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Front end developer coding at desk

How to Choose a Design Agency

Choosing a web design agency is absolutely the most important decision you'll make about your website. Sounds dramatic, but it's your design agency who will have a hand in every aspect of your site, from how it looks, to how it reads, to how it performs in search engines.

The Edge of the Web office in Warwick

Picking the right agency for you can feel daunting, so in this article, we'll talk about all the important things that will help you choose an agency that are perfect for you. We'll go through:

At the end of the day, choosing your design agency is a mix of finding the right skills, at the right price, from people you feel comfortable with and confident will do a great job. 

Looking at all of these angles should help you make the right decision, and get you a brilliant site with the perfect agency.

Does web design really matter?

If your immediate answer to this is "no", then it actually might be best for you not to hire a design agency at all!

If design really doesn't matter to you, there are plenty of nice templates out there that cost very little and can get your organisation online very quickly.

But should design matter to you? 

Well, it matters to your customers.

Our research shows that:

  • 94 percent of negative website feedback was design related
  • 75% of consumers admit to making judgements on a company's credibility based on the company's website design
  • According to Google, 61% of users are unlikely to return to a site on mobile if they had trouble accessing it and 40% visit a competitor's site instead

Your website's design is a huge part of how a customer views you, your services and products. Even if you only use your site as a reference point, if your customers visit and find it out of date, hard to navigate, or looking just like your competitors, then they're unlikely to form a good opinion of you.

Good website design can make a good first impression on new clients, reinforce the reputation you already have, and give clients a good experience on your site. 

Great website design can make visitors choose you over your competitors, make you the obvious choice to call or contact, and create an experience on site that visitors will want to come back and use over and over again.

But an amazing agency, is one that works alongside you to design and build a website that's the perfect balance of yours and your customers' needs, and forms a relationship with you that helps your site grow, develop, change and improve as time goes on.

So, what makes you confident that a particular design agency is the right choice for you? And how do you work out which provider gives you the service, relationship and value that you're looking for?

 

Research

When you're looking for a design agency, the first stop is usually the internet. Even if you've had a recommendation from a friend or have noticed a local agency's advert or office, you're probably still going to look up their website before getting in touch - and so you should!

An agency's own website is going to give you a great first look at what they can do, and you'd also expect that their own website is going to be an example of their best work.

Be careful to avoid the pitfall of thinking "I wouldn't want this on MY site", however. An agency website is likely to have very different goals to your own, so it's much more important just to look at the design and styles in general.

If the site looks dated, if things aren't working on there, or if you've seen sites just like it before, then that's going to throw up some red flags about this agency.

It's also a great plan to see how the site works on a mobile and tablet too, it's a good way of checking that the company puts as much effort into their mobile design as they do on desktop.

Experience & Expertise

How long an agency has been in business is another good way of analysing their experience. 

Web design is an industry where there are lots of freelancers setting themselves up as a business one month, and finding a salaried position the next, which can leave you high and dry if you need work doing on your website.

Taking a look at a company's Team or About page can help to show you what sort of agency they are. Are they a small team of experts? Is it a big agency with dozens of employees? Is it a one or two-man-band? 

Bigger isn't always better with your agency, but you need to pick a company that's the right level for you. Lots of clients want the assurance of knowing who's working on their website at any given time, or who will answer the phone when they call, but some want the assurance of knowing there's a full team in place so there will always be someone available when you're needed.

Industry Specific Web Design

Something that comes up a lot, is clients looking for a design agency that has experience in their industry, or an agency that exclusively does websites for their sector. 

Lots of people feel that this is a good way of making sure that your web designers understand you and your business, but in fact, it can cause big problems.

Web design isn't like creating a product, you actively don't want every one to be the same - because even two companies in the exact same industry aren't exactly the same. Your company is unique, and your website needs to be too.

An agency that only designs for your sector is likely going to have a checklist of "things you'll need". They aren't likely to have much flexibility or the inspiration to think outside the brief, come up with new, exciting ideas, or find ways for you to stand out - because they've done this all before, many times over.

In fact, you might find that they're churning out the same styles and designs over and over again, because new ideas are a challenge, and if you've already designed 20 websites in the same industry, finding unique idea 21 is going to be pretty hard.

Consistent design

Another thing to watch out for is websites that all start looking similar.

Some design agencies will work with a couple of templates and simply rework them for clients, just swapping out images and colours instead of creating a new design from scratch.

