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Outsourcing Web Design Overseas The Magic Bullet to Saving Money?

Published on September 10, 2011
Tags: Web Design London

More and more companies are looking to save costs on the design and / or development of their web site. In a bid to do this, many are looking overseas at the promise of having their web site built for a fraction of the cost that might otherwise be the case in the UK. Many web design companies here in the UK also use overseas outsourcing though will often not tell their clients that this is the case.

But, does overseas outsourcing really offer realistic cost savings, or could you end up with a sub-standard web site, that takes twice as long to build, and that’s if it actually gets completed?

This article aims to provide you with the answer, by highlighting some of the causes.

Where in the World?

The most frequently used countries and geographic regions for outsourcing are India, Indonesia, Eastern Europe and Russia. New regions are appearing now though, such as South America. Different locations will have different living and working standards and different access to technologies. Each will also have its own cultural nuances, public holidays and staff working hours that need to be taken in to account if you’re to successfully work with them.

Access to Education, Training and Resources

One of the starting points for understanding why outsource projects can fail is to understand the local access to education and resources.

As an example, whilst a developer in India might have a degree from an Indian university, is that degree comparable to a developer that has studied at a UK university? Further, does the outsourcer have access to strong Continuing Professional Development (CPD) resources such as certified training organisations or is ongoing training ad-hoc, and using free resources on Google. Is CPD structured and provided, or purely down to the individual developer’s initiative to develop themselves. Whilst these might not concern you at the higher level (you’re just looking to get your site built), understanding the quality of who’s working on your site does affect you.

Before you begin your project with a selected company, you can ask them about their staff qualifications and CPD arrangements. It’s also worth asking them about their total team size as smaller teams will be more risky than larger ones. This might give you a good insight into how the company manages and treats its staff and the resultant level of quality you can expect.

I Promise You

Certain cultures can make it really hard to say ‘no’, and some companies will say anything to win your business. So, you go along with your six-month development specification, say you want it in three months with all the bells and whistles, and you get a positive ‘yes’, that it can be delivered in the time you want.

Great! You sign up, you start the project, because you’ve been promised just what you want; fast delivery, everything you’ve asked for, at the price you want. Brilliant news! Or is it?

One month in, the project deadlines start to slip, two months in they slip further, three months in, you’re still waiting and then one month overdue comes the delivery – not what you asked for, not what you expected, and you find out it needs a further three months to put right – if it’s possible at all.

But where did it all go wrong? Very often it can be down to the company simply wanting your business then worrying about how to deliver later, but equally it can be down to misunderstanding the web design brief or elements within the brief.

It pays at this time to remember the golden triangle: TIME QUALITY PRICE - you can’t have it all ways. If you want it fast, it will come at the compromise of quality and / or price. If you want it well-built, it will come at the compromise of time and / or price and if you want it cheap, it will come at the compromise of time and / or quality.

So, before commissioning a web development project first seek out several quotes and not just from outsourcers but from UK companies with UK teams. Identify how many resource days are needed to develop the project and multiply by 2.5 and divide the figure by 22. This will give you an approximate delivery window for the project in months (do note this is a really rough rule of thumb as the project complexity could increase / decrease the multiplier).

So, as a working example if the average number of resource days (number of days the designers and developers work) for a project is quoted as 15, then 2.5x15 = 37.5, divided by 22 = 1.7, and on that basis you could envisage that a 15 resource-day project will take 1.5 to 2 months to complete. If a company comes back saying it can be done easily inside a month, you should consider that as potentially a risk to the golden triangle and how that might affect your project.

Batten Down the Hatches

If we’ve learned anything from 2011 it’s that this year is the year of the hack; spamming has started to take a back seat in favour of direct attacks on web sites; from high profile sites like Sony down to the lowly home-based business.

It is worth bearing in mind that all code is not created equal, and to an advanced hacker no site or web server is off limits or couldn’t be accessed. The key is to make your site and web hosting server as secure as it possibly can so the hacker chooses to go elsewhere – and that largely comes down to two things; the quality of the code and the security that your development team use.

