How to Choose a Web Designer: 20 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Web Design Company

By Andy Crestodina

New messaging, new offerings, fresh leadership or updated branding. Suddenly, the website (and maybe the current web partner aren’t cutting it). It’s time to redesign.

You’re on the quest to choose a new web developer …which can be a challenging, high-stakes decision. Probably, you’ve been through this before and you know that in the world of web development, both costs and results vary wildly.

This is a guide for qualifying (or disqualifying) possible web development companies. It is a list of 20 questions, based on our experience on the agency side, combining 25 years of experience providing web design services and 1000+ meetings with clients and prospects. You can use it to interview potential partners.

The meeting begins…

After a bit of chit chat, the conversation turns to websites. You’ve been through the web design process before. You may have frustrations with your current partner, so naturally, you have concerns. You have questions, deal-breaker requirements and nice-to-haves.

Talk budget early…

The meeting is an hour, which isn’t really enough time to qualify a long-term partner. But it’s plenty of time to disqualify web firms based on price. Everyone knows that there is a huge range of web design costs, from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So talk about money right away. Once costs have been covered at a high level at least, the meeting will turn into either an interview or a presentation.

A conversation, not a pitch…

A slick presentation won’t give you the answers you need. The stakes are too high to rely on a sales pitch format. Pump the breaks if the web design company starts plowing through a deck or running through a sales playbook. “What keeps you up at night? What’s it worth to you to solve that problem?”

The goal is to have a direct and forthright conversation about goals, process and requirements. You want to see how they think.

The interview questions…

You need your concerns addressed and your questions answered. But which are the best questions to ask? How can you quickly get a sense for their skills, capabilities and style? How to choose the right partner?

Here are some of the best (but uncommon) questions you can ask to qualify a possible web design company.

1. How do you get to know our business?

Strategic alignment is the foundation. Their answer will tell you how they do their work, as well as what will be needed from you. Even more important, it will give you a sense for their philosophy. Do they talk more about design aesthetics? Or content and messaging?

Best answer: “By interviewing key stakeholders, specifically front line team members if possible. Even better, we would love access to some of your actual clients. This upfront research is key. We can’t make web pages until we know the information needs of your visitors.”

This answer shows that they’re focused on content, which is the key factor in conversion rates and lead generation. Brand and design are important, but knowing what wins the sales conversation is critical.

Bad answer: “Send us your brand standards and a list of websites you like. We’ll take the copy off the current site and update anything you’d like. Just tell us what you want it to say.”

This answer shows that they’re focused on beauty over brains. Of course, everyone is a website critic and the site has to look great or it will never be approved and go live. But any web firm that de-emphasizes the importance of conversion copywriting is likely to build a low converting website.

2. Can you give me your perspective on this service page?

…or call to action, keyword, report, contact form, navigation menu, etc.

This question ends the pitch meeting and gets the potential partner to show their thinking in real time. Challenge them to offer immediate value. The right partners are excited by questions like this.

Best answer: “Absolutely. Ideally, we could review it along with performance data. For now, I can certainly share thoughts based on our own experience and best practices.”

You’re looking for a team that is energized by the work, motivated by challenges, excited about the medium. Show them anything with their area of expertise and they should light up. Best of all, they asked for data. True experts are skeptical even of their own best practices. They know every idea is just a hypothesis.

Bad answer: “Personally, when I visit pages, I like pages that…”

You just got an opinion, which is not helpful. You also just found out that they don’t have a culture of data-driven decision making. The digital marketing pro never offers an opinion without disclaiming that opinion first. Personal preference is no way to do marketing.

3. Can I speak to past clients of yours who had similar goals?

Nothing takes the place of an actual conversation with someone who has been where you are going. You’re looking for evidence of success on relevant projects.

Best answer: “Certainly. I’ll share the name and contact information for a few relevant clients.”

Reputable web firms should have all kinds of references. There is only one reason they should hesitate to provide them: out of consideration for the time of the past client. It’s reasonable to hold off on references until the web firm has been otherwise qualified. We all have limited time, even if we would love to share our experiences with our favorite partners.

Bad answer: “We encourage you to read these reviews and testimonials to get a sense for our approach.”

Reviews and testimonials are good, especially when they appear on a site like Clutch, which gathers them through an interview process. But those testimonials may not be from companies in your industry. And reading them doesn’t give you the chance to ask specific questions.

4. How will you measure the results of your project?

It’s a question about Analytics, but it also reveals clues about culture. Their answers will show if they have results-focused, data-driven thinking.

Best answer:Post-launch measurement using GA4 is a standard part of our process. Performance is always part of our thinking so of course, we measure results.” 

