As I sat down to write this second installment of my responsive design series (part one is here), I thought about what the actual first steps were in re-vamping Morikami.org. I realized the very first step, after deciding to go with a responsive platform, was researching and choosing a vendor. I remember this being a DAUNTING task, and a pretty major piece of the puzzle. I get it – there’s an endless rainbow of options to consider (you get the featured image now, huh?) So, for you dear readers who are considering re-working your site, here is my advice on choosing a web vendor. I’ll get back to more on responsive design, and my experience in actually helping to build a responsive site, in the next installment.
Five Steps for Choosing a Web Vendor
1) First things first – what’s holding you back on your current site?
For Morikami it was a combination of things, as I suspect it is for you. We were working in two, piece-meal systems. One housed our e-commerce store, our donations and memberships, and our educational programming registrations, as well as our email marketing and some of our informational pages. The other housed our web forms, our basic informational pages, our database of museum collections pieces, and – for a time – our email marketing. It was a pretty hodge-podge system that was frustrating for me as the manager of all this content, but also for some of our internal staff users. Don’t get me wrong – these systems had their high points, but they weren’t working well together, and they weren’t giving us what we really wanted – a site fit for use on mobile AND desktop.
Before you even go looking for a vendor, start with the challenges your current site is creating for you, your internal staff, and your outside users. What needs improvement? What needs overhauling? And what can you do to create a better experience for your users? Ask internal staff what they’d like to see from your site. Hold a focus group, or send out an email survey asking your users what they like and dislike about your site. Be specific, and make sure to dig into your google analytics as well. You’ll be surprised at what the raw data can tell you about where external users are having trouble.
2) What kind of functionality do you need?
As I said before, Morikami had a lot going on, and I suspect this is why we smashed together two disparate systems. Once you know what challenges you’re facing, start figuring out what kind of solutions are out there to fix them. Maybe you need more flexibility with your email list size and you should look into a pay as you grow plan. Maybe you need a more streamlined e-commerce store to sell products online, and you need to look for a simple e-commerce solution. Is it integration with other systems that you need – like Raiser’s Edge or maybe a retail POS? Look for vendors that offer ready made plug-ins, or fairly-priced custom programming for those integrations.
It’s also helpful to make a list of all the functions your current site performs, as well as the things you’ll want to add on. Here are some of the functions we needed:
- e-commerce with flexible discounting for members and frequent sales, easy product set up, and space for lots of products and categories
- email marketing with robust reporting, and pay as you grow pricing
- the ability to take donations with no tax added
- the ability to sell memberships with multiple options and specific information gathering fields
- a well designed calendar with the ability to integrate a product for our educational programming
- a database of past exhibits and museum collections pieces that included both text and images in a consistent format
- a mega menu – more on this in the next installment
When it was all said and done we had a healthy list of functions, but it really helped to narrow down the competitors! Make sure you get feedback from other departments that rely on your site so that you’re sure you’ve included everything the site needs to do on this list. Around this point is also a good time to start setting a tentative budget. You won’t have a super clear picture of what all of your needs will cost until you start asking what the going rates are, but having a general number in mind for what you’re willing to spend, and what you’ve been spending thus far, is a good idea.
3) Start Looking
I started with our current vendors to see if they could rise to the level of functionality we were looking for. Unfortunately for us, or maybe them, it just wasn’t in the cards. They had some options for responsive sites, but they weren’t nearly as good as I was hoping they’d be. Thus, the search for someone new began.
My advice here is to look at your list of needs/wants for functionality and start googling things like “build e-commerce site” or “responsive web design vendors.” At the very least you’ll run across some sites that can show you what you don’t want your site to look like, and that’s just as valuable. You should also ask around to businesses and organizations like you, or in your area. See who they are using, how they like them, and what they offer. Once you get a few leads, take a look at the vendor’s site and their portfolio. Make sure you like the designs as well as the way their sites actually function. Are they offering the type of e-commerce sites you need? Do they have clients using the kinds of functions you’ve listed?
4) Talk to their users
Once you get a short list of potential vendors get in touch with their clients. Don’t be afraid to ask for references even if you haven’t asked for a quote yet. You want to hear from their users to see if they a) got what they wanted and needed from this vendor and b) have been well supported since launching. Be sure to ask what the build process was like, if they have a dedicated account manager, and if they’d recommend you using this vendor.
5) Get some quotes
When you start asking for quotes make sure the potential vendors know what you’re asking for. Give them a clear list of all the functions you’ll need to include. They should also be asking you questions about other needs you may not have even thought about – things like content migration, and hosting services. Try to include everything you can in this quote process so that when you get them all back you are comparing apples to apples. You want to make sure that each of your potential vendors is quoting you on all the things you’ll need. Once all the quotes are in you get to make the tough decisions. Who is offering you everything you want for the best price and the best service?
And that’s it! It seems so simple when it’s boiled down to just 5 steps, but I understand how frustrating, and anxiety-ridden, the whole process can be. So take heart, you’re not alone! Still have questions, or think I missed something? Leave me a comment and we’ll discuss 🙂 Pop in again soon for the next installment of this series where we’l finally dive into actually building a responsive site.
Until Next Time,