What to expect from a good development partner? More than development

A great business idea or improvement often requires a lot of skills in the world of code, which is, unless you are Google or Facebook, hard to find in-house. What you need, then, is a good development partner with abundant resources, who can be trusted to bring success to your next project.
What should you expect from one – and where should you find one? The answer is short: more than development. Here is what we found out to work best.

1. To have a lot of questions before development

A good development partner considers the solution from a wider perspective. Therefore, they should have a lot of questions ranging from general ones at the very beginning to very specific ones when the proposal is nearly due. Great products are always carefully tailored to business challenges they are trying to solve.
In the end, you might recognize that your development partner knows as much about your business as your own employees. If this happens, you can be sure you’ve made a good call.
And don’t be worried if they openly ask where your margins come from. Unless they know that, they won’t be able to help you make them bigger.
Imagine you wanted to develop a news app.
Questions we usually ask at the beginning are:

  • Who is your target market?
  • Could you please list your main competitors?
  • What is the desired image of your newspapers in the eyes of your readers?

Late questions contain mostly something close to:

  • Would you like a new article to start at the bottom of a single article, or would you like to place suggested articles there?
  • How often shall we check that there are fresh news with the API, and how are we going to indicate that there are some (e.g. pull to refresh functionality)?
  • How many possibilities shall we offer for search results sorting? We may include relevance, date, alphabetical order, categories.

2. To offer sound and understandable solutions

You want a clear and goal-oriented proposal that’s understandable – nothing less. Longer projects (especially 6+ months) should be listed in phases, whereas shorter projects should have measurable targets for each week. Don’t let yourself get too technical about this: although an explanation on which framework they are to use is useful, it’s why they use them that’s much more important.
When more complex solutions are requested, you might be offered more than one approach towards the project. This is alright as long as they have experience in any of the approaches. Finally, what you’re interested in is not experience in technical solutions, but solving business problems: there is always more than one road to success.
You have a startup idea to enable people to print stuff to your special home-made iPad protective cases to give them a personal touch. First you imagined a web shop where you can use advanced interface to drag and drop photos and then stretch them accordingly to the protective case. This looks great, but then you realize it’s going to cost you much more than you can currently afford.
A good partner will then say, ‘Hey, let’s develop the MVP first. We can build a beautiful splash page for starters. Then, under your protective cases and some copy text, let’s enable the users to upload pictures and send them to you via a simple contact form. You’ll then adjust the picture to the protective case image and send them back the proposed design for approval, as well as an invoice. This will do until you get the first few hundred clients and gain enough resources before we move this forward.’
Good solutions don’t have to be complicated. And good partnerships help both sides grow.

3. To manage your expectations

You should know what to expect. Period. A good development partner guides you through the process and provides great answers to your ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. They also will send you a calendar which takes into account time for your feedback, meetings, holidays, as well as third-party work (feedback from the AppStore if it’s an iOS app, for example).
You want an ecommerce site for second-hand mobile phones. Your potential development partner said they estimate the time/cost, needed for it to be developed according to your needs, to 35 developer days, starting with Apr 1 2016. However, the time of delivery is in 2,5 months. They broke down the phases to:
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.

As you may see, the feedback has been taken into account to assure that you are fully engaged in the process and realistic timeframes for amends and possible bugs – which will appear, as we are still human behind the machine. What may also be seen is the time/cost broken down so that you may see what’s billable, and what’s not.

Extra: development partner progress checklist

You may also download our checklist to make sure you can follow the progress and workload step-by-step. We like to check boxes, too!

4. To provide a wireframe

Seriously managed projects always have a wireframe of some kind. A wireframe is a visual guide on how the various elements are going to be arranged on a certain website or a mobile app. Be it paper-sketched lo-fis for small WordPress sites or high fidelity wireframes with interactive elements, a wireframe is key to provide that both sides are on terms with what’s expected. Changes on wireframes are much easier and cost-effective than on a designed screen so this step might actually save you a considerable amount of time and stress.
Wireframing should start from the moment you start discussing the web site or an app. If things are sketched from the beginning, you might save yourself a lot of effort later on. This is why we’re always have some sketching paper prepared at Blue Factory.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.

