Challenges in Web Development: David Versus Goliath

Developing and designing an effective web site is challenging — an understatement for sure. There is no silver bullet. Luckily (or unluckily as some folks will tell you), there are a number of web design firms in the marketplace that can assist companies with this effort. The actual selection of a web design firm can be a daunting task and can have a tremendous impact on an e-business’s potential for success.

As the I-builder market has matured over past four years, two distinct paths have emerged.

  1. An end-to-end approach (jack of all trades): examples include Agency.com, IXL, Razorfish, Sapient, Viant, and Scient. This approach focuses on a broad offering of services from business strategy and interface design to programming and systems integration.

  2. A best-of-breed methodology: examples include Arc, Method, Cysive, Bain & Company, and Creative Good. This approach narrows a firm’s focus to a limited set of core offerings allowing for specialization to occur.

In today’s market, a company looking to hire a web design and development firm must determine which path is most appropriate for its needs. As is the case with most decisions, each approach has its associated pluses and minuses.

An end-to-end Internet development firm is typically a large, publicly traded multinational organization built upon rapid growth and acquisition. Because of the growth model, often these end-to-end firms suffer high turnover.

The budgets are often in the million-dollar range. In a typical client engagement it will provide a complete solution, beginning with strategy and information architecture, moving to interface design and branding, and eventually leading to programming and systems integration. It’s a one-stop shop, where all parts of an e-business are included in the services provided. In many instances, venture funding is provided as well.

The end-to-end approach works quite well for companies that have large budgets and broad needs. It provides a centralized method for vendor management and ensures that there is one clear owner of the entire project. The end-to-end I-builder will lead its client through the development process from conception to launch.

Quite often, a number of “experts” from each slice of the development process will be brought in during the appropriate project stage. It is not odd for development teams to be 20 to 25 people. The development time frames are quite often from six to nine months.

Firms following the best-of-breed approach are more likely to be smaller, closely held organizations that are uniquely focused on a specific part of the development process. A firm such as Arc focuses on strategy development. A firm such as Method offers highly developed user interface design. Cysive has established its expertise in advanced programming, systems integration, and back-end architecture.

These firms will bring smaller and highly specialized teams to develop its deliverables within a streamlined methodology. The project budgets are adjusted accordingly as well.

In many situations, a company that engages a best-of-breed firm has taken initial steps in developing its e-business and is looking for specific services to optimize it. Some companies might hire a group of best-of-breed firms to help build its entire e-business.

An arrangement where multiple firms are working together requires clearly stated ownership roles. One of the risks of taking the best-of-breed approach is the potential for unclear role definitions. This approach is better suited for a company that has a clear idea of its needs.

Both approaches have their merits, and, ultimately, deciding which approach to choose depends on the fundamental needs of the company looking to hire the I-builder. At the end of the day, you should interview firms that use the end-to-end approach and firms that use the best-of-breed methodology to help determine which perspective is most appropriate for your situation. In many cases, the decision will be determined by the personalities involved, in addition to the firm’s expertise.

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