How to choose a new web design firm?
April 18, 2006 6:59 AM   Subscribe

The small (450 students) private school I represent is looking for a new web design/host firm. Our present web firm designed, technically maintains, programs and hosts (through Pair) our site. We do daily updates - new dates, events, etc. We don't know where to begin in looking for a new firm. What is the process? What are the half a dozen critical questions to ask, capabilities to look for?

The one we have used for the last 5 years is OK, but we're not completely happy - they seem unresponsive to new developments we want. We want to keep our present look and feel at first, but gradually refresh and redesign it and increase its functionality.
Do we do an RFP (Request for Proposals)? Go with word of mouth recommendations? Interview prospective design firms? How do we even get a short list??
How important is it that the new firm is physically in our own city? Is the present client list important? We have an alumni database to maintain, and want to expand to online conference registration, etc. over the next three years.
What are the migration issues I should be aware of?
Might be important: We're in Canada.
posted by feelinggood to Computers & Internet (7 answers total)

We're going through the exact same thing at my school (1200 students). I asked this question here:

I have to go to class right now, but I'll keep an eye on this question.
posted by yellowbkpk at 7:26 AM on April 18, 2006

That post and the answers are very useful, but it's unfortunately not "the exact same thing".
I think we know what we want, and at this point (it sounds silly to say it) money isn't a consideration - we'll either be able to afford it or not.
The first, and in a way the main, question is -- how do we find who's out there (a short list)?
An important part of that is: How do we let design firms know that we're looking for someone (without drawing the whole internet down on us)?
Second question is: - what kind of process is the most appropriate for deciding on a particular firm? Interview? RFP? Word of mouth? ? ?
And how much do we need to know/tell them to get an accurate response to our needs?

I'm familiar with the fantastic Goto/Cotler book Web ReDesign 2.0 and we're sort of using it as a textbook, but it seems to assume that you've already got your design firm wrapped up.
posted by feelinggood at 7:55 AM on April 18, 2006

You can definitely go the route of an RFP. Finding serious web firms to send your request to is another story. Google searches, word of mouth, Craigslist or what have you are all candidates, but you may try contacting any IT folks at neighboring schools or any educational institutions you have a relationship with to see what they've used.

Unfortunately, it seems a great deal of Uni sites are developed in-house, at least for larger Universities. (Sweeping generalization.)

The firm's location can be of some importance, but the likeliness of there being a significant amount of in-person contact throughout the duration of the project comes down to your requirements. If you plan on having someone available to the firm and working with them to constantly communicate with and approve changes as necessary, you'll likely want a firm that can offer you on-site services or consultations.

My firm actually maintains an office with one of our larger clients so that we can work on site when things get ridiculously complicated, as they do from time to time. Most of the time, we work from our own location or even our homes. On the other hand, we have several clients out of state, with whom we confer almost entirely over the phone and through email. If the client and job warrants, we'll glady fly out to further discuss things, but it's usually not as necessary as one might think.

I think the present client list is a quality over quantity issue. Ask for actual personal references, and look for references from academia clients, if possible. You want to be sure that your new web firm is capable of playing at this level with you and that they really know what they're doing. My company doesn't maintain a giant list of clients, because we have just a few, large-scale, enterprise-level solutions we're building. We have references on request, and we'll gladly describe what we've developed for our other clients, but you'll want to stay away from a firm with a bunch of screenshots of their freshly designed, simple websites. Look for concrete, existing implementations of stuff you want to use on your site.

Migration issues can vary, but it's entirely dependent on the system your current site is built around. If you own the code or you're using a non-proprietary content management system, you'll just need to find a host who offers the same specs and scripting languages and database provisions as your current setup with Pair.
In fact, if it's at all feasible, you could just stay with Pair.

Migrating to a new server is something your new web firm should assist you with. They'll be able to deliver to you an estimate on time to complete and any potential downtime, though downtime can be significantly reduced, depending on your system's configuration.

