Who do you ask to tender for your web project?

Paul Boag

With literally millions of web design companies worldwide where do you begin when trying to draw up a list of potential agencies? Who do you invite to tender?

One option is to search on google filtering by geography. There are valid reasons for selecting a web design agency within the same country. Issues such as currency exchange, time zones and differences in company law can make working with international agencies challenging. However, beyond that, geography doesn’t play a large part. A web design agency is just as capable of designing a website whether they are next door or a few hundred miles away.

The best approach is to rely on word of mouth recommendation. Nothing beats a recommendation by somebody who has already worked with a particular agency. The best recommendations come from people you know and respect. Start by talking to your suppliers or other business partners. Who did they use to build their websites? What was their experience like? Next, if you are apart of a trade association see if they have any recommendations. They often have lists of preferred suppliers and even if they don’t you can always ask who produced their website. After that, try looking further a field. Search online for any forums or mailing lists related to your sector and ask for recommendations there.

A final option is to look at websites that you like or consider successful. Most websites will have a link somewhere to the agency that developed them. If they don’t, then a quick search on Google can often reveal the agencies name. However, it is important to be careful if adopting this approach. Just looking at a website does not tell you the whole story. The underlying technology could be a shambles, the management may have been appalling and the project might have exceeded its budget and missed specified deadlines. If you do select an agency on the basis of a website then you may be wise to call the website owner first and get their opinion on the agency.

By combining the various approaches above you should have built up a considerable list of agencies. How many agencies you choose to send the brief to is subjective. It depends on the size of the project and the time available. Invite too many and you have a lot of proposals to read and presentations to sit through. Invite too few and you may not receive enough responses to carry out a fair comparison. For an “average” website redesign (if there is such a thing) anywhere between five and ten would be a good number. However, the chances are that your current list is larger than that. How then do you refine it down to a reasonable number?

Assessing an agencies website

The most effective way of finalizing the list of agencies you wish to tender is by looking at their websites. An agencies website can tell you a lot about whether they are right for your project. The problem is that web design agencies are very aware that they are judged by their websites and so put a lot of effort into projecting the right image. Your challenge is to look beyond the superficial gloss and focus on what can be learnt about the reality of their offering.

It is easy to get seduced by alluring graphics and exciting animation. However, I suggest there are four essential pieces of information that you need to focus on.

  • Do they have the capacity to deliver? You need to be confident that their team is big enough and has the right skill to deliver your project. A good agency will ensure that information on the size and makeup of their company is available, in order to help you make that judgment.
  • Do they have the right experience? Agencies who have experience of working on similar projects or in the same sector, can prove invaluable. Their experience will dramatically reduce the learning curve and this will impact costs and timescales.
  • Can they produce the right design style? When we discuss design in the next chapter I will argue that brand identity and target audience, rather than the preferences of either the client or agency should dictate design. It is therefore important that the chosen agency is capable of designing a user interface suited to these requirements. Most agencies show examples of their work on their websites. Look for examples that are aimed at a similar target audience or mirror the style to your existing branding. Failing that make sure the examples on their sites demonstrate a broad range of styles. If all the sites they produce have a definite “house” style and that is not inline with your requirements, then look elsewhere.
  • Can they deliver your technical requirements? Good web design is about more than the user interface. Increasingly, web projects involve complex development work. An agencies website should demonstrate a capability to deliver these kinds of projects. There should be examples that are comparable to your requirements and using similar technologies.

If a website does not provide you with the information you require, then take the time to pick up the phone and speak to the agency directly. A five-minute phone call can be more enlightening than pouring over a site for hours.

Hopefully this process will allow you to create a definitive list of agencies you wish to invite to tender. Once the brief has been sent, expect the agencies to call with various questions. Be sure to note down the calls you receive. Who took the time to call you and who did not? Of those who did call, which asked intelligent questions and which had not read the brief thoroughly? These are all clues that help you build up a picture of the agency and informs your decision making process.