This month, my friend Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios is kindly letting me repurpose a post he wrote for his own blog a few months ago. I think he offers some great advice here, and I often refer my clients to it.

From Andy:
Full disclosure: I sell websites. Every day, I meet with companies who are looking for a web-design firm, and naturally, I’d like some of them to choose us. But I’ve also noticed something during these conversations: typically, people don’t ask the most important questions.

In 5 minutes, these 5 questions will tell you more than any hour-long presentation could about what questions to ask when choosing a web design firm

Question 1: What is your approach to usability?
More than any other question, this will help you quickly differentiate between experienced web designers and novices. Asking about usability will help you understand the company’s focus namely, whether or not they have the most important thing in mind: your visitor.

A company that does not focus on usability may build a site that looks great but that visitors find confusing or difficult to use. You want a web-design firm that thinks at the highest level: user-centered design.

Best Answer:
“I’m thrilled you asked! We are big believers in user-centered design, and we conduct usability testing whenever possible. We’re advocates for visitors and we will defend their interests with concrete evidence and research.”

Question 2: Can you show me examples of projects with similar goals?
Ask for examples of sites with similar goals and features to the ones you want to include.

Need an event registration tool, a calendar or customer order forms? Talk to people who can show you samples of ones they’ve created. That way, you can have a conversation about why it was built in a certain way, what the challenges were, and whether the project’s goals are being met.

If the company hasn’t built a similar site before, are they up-front about it? Do they have any ideas for how it could work? What challenges would they expect?

Best Answer:
“Of course. Let’s take a look at a few now.”

Follow-Up Question:
Is there a limit to the number of design revisions?

Question 3: Can I meet the team?
This question will instantly reveal if the team is in-house or outsourced. A lot of companies outsource various parts of projects. Perhaps the firm you’re considering is a reliable partner company. Or maybe it’s an ad hoc team of freelancers who have never worked together before and who may not be there down the road.

For any site with serious goals, you should look for a team of specialists. If the team is in fact just 1 or 2 people, ask about their capacity to handle your project. Are they going to be busy selling new clients while working on your site? How important is your project to them?

Best Answer:
“The entire team is in-house and works together on similar projects all the time.”

2nd-Best Answer:
There is a partner company involved, but everyone has worked together on similar projects.

Question 4: What if I want to make changes later?
One of the most fundamental differences among web-development firms is their approach to ongoing changes. Every website will change over time. Some companies charge hourly for these changes, while others provide a content-management tool that makes it easy, fast, and free to update text, upload images, and add pages.

Best Answer:
“We’re going to set up a tool that lets your company manage your own site. You’ll never have to wait or get an invoice for basic changes.”

Follow-Up Question:
What sorts of changes will cost money?

Question 5: How will we be able to measure result
It’s not a bad thing if the answer to this question sounds a little technical. Listen for terms like unique visits, bounce rate, page views, conversion rate, time on site, inbound links, search-engine rankings, etc. If you start hearing jargon you’re not familiar with, ask for explanations in simple English.

Best Answer:
“Our sites typically measure unique visitors, bounce rate, and conversion percentage. These are the most important metrics if your goal is to generate leads. We use an analytics tool to do this, and we will show you how to track these measures.”

Follow-Up Question:
What kind of numbers should we expect?

Asking these 5 questions will ensure that you’re on your way to having a productive conversation with the web design team. And you’ll be able to make a much more informed choice.