What to Look for in a Custom Web Application Development Agency
The popularity of web applications signals a tidal shift in the way people consume the Internet. It’s not enough to look good—people expect websites to do things.
In fact, Software as a Service forms a robust branch of the internet commerce tree—web applications so powerful that people pay to access their functions, similar to those that used to be performed on native desktop applications, now living on remote servers rather than taking up space on the user’s computer.
According to Businesswire, the custom web application industry is over $26 billion with an expected CAGR of 7%. Web applications sell products with secure checkout APIs. They allow people to securely make payments or perform banking transactions online and send messages around the world in seconds. They perform calculations, generate reports, create pictures, or perform countless other functions, with countless others left to be discovered.
It’s these future million undiscovered web app functions that occupy the attention and imaginations of the Liventus team of web application developers. At our dual headquarters in Chicago and Bangalore, industry leaders come to us from all over the world to design custom web applications.
They come to us because they have something special in mind—a function that cannot be piggybacked onto some other web app, even if it promises to do something similar. They want custom functions that align with their exact requirements, their specific brand mission, and values.
Some of them come to us because of our reputation and portfolio of past work. Others have had bad experiences with custom web app developers. These may have been low-priced freelancers who promise “custom” web apps, but use shortcuts that result in lightly-branded “copycat” apps that don’t rise to enterprise expectations.
The “web application developer” marketplace is getting crowded, but not necessarily crowded with premium talent. Even a team of competent coders could end up being the wrong stewards of your web application project.
Want to get it right the first time? (Or whatever “time” you’re currently on?) Here are eight things to look for in a custom web application development agency.
1. They Understand Your Business and How Your Application Fits Into It
Before beginning a development project, it is absolutely essential that both parties have a clear, mutually shared vision of the application’s purpose and its fit within the broader context of your business. The first thing you should look for in a web application development agency is a basic understanding of your business and how your application fits into it.
Some custom web app developers are hyper-specialized. They know how to do one thing—eCommerce, perhaps, or payment API, or encrypted messaging. Even if they do it very well, that does you no good if their area of specialization doesn’t overlap with your business needs.
They’re the proverbial repair guy who has nothing but a hammer. Everything starts looking like a nail.
Some other app developers leave something to be desired when it comes to listening. It’s understandable—we’re coders. What can we say, we get excited by code.
But a great web application development agency has coders who speak “people” as well … or, at least, has good listeners on staff with a deep understanding of the development process. It shouldn’t be difficult to get on the same page with your project managers about what your business does, and zero in on precisely how the app fits into the picture.
Is it front-end? Back-end? What task will it make easier? What portion of your digital value offering will it bring online? Good web application developers can bring significant creativity to the how of your web app, but you don’t have any room for ambiguity when it comes to the what.
Liventus, for example, always starts a new web application development project with a strategy session between our team and all stakeholders of the client business. Before we write a line of code, we want to know exactly what your business needs are, and where the proposed web app fits in the context of those needs.
2. They Believe in a Collaborative, Transparent Custom Web Application Development Process
The best web development agencies see themselves as an extension of the client business, and take the necessary steps to make that vision a reality.
Our job isn’t so much to develop a web app as it is to serve our clients’ best interests and accomplish the task at hand. If that involves developing a custom web app, we’re there for it. If it involves something else, we’re there for that too. We’re not developing these apps for our own benefit, just because we can.
The best web application development firms proactively establish a collaborative relationship with their clients. Part of our initial strategy phase for a new web application project is establishing relationships of trust and open lines of communication to key stakeholders. We want them to know that we don’t just want to be left alone. We want input from the client stakeholders, both at the outset and at every stage of the development process.
Trust isn’t established by saying “Just trust me!” It’s established by clear expectations, transparent processes, and established deliverables.
Even if coding is Greek to you, it should never be a mystery what your web app developers are up to. Hiding behind the tech is an antagonistic relationship, not a collaborative one, and in our experience, it never produces the best outcomes.
That’s why the best web application developers strive to establish a collaborative paradigm as early as possible, right from the very first strategy session. This sets a custom web app development project up for success from the jump.
3. They’re Flexible Depending on your Custom Web Application Development Needs
One trend we have noticed in the web application development space is a trend toward “one-size-fits-all” pricing and project scoping. Each web app is the same price, with the same turnaround time and deliverables.
There’s no more clear sign than this that you aren’t getting a “custom” app. Every custom app is different … you would think that would include a “custom” approach to pricing and project scoping.
You don’t have to wait too long—a commitment to flexibility should be evident in the earliest meetings. Look for a web application development firm that is willing to work with your required time frame and budget.
Yes, we have had to break it to some clients that their budgetary expectations or time horizons were unrealistic … but we try, and we base our assessment on facts, not an arbitrary assessment of what it “costs to build a web app.”
There’s no one answer to that. What that means, in effect, is that we can tailor the project to our customer’s needs. Maybe there is a less expensive way to realize the vision. Expert web application developers will know, and be prepared to make recommendations and pivot to feedback.