Code quality and security comes in the form of making sure three elements are in place;

  • First, a correctly structured three-tier architecture where the design, the business logic and the database are all separated into individual segmented layers of code

  • Second, your site is reliant and protected against SQL Injection attacks

  • Third, your site is resilient and protected against HTML Injection attacks

The security that your development team use is also paramount; do they have up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware products installed on all of their machines, do they have policies in place to prevent accessing certain web sites that commonly host viruses and trojans, and do they have anti-virus and anti-spam scanning on their email? We have seen cases where web site passwords have been stolen from a developer’s machine only to then be used to directly hack and upload hacked content to a web site. If you’re handing over access details to a developer, it’s important to make sure they’re going to be able to protect that information properly.

This is probably one of the biggest areas right now that should concern you; making sure your web site is as watertight as it can be, and the way to find that out from any development partner is to ask the questions above. Quite often, outsource providers do not have the resources to adequately protect their computers and do not have access to the education needed to put in place best practices with regards to code quality and security.

The Outsourcer’s Outsource

When you commission an outsource project you might be forgiven for thinking you are actually outsourcing to the company you have commissioned. Think again though. We have seen numerous cases where an outsource company will then employ freelancers, other companies and even university students still doing their web development courses (shocking, we know!) in order to fulfil a project.

So, before you begin, make sure you ask exactly who will be working on the project and that they are directly employed by the company.

Lost in Translation

One of the trickiest aspects of outsourcing to a country where English is not the first language is communication. You might get to deal with a project / account manger who’s English is pretty good, and then your comments are passed on to the developer in their native language who’s grasp of English is less or non-existent. You’ll generally never know if this is the case though.

So, first establish the English levels of the people you’ll be working with. It’s okay if the developer doesn’t speak English but it does then mean a lot more work at your end to fulfil the project. You’ll need to provide far more information graphically rather than textually as to how you want things to be delivered, and you’ll also need to provide details of all the system messages to save you getting something back that clearly looks like it was outsourced or doesn't work at all. For example, if you have a form on your site that needs certain fields to be filled in, those error messages will need to look perfect for your site visitors to feel trust in your site; that probably means you’re going to need to write them.

A further problem in relation to outsourced web design is proximity to your market. If you’re employing someone to design a web site that’s leading edge in the UK market, that mirrors some latest brand, TV or print campaign, or that requires an understanding of where UK design trends are heading, employing a designer sitting in India is unlikely to give you that edge.

In that respect, you may want to rely on a local web designer, even if the coding (development) is then done elsewhere in the world.

Protect Yourself

So many times we’ve seen companies engage outsource providers with an inadequate contract for services, a minimal or non-existent brief and overpayment at the start of a project. Consider that your agreement should:

  1. Define exactly what is going to be delivered detail

  2. Define the price it will be delivered for

  3. Define the companies involved in the agreement (you and the outsourcer)

  4. Define terms in relation to who owns the rights to the source code and confidentiality

  5. Define where the agreement is bound (for example – and preferably - by English law if you are in England)

  6. Define the payment stages for the project, making sure you don’t pay too much upfront if any of the points in this document give you cause for concern.

In Conclusion

Let us state that outsourcing is not bad. There are some very good outsourcing companies, but they are outweighed by a huge number of companies that are incapable of project deliveries to the highest standards.

We know – we take over web development project rescues almost every week from failed outsource projects.

And to highlight that we’re not against outsourcing, we should state here that we do it - so this article is based on experience and real-life observations. But we are strict and we have years of experience (since 1997) in outsourcing so we know how to spot a good provider and a bad one.

We work with just a couple of very good providers who we’ve partnered with for several years; they provide us with high quality services to high standards, under extremely tight service level agreements (SLA’s) and whilst we pay more than the bargain-basement outsource providers, we get what we need; quality development teams that allow our business to be flexible and win awards. We don't look at outsourcing as a cheap alternative, but as an extension to our in-house team to provide more flexibility and a wider skillset. The hourly rates might be less than in-house staff, but on the other side of that, we have to invest more in the management of the relationship so the cost actually balances out.

On average, we turn down 20-30 outsourcing requests a week simply because the companies don’t meet our standards. That gives you an indication of the ratio of good to less-than-good suppliers out there.

So web outsourcing is not for everyone; it takes a lot of skill to find a good supplier and even more to make that relationship work. Success once a company is selected relies on knowing how to work with the chosen supplier in the right way, and investing more time than might otherwise be the case with a locally based supplier.

Finally, the above doesn't only apply to overseas outsource suppliers. Ask the same questions of any UK web design company too (or US, or wherever else in the world you are whilst reading this!). And, if you do you a local company, ask them if they're going to outsource your project overseas.

By Chelsey Evans

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