5. To report on a regular basis

How often is often enough? This depends upon the project complexity and length, but most certainly this should range from once a week to daily reports. A good development partner will also have the initiative and organize all the reporting themselves. If you have to ring them to know what’s going on – find a new partner as soon as possible.
A good report should be brief and contain information with regard to current goals. It should also say who is responsible for each of the coming tasks and what is expected from them. This way you’ll be able to track progress on the individual basis and assign additional resources if necessary.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.
Alongside regular email reports, in Blue Factory we use ActiveCollab tool for project management. This enables clients to view the progress of the project, monitor tasks and costs and suggest amendments. But don’t forget the emails! We still send them to give structured and brief reports, as well as keep the human touch. And this is always nice.

6. To be flexible

Project scope and timeline often changes. Markets change, as well as user preferences. A good development partner knows that and is able to adapt to new circumstances. This is also one of the most important reasons why hiring a freelancer is rarely a good idea – an agency will be able to adapt to more or less workload more easily and have more experience in project management, especially with larger projects.
However, it’s a good idea to come to your partner as soon as changes emerge: they will adapt better and have more time to find ways how to improve your product. Open communication builds trust, which is always a benefit.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.
Website layout and design are rarely done out of first try. This process often includes multiple revisions and amends. Make sure you get access to simple and direct feedback tools from your partners. For example, at Blue Factory we’re delighted to use InVision, which enables storing a web design prototype with the ability to leave comments directly on the designed screen. This is easy to check and notifies you when the proposed change has been included in the prototype.

7. To deliver in time

Deadlines are the Achilles’ heel of development. It isn’t a sign that engineers know what they’re doing or that they lack the will – it’s simply because during planning it’s hard to see the whole elephant. When is the last time you heard that Facebook is to introduce a new feature in six months? No, they introduce it only when it’s done and to a portion of their users. It’s then tested and finally enabled for everyone.
So, the best approach usually includes a MVP and a set of phases which will gradually take you towards a superior product. This allows you to get to customer/investor feedback quickly and to get better time estimates for smaller scope of work.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.
Here is one example of an ecommerce site – its development had been broken down in four phases to secure that the client had an opportunity to test different functionalities and ideas, explore possibilities for third-party services such as delivery and introduce new ad system to their advertisers. This also enabled them to have more options available when changing specs on-the-go.

8. To test, and test, and test

Cross-browser, independent, multi-device testing is a must. Ask a partner about how big is their QA department, what’s their process, whether they do code reviewing and are they on terms with test-driven development. Hint: a company that does a lot of testing will usually include supported OS/browser versions in their specification and check about that previously.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.

In Blue Factory we include the QA into all project phases, from sending out a specification to the moment when the project is going live. Proper time for testing is included into every phase, as it’s very expensive to fix early mistakes: in planning, wireframing or designing. A good partner will be aware of that and make sure you understand they’re all about quality delivering.

9. To offer quality support

The story does not end when the product is live. There are new browser versions, new devices, unforeseen trouble with the UX or else. There is often need for fixes and upgrades in the real world – this is why you need a partner who’s there for you after the project is finished. Nobody will know the code better then the same people who have written it.
Partners will probably come to you first with their suggestions on future support, but it’s good to ask that question early in the process. It will provide valuable later on.
Find some old projects on the site of a potential development partner and ask them whether the client is still there. People sometimes say goodbye to each other for various reasons, but if say five out of five are not working with them any more, it’s a clear red light for you that this partner is obviously not delivering well and not offering support.
What should I expect from a good development partner? – More than development.

10. To come to you with possible improvements

If you look at point 1, it says that a good development partner now probably knows as much about your business as your own employees. This is important because they will share the same ideas, vision and help achieve your goals. Such partners will suggest possible improvements for your product, not only from technical perspective, but from the user perspective and potential revenue.
You may notice that this exceeds the development service and is probably more of a consulting business. But that’s what a good development partner is – a company that solves complex business issues with their development skills. And that requires much more than just development.
In Blue Factory we’re always happy to see new Android or iOS versions going live. When the iOS 9 was live, they introduced support for RTL (right-to-left) layout. We immediately talked to our clients from the Middle East and found a way to include this support in our upgrades so now the iOS apps in Arabic look just great!