Another way in which a web application development firm can demonstrate flexibility upfront is a willingness to adapt to the nature of the partnership you envision. Some businesses want the development firm to execute the project from start to finish; others prefer that the development team work with their in-house IT team. Liventus, for example, has worked within both approaches, as well as a number of others.
We find that one approach doesn’t produce better results than the others. What does produce the best results is the willingness and ability of the web application development firm to adapt to the way the client likes to do business—not the other way around. Any web application development firm that takes a “my way or the highway” approach is sending up red flags. Web application development is a collaborative creative process, and that requires flexibility.
4. They’re Also Flexible Throughout the Development Process
The initial strategy sessions are not the only time when flexibility is of the essence. The best custom web application development firms remain flexible throughout the development process. Custom web application development is rarely a linear process. An expected course may hit a dead end, or a better course might reveal itself in mid-stream.
Flexibility at the outset isn’t a bad indicator of flexibility down the line, but how do you know for sure? It’s hard to predict the future, but one good sign is that the developer uses agile methodology. Agile has the advantage of being a lot more flexible than its most direct counterpart, waterfall methodology.
Waterfall methodology, an older method of development that dates back to the structural engineering of physical products, is a linear development process where one step leads logically to the next, often without customer feedback until the very end.
Agile, by contrast, relies on quasi-autonomous teams who fulfill their roles independently, quickly pushing products to market in discrete phases called “sprints,” with debriefs after every sprint and user feedback at nearly every stage. Whole coding platforms have been adapted to bring order to this sometimes chaotic, but also rapid and highly-adaptive methodology.
Some of the other features that make Agile the preferable approach for a flexible custom web application development process include:
- Transparency. Agile methodology ensures more individual and group interaction, as well as extensive documentation.
- Higher Quality. Shorter development cycles, with feedback at every stage, results in a better product that has been extensively tested in the hands of its target audience.
- More Customer Involvement. Because the target audience has the opportunity to provide feedback at every stage, the product is not only better, but it lays the groundwork for a sense of user ownership and brand booster activity for the final product.
- Mitigates Risk. The cross-functional approach to Agile development, combined with a predictable and sustainable delivery pace, enables developers to identify problems and mitigate risk early.
- Efficiency. Rapid development sprints and parallel development chains enable Agile developers to deploy code much more quickly and efficiently than linear development methodologies.
Liventus has developed custom web applications since 2002. We have tried both Agile and Waterfall methodologies. We embraced Agile, not the least reason being that, in our experience, it is more flexible and produces better outcomes.
5. They’re Experienced With Security Best Practices
“Cybercrime” used to be spoken of in futuristic, science fiction terms, but today it’s all too real, and it affects everyone. Not just big companies, not even big and small companies, but everyone, including individuals. Anyone who spares no thought for security is exposed.
Individual victims of data theft and cybercrime can experience anything from mild nuisance to abject catastrophe. Companies large and small almost never get off as easy as “mild nuisance.” According to Cybercrime Magazine, cybercrime is expected to cost the global economy as much as $6 trillion by 2021 and 10.5 trillion by 2025.
Within the last ten years alone, high-profile data theft has rocked to the core major enterprises like Equifax, Adobe, Marriott, and LinkedIn. The situation is even more dire for small businesses. According to Inc Magazine, 60% of small businesses fail within six months of a data breach.
Web applications present a particular challenge with respect to cybercrime vulnerability, since they involve network-to-network communication and two sets of sensitive data are at risk—user data, and company data.
Remember, cybersecurity is an arms race. Digital defense experts shore up a vulnerability; cybercriminals find a new vulnerability or step up their game to circumvent the new defenses. Last year’s cybersecurity orthodoxy is always tragically out of date, no matter what year it is. A single faulty byte of code can be a chink in the armor that can expose your whole system.
This is all to say that cybersecurity best practices cannot be an afterthought in any custom web application development process. It has to be part of the first principles. Every stage of the development process has to address what vulnerabilities the stage might open up, how to close them, and how to implement controls to reduce the risk of a data breach even further.
Liventus invests significantly in cutting-edge cybersecurity competency, including SOC Type 2 and PCI certification. This enables us to develop custom web applications to the highest available standards of cybersecurity, year after year.
6. They’re Passionate About Their Craft and the Quality of Their Work
It takes a special breed to fall in love with coding. No one will ever mistake a beautiful assemblage of custom software for a Van Gogh, but a devoted software developer will get romantic about it all the same. There’s a certain elegance about proper coding—not only the results, but the way it can be assembled elegantly, aesthetic touches the user will never see, but it makes the developer and subsequent developer’s job easier … even more fun.
When you’re looking for a custom web application development agency, you want to look for a passion for the craft. Yes, you want your development agency to have a “client-first” attitude, listen to you, and explain their strategy in lay terms… but it’s actually a good sign if they get overly excited and lapse into jargon you may or may not understand.
If you have to ask your developers to stop, go back, and explain what they just said in plain English, it’s a good sign provided that said jargon springs from a barely-contained excitement over the power of coding and how they can bring it to bear on your custom web app development project.
