Checklist: How to Choose a Design Agency

As a kind of add-on to another project, we helped a non-profit client select a design and development agency to re-design their website. As part of that work, we assembled an extensive checklist of questions to ask the candidates. With our client's permission, we've reproduced the list here.

Experience

  • For the key people working on your web project, how much experience do they have?
  • Confirm which staff will actually be working on the project.

Subject matter expertise

  • Have they developed other sites for non-profit organizations?
  • Have they developed other sites related to your particular cause?
  • What is their background or experience in search engine optimization?

Aesthetics

  • Do all of the web projects they've recently worked on have a similar aesthetic? That's okay, as long as you like that look and feel.
  • In your initial conversations about the aesthetic you're after, does the agency staff communicate in language that you can understand? Are they able to articulate back to you what you're after?

Technology

  • What technologies (platforms like WordPress or Drupal and development environments like Ruby or PHP) do they have experience with?
  • Do they have expertise in a particular technology? If so, ask them when it's not appropriate to use that technology? You want to avoid an agency where every problem looks like the perfect nail for their hammer.
  • What changes will you be able to make to the site without their aid, or that of another designer? Ask for a demonstration on another site they’ve worked on of how to make those changes.
  • What CRM systems (such as Convio, Democracy in Action and so forth) do their technologies integrate with?
  • What CRM systems have they completed recent integration projects with?
  • What are the staff training implications of the technology choices the agency makes?
  • Can you to talk to a customer for whom they completed an integration project?
  • Have they talked to you about the mobile audience, and how their design will accommodate users on smaller screens?
  • Do they talk about where and how to host your web project? Do they have a relationship with hosting companies?
  • What considerations does the agency give to web accessibility?

Support and Maintenance

  • Do they offer ongoing support?
  • How much does ongoing support cost?
  • What response time do they offer with their support package?
  • Can you talk to one of their customers who have been a longtime user of their support services? You want to talk to somebody for whom the honeymoon period is over.

Budgeting

  • How will billing work?
  • What systems and practices do they have in place to ensure that they don't exceed the agreed-upon budget?
  • What happens if they find they need to exceed the budget?
  • In their proposal, have they accounted for additional costs unrelated to staffing, such as stock photography or software subscriptions?

Process

  • What are the milestones associated with their development process?
  • What are the deliverables associated with each of these milestones?
  • Are they comfortable with hitting the deadline you've identified?
  • Who will be the project manager on the project. Ask if you can have a quick call with this person, to gauge their likability and communication style.
  • How many design revisions are included in the process? That is, how many steps are there between the first draft and the final one.
  • If you need to register a new domain, who will do this?
  • Will the agency have a role in developing the website content? If so, what?
  • Do you have multi-language needs? If so, has the agency worked on other multi-language sites?

Other

  • Do you actually like the people at the agency? You're going to be working with them for months.
  • Who will own the source files (Photoshop files and such) associated with the project after their work is complete?
  • Who will own the copyrights associated with their work on your web project?
  • Have they genuinely attempted to understand your organization's goals for the web project?
  • Do they speak in web marketing lingo, using terms like 'conversions' and 'calls to action'? While it's not hard to fake this, a few probing questions about previous projects should separate the fakers from the experts.
  • Where is the agency located? A few in-person meetings can go a long way.
  • Do they outsource their work? If so, what parts and to whom?
  • Has the agency asked about the demographics of your audience? If many of them are elderly, for example, or in the developing world, then they'll want to factor these issues into their designs.
  • What is their reputation? Ask your colleagues if they've heard of the agency, and what they think of them.