12 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a DTC eCommerce Development Agency

There’s a long list of reasons why the design and development (UX/UI) team that built the first version of your site, won’t be the team that takes your brand to $20 million, $50 million, $100 million, and beyond.

Maybe it’s because their skillset was best suited for your get-up-and-running early days rather than the strong and sustainable growth you need now. Perhaps you hired them because they were within your budget and could get the job done (sort of), but they’re not a highly regarded team in their field.

Maybe you’ve been juggling two separate agencies for UX and UI, but you’d prefer the seamless integration of getting both needs met by one coordinated team. Or maybe you went the in-house designer and developer route and found that it’s just impossible to retain talent that grows and excels.

Whatever your situation may be, that doesn’t change the fact that different teams are needed for different stages of business growth. Here at Anatta, we’ve been in the DTC industry since our founding in 2008. For over 15 years, we’ve worked in the eCommerce space — and by this point, it’s safe to say we’ve seen it all. And unfortunately, that means we’ve seen a lot of brands struggle to find a traditional UX/UI agency that meets their needs.

So, to help you avoid lots of frustration and to keep your business from losing time and money, we put together an article that covers the most important questions you should ask a prospective agency before you bring them onto your team.

Key takeaways:

  • UX/UI agencies can offer wildly different levels of quality in their work. And even the most experienced UX/UI agencies might be using outdated models of user behavior or design techniques. To succeed in DTC eCommerce today, you need to make sure your brand is partnering with a team that can best suit your needs right now — as well as someone who’s also considering the long-term implications of their workKeep this list of questions with you for reference as you’re vetting potential agency partners.

Best-in-class UX/UI is Like Oxygen for DTC eCommerce Brands (Why Your UX & UI Matter)

The customer experience of your online store is the lifeblood of your brand. Simply put, your success in eCommerce lies in how well you can design and develop a consistently pleasant shopping experience.

That’s because your store’s UX design creates a foundation for the conversation between your brand and your customers. The difference between a user-friendly storefront and a novel one is like the difference between having a conversation with someone in a calm coffee shop versus a crowded, noisy music venue. Which place is more appropriate for a good conversation?

To give you an idea of just how much your user experience matters for critical key performance indicators and long-term success, take a look at some of these insights:

  • Site speed, which is part of your online store’s user experience, impacts your search engine rankings and conversion rate. Google found that a user is 32% more likely to bounce from a website that loads in 3 seconds than a site that loads in one second or less.

  • ThinkWithGoogle discovered that 89% of mobile users would likely recommend a brand to a friend or acquaintance after having a great experience on the brand’s mobile site.

With all of this in mind, here’s a list of our top 12 essential questions you should ask before you hire a UX/UI agency.

1. What UX Certifications Has Your Team Achieved?

Many people have become great designers and coders in their high school bedrooms. So do certifications really matter? The short answer is “yes.” Certifications matter.

In particular, two UX certs stand out above all others in the industry — the certifications from the Baymard Institute and the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g). 

Nielsen Norman Group

NN/g was founded by two of the most distinguished UX experts in the world, Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen. Don Norman is notably famous for coining the idea of “user-centered design,” while Jakob Nielsen developed widely used usability heuristics.

As a UX research company, NN/g studies real user behavior on a yearly basis. New case studies and research are published and updated consistently by NN/g to keep up with the latest shifts and technology trends. And all of their studies have large sample sizes to help ensure the highest degree of accuracy.

While NN/g focuses on general UX principles, they’ve emphasized eCommerce user experiences over the last several years. This means any UX/UI agency in DTC eCommerce should reference NN/g’s research as a foundation for their design work.

The Baymard Institute

Baymard is a web usability research institute based out of Copenhagen, Denmark. Their research methodologies are built on academic principles. Their case studies are translated into actionable articles, reports, and benchmark databases. Among their research, you can find in-depth analyses of major eCommerce stores and their features weighed against proven UX design best practices.