Of course, passion for the craft doesn’t just show itself in the developers’ enthusiasm for the job, but also in their portfolio of past work. Selecting a custom web application development agency should always include a review of the firm’s past work … but it needs to go deeper than that.
Ask the firm what aspects of their past deliveries they are most proud of, tricks and innovations they used that other coders might not have thought of, areas in which their web apps went above and beyond the expectations of the clients.
See if the firm and its members are active on social media and other forums in the discussion of new developments in coding and app development. The community of expert coders is small, and many of the top firms employ thought leaders, authors, and key players in app development theory at the highest level, well ahead of development trends.
Also, look for a passion for the new, and a desire to show off their latest discoveries. Good web application developers are constantly updating their tech stack to reflect the latest and most exciting breakthroughs in custom web app design and development.
We talk a lot about “computer science,” especially at the academic level, but born coders see themselves as artists, with the app interface as their canvas. While arrogance has its disadvantages, there are benefits to the kind of hubris it takes to be a master coder—the same as the hubris that makes a master painter, writer, or musician. You want that kind of passion on your side in the development of your custom web application.
7. They Stick to Project Budget and Timelines
We have touched on this briefly when we talked about flexibility. Within reason, the best custom web application development firms should be able to work with your budget and time frame. We were talking about the planning stages back then, when both the client and the development firm establish benchmarks, agree on deliverables, and set the tone for the working relationship.
Of course, once those expectations are set, the custom web application development team has to deliver on them. If a development project runs well over budget and drags on for days, weeks, or months past the deadline, it can be extremely disruptive to a company’s rollout plan, especially if the plan is seasonal.
So how do you know if a web app development firm will stay on time and on budget? Testimonials help, but it is once again hard to predict the future in this respect. Unexpected setbacks happen to the best of teams.
Again, the safest bet may be to look for a firm that uses Agile methodology instead of Waterfall methodology. Befitting the name, Agile has a reputation for being fast, with the incumbent cost savings that come from being fast. Agile methodology also has built-in efficiencies that help keep costs down. If you have to place a bet on an Agile vs. a non-Agile developer to stay on-time and on-budget, smart money bets on the Agile developer.
Much of the groundwork to keep a development project in line with budget expectations and timelines gets laid early on, in the spirit of transparency and collaboration established in early strategy meetings. Whatever tone was struck, whatever agreements were reached early on, hold your developer to them. Establishing that you expect them to deliver on their promises makes a big difference in keeping a project on track, without unexpected and avoidable setbacks.
8. They Think Beyond Your Custom Web Application Development Project
The best custom web application development firms talk about the future—and not just a future where the web app is done and you and the developer part ways forever.
Remember, the best-case scenario is one where your company scales and grows. This means that your custom web application will need to scale and grow with you. The earliest delivery of a web app may not be able to handle the extra traffic, while an evolving customer base and offer stack may necessitate additional features. New features deployed by competitors may even put pressure on the company to up the ante and do better.
Basically, the job isn’t done when the first iteration of the app is delivered. Custom web applications require ongoing support. Customer feedback will reveal bugs that couldn’t possibly be spotted until the app has reached the hands of hundreds of users. Customer feedback will also reveal missing or deficient features that need to be added or upgraded.
Good custom web app developers think not in terms of projects, but in terms of long-term relationships. This is one of the reasons why Liventus thinks of ourselves as an extension of our client’s team—if we do our job well, we will be on their team for years to come, improving, troubleshooting, and upgrading our handiwork through multiple iterations as our client company grows.
Over and above the need for upkeep and upgrades is the simple principle that a premium service provider should stand by its work, not hide behind excuses. A custom web application developer who envisions a long-term client relationship, by extension, envisions a circumstance where they will be held accountable for what they deliver. A long-term, client-first attitude of continuity is one of the best motivators to do your best work, and talented custom web app developers rise to that kind of challenge.
Custom web applications play many functions within businesses. They can be vectors of customer service and precursors to customer retention. They can streamline operations and make the very task of running the business a breeze. At their best, they are bespoke creations that feel like they were designed to solve the exact problem a business was facing—because that’s exactly what it was designed to do.
Commissioning the development of a custom web app is also a serious undertaking, whether it’s a small business or a big enterprise. In a crowded field of variable competence, it behooves businesses of any size to choose the right provider.
Regardless of who you choose, at Liventus we know from experience that the best custom web application developers are good listeners, responsive to feedback, and aligned with the company vision as if they had been on your team for years.
They are flexible, transparent, and attentive to the budget and timeline allotted to them, often using Agile methodology as a vehicle to rapidly deploy code and receive customer feedback in an iterative, efficient manner.
They are scrupulous about cybersecurity, mindful of the trust of their clients and the existential responsibility they hold in protecting vulnerable actors from data theft.
Last but not least, they are passionate about their work, artists of computer code who love what they do, stand by their work, and approach every project with the expectation that it is the foundation of a long-term relationship—because that is exactly what most custom web applications need from their developers.
Want to talk more about your custom web application development project? Contact Liventus today.