Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Outsourcing your Web site, part 2

How to manage the process -- without giving up control of your site

August  1998
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This month, Chuck Musciano takes an even closer look at outsourcing all or parts of your Web site. He offers helpful advice about selecting the right outsourcing firm, taking control of the process, and maintaining your site once the work's been done. (2,200 words)

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Last month, we dared to think the unthinkable: that outsourcing all or part of your Web site might actually be a good idea. It might be hard to admit that someone else knows more about creating great Web sites than you do, but turning over the more difficult tasks to someone else could make your life a lot easier.

Effective outsourcing, in and of itself, is hard work. We started the process last month by deciding which parts you might want to outsource, including the site design, the implementation of that design, and the maintenance of that implementation. Depending on your budget and your needs, you might want to find someone to handle any or all of these pieces.

Once you pick the pieces, you must spend some time defining exactly what you want for each outsourced piece. Outsourcing isn't a matter of simply picking up the phone and calling in the consultants. If you don't define exactly what you want and how you want it, you'll never be satisfied with the result. A lot is at stake in your decisions, so it pays to take the time to think hard about what you want from your outsourcer.

Once you make all those decisions, you're ready for the fun part: finding the right outsourcing firm to handle your site. This month, we'll look at selecting an outsourcing firm, controlling the outsourcing process, and managing your site once the outsourced work is completed.

Finding an outsourcing partner
Selecting a site outsourcer is a lot like going on a blind date, except that you'll be paying for a lot more than dinner and a movie. By carefully controlling the selection process, you should be able to find a firm that matches your needs and temperament.

To begin, take all the decisions that you made regarding your outsourcing needs and capture them in a single document known as a request for proposal, or RFP. In your RFP, try to answer every conceivable question a potential firm might ask about your site. Don't fret too much over format or style; the goal is to get as much information as possible in front of potential vendors. Keep in mind that a good vendor will only select you as a customer if it can do a good job for you; it does no one any good to be vague, evasive, or misleading about your needs.

You'll need to present your RFP to at least three candidate firms. You should look for firms in your area that have done Web design work previously; you might want to consult a local online business guide or surf sites you like with an eye to production credits. You'll find that potential candidates fall into three groups:

Innocent children
Plenty of Web design firms out there are founded and run by enterprising teenagers and college students. Once you get over the fact that they're young enough to be your children and stop wondering if they're old enough to drive themselves to work, you'll realize that these youngsters are some of the slickest site designers around. You'll also discover that many of them lack the level of business maturity you'll need in the course of establishing a long-term relationship. You may also find it hard to sell these whiz kids to your upper management, especially when large amounts of money are being thrown around. Still, don't let their youth fool you; this group might have just what you need to jump-start your site into being a truly world-class experience.

Slick suits
At the other end of the spectrum you'll find full-blown, high-end consulting firms that offer their services across a range of technologies, including Web services. These companies are really good at consulting, and know how to work with you to derive your requirements and develop the scope of your desired site. This can be valuable for those who don't really know what they want, but it's overkill for those who have a good handle on the technology of the Web. These companies deal in business processes, requirements analysis, and project management; sometimes it seems that the actual work is just a sideline. If you don't have the time to manage the outsourcing project, this kind of company might be for you. On the other hand, you might find that this kind of firm lacks the true creative vision that will make your site stand out from the crowd.

Middle ground
When outsourcing my own site, I ended up working with a company that mixed the best of both worlds: the creativity of youth with the maturity of well-defined processes. These firms have good designers, good process people, and are still small enough to be responsive to your needs. A firm like this offers a good balance that works best for many clients: not quite as avant-garde as the college students, which keeps you off the bleeding edge of technology, and not so mired in process that they never get anything done.

Each of these firms potentially offers just the solution you need, but to see if there's a fit, you'll need to spend some time face to face. The nice thing about the Web is that any reputable design firm will have a list of previous clients whose sites provide a catalog of the firm's skills. These sites bear close scrutiny; if you don't see technology that matches what you want on your site, you aren't going to get it from that firm. Don't believe anything a company tells you if they can't back it up with a live site demo.

You'll also want to talk design philosophy and systems religion. If you're a Unix shop (and if you aren't, you should be), make sure your candidate can deliver Unix-based technology. If you need to make ODBC connections to your Oracle-based data warehouse, ask about that capability. If you believe in a hands-on, iterative design process, make sure the firm can work under those conditions.

