3 tough questions to ask a digital agency

August 10, 2018

When evaluating digital agencies, it can be difficult to sniff out the good ones from the rest of the pack. In order to dig in and understand what you’re getting in an agency, It’s important to understand how most digital agencies are comprised, how they make money, and where they’re most likely to have a weakness.

Digital agencies, consulting entities that can help you build a new website from scratch, are generally comprised of front-end and back-end services. On the front-end, there are strategists and designers who will organize the content of the website, map that content against the site’s visitors and their goals, and then provide a visual design for the interface. On the back-end, there are technical folks who will bring these specifications to life on a CMS platform by establishing the necessary functionality and integrations. While any agency you talk to will tell you that these disciplines work seamlessly together, there is often friction between these “sides of the house”.

By asking a few targeted questions, you can determine which side is stronger and which is weaker. It’s like handedness – one side will always be stronger than the other.

Q: What were the core competencies of those who started the agency and are they still involved?

The answer to this question will tell you where to focus your evaluation. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer here, but it will tell you which side of the house is dominant. From there, you can evaluate what will likely be least mature part of the organization. If you encounter an agency where the owners are not in the picture, figure out whose reputation is backing the business. You’ll want to identify someone who is fanatical about the agency’s reputation, who’s empowered to make decisions and invest in the success of your project, and who’s not likely to be going anywhere. If you can’t be assured access to this individual, beware.

Q: Does HTML and CSS coding fall under design or development within your agency?

Traditionally called “front-end development”, the construction of website components in HTML and CSS (and Javascript, etc.) has historically been a facet of the development process. Clients would approve a static design layout based on a mockup created in something like Photoshop. The files used to create that mockup would then be passed along to a development team to be converted to HTML. This methodology is largely obsolete due to constant variability of the viewing environment. Interfaces now must scale between screen sizes and handle constantly changing content. As such, designers must not only think ahead to the malleability of the interfaces, but they must also make adjustments to the designs within the development process.

If your candidate agency answers that HTML is created by development teams:

This could be okay, but make sure that they’re keeping up with current methodologies. Ask to see the client approved mockups for a few of their projects and compare those layouts to the live sites. Pay special attention to typography, looking at attributes like line spacing and padding around the edges of paragraphs. If you’re happy with the comparison, things should be okay. Play with a few of their website samples and manipulate the screen sizes. Do they flow smoothly and look good at any size?

If your candidate agency answers that HTML is created by design teams:

Try running a few of their sites though Google’s PageSpeed Insights. If the results are good, you should be okay. Ask to see an artifact from the pre-design planning process, such as wireframes or a technical specifications document. Make sure you can identify some point in the process where their designers document how the designs relate to administrative functionality and extensibility. If you can be shown buttoned-up documentation, you should be okay.

If your candidate agency answers that this group is its own discipline:

Dig into the management and/or resumes of the individuals who do this work. At some level, they’re going to either have design training or development training. Again, there’s a dominant hand.

Q: How do you help clients get content ready for a new website?

Again, we’re asking a simple question. What we’re looking for here is the seriousness of the agency’s answer. Content related problems are the most likely cause of website project delays. Since delays are bad for everyone involved, the agency should take content very seriously and have a handful of tools for getting past roadblocks. If you get a vague answer eluding to content taking care of itself or easily being updated through the CMS after launch, your project is doomed from the start. A proactive agency will include content-related tracks throughout the timeline so stakeholders on both sides can track the progress of content incrementally. If you’re upgrading an existing website, there should be a process to guide stakeholders through determining whether content should be migrated, purged, or flagged for re-writing. There should also be a clear designation of ownership for new content. If the strategy behind the design calls for the creation of new content, who will be doing that authoring? What will the workflow look like to get necessary graphics, videos, translations, etc. made and approved in time for launch. Overall, a qualified vendor will acknowledge that content is a central part of any website project and they should make you feel comfortable that they’ll manage all aspects of content creation and migration throughout the project.

There are many nuts and bolts questions that you’ll be asking your prospective digital agency partners in order to qualify them. By leveraging the above three questions, hopefully you’ll be able to gain insight beyond the standard measurements.

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