Ultimately, the goal is qualified leads. The key ways in which the redesign drives lead generation are by increasing organic traffic and improving conversion rates. Here’s how we measure those things. To get a good pre/post measurement, we’d like to audit your analytics when the project begins.”

A good web firm measures the results of their work, which means they’re concerned about how your Analytics is set up now, before the project even starts. They have a perspective on how conversions are tracked. They talk about the results of similar projects when discussing related projects.

Bad answer: “We have access to an Analytics resource that we can pull in after the project is complete.”

If they don’t have an in-house Analytics resource, then measurement probably isn’t something they think about every day. How can they have a performance-driven culture if their team doesn’t measure performance?

5. How much of your business is websites vs. other marketing services?

Are websites their core business? Or is web design a secondary service, while their primary focus is something else.

Best answer: “Websites are our core business. It has been since the beginning. It’s our specialty and the majority of our work.”

Bad answer: “When we realized that we were good at the related services, we added web development as another service to bring more value to our clients.”

If the team specializes in websites, they are more likely to anticipate issues. They’ve seen and handled more of the challenges. They’ll arrive at better answers more quickly. A team that builds websites but is really focused on something else is more likely to pitch the client additional services.

6. What is your approach to user experience (UX) and design?

It’s a process question that gets to the philosophy of the web firm. Are they focused on lead generation and results? Do they do custom work or pre-made templates? Their answers will tell you a lot about their thinking.

Best answer: “Our approach is user-centric. We focus on your visitor. The goal is always to create an engaging experience that informs and persuades your target audience. It starts with stakeholder interviews, user research and persona development. In the end, the design both meets the needs of the visitor and aligns with your brand story. For some clients, we do AB testing after the site is live.”

Bad answer: “We follow the latest design trends to make your website look modern and stylish, using pre-designed templates for speed and efficiency.”

Listen for answers that focus on the audience. Look out for answers that focus only on trends and beauty. And beware of over-reliance on web design tools and pre-made templates. For the website designer, UX design is about conversion.

7. How do you approach search engine optimization (SEO) during the web design process?

Is the search strategy built into the process? Do they think about search while making the sitemap? Is search an afterthought? Or is it an obsession above all else, including visitors’ needs and the brand story?

Best answer: “SEO is integral to our web design process. We start by checking to see what’s working so we can preserve the rankings you already have. Next we do keyword research and create a sitemap with many pages that target many phrases, all aligned with searcher intent. We write search optimized copy for those key pages that are built to rank, but we never lose sight of the conversion goals and brand story. Pages are still written for people.”

Bad answer: “Before the site goes live, we add keywords to your content to improve SEO. We also install an SEO plugin to help with rankings.”

8. How do you ensure the website is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities?

Some web companies have done the research, know the standards and use the tools. They think about accessibility for every project. Other firms will look into it if you ask.

Best answer: “Accessibility is a priority for us. We follow WCAG guidelines to make sure your site is usable by everyone, including people with disabilities. Our standard goal is level AA. To get there, we make a lot of little decisions related to design, copy, navigation, color and keyboard shortcuts. In our experience, these things are good for accessibility, but also make the site easier to use for everyone …and keep you out of legal trouble.”

Bad answer: “We try to make our websites as user-friendly as possible and we can definitely look into specific accessibility needs if required.”

9. How do you handle mobile-friendliness? Do you have a “mobile first” design process?

This quick question will expose narrow thinking about narrow screens. And it shows that you’re a well-informed buyer.

Best answer: “Of course, the site has to perform well regardless of the screen size. Let’s look at Analytics and see what percentage of your visitors use mobile devices and then I’ll show you our process for designing mobile-friendly websites. All of our work is responsive web design because it needs to look good on every screen size.”

Although “mobile first” is a popular term, it literally means designing the mobile experience before designing the desktop experience. This makes sense only if the great majority of visitors are on phones. Regardless, when you are shown an example of the design process, you should be shown both desktop and mobile designs for each page. It’s a critical requirement.

Bad answer: “Because you’re a B2B company, we focus on desktop visitors because they’re the only ones who convert. And the WordPress template will handle it.”

This is a bad assumption, unless you’ve already shared GA4 access and you know this to be true. Every website has mobile (and tablet) visitors, especially if you have any traffic from email or social media. And relying on the template is insufficient because it doesn’t take into account that your content must fit within that template for viewports of all sizes.

10. How do you manage stakeholders?

Website projects often involve a lot of people in many roles. Beyond the marketing team, there are stakeholders across the organization (i.e. executives, IT, communications, outside agencies, HR, even board members. They all have goals and concerns (i.e. costs, hosting, brand standards, reporting, recruiting, and investor relations).

How does this partner plan to manage this?

