Choosing a Web Design Agency: Does your Agency have a Design Process?
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Struggling to find a good web design agency? You’re not alone. At Priority Pixels around 90% of our new business enquires come from clients exasperated with their current agency, usually because the agency has over promised and under delivered on a project. Part of the reason for this is the agency didn’t have a proper design process in place.
A good agency will always have a design process in place. This may differ slightly from agency to agency but in general terms the process looks something like this:
If your agency doesn’t have a process in place similar to the above, move on to another.
What do each of these phases mean?
Phase 1: Discovery Phase
The discovery phase begins as soon as you make contact with the web design agency and usually before any money has changed hands. An agency will always appreciate a brief being supplied to them, it does make life easier if a client has been specific about what they want from the start. Don’t have a brief, or know how to put one together? That shouldn’t be a problem as a good agency will be able to extract the correct information from you, not only to ensure your project goes to plan, but to ensure they can provide an accurate idea of costs.
Some of the questions a web design agency should be asking at this point are:
- Tell us a bit about your business?
- What are your business’ unique selling points (USP’s)?
- What industry do you work in?
- Who are your competitors?
- But the most important question of all is, what are the goals for your website?
If your agency isn’t asking the above questions at the start of the project, go find a different agency as there’s no way they’ll be able to deliver a successful website without knowing the answers to these questions.
Once the discovery phase is complete a web design agency will usually supply some sort of Project Proposal outlining their plans for the project and associated costs.
Once costs have been agreed expect to sign some form of terms of business. If your agency doesn’t have terms of business, find another. This contract is as important to you, the client as it is to them, the agency. An agency without terms of business should set alarm bells ringing.
Phase 2: Planning
Once contracts have been signed the project will get underway. It can be tempting to skip the planning phase and jump straight to the design however like any project, a degree of planning is needed so both parties know exactly what is being provided and when.
At the planning phase your agency will have more questions, this is a good thing. Expect your agency to provide:
- A timeline of proposed activity, with clear deadlines for both parties. Who is providing content and when is this needed by? When will the design be ready for review? When is the proposed launch date?
- If the website is a rebuild, expect some sort of audit on the old website to determine what content can be transferred to the new site.\
- A sitemap will be created to determine the website’s structure. Like laying the foundations of a house, a sitemap is the backbone of a website and should be given serious consideration.
With the above in place and agreed we move onto the design phase.
Phase 3: Design
This is the fun bit. Based on the sitemap agreed in phase 2, your agency’s graphic designer will start to design the website. The process will begin with website wireframes, which usually include the header, navigation elements, sliders, content blocks and contact forms. The wireframe acts as a guide to how the final website will look.
Once the wireframe has been designed, the graphic designer will start to focus on the detail. If you have existing brand guidelines (which is always a good idea to have before embarking on a web project) then the graphic designer will use your brand colours and fonts within the design. If you do not have brand guidelines expect your graphic designer to use their own intuition.
Agency’s differ with the prototyping tools they use to design websites, at Priority Pixels we use Adobe XD but there are numerous other programs such as Sketch, Figma and Webflow. We’d suggest being wary of any agency still using Photoshop to design their websites as with the rise of the above mentioned prototyping tools, this is a rather dated approach.
Throughout the design phase you can expect an agency to develop designs that visually express your new website. If the agency has asked the right questions during the discovery phase and planned accordingly they should be able to deliver creative designs that are close to what you are looking for.
Typically during this phase the agency will:
- Create banner and slider graphics
- Source and use relevant fonts
- Design appropriate icons
- Save or resize any supplied images
- Migrate copy from your current website or documentation.
Once the website has been designed this will be presented to you for approval. This is your opportunity to make any final changes before the website moves into development.
Phase 4: Development
The development phase of your project is by far and away the most important phase. If you’ve chosen an agency worth their salt you’ve chosen one with at least one in-house web developer that has been properly trained to build websites and has years of coding experience under their belt. Why is this important? If you need a house designed, you’d hire an architect, someone specifically trained for the job. If you need a website building, you need a web developer who knows how to code and has been trained to do so. We can’t emphasise how important this is.