That's fine if you're looking for something cheap and cheerful, but if you want your website to stand out, or if you're being quoted for a bespoke design, make sure you're not getting the same site as everyone else.

If a design agency has a wide variation of sites on their portfolio, then that's a great sign that they're doing unique, bespoke design for each of their clients.

Check to see if an agency's portfolio includes sites that look dramatically different to each other, use different layouts, or includes sites that work differently to others.

Content

When was the last time this agency wrote a blog article? When was their last Tweet? What do they like to talk about? 

The content on your agency's site is a good way to get a feel for who they are and what they're like, as well as showing you their level of commitment to things like their own marketing strategy and SEO.

If you want your website to rank well, it's a good idea to choose an agency who can show they take an active role in marketing and SEO for their own company. Even if you don't choose them for ongoing marketing services for your own site, it shows they've got the skills to do all your on-site optimisation and get you off to a good start.

Blog articles and subjects are also a good measure of how experienced an agency is. If you're reading lots of headlines about good design practice, technologies and SEO, it's a good sign that this is an authoritative business. If the blog is mainly about the business itself, without much information on the industry in general, it's a sign that they might not have a lot of knowledge to share. 

 

Your brief

One aspect of choosing the right agency actually depends a lot on you. It's how an agency responds to your brief.

It is really important to have some kind of brief that you can take to different agencies. It doesn't have to be incredibly detailed, and it shouldn't be set in stone, but it will really help an agency work out what you're looking for from your website.

We've got a more in-depth article about writing your website brief, but in short it should include:

  • Some background information about your business and your project
  • You main goals for the site
  • A description of your target audience/audiences
  • A loose rundown of the content you want to include
  • Any specific functionality you need
  • Your budget (yes, this is REALLY important!)
  • Timescales

Ideally, your agency should want to meet with you to talk through your brief, but another positive sign is asking more questions about the project. 

If you've provided them with a rough ballpark for pricing, they should also be able to let you know whether they can give you everything you need within your budget, or give you some suggestions on how to make that money go further.

Providing a website brief is a really helpful part of the process for you, as it gives you a framework for your expectations with the website. 

It's also a big help to your design agency, as it gives them a background level of knowledge about your project that makes it much easier to provide suggestions, ask questions and give you ideas about pricing and timescales.

If you've got any qualms about providing this sort of information about your project up front, don't be afraid to ask your agency to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement first. 

NDAs are really common in the design industry, so any good agency will be more than happy to sign that for your peace of mind and protection. 

 

Communication

Don't just speak to one agency. Even if you're 100% certain that these are the guys for you, make sure you've spoken to a couple of other agencies as well. You might find that someone else gives you suggestions on how to make the most from your budget, or is offering functionality you hadn't thought about, or has a portfolio that you like better.

Discussion

Make sure you have a proper conversation with each agency too, remember, you're not buying a toaster here, you're looking for someone who will look at your business needs, and design and build a website that's going to achieve your goals.

Try to meet in person if you can. Not only will that make it easier to talk freely about the project, but it can also give you the chance to check out their workplace - is it a big company, or a boutique? Is the company actually a freelancer and not a full agency? 

Your agency's communication skills are really important too, you need to know your designers are listening to you and trying to understand your company and customers. If they simply tell you that so many pages and a contact form costs x, they've already put your project into a package formula, they're not actually thinking about what you need.

Vibe

Another thing you'll learn from meeting your prospective design agency (which is often overlooked), is whether you actually get on with them. 

You don't need to be best friends with your designers, but finding them easy to talk to is actually really helpful for an ongoing relationship. If you find your agency easy to talk to, it's going to be much easier for you to communicate what you want from the project, and to give them good and honest feedback.

Speed

Another good communication test is how quickly they get back to you, and how engaged they are with what you're actually saying. 

If you send an email out to a design agency and you don't hear back for a week, or just get a price list with no real interest in your project, that might be a clue that they aren't great at staying in touch, or that there's no-one at the company who takes on the responsibility of staying in touch with you.

But if you get a fairly swift response, or an email that addresses your questions specifically, then that sets a great precedent for future communications.

Honesty

Sometimes, an agency just needs to be honest with you. If you come across a designer or developer who tells you that your timeframe isn't feasible, or that a function that you want isn't going to work, sometimes that's the sign of a really good agency.

The key to whether this is actually a good sign, is whether that agency explains why something isn't going to work the way you want, or better yet, thinks about an alternative solution for you.