Finally, consider a phased approach to site development, with each phase being a sort of "mini-contract." Most firms will want to spend some time just exploring your needs, deriving requirements, and working with you to develop your site's look and feel. Get a firm quote for just that work, and obtain a fixed list of deliverables that will result from the effort. Subsequent phases (development, deployment, maintenance) will be bid separately after the first phase is completed, and are not automatically awarded to the company that does the initial work. Make sure that everything that emerges from the first phase will be owned by your company, so that the design firm doesn't put together a glorious plan that you can't use with any other company. This sort of gated approach to each phase of your project ensures that you retain complete control of the process and can pull the plug at any time. Any company that won't work with you on this basis shouldn't even be considered for business.


Managing the outsourcing process
When you select a vendor and sign the contracts, the real work begins. You'll need to define where the vendor will work (my place or yours?), what facilities or connectivity you'll provide to support that work, and what sort of project management you'll use to oversee the process. This may seem like overkill, but getting these details resolved up front will keep things running smoothly the rest of the way.

You should expect a lot of contact with your vendor. Web outsourcing is a highly interactive process, with a constant flow of information between the client and the firm. Initially, you'll be pumping information to your vendor: how you do business, how you want your site to work, how you've done things in the past. If you have logos, letterhead, or standard elements of your business identity, be prepared to turn them all over to the firm for potential incorporation into your site. As you progress, the tide will turn, and information will begin coming back for your approval: page designs, navigation tools, site flows, and all sorts of other site elements.

You need to designate one person in your company as the single point of contact for the entire outsourcing process. Make it clear that all communication between your company and the design firm flows through that one person. Potential disaster lurks in having multiple contacts dealing with the firm, since conflicting directions will be given at every turn. More dangerous is the fact that you'll often have would-be site designers anxious to bend the ear of the design firm, giving their two cents on how the site should be designed. (This isn't limited to Web design, of course. The person tasked with designing a new facility for his company recently lamented to me that he "never knew every person in the company was also an architect.")

Ideally, you and your vendor will gracefully converge on the perfect design for your site, covering everything you decided you needed before you engaged the company. In reality, the dance with your chosen vendor will be less like a ballet and more like a wrestling match: occasionally graceful and sometimes brutal. You'll need to make sure that you stay in control of the design process, but remain open to the vendor's suggestions, including ideas that may sound flaky but could turn out to be great improvements to your site.

Living happily ever after
At some point, you'll be the recipient of a brand new, very cool Web site. Hopefully, everyone will be happy: you, the consultant, your boss, and all those users out there, anxious to partake of your services on the Web. As we all know, though, that site starts falling apart the moment you bring it online, and you need to be ready to support it.

To be truly successful, you must make sure that you and your staff are intimately involved in the design and construction of the site. If you're not, you will never be able to understand how it was built, let alone enhance and maintain it. It's easy to simply wash your hands of the design and development process, leaving the hard work to the design firm, but you'll pay the price for doing so later, when you take ownership of the site.

Some folks may solve this problem by contracting for the maintenance of the site by the design firm. There is nothing wrong with this, but you must understand that you're making a long-term commitment to using this vendor for all the changes and upgrades to your site. You can switch to another vendor, of course, but the process can be painful and expensive.

To be truthful, the best solution is to do the simpler maintenance (content changes, link fixes, image changes) yourself and contract back for the harder stuff (e-commerce extensions, dynamic content changes, programming upgrades). Every site needs tweaking on an almost daily basis, and much of this can be done simply and easily. If you have specific pages that change regularly, have your consultant build a simple interface that mere mortals can use to add or change content on a regular basis. By planning ahead as to how you want to use your site over the next few years, you can build in mechanisms to make site maintenance easy.

If you take your time, think about what you're doing, and select the right outsourcing firm, outsourcing your Web site might be the best thing you'll ever do. Although you'll pay up front for a lot of work, the end result should be a site that is better looking, easier to use, and cheaper to maintain over the long run. While my advice only touches on everything you'll need to do to successfully outsource your site, it should give you a good basis for starting the process for your own site.

Have you gone through this process? How well did your site turn out? Take a moment to share your experiences and I'll summarize them in a future column.


About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Chuck is currently CIO at the American Kennel Club. Reach Chuck at chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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