It can be difficult to understand what exactly it is that you are getting when it comes to web development, platforms, and development teams. I like cars so here comes a car analogy.
When you go to the local car dealership they have several models to choose from. All of the cars have a slew of standard features you’ve come to expect, like air conditioning, power door locks, and cruise control. They may only have a few color options and boring wheels, but these cars run fine with only a small amount of maintenance. So you can skip developing a deep, meaningful relationship with your mechanic.
For most folks, these stock vehicles do the job, but what if you plan to race? You wouldn’t dream of showing up to a Formula One race in any of these cars. Not only would you not be allowed to race, but you certainly wouldn’t be competitive.
Race cars are purpose-built. They don’t have air conditioning, power door locks, or even floor mats. But while their feature list is scant, race cars perform for their owners. They also require constant maintenance, and often a full-time team of mechanics to keep them on top.
Websites, many of which are actually web applications, follow a similar pattern. An out-of-box Content Management System (cms), like Wordpress or Statamic may be enough to cover your initial needs, they include a list of included features that require little custom development. But when your business needs are too specific or complex, custom web development, and likely design, will be on the shopping list.
Choosing a team
Continuing with our super sweet car analogy, you might imagine a vital part of winning will be choosing the right team to build and maintain the car. It’s unlikely that you’d hoof it over to the dealership or Jiffy Lube to assemble your pit crew. You’ll want a team of specialists who have the skill and experience to win!
Your web design and development team should have experience building sites of similar scope and with many of the same features your business requires.
Depending on your budget and urgency, you should also ensure the team has proper leadership on board. A good project manager may be the difference between receiving a finished product, or not.
Communication is another huge component that shouldn’t be ignored. If you can’t clearly communicate your needs to the team, and they can’t or won’t pull those requirements out of you, prepare for chaos. A good custom web development team will know the right questions to ask in order to fully understand your goals and needs. They will listen well and clearly communicate. Ideally, they should guide you through the process, making smart suggestions and decisions along the way.
It may be tempting to hire an off-shore team with a significantly lower hourly rate, but if you can’t communicate effectively with that team, then it’s just money in the wind.
The long haul
Another aspect to consider is the longevity of the web development team. Do they only provide the initial build and then move on to the next project? Or will they stick around to extend and maintain your web app. If it’s the former, you’ll need to find an individual or group who can keep the site running smoothly. There are some great teams out there who only design or only build, but understanding that up front is important.
If you need to hire another partner to expand and maintain, allow time, both to find that resource, and for them to get up to speed on the project.
The devil is in the details
Websites seem simple on the surface. Button, images, text fields, oh my! But it’s the things you don’t see that take the time. For example, your site provides for an image to be uploaded to a particular layout. Will the layout block scale based on the size of the image? What if the image is huge? Will it be resized? Can you add “alt text” to the image? Can you set the focal point? Will it generate all of the other needed sizes once it’s been uploaded? Where are they stored? How will the aspect ratio be handled? Different images for mobile screens?
This is a simplistic example, but hopefully you get the idea. Custom web development is complex, laborious and nuanced. The right team will see through the simplicity of the surface design to anticipate considerations that will undoubtedly affect the budget and timeline.
When it comes to building custom web applications, quality will manifest itself in a multitude of ways. From pixel perfection (does it look exactly like the design?) to unit tests, and atomic deployment, craftsmanship can have a larger than expected impact on all aspects of the website.
You may not need to go nuts building your beta, but eventually the small things will turn into big things. Make sure your team can deliver at the level you are expecting. Get a tour of recent projects the agency has completed. Ask probing questions to gauge whether or not you are on the same page about build quality.
The right team will inspire confidence, explaining where they intend to put your dollars to work, and the areas that can wait.
Backend vs Frontend
Much like your car, which has a motor and drivetrain to control how the car runs, and an interior and body which dictate how the car looks and feels, websites have a similar pairing. The “backend” is the code that controls the major workings of the site, while the “frontend” affects the bits that users actually see and interact with.
These two sides of the website each have their own considerations and can be built to different standards. It can often be easier to tell when the frontend is not living up the hype, while the backend will require more knowledge and probing questions to discern the quality of the build.
Money can be a touchy subject, but here goes. Sometimes a web agency isn’t the right choice. Maybe you’re bootstrapping a personal project and would be better served by a freelancer. Or perhaps you have KPIs and a timeline that require the support an agency can provide. As you might imagine, the larger the agency, the more you can expect to spend. It isn’t simply that larger agencies are more expensive, though that may be part of it, agencies bring specialists rather than generalists. There may be as many as ten people involved at various stages, each devoted to a different aspect of the project.
Having specialists such as dedicated UX designers, devops, and project managers is a huge advantage when it comes to achieving high levels of execution. Be up front with your team about the budget and work to understand the ongoing costs to keep your web application performing. There are numerous areas where your development team can adjust to match your needs with your budget.
Wrapping It Up
Building a custom web application, or even a custom CMS website, should be an exciting and collaborative process. Understanding the ins and outs of the development cycle will ease tension and ensure the deliverables live up to your expectations.