Commissioning a web project
Commissioning a web project for the first time can all be a bit daunting when faced with a wall of acronyms, jargon and double-speak that can make up the world of web development. We think it’s important to demystify the process and to talk in plain English.
Here are some questions we’ve been asked in the past and some of the areas you might want to consider when hiring a web agency. Not all websites are created equal and we hope that after reading this, you’ll have a better idea for what to look out for.
“We strongly believe that a website or web application is best when it has been designed with a single purpose in mind.
Off-the-shelf products and templates are fine as far as they go, but there are always compromises that will need to be made. When you build your own application you get exactly the right tool for the job.”
Don’t underestimate the worth in finding an agency or freelancer that fits your personality: chances are you’re going to be working together for a long time. It is rare that you can have a website built and handed over to you without you requiring the developer’s services again. Some web projects never really end; there is always another round of changes and updates that need to be made.
We like to get to know our clients. Some of our longest-standing ones have been working with us for more than 7 years.
Beware of ‘digital’ agencies that don’t concentrate on any one field. There are a lot of marketing, design and print agencies that also make websites on the side.
We believe a team of web specialists, honing their skills every day, are best positioned to keep pace with the speed of change on the Internet.
Some companies take on all the work they can get and then worry about how they’re going to do it later. They might only do the visual designs and then get another company or freelancer to do the development work or vice versa.
Call us control freaks, but we think the best websites are made by teams with all the expertise in-house. Working side-by-side each day means that colleagues are familiar with each other’s skill sets and personalities, which helps us become experts in our own fields. It also means that we have complete understanding of the underlying website code and are not reliant on other companies or freelancers when implementing changes or providing support.
Websites should be designed to be accessible by as broad a set of people as possible. Developers should care about writing meaningful and valid code built to industry standards.
At Kyan we know that high quality code is easier to maintain and reaches more of your customers.
Did you know that Google factors page load time into its search ranking algorithm? Having said that, your site should be fast first and foremost because it provides a better user experience for your users. Be careful when dealing with projected traffic numbers that are sky high, as there is fine balancing act between optimisation and design. Premature optimisation can have an adverse effect on the design of a website as it adds complexity and introduces bugs that consume time and money. If your site does hit issues with speed/capacity don’t let lazy developers tell you just to upgrade your server and throw some expensive hardware at the problem. We recommend exploring all the other options first, there is nearly always room for improvement in the code itself.
It isn’t nearly as complicated as you might think to implement caching technologies. Don’t think you’re too small to use the technologies the busiest sites on the web use.
Some SEO professionals use dirty tricks to get to the top of search listings. They’ll write automated scripts/bots to add links to their site on other high-ranking sites, or pay people to do their dirty work for them. While it can be tough competing with ‘black hat’ techniques it is definitely possible to be ranked well with an honest approach. Keyword analysis is an essential part of the process: this means you can better target your website copy and adverts to your prospective audience.
We take a firm ‘white hat’ position when it comes to marketing your site. It may take a little longer to get results, but you won’t be in danger of Google choosing to drop you from their results pages and will pay off with better customers.
Which browser do you use? Do you care? Your visitors will: Whilst modern browsers are generally very good, older ones display web pages in their own unique way, and unless your site is built to work around their quirks it will look broken to your visitors, and you won’t even know it.
We have extensive expertise in supporting older and less common browsers, and are happy to talk over any specific support requirements you have.
It seems like everyone has an smartphone or tablet these days. Don’t assume you have to have another version of your website though, a simple mobile stylesheet may be all you need in order to provide a tailored layout for various screen sizes.
We use HTML5 technologies wherever possible to build websites, so Apple’s lack of support for Flash doesn’t hold our sites back.
Websites will fail: understand that now and you will be prepared for it. This is not a defeatist view or an excuse, it’s realistic. An experienced software development team will know this and rather than bury their heads in the sand they will be well prepared to deal with the consequences. It’s all about having the problem-solving skills, tools and the right approach to solving the root cause of the problem.
We believe automatic notifications are essential. Whenever there is a system error triggered by a user the developers should know about it so that they can nip it in the bud before large numbers of users encounter the same problem. Processes monitors should be run on the server itself to keep it alive and well. Larger applications can make use of software services such as New Relic that provide real-time information on system load and will automatically notify you when your site is handling spikes of traffic.
Test driven development has gained acceptance as the best way to write web applications. For each function of the application the developer first writes a test, then produces code to passes it. The benefits of this approach are significant where multiple developers work on a project and may not have intimate knowledge of every aspect of the application. Bugs will be caught earlier in the development cycle where they are less harmful, and code can also easily be refactored safe in the knowledge that existing functionality is not being broken.
It is absolutely critical that you can develop and test new features of your website before making them live to your users. Source control systems such as Git make it easy to manage multiple versions of the code, even as it is developed concurrently. These systems are absolutely essential for the organisation of multi-developer projects as they allow people to work on the same files at the same time from any location. Source control also means your code is a lot safer as multiple revisions are kept so that code can easily be reverted to previous versions.
A stale website will perform poorly in search engines and doesn’t encourage repeat visitors. Whether it’s news articles, product updates or a company blog, nearly every website will have areas that need to be kept up to date. Some developers utilise existing self-publishing systems such as Wordpress, Expression Engine, Joomla etc. as a content management system (CMS) and customise the public facing design. This can work really well if you’re on a budget and don’t have complicated requirements. This approach can lead to problems though when you want a simple interface or need extra custom functionality.
Generally we’ll build a custom CMS that captures your exact requirements and will perform only the functions it needs. It’s important to bear in mind that content management systems can restrict the flexibility of the website design, and the more complicated they are to build the more expensive they are. You need to strike the right balance. Consider how often you will actually update the content. While manual content updates made by your developers will often cost you by the hour, it might actually cost you more to build the extra piece of CMS functionality especially if you never end up using it.
“You get what you pay for” is a phrase well worth considering when choosing a host. Typically your web developers will be best placed to make a recommendation, but the decision is ultimately yours. A lot of agencies like to host their own sites and this can work well if they have the in-house expertise. You should ask them about their setup. Do they have off site backup? What plans do they have in place if the server goes down? Can they get it running again in the middle of the night or on a weekend? Do they perform regular security updates? Don’t assume your web developers know how to manage a web server — building a website and looking after a server are two very distinct skill sets and require very different knowledge.
Shared (or co-located / virtual) servers are where your website is stored on the same machine as others and the hosting company will maintain and look after the server on your behalf. They are cheap, but the support is often poor: usually email only. The shared solution is typically already setup and ready to go. If you want to deviate from the standard setup it can be problematic as your access and privileges on the server will be restricted.
Dedicated hosting is expensive but gives you full control of the server. Everything will need to be installed from scratch and managed by the web developers. A dedicated server gives peace of mind that the website won’t be affected by other sites, but can be overkill and more time consuming to manage than a shared solution. Security and software updates and etc. will be the responsibility of your web agency.
We like to use companies like Heroku and Rackspace that provide dedicated hosting because, whilst they aren’t the cheapest, they are among the most reliable in the industry and give us the flexibility to provide you with a site or application tailored to your requirements.