If your web firm won't allow you access to their content management system, you may need to discuss that with the firm of your choosing.

I know the process ASU goes through for projects is a rather lenghty one. They have a list of web development firms, based on people who have submitted requests to be shortlisted to the Universities procurement division. Alternatively, our state has a procurement system that allows the various state agencies to post RFP/RFQs to the applicable vendors and use that as a means for properly distributing the request. See if your regional government perhaps maintains such a system, and see if you're able to contact any of the names on that list.

Send out a detailed RFP explaining what you have in place now, what you wish to accomplish in the immediate future, and where you see your relationship with the new firm developing towards within the next few years. Outline a basic desired timeline for your milestones: Site transition to new server: 1 month. Integration of new calendar system: 4 months. Online conference registration, etc: 6 months. Let them know what you're expecting will be reasonable.

Make sure that you put a due date, and that you deliver the RFP to as many seemingly qualified firms as possible. Check with your local Chamber of Commerce (assuming Canadians have such things; perhaps it's a Ministry? ;-) or small business organizations for lists of applicable firms. Consider calling the firms to see if they're at all interested, or just send the RFPs out, with a read receipt requested.

Hopefully, you'll receive some serious responses. Take a look at the quotes you've received and contact your favorites for a presentation/interview.

Ask again for references, or even require them. Meet with the people you belive have the most game and present as the most serious, and see what they have to offer. Tip your hat with a budget idea and see if any of them go running, or let them listen to your full needs and have them give you a ballpark figure first. Look at their existing body of work and make sure you feel comfortable with launching into a relationship with them, then sign the papers and get ready to move.

See a sample Arizona State RFP here to work from.

OR, just call some local firms up that look nice and ask around. You'll need to be serious from a money perspective if you're wanting an established relationship with a lot of gradual development, but firms specialize in that and will be more than willing to discuss with you your needs without the formality of an RFP. (Hell, if you'd like to talk to me about it, my email's in my profile.) Prices firms charge can vary wildly, so shop around, but remember you will get what you pay for. I like to maintain a balance of affordability, scalability and quality, personally, but we all know there's the basic mantra of quality, speed of delivery, cost: choose two. Work with the firms and see what they can do for you.

There's nothing too outrageous with your ideas here, and any decent web application firm should be capable of handling it. Make sure you're not picking some run-of-the-mill "web design studio" or something like that—there are a lot of folks out there that claim they know sixteen different programming languages AND Photoshop AND HTML, etc. etc. etc, who can barely muster a Powerpoint presentation. Bottom line: You want a firm that has experience developing large-scale solutions and who knows what they're doing.

Kudos and good luck to you, and again, feel free to email to discuss further.
posted by disillusioned at 8:18 AM on April 18, 2006

I would guess that the needs of a small school aren't wholly different, from a web site standpoint, from those of a similarly sized corporation, be it a law firm or a hospital. I produce web sites for smaller firms and most of my clients have come from people finding the sites that I have designed. They like my client's site, they call my client, they call me. I'd look at the sites of local firms and see who has done them. You might find that many of the best are done by the same group.
posted by johngumbo at 10:10 AM on April 18, 2006

PS, as for location, as a designer I find it easier to work for local clients. I like face-to-face meetings - I find I get a better sense of what the clients wants by talking directly. Email is essential for what I do, but I like direct contact as well. I was less happy working for clients in other cities (but maybe that's just me).
posted by johngumbo at 10:12 AM on April 18, 2006

My firm could do this for you. The e-mail contact is in my profile. Get in touch and I'll send you some information. We would be happy to respond to an RFP too, if that's what you end up doing.
posted by banished at 6:30 PM on April 18, 2006

Likewise, our company might be able to help and if not us, I'm happy to recommend others. I'm part of the ICA (Institute for Communications & Advertising) the Canadian indudstry association which can also help. I'm located in Toronto. Email is in contact info.
posted by pman78 at 6:52 PM on April 18, 2006

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