There's nothing worse than an agency who agrees to give you everything you ask for, without any clear plan on how to deliver. If they over promise and can't deliver, you'll end up with a website that never manages to achieve the goals you set out for it.

Much better to work together to find an alternative. Even if it's not what you want to hear.

 

Breaking down the quote

Once you've provided an agency with your brief and had a conversation (or ideally a meeting) with them, the next step is generally to get a quote.

Remember that the quote is about more than just the money, every agency isn't offering you the same product, so don't expect them all to be the same price.

The key is to find which agency is offering the right service at the right price for you.

Depth

A good agency should be providing you with a quote that goes into some depth about what you're actually getting.

If you send an agency a detailed 3 page brief, and simply get a number back, that's not going to fill you with confidence. 

Your website is more than a cost, it's an investment, and you need to see that your agency is planning for a website that achieves your goals, and their quote should go into some depth about how they plan to do that.

Technologies

Talking about technologies can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Ideally you want your quote to talk a bit about what you'll be getting with your site, what platform it might be on, and some of the technical functions they expect it to use.

On the other hand, a wall of jargon is never a good sign.

A good quote should let you know some of the technical aspects they expect to use for the site, but explain what these mean. Even if you don't know what a technology is exactly, you should understand why it's mentioned in the quote.

Visuals

Everyone wants to know their website is going to look beautiful, but if you're getting visuals within your proposal, it's actually a bit of a red flag.

If an agency is providing you with design up front, before contracts are signed and deposits are paid, it suggests that they haven't put a lot of thought into the website plan, and have just knocked something up quickly.

If this is just to give you an idea of their current thinking, or if you've been quite specific on how you want your site to look, it isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if this is a finalised home page, think about what it means for your site, that the design you're paying for can be given away for free before you've even signed up.

However, lots of agencies give you a flavour of their design skills by producing a designed proposal, presentation or quote for you to look at. 

This is a nice way for them to show you their abilities, but without rushing through or neglecting the in-depth thought and planning you'd expect them to put in for your website design itself.

Functionality

A good website quote should lay out the functions that people will be able to do on the front end of the website, as well as what you can do in the back end. 

This shows you what you can expect from the website's functionality, but will also enable you to see what parts of the site will be editable or manageable by you on an ongoing basis, so you don't get 3 months down the line after launch and realise you can't add a new product, or edit the home page text.

Additional costs

Your website design and build isn't the only cost you need to think about, there are lots of additional costs that may or may not be part of your project, so it's really important to know what's included and what can be provided as an additional fee.

These can include:

  • Web hosting
  • Domain registration and renewal
  • Email hosting
  • SSL Certificates
  • SMTP server (for secure system emails)
  • CMS support and updates (particularly if you use an open source service like Wordpress)
  • Browser support and updates (keeping your website up to date and usable on new versions of browsers and devices)
  • Development support
  • SEO audits or ongoing services

It's also a good idea to know what your agency quotes for additional work on request. Most will have an hourly or daily rate, or may offer support packages to cover additional work and/or some of the services mentioned above.

Support

Whether your agency offers dedicated support packages or not, it's good to know what ongoing services you can expect from them.

Some agencies prefer to be hands-off once the website is completed, whereas some like to maintain a close relationship with clients.

If your agency does offer ongoing support services, it's a good sign that they don't consider the project over once the site goes live, and many agencies expect to work with you long after the initial launch.

Timeframe

Your quote should also include a rough timeframe for the project - especially if you have a specific deadline you need to hit. 

A great quote will also give you an outline of how the project is expected to progress, with milestones in there to give you a framework for what's expected of you and your agency at each stage to keep things on track.

Analysis

You really can read a lot into a design agency's quote, and it should give you a lot of detail and depth so that you can make the right choice. 

A good quote might show you that an agency is worth a little extra money for the detail, understanding and service they aim to provide. Whereas an email with just a price tag might make you think twice about whether an agency really understands what your project needs.

 

Making your choice

Choosing the right web agency for your project does deserve a lot of thought, as it's the decision that's going to have the biggest impact on whether your website is a success.

All the steps you've gone through should bring you to a point where you feel really confident that you've found an agency that listens, that understands what your goals are, and has the technical abilities and artistic flair to make a website that's going to achieve those goals.

If you want to see if we're the right agency for you, have a look through our Work for in-depth case studies, or simply get in touch with your questions and queries!  

sam.jpg

Sam Orchard

Creative Director