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This is quite a long article. There is a downloadable Adobe PDF (100kb) version available in the factsheets section of our website.

We are often contacted by people who are looking to get a new website off the ground and this article is an adhoc list of advice that is intended to help inexperienced managers understand how the web market works and how to avoid the pitfalls that are involved in selecting a supplier and getting a project through to completion.

It’s an unstructured, largely unedited ‘brain-dump’ but it may help with your decision-making and planning.

Assuming that you are new to the world of website procurement, here are some general observations and advice for a buyer like you: 

  • The marketplace for web services is over-crowded and hazardous for inexperienced and smaller purchasers of these services.
  • There are lots of ‘rogue traders’.
  • Anyone can set themselves up as a ‘web developer/designer’ whether they have any experience, integrity or not. Technologies for web development can be downloaded for free from the web, as can ‘ready to go’ websites and templates which mean that a supplier can easily make themselves look like an ‘expert’.
  • It’s unlikely that a recent university degree will equip someone with the skills to manage projects, design interfaces and build websites. But it’s very easy for a recent graduate to think that they have the necessary skills to deliver a business critical website.
  • Getting a website built is very much like getting a house built. If you can keep Grand Designs or another property renovation TV programme in mind at all times when you are thinking about your project that will help (seriously).
  • Learn a little about the process of project management (concepts around the management of risk and resource management are particularly useful).
  • If you don’t know already, find out what a content management system (CMS) is.
  • Don’t make price your primary method of selecting a supplier.  It’s very easy for a potential supplier to undercut in order to win a sale but if a project is poorly resourced then the risk of non-delivery (or poor quality delivery) significantly increases. Selection on price is convenient for you in the short term, but may lead to you losing your money (which happens a lot).
  • Try and do as much of your communication in writing as you can. It is more time-consuming but you will be very happy that you made the effort if something goes wrong or is in dispute.
  • Comparing what one supplier offers with another is very difficult because web projects are complex.  The devil is in the detail and it is often the case that what’s really important is not what is in a proposal, but what has been left out (and then is charged as an extra by the supplier once the project is underway).
  • If you aren’t a specialist then determining the quality of what is being delivered to you can be difficult because (like the building trade) you don’t know what to look for. An established track record can help you be sure that the supplier knows what they are doing.
  • Web development is time consuming and solution will never be perfect (you just have to make sure that it is good enough).
  • The longer that is spent on planning, the greater the chances of you getting what you need, but the longer that is spent on planning the more expensive the project becomes.
  • Web development is labour intensive for both the supplier and the purchaser. You will generally need to work closely with the supplier and, depending on the project, you will be expected to respond to requests for feedback promptly. You will need to make time (possibly hours or days) to:
    • explain and document your ideas, business objectives and vision (the better the brief that you provide, the better the supplier will be able to understand your requirements
    • read and comment on any specification or design documents
    • test the site before you accept delivery
    • learn how to administrate the website
    • up load content to the site before its launch.
  • You’ll need to provide a brief to the development company.  Asking “How much to build a website like X” will not generate a quality response. The better your brief in terms of quality of content and presentation, the more likely you are to be taken seriously and attract a capable supplier.
  • Website development on the cheap is risky.
  • The more that your requirements are unique (bespoke) the greater the demands on your time and associated costs
  • Payments to suppliers are generally staged with invoices generated on delivery of an element of a project (e.g. web designs or a chunk of functionality). This gives you some protection from the failure of the supplier to deliver.
  • Suppliers generally work to fix cost based on their assessment of the costs of a project.  Estimation can be difficult, even for experienced suppliers. Under-estimation (which may result in an initially appealing price to the buyer) can lead the supplier to under-resource, de-prioritise or terminate a project. Fixed-cost is risky for the supplier because they can hurt badly if they get it wrong. Comparatively low fixed-cost may indicate undercutting or inexperience.
  • An alternative to fixed-cost is time and materials, whereby the supplier pays for every hour a project takes, irrespective of how long it takes.  Time and materials is risky for the buyer because they don’t know how much something might ultimately cost and this method of costing is open to abuse by the supplier (the buyer only has the supplier’s word when they report time spent on a project).
  • Our view is that a mix between fixed costs for the ‘known’ elements of a project and capped (rather than unlimited) time and materials for the unknown elements is one way to effectively balance risk.  One of the benefits of working with an experienced supplier is that they have ‘been around the block’ a few times which means better estimation because they know how long project elements take to complete.
  • If a supplier indicates a day-rate then a lower day-rate doesn’t mean better value, since it may take them a third longer to complete a task. 
  • A supplier may have a minimum charge of perhaps 1 hour, this may seem unfair but don’t forget that on top of the cost to them in terms of actually doing the work there is also administration associated with issuing invoices, and the time take to work out exactly what needed doing.
  • Get a contract signed. It doesn’t have to be monstrously complicated, but you need to make sure that issues such as intellectual property rights are clarified. Don’t expect that a contract will protect you from failure of a supplier to deliver,  unless your project is higher value, the costs of pursuing a supplier legally are likely to be higher than the money you have lost.
  • The notion that “if you build it they will come” is only true in the movie ‘Field of Dreams ‘.  You won’t get customers if you don’t market your site and when you are marketing you are competing with other suppliers for that business, so don’t expect it to be easy.
  • Once a customer is at your site you need to make it easy for the customer to answer the following questions:
    • do these people sell what I need?
    • can they supply me with what I need quickly?
    • can I trust this vendor? Will they be around tomorrow?
    • Getting a commercial website implemented is like opening a shop where you have to design and construct the building as well the shop (and where you have to put that building right next to your biggest, richest competitor).

