Choosing An Experienced Developer

Not all website development businesses are the same, and choosing a good one can be very difficult. How can you tell you’re making a good decision? The aim of this article is to give you some background, and some questions to ask when you’re choosing someone — what follows is on the technical side. Don’t forget to test for “soft skills” like courtesy and humour as well.

Illustration of website developers.
Who would you choose? Tip: not the guy on the right. That’s not how you use a keyboard.

It seems like I’m asked to help sort out a “problem website” at least once a month. Small-business owners connect with a web development company that presents itself well, but the finished product has serious problems which come to light later — problems the client could never have foreseen, and are often completely unaware of, until something goes wrong.

Building Websites is “Easy” Nowadays — Or Is It?

Developer One
Most good devs drink large quantities of coffee.

WordPress, the software which now powers 27{c7b60e2cbf05491f89f9e74f3717ec60182ef12b096a84966c0d04f7fd47435c} of the sites on the Internet, was designed to be easy for non-technical people to use. As time has passed, more DIY elements have been added into the WordPress core, removing many barriers that once prevented non-programmers from building a site. This is a good thing, right?

Well, maybe not so much. I’ve encountered a lot of optimistic go-getters who have begun venturing into the website development business without an understanding of how the foundational technology actually works. The fallout of this phenomenon is that when something goes wrong, very often the person who built the site doesn’t know how to fix it. If they didn’t adhere to the best-practices standards of the industry, it’s quite likely they’ve introduced some serious problems to the site, unawares.

This comes as a nasty shock to the owner, who is now faced with a site that’s getting hacked repeatedly (or is just failing to work correctly).

How Do You Know What to Look For?

Your website construction process will occupy your time and money, so it’s a good idea to know what to look out for, when you’re choosing the people who will create it. Choosing the right team upfront will save you from additional costs later — much like finding good contractors to build your house, because you really want it done properly the first time.

An Experienced Developer is a Lazy Developer, is an Efficient Developer

Nerdy shirts are a good sign.

There are elements of my job which are repetitive. Installing WordPress, for example, is something I’ve done more than 150 times in the last handful of years. There are basic plugins and tools I use every time (security-related, generally), and settings that never change from site to site. So, I’ve purchased tools to automate the job. It keeps customers’ costs down, and saves me from snoozing through the same several-hour setup process every couple weeks.

Ask your developer what their favourite time-saving tools are, and why. Someone with a good-sized client base, accumulated over years, should have a good answer to this question.  

An Efficient Developer Pays Attention to Security

Cleaning up a hacked site is tedious, time-consuming, and can be very difficult to do. Preventing problems in the first place is the smart choice.

Security is a big deal to most clients, and it should be important to your developer too. I install three or four complementary tools in each site I build. We want to make sure all the bases are covered, and ensure we’re doing the best possible job to protect the site.

Choosing the right plugins is also important: they must always come from the official channels, where they’ve been vetted for issues. I never use ones that aren’t being maintained by their makers, and we use only the minimal number of add-ons required to run the site. This way, things will run faster, there are fewer possible attack vectors, and the client isn’t paying for updates and licenses they don’t need.

Find out what your developer is doing to secure your site and avoid introducing problems. For bonus points, ask them which security-news websites they read regularly, and see if they have a response. We should all be staying on top of industry news, and responding quickly to new threats.

Just Get to the Point: Communication is Key

I’ve been building sites since 1997, when the fanciest thing we could do was add flashing headlines to our plain, text-heavy layouts. (Rest in peace, “blink” tag!)

Site designs have gotten much more designer-ish since then, and in the last few years I think things have gone overboard. The trend right now is for large videos to play at the tops of major sites, telling the “story of the brand”, whether you’re interested or not. You’ll find fancy scrolling effects, menus that pop out with slick animations, and as many layout tricks as the current technology allows — even if they’re distracting, and exist more for flash than substance.

I may be getting cranky with age, but I do have a communications degree. I still think the most important thing to consider when designing a site is easily conveying the basic information the visitor needs, as quickly as possible.

What is your site ultimately for? Most of the time, it’s to show people what your business does, and to show them how to reach you, so you can transact business. Anything that doesn’t support these goals is clutter. Is your developer putting your most important information within easy reach, or do you have to dig through gimmicky design flourishes to find it?

Make sure your developer knows something about communications; fanciness is counterproductive if your visitor has to learn how to use your site before they can get to the info they need.

Build it to be Low-Maintenance, but Keep it Well-Maintained

Another of my favourite efficiency tools allows me to update all my clients’ sites from a central console, with a few button clicks. Sites that aren’t kept upgraded eventually become hacker-bait, and this is a situation where “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Find out whether your developer considers it your responsibility to maintain your own site, or whether they’re going to take that duty on themselves. Someone must keep a regular eye on your software –make sure you know who that person will be.

Backups: The “Department of Redundancy Department”

Again: lousy keyboard-holding technique. Avoid!

A good hosting company will back up your site on some sort of rotating schedule. In addition to the usual backup system, I’ve got a tool which backs up my customers’ sites into an offsite storage area once a week, and also deposits a copy on my own computer. That means you have redundant copies: your live site, the two or three backup copies on the hosting server, and several weeks’ worth stored on my hard drive — and also offsite. The odds of an unrecoverable accident are hugely reduced with good backup policies.

What’s your developer doing to protect your site? Many of them don’t have a plan in place for this, and ultimately it’s your responsibility to make sure you’ve got something set up.

Start Well to End Well

There’s more to building a website than just throwing text and images together. A good website creator has a basic understanding of the major requirements for doing the job fully: smart development practices, diligence about maintenance, clear messaging, concern for security, and policies for ongoing support and backups.

If you screen for these things at the beginning, your website development process will be pain-free over the long term.