At Priority Pixels we would highly advise you ask your agency how they build their websites. Unfortunately the web design industry is currently unregulated and as such is rife with rogue traders. Many web agencies may outsource their development, others may use page builders, some both! Why are page builders bad you ask? Well, simply put a page builder allows anyone to put a website together by dragging and dropping elements and adding plugins. This means there are a lot of web developers out there that aren’t actually web developers at all as they don’t know how to put a single line of code together. The end result is a site that’s slow to use, clunky and likely to need a rebuild as soon as it’s launched.
Around 80% of websites on the internet are built using PHP so the likelihood is your chosen agency will be using a set of open-source software called a LAMP stack. An acronym, LAMP typically consists of four software components: a Linux operating system, an Apache HTTP server, a MySQL database system and PHP programming language. All these elements sit in layers and support each other. It’s worth discussing with your agency what their setup is, if they can’t answer some simple questions about the hosting environment they probably won’t be able to maintain or fix the site later on should something go wrong with it.
If your website is being built with a content management system (CMS) we would recommend choosing an open source one such as WordPress. Some agency’s may offer a bespoke CMS, this is an immediate red flag. An agency offering a bespoke CMS may try and charge you for the use of CMS for a fee (we’ve seen agencies charge £1000 for the privilege) selling their CMS on the promise it’s bespoke and they can tailor it to your needs. In reality, all that agency is trying to do is tie you to using them. A bespoke CMS, means it’s their CMS so should you wish to move your website elsewhere the likelihood is you won’t be able to as it’s their copyright. It’s a pretty disgraceful way to do business in our opinion but it happens more often than you might think. If you have an open source CMS such as WordPress then should the relationship break down with your agency you will easily be able to find another agency to work with.
With the above fundamentals agreed you can typically expect an agency to build a website to the following standards:
- Developed using LAMP stack.
- Developed using standards compliant HTML5, CSS3 and PHP.
- Developed using a responsive HTML5 framework such as Bootstrap or Foundation.
- The website should be built on a staging server.
- Designs should be coded into the CMS, creating the navigation structure and layout.
Once the website has been built, a development link will be sent to you for approval. This is your opportunity to work with the agency through any minor changes.
Phase 5: Testing
Not the most exciting part of the project but essential none the less. A period of testing should be allowed for your website, to ensure it works exactly as it should across a range of operating systems and devices. This is also a chance for you to feedback any user experience observations or issues.
At this stage an agency should:
- Test the website on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android operating systems.
- Test the website on a wide range of modern browsers including the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Microsoft Edge.
- Check your site for any remaining coding errors.
- Fix any user experience issues.
Phase 6: Launch
Once your website is designed, developed and fully tested it’s ready to launch. There are a number of tasks required to launch a website. A good agency will be able to launch your website with zero down time and with as little impact to SEO as possible.
At this phase your agency should:
- Move the site to the agreed server
- Install Google Analytics
- Connect Google Search Console and submit an up-to-date XML sitemap
- Create 301 redirects from the old site to the new site for any pages that no longer exist or have a different URL.
- Resubmit the site to Google for indexing.
Phase 7: Post-Launch Testing
Once your site is live there’s still more work to do and your agency should be looking to complete the following tasks:
- Double check the site for any remaining UI issues
- Check all third party API’s are still connected and doing what they should be doing
- Check contact forms are working as expected
- Ensure backups are running smoothly
- Make sure your site is secure (this one is extremely important and often overlooked)
- Ensure the website adheres to all relevant laws and regulations
- Scan the site again to ensure no errors occurred at launch.
Phase 8: Post-Launch Performance Improvements
After all of the other phases are complete a good agency will come back and review the website a week or two after launch. Perhaps some tweaks are needed to the server caching to help improve page speed. Perhaps a CDN is required. Maybe there’s a few stray 404 errors that need clearing up. The point is, a good agency won’t just launch your site, send the final invoice and send you on your way.
In an unregulated industry trying to find a good web design agency isn’t easy. There are many aspects to consider and it can be a bit of a mine field trying to choose between the real experts and the pretenders. Whether a web design agency has a design process is a good place to start and checking the phases mentioned in this post will give you some indication as to how professional they are.
Keep an eye on our blog as in the coming weeks we will be looking at some of the other things you need to know before choosing a web design agency.