Typical Elements of a Web Project

When procuring a website of some form expect the project to consist of the following elements:

  • Contract sign – needn’t be a huge document. It should cover intellectual property, project costs, termination process etc.  It should be legally binding. In the event that a supplier goes bust then it’s no guarantee that you’ll get your money back, but it should help you get in the queue with other creditors.
  • Planning and design – you will need to agree with the supplier what they are going to deliver. Depending on the complexity/cost of a project this might consist of a project plan (as a Gannt chart for example), one or more visual concepts and a written technical specification (the technical specification cannot cover everything that your website does, so expect to compromise later down the line). The design phase may involve the development of a visual identify or brand, which in itself can be a significant project.
  • Build – build may be phased with chunks of functionality or content released in stages. The release of a ‘chunk’ may correspond with the issue of an invoice to you. A very late version of the site is called a ‘beta’ (this is usually the final version for testing). It will normally be the buyer who is expected to populate a website with content before it is launched.
  • Training – the buyer will need to know how to manage the website and so one or more training sessions may be required. You may also be supplied with documentation.
  • User-acceptance testing – towards the end of a project you will be expected to confirm that you are happy to sign the project off. This will probably involve some level of compromise and cross-reference to the original designs and specification.  As noted earlier utter perfection is probably impossible so you need to focus on answering the question ‘Is it good enough’. Remember that a website that is not available to customers is not helping your business and that some tweaking is possible/desirable/necessary  after ‘go-live’.
  • Hosting – your website will need to be held somewhere on the web and hosting is normally provided by the supplier (the benefit to you being that they should know their own technical architecture better than anyone else’s and they are wholly responsible for its supply, so no ‘book-passing’).  Hosting is a bit of a minefield, because comparing between suppliers is hard (you never really ‘see’ what you are buying, and my note earlier that it’s what is left out of a proposal  that can sometimes be more important than what is included is very relevant to hosting). Note that it’s generally pretty irrelevant comparing cheap ‘off the shelf’ hosting packages provided by companies such as dataflame.co.uk with hosting that is provided by a website developer because you are usually paying them to maintain the server that your site is hosted on, they are usually providing services such as back-up, you want them to be available by phone etc, etc.
  • Support – support contracts are generally like the kind of insurance that you might take out on your domestic boiler. In the event that something goes wrong then you can get rapid response and there’ll be no charge for the work. They vary a little in terms of scope and the supplier’s attitude to taking calls from buyers that are just asking for general advice (we are flexible, we like talking to our customers), but broadly a support contract is to give you peace of mind.

A note on warranty

There generally isn’t much warranty on web-development partly because it’s very easy for a buyer to break a site by not follow training or advice  and there may be multiple points of failure only some of which are the responsibility of the supplier.

The lack of warranty is a good reason to take the time to involve yourself in acceptance testing.
We offer generally offer 30 days warranty, but many suppliers don’t warrant at all.

Wed, 09/12/2009 - 18:14