Best answer: “We open communication with the broader team early. Stakeholder interviews are step one. We’ll need a single source of contact, empowered to make decisions. But everyone needs to be heard. Once the project is underway, we’re thoughtful in when to bring in more perspectives. There is a right time and a wrong time to get input from the various groups. These stakeholder meetings are sometimes listening sessions and sometimes pitch meetings, getting everyone on board with deliverables. They are critical. This is a huge part of what we do.”

Bad answer:We have weekly meetings where we gather input from you and your stakeholders. We share status and everyone is invited.”

If the plan is just a standard ongoing weekly meeting, they may have an account-focus rather than a project-focus.

Recurring work may have regular meetings with standard agendas. But project work, none more than web development, has a plan with a beginning, middle and end. Stakeholder management needs are a predictable part of the process. So stakeholder communication can be planned in advance. It is at the center of every project.

11. How do you handle changes in scope?

The scope question is usually a money question, so it’s important.

Best answer: “It’s common for scope to change. We’ll always tell you if we think the change would impact results. Regardless of the changes, the cost of the project doesn’t change unless you approve it in writing.”

This is the no-hidden-fees answer that you’re looking for. No client should ever be surprised by an invoice. If scope and costs change, it must be discussed early. If approved, it should be confirmed in writing.

Bad answer: “It’s common for scope to change. We’ll adapt the process and stay as flexible as necessary.”

They missed a key point. You’ll need to ask them follow up questions and see if they dodge. Is the proposal just an estimate? How likely is that estimate to be accurate? How often do their projects go over budget?

12. Can I meet the team?

Sometimes, the person you’re interviewing disappears once the project begins. Who does the actual work? A bunch of freelancers? Is it a one-person show?

Best answer: “Yes. Let’s set up a time for you to chat with the delivery team.”

There is only one reason why a web design firm can’t make their team available: they don’t know who they would assign to the project. Team assignments may be based on capacity and capacity may depend on timing. At this stage in the process, the web firm may not yet know exactly who would be assigned to your project. But they should make team members available to chat regardless.

Bad answer: “Our team is busy working on other projects. But I can share their bios and backgrounds with you.”

It’s natural to defend the time of billable people, but you are looking for a web designer with a culture of cooperation. If they resist now, you may find more resistance later. They may be using freelancers for some roles, people whom they can’t make available to you. Or they may have built a barrier between their clients and their in-house experts.

13. How many similar projects has your team worked on together in the past?

This is one of the best questions for evaluating project risk.

Best answer: “More than 100.”

This may be the best indicator of success. If the team working on your project has worked together as a team on many similar past projects, then communication will be strong, tools will be in place, they’ll have ready answers for challenges. As with any hiring for any role, the best indicator of future performance is past performance.

Bad answer: “We pull together the best experts as needed depending on the project. We tap into whatever talent we need, on-demand, keeping your costs down. Each team member has worked on many similar projects in the past.”

This means risk. It indicates the web firm uses ad-hoc virtual teams, assembled after an agreement is signed. This means they don’t have in-house expertise. They may be a network of freelancers. The team may be working together for the first time. They may not be there in the future if you need them again.

14. What’s your plan B if someone on your team becomes unavailable?

Things happen. Do they have contingency plans?

Best answer: “We have a backup person for every role on every team. And every project is documented in detail so if we need to put someone new in, they can get up to speed fast.”

Small firms struggle to provide this answer. A bigger team has more people to step in if someone needs to step out. You are looking for a team with a deep bench.

Bad answer: “We’re committed to your success and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Although stating the commitment is good, this is not a plan. If they have just one person in every role, there is a hidden risk on your project. If someone is out for any reason at all, timelines (and quality) will slide.

15. How will updates be made after the site is live? Can I get a demo of the tools?

You’re not just hiring a web design team. You’re buying a tool that will be used to make updates for the next 3-5 years. It’s smart to ask what it will look like.

Best answer: “Of course. When would you like to schedule a demo?”

This shows long-term thinking. Not only are they setting up sites for easy updates, they are happy to show you examples of content management systems. They want you to test drive before you buy.

Bad answer: “Contact us anytime and we can make any updates you need.”

This may sound like a high-touch service, but it may indicate a very inefficient approach to website updates, regardless of who makes the changes. They might build a “hard-coded masterpiece” that looks good but requires programmers to update. That means inflexibility, higher future costs, slow responsiveness and frustration.

16. Do you have experience integrating systems like ours?

No website is an island. The best marketing websites connect with CRMs, marketing automation, email service providers, ERP systems, HR and recruiting tools, etc. But has this potential partner handled that

Best answer: “Every one of our projects is an integration project. We’ve built websites that connect to a huge range of tools, third-party services and APIs, including the systems you use. We can show you what the options are, discuss pros and cons in detail and then handle integration, testing, maintenance and security.”

