Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Choosing the Right Vendor

When it comes to the topic of building and designing a web application, I can really say that I've been on both sides of the fence.

I've owned and operated a development studio before and now that I've gone through the tedious process of finding the right people to help build my own web property, I feel that I have a unique perspective on this (possibly) tortuous process. So, I wanted to impart my knowledge (or lack thereof) upon you and hopefully it'll be helpful as you go forth and try to take over the world.

I. Define The Scope and Goals

The first mistake that many people make when hiring a new development or design firm is that they fail to accurately convey the scope and goals of their project.

It's easy to say "I want this feature and that feature" - and I'm sure many out there have fallen victim to the "Design by Metaphor" (e.g. "I'm creating a MySpace for rock collectors") trap. Thinking the project through, from how it will function all the way to how the end-user will actually interact with it, is where the first step in a successful project begins.

For example, on my latest application I wanted there to be a notification system on the site to tell users when new content specific to them appeared. So instead of trying to describe the feature or relate it to something I saw on another site, I busted out my yellow legal pad and sketched it out, then I scanned it and pasted it right into the RFP (Request For Proposal). My developer literally thanked me and we haven't had to go through the usual "back and forth" on that feature once.

The other thing that's very helpful is to define end goals for the application. Right at the beginning set up success metrics for the app. This is easier to do if you're enhancing or redesigning an existing web site because you'll actually have benchmark metrics to compare it to, but even if you're building something from scratch try to conceptually think about what would define a "successful project." Then pass those goals onto your developer or designer - they'll now know what they need to do in order to make you a happy customer.

What this all really boils down to is expectation management -- if you expect one thing and get another you won't be satisfied. And when you're not satisfied it leads to a vicious cycle: you pass revisions back to the developer, they try to fix it, you're still not happy and now the project is late and you're getting angry and impatient. But now the developer is going over budget and they are getting angry and impatient and before you know it you're in their offices about to punch the project manager in the face...ok fine, maybe that was just me and it was only once, but you get the point.

Plan properly and set goals - that's the bottom line.

II. Finding Firms

This is probably one of the most difficult parts of the whole process. There are several ways to go about finding a firm to build and design your web application, some more effective than others. So for those of you who don't have a friend in the business or have never worked with anybody before, I'll go over some helpful ways to find a number of firms to send your RFP to.

1. Personal Referrals

This is by far and away the most effective way to find a quality design and development partner. If someone you personally know is willing to recommend a firm, then chances are they do quality work. Think about it, why would someone risk the screaming match you'd get into afterwards if the firm they recommended to build your "dream" sucked?

So before trying the next few options, tap your personal network first. Ask why they liked the person(s), what level of service was provided post-launch, etc. I've found designers and developers 8 years ago that I still work with to this very day by going through my personal network of contacts.

2. Favorite Sites

This one is a little harder, but also very effective. If you have web sites that you absolutely love then you should check out their "About Us" section - they sometimes list their development and design vendors there.

If they don't, your best bet is to Google the site along with terms like, "Clients", "Portfolio", "Design", etc. That'll help you nail down the firm(s) that they worked with to get their site built. You can even e-mail somebody at the company, if they worked with an outside firm they usually don't mind referring business to them.

3. Blogs

Once you find a few design firms you like (either through your network or via Google) you might want to check and see if any of the head designers, developers or owners have their own blog. This can be one of the biggest assets you have in selecting a firm - you get to take a peek inside the mind of the people that might be building your web application in a few months. You'll immediately know if they share the same values as you, if they have a similar personality, etc.

It's very good for filtering out the good from the bad.

Case in point: We recently contracted with to design the user interaction and information architecture for our upcoming application. How did I find BlueFlavor you might ask...through their blog!

I read through a ton of posts from every employee there and just knew that these guys were a quality shop.

The other thing that you can gain from a blog is access to other people in a firm's field. If they have a fairly popular blog then there's a good chance other developers and designers comment or post on it as well. I can't tell you how many other firms I found by bouncing around the comments section on some of these blogs.

