How to Select the Right Website Designer - The Questions You Need to Ask

The experience of hundreds of business owners and managers is that time spent now will save you money and stress later.  An important factor to remember is that if you choose the right partner for your needs, the chances of getting a website that meets or exceeds your expectations is greatly increased.
Treat the screening and interview process with as much importance as you do when hiring your own staff.  You will be employing this person or company and the costs of making a poor decision can be great.  Also take advantage of this opportunity to get expert feedback while interviewing, this will help refine your own ideas.
It is important to choose a company with the right mix of skills and experience, and an approach that fits with you.  Some designers are strong on graphic arts and will create an attractive site that will have appearance and image as its main strength.  Others are more technical programmers who will create a functional site that is technically robust, or one that focuses on Search Engine Optimisation requirements. You need an appropriate blend of all, with the weighting depending on your website and business objectives.
The size and culture of a design company is also important.  It relates to their ability to deliver what you want in your given timeframe, and also their ability to have a good working relationship with you.  As a client will you be calling them every day wanting to add or modify things, or leave them to it and just get updated at key stages?  Different designers have different approaches to work and billing, and you need one that matches your personal approach.
It is important to find a company with solid marketing and business development skills that will take the time to understand your needs.   Thousands of companies can build basic websites; ideally you need a company that can partner you in developing a site as an effective communication and marketing tool.
A key initial indicator is whether or not the design company tries to understand your needs and objectives first.  It is not a good sign if someone starts selling you a solution before they have asked you questions and understood your situation!
Applying a thorough and methodical approach to assessing designers, along with developing a detailed design brief, will help ensure that you know what you are getting into, and ensure that nothing will fall through the cracks.
The checklist of questions below is a good starting point and once talking with a designer there will likely be other relevant questions that arise as well:
General Experience and Approach
What sites of a similar size or features have you built? (can you show me)
What sites in my industry or sector have you built? (can you show me)
What clients can I speak to?
Do you have a background in marketing and business development?
Do you have experience in online marketing?
Are you members of any industry groups or associations?
After completion of a job do you follow-up with the client after a set period of time?
How do you measure the success of your clients' websites?
Approach to Design and Development
How do you incorporate business objectives into a site?
How many initial mock-ups or options can you give me to decide layout, colours, look and feel? (Some companies provide a couple of options to start with)
What if I want to add or change something partway through the process? (Some companies allow a set number of changes, while others bill for any changes)
Will I be able to add or change features in the future? (such as shopping carts, newsfeeds etc)
Do you usability-test the site? (To check it is user-friendly)   If yes, how?
Ongoing Support
Do you provide monthly maintenance or checking of the site? (Is this included or an extra fee)
What technical support do you provide if the site goes down?
How quickly do you turn-around changes or updates? (1-4 days is good for standard work)
What sort of webstats do I get with my website?
Service and Features
Are your websites W3C comnpliant? (international web standards)
Do you provide editing and copywriting services? At what rate?
Do you provide photography? At what rate?
Do you provide reliable, high-speed, secure hosting?  For how much?
Do you allow spam sites or other questionable sites on your hosting server?  (this could affect your site if they do)
Can you check that my chosen domain name has not been formerly used by a spam, gaming or adult site? (if it has then choose another)
Do you provide email accounts?  For how much?
Can I access the email account remotely via the internet?
Will the email work with my email software ? (Outlook, Lotus notes etc) Can you help me set it up?
What other features can I add later, eg blog, newsletter tool etc?
Are there any limitations for future growth with this website? (eg features I couldn't add on later)
Website Options
What sort of system do you think is most appropriate for my plans? (eg a Content Management System that i can update myself, or a static website where i have to request and pay for any changes)
Why do you recommend this option? (check to ensure they correctly understand your situation and plans)
Can you demonstrate this option?
How much training or support will I get for using it?
Will I be charged if I ask for help with using it?
Pricing and invoicing
What does your quote cover?
Does your quote include you loading all the initial content at the start?
Is this quote fixed or could it change?
If this quote could change, from your experience with other similar websites, what is the most you think it could cost?
What are potential extra costs that sometimes come up with clients during the process?
What is your normal rate for design work? (eg changing the look and feel)
What is your normal rate for technical work? (eg adding a new feature)
During the process of building the site, will you notify me up front if there could be extra costs incurred?
Will you charge me for phoning or emailing with questions?
How do you bill? (on completion, part up front and rest on completion, monthly instalments)
Once the site is built, what are the ongoing costs I need to be aware of?
Search Engine Optimisation
Do you provide search engine optimisation (SEO)?
If yes, do you have a specialist person do it or do all the designers do it as a normal part of their work? (SEO is now getting so complex that it is better to have a 'specialist')
What documentation or reporting do you provide on SEO and rankings?
How often do you provide reports on rankings?
Can you explain the process you go through for SEO and provide me with something to take home and read on it? (selecting keywords,  managing  links etc)
Can you tell me what parts are done manually and what parts involve software or automation?  (SEO should normally be a manual activity with software used only for assessing current rankings and assessing keywords)
Can you show me how to setup managed bid campaigns? (such as google Adwords) For how much?
Do you have a problem if I choose someone else to do my SEO? (are you happy to cooperate?)
Can i talk to a couple of your clients?
After seeing their work and speaking to their clients, are there any doubts or concerns you have that you need to raise with the designer?
Using these questions will help give you a much more thorough idea of who can meet your needs. Aside from the obvious benefit of being able to methodically assess and select the most appropriate person or company to build or improve your website, the longer term benefit is that you have documented information the designer has told you.  A clear design brief and a documented interview will assist if in the future you disagree over what was promised and what was delivered, or what was quoted and what was invoiced.  It is common for clients to want to add or change things on their site once they become more involved in the design process.  If you have a realistic expectation of this and discuss it with your designer up-front, the whole web site development project will run more smoothly.