Bad answer: “We can add any third-party services you want, just let us know what they are and we’ll figure it out.”

The ideal partner has experience integrating the systems you already have in place. This takes time, cost and risk out of your project. “We’ll figure it out partly” means that you will be charged for the time they spend doing research and learning.

17. Who owns the deliverables once we’re done?

Confirm that you own the work with this simple question.

Best answer: “You do, of course.”

This means two important things: no hidden costs and a more portable end product. You should be able to move the website to a new host if you pick a new partner.

Bad answer: “As with many other creative firms, we retain the rights to the design files we use to create your deliverables during the process. This allows us to protect the integrity of our creative work, preventing future partners from compromising the brand-aligned vision. For a small fee, we can always release the files. See page 22 in the master services agreement…”

It’s absurd that they would own the rights to work you hired them to create. Choose a web design firm that understands this.

18. When I reach out next year with a request, who will I talk to?

Asking this shows foresight. You need to get a sense for how responsive they will be. The most common complaint about web design firms after the site is live is responsiveness.

Best answer: “We have a full-time dedicated support team that you can contact anytime for any reason through our ticketing system. Or just reach out to your Client Success Manager.”

The only way a web design team can stay focused on your project and be responsive to past clients is to have a separate, staffed web support team. Remember, you’re hiring a long term partner.

Look for web development teams with specialized roles and job titles, such as “Support Manager” “Support Developer” and “Client Success Manager.”

Bad answer: “You can always reach out to your project manager.”

If your contact person post-launch is the same person you worked with during the project, it means that they’re also the contact person for many other past clients, which means they’re likely to get pulled away during your project.

19. Do you use AI? How and when do you use it?

Some web design companies make innovation a priority. They use new tools and modern approaches, such as generative AI. Get a sense for their position toward AI. Are they afraid or excited? Transparent or secretive?

Best answer: “Humans do the work. But we may use AI to help us produce high-performing web copy. It’s not great for writing high-ranking, high-converting pages from scratch, but it’s an excellent way to do audience research, audit existing pages, draft outlines and do gap analysis on new drafts. It is often a useful, additional perspective. We are open to any and all tools that drive performance and generate leads for our clients.”

Bad answer: “We don’t trust AI and do not use it. It’s actually a dangerous technology rife with accuracy and bias issues. We’re opposed to AI in general.”

Bad answer: “We love AI and use it for everything. With a few prompts, we can create a page in seconds, saving hours of work.”

There are two bad answers to the AI question. One shows an over-reliance and a focus on speed, not results. The other shows fear. They may feel threatened by it or don’t want to disclose how they rely on it. But AI is simply a helpful tool that can be used well or badly, like any other.

20. Are there types of projects you don’t take?

It’s a revealing question because it shows focus. There are agencies that offer a wide range of marketing services. Do they take on anything they find? There are web firms that work in a huge range of industries

Best answer: “We specialize in industry X and usually work with companies that have these certain goals and requirements. We also specialize in a specific set of content management systems (CMS) and backend tools. We politely decline to propose projects when the opportunity doesn’t fit in these ways”

Although industry specialization can be a benefit, deep experience in web development is far more important. There are agencies that don’t focus on a specific vertical, but the people on the team have done 10+ large, successful projects in that vertical. That team just has so much experience, they actually have more expertise in that industry than an “industry specialist.”

Bad answer: “We’ll do anything we can to help. Some clients need help with branding. Some need marketing help. Some just need a better website. We’re there for them, no matter what challenges they have.”

Focus is the key to success. The agency that does everything excels at nothing. A creative agency and a web design agency are not the same thing. A graphic designer is a professional web designer.

The spirit of support is appreciated, but true professionals know when to decline and refer others. The best companies know their strengths and stick to them.

This is an important decision

Unfortunately, there are a lot of shady providers in the sunny world of web design. Probably because the barrier to entry is low. Anyone with a laptop and a WordPress website builder can call themselves a professional web developer.

But the difference between providers is huge.

  • Not all web firms are focused on measurable results
  • Not all web firms are planning to be accountable after the site goes live
  • Not all web firms are ready to handle the many challenging requirements that go with every project, from brand story to mobile-friendliness, from easy updates to accessibility, from CRM integration to forever-after support. It takes a specialized firm to check every box.

We hope our little guide gave insights into how to hire a website design company. It’s an important decision. Make it an informed decision.

The wrong web design firms add risk. They can cause problems, hurting search rankings and lead flow, creating legal liability from privacy and copyright laws, not to mention the low ROI of an expensive, time consuming, low-performing final product.

Considering a redesign? Set up a call and ask these questions of a web strategist at Orbit Media.

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