested? Can you migrate? Can they set this up for you? It’s a peace of mind option for the paranoid, but if you bet the farm on it being fine, you may want to be sure. Won’t be important for a £300 landing site, but if you have an expensive eCommerce store taking a lot of orders, covering staffs salaries, paying your mortgage, you may question if you cannot afford not to.

Even something as simple as Jetpack can – for around £5 a month, do daily backups of your site, allowing you to restore at the click of a button. The more you pay, the more secure and resilient your backups should be.


10. Do you offer ongoing maintenance, and if so, can we have a break down of costs?

The platform may be a factor, but staying with WordPress, even for the cheapest of sites, standard backups and patches should be free. I am aware of one web designer that charges £140 a year for this, and I think it’s criminal!

Here I am not talking about extras, but a developer that locked the client out of the dashboard admin, deliberately disabled automatic security updates to WordPress itself and to plugins, them bills them to apply them.

Expanding upon this is a separate issue. So, for example, Jetpack and Vaultpress could be offered as a cheap extra (or you can order it yourself), while a 100% uptime SLA with Cloudflare will run into thousands of pounds.

What if the site goes offline. Will they tell you, (even the free version of Jetpack will inform you), will they be there to talk to if it happens? I’ll give you a few actual examples I’ve seen and experienced.

Once, many years ago, the company I had a server with sold their business to some American whale. The whale, interested in maximum profits, let all the UK staff go, overpopulated the server racks and were basically complete shits. Something went wrong and they ‘lost’ a number of servers. Every web developer affected – and there were thousands – saw their sites and their client’s sites lost. For something like 5 weeks, all these countless thousands of domains were down. And rather than be responsible, or let the developers move, they lawyered up and said, “We changed the contract, you are tied to it. You can leave, but you still have to pay.”

Another time, another host, all my sites went off-line intermittently for several weeks. Every time you spoke to the company they argued, “It’s not us, it’s you, everything is fine here”. I was LIVID. In the end, as I got more irate, they realised it was their fault – someone in their company had accidentally blacklisted my servers IP address. Internally, the server was running, externally, everything bounced.

These things do happen. Does your developer have an answer for that? He should, if it’s a concern, the solution being mirroring, but it comes at a premium. In this instance, you might have two servers with two different hosts, in different countries, but the one URL (e.g. Qwertylicious.co.uk). The development costs do not increase, but the hosting and maintenance fees can more than double.


n. Do you have a portfolio of work?

If they are a new company they probably won’t. This isn’t necessarily bad, quite the opposite, actually.

Firstly, they are new, so you can maybe haggle more on price, and should get more attention from them. Secondly, you get to start their portfolio. As long as they are any good, and start a professional portfolio page, this can generate traffic to your site and give your page rank a tiny nudge upwards.

For myself, even for big agencies that can and do charges thousands, even tens of thousands of pounds for their work, I see a lot of site and portfolios that… could be better. One boldly promoted a ‘RENAL’ car rental company. Another, in a page-wide block, managed to spell ‘functional’ wrong, which is rather ironic.

I was at a trade show once; a certain software company were promoting a new product. Not a web story, but it still serves a point. We were given free software, promoting the product. The walls were adorned with A0-sized posters of it. Six-foot tall product boxes leaned in corners. Piles of flyers. You get the idea. They spared no expense. I raised a hand and asked how buggy it was, and whether we could even trust it. I got a cold hard glare from the UK manager.
That product was ‘Microsoft Office Proffessional’.

Uhuh!

Recently, I looked at local web designers, at their portfolios. I was mortified. Besides being unable to find any without errors, some were a mass of missing images and broken links. Some were simply small images that showed little detail and linked to nothing. Others went to dead sites or were redirected. Some claimed to have designed sites but when you looked at the footers of the live sites it was clear another company had created them.

If they say it’s their portfolio, you maybe want to make sure it is theirs. If you can check, that is. If you can’t check, you have to wonder why not. What are they hiding?

Sometimes, of course, it’s all good, which is what you want. If not, be wary.


More to follow shortly

Ack

Been playing with computers since the stone age, online since the '80s, and developing websites since the '90s.

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