The bottom line: Do as much research on a firm you're considering before you ever contact them. It'll save you a lot more time and heart ache in the long run -- and even if you don't like the firm, they might lead you to a firm that you love.

III. Make Sure the Shop is "Suitable"

It's very easy to say, "I want to find a great developer and a great designer", but what's "great" for one client might not be great for you. So you really need to find a company or person that shares the same vision and principles as you do.

I'll bring this back to my current venture to illustrate my point.

I have this big belief in minimalism in design - I think it's easy to make complex functions on web sites. On the other hand, I think it's very difficult to make a complex function appear to be a simple one. And that's the beauty behind many successful web applications, they make the complex appear to be easy. So that was the first thing I wanted to make sure my design shop was focused on: minimalism and simplicity.

So when I was going through various portfolios I would tend to get a knot in my stomach when all I saw were Flash sites or pages with crazy colors and graphics everywhere. On the other hand, if I saw a portfolio that was filled with sites that had a lot of white space, small logos, were quick loading and yet had a high degree of interactivity, I'd be very pleased.

What helped me the most was sitting down with my partners and actually writing those principles down. It really helped us and our design/development firms decide if we'd be a good fit - or "suitable" - for one another.

IV. The BIG Decision

Ok, so now you've put together a tight RFP: it outlines the features, how the user will interact with them, the goals for the site and what your core principles and values are.

Then you went out and found a handful of quality shops that you sent your RFP out to. They all came back with bids and now you have to make the BIG decision - which firm do you go with?

They've all demonstrated an understanding of your application, you know they have the right experience and principles and after a couple of phone calls you should know which people you get along with on a personal level (very important as well by the way).

So now how in the world do you choose one proposal from another?

This can be gut wrenching - you're about to drop a substantial chunk of change on a single's like betting on "Red17" at the roulette table and crossing your fingers -- but it doesn't have to be. If you come up with a strict set of selection criteria beforehand, then you'll find it easy to choose the right firm. For me, I find that the following criteria really helps me narrow down my choices:

1. References - If a firm can't provide me with several quality references then I can't do business with them. With that being said let me make something else very clear, a firm will obviously only give you access to people who will say good things about them. However, you can tell from the quality of those references whether or not to take them seriously.

For example, if they give you the number of the CEO of XYZ Company, and XYZ's website is hard to use and gets no traffic then I'd take that less seriously than if they used as a reference. Maybe it wasn't the design/development firm's fault the site wasn't successful, but why take any chances?

2. Transparency - If a firm can't clearly tell me why they're charging what they're charging then I won't use them. I'm a numbers guys and I break my time down to the minute each day - I expect vendors I work with to do the same.

So when a firm says that they can't tell me what their hourly rate is because they work on a "per project" schedule then I automatically assume they're trying to hide something. At the end of the day they may work on a per-project schedule, but they must use some type of time-based calculation to come up with their estimates. If they say they don't then they're either stupid or lying, either way I wouldn't want to work with somebody like that.

For me transparency is equivalent to honesty - and when it comes to honesty in business, I'd pay a premium for it!

3. Accountability - A firm that is willing to be accountable for their work is a firm I want to do business with.

For instance, we used an overseas development shop to write the core code for our latest application. In the agreement we put together with them they were the ones who added the "financial penalties" section - so if they were X days late on a particular milestone, the final cost dropped by Y%.

I can't even begin to describe the warm and fuzzy feeling I got in my stomach when I saw that.

Happy Hunting!

So in conclusion I wanted to wish you happy hunting in your quest for a quality developer and designer. It's a tough decision to make and it's arguably one of the most important ones.

If you work with someone good then you can focus on building a business and not playing "baby sitter." You also get your product out the door on time and it'll work and look how you wanted it to. Also when you feel comfortable with your site you'll be able to go out there and be confident when pitching customers, partners and investors. That's why some of the suggestions I've made may seem time consuming and tedious, but in the end the upfront time investment will pay off in spades down the road.

Good luck!

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