The Baymard certification is one of the most challenging tests for UX designers we’ve seen in the industry — you’re only allowed three attempts to pass, and many don’t.

But every member of the Anatta UX team must obtain both the NN/g and Baymard certification before they can be deployed to a client project. That’s how much confidence we have in the validity of Baymard and NN/g’s research. These two institutions set the gold standard for UX research, and any agency that leverages their expertise is an agency that uses data-backed principles in its work.

So, when interviewing an agency, confirm that the whole UX team has achieved these certifications, not just the department head or a few seniors. You want to partner with an agency that genuinely understands the importance and value of user-centric eCommerce store design (i.e., higher conversions, AOV, and LTV).

2. How Do You Prioritize Mobile Experiences?

We mentioned earlier that 89% of users would recommend a brand if they had a great mobile eCommerce website. With 59.16% of all global online traffic happening on smartphones, modern mobile UX is more impactful than ever.

In 2023, consumers have no patience for poorly designed mobile experiences. Designing UX solely for desktops will tank your customer engagement. Plain and simple. Mobile phones are only going to become more and more prevalent over the next few years (7.8 billion mobile phone users by 2028, according to Statista). If you don’t have a great mobile experience now, you’re going to fall further and further behind.

Ensure your hired agency takes a mobile-first approach in their work or move on to an agency that does. At Anatta, mobile UX is always our first design priority. Over the years, we’ve just seen too many great brands leave money on the table due to poor mobile UX. You don’t want to do the same.

3. What is Your CRO Approach? 

There are a ton of opinions out there on conversion rate optimization testing strategies. But some of those opinions will significantly impact your costs as a business. When it comes to CRO, it’s absolutely essential to weigh the cost of an A/B test against the returned value that the test can deliver.

All too often, an eCommerce agency will pitch your brand on running hundreds of A/B tests with the promise of noticeable results. But that’s not the reality. Regarding A/B testing specifically, you’re much more likely to see incremental increases than giant leaps in conversion rates. Therefore, the actual opportunity your agency is testing for is far more important than running a bunch of tests on tiny changes like button colors or different copy.

Think about it like this: would you rather dedicate as many resources and as much time as possible to finding a winner in a $100,000 opportunity, or dedicate your attention to an opportunity worth $5 million instead?

That’s why Anatta runs a different CRO program than most eCommerce agencies. It’s in the best interest of your brand’s growth to find opportunities that will actually make a measurable impact on your ROI.

In our experience, hundreds or thousands of tests on small changes like button colors or tiny copy changes have yet to create worthwhile value for our clients, and the tests for these changes don’t pay for themselves. So before you partner with any agency for CRO work, fully understand their unique approach.

What Factors Do You Consider When Developing Conversion Rate Optimization Tests?

Likewise, consider how an agency develops its CRO tests.

The typical metrics you’ll probably hear mentioned (conversion rates, AOV, click-through rates, bounce rate, or time on site) only provide one part of the bigger picture. These are quantitative metrics –- they tell you what’s working or not working. 

But quantitative data doesn’t tell you WHY a feature or design shift failed or was a success. Instead, you need qualitative metrics like customer interviews, post-purchase polls/surveys, and user testing to understand the ‘why.’

You want an agency that actively prioritizes both data sets when considering what to test, so you don’t waste money on a test that rudimentary data analysis would have shown was pointless from the start.

4. Where Do You Source Your Qualitative and Quantitative Data?

We mentioned two of the best sources for data above: Baymard and NN/g. These two companies set the gold standard for UX research and direct-to-consumer data. But there’s another source we recommend.

While they’re not a research firm per se, we’ve found CXL’s best practices summaries and tips to be in a class of their own. They focus on conversion optimization with data-driven marketing training and offer some of the most in-depth marketing, analytics, and optimization content on the web.

Of course, there are exceptions and outliers, but by and large, the data and analysis from these sources continue to be irrefutable, no matter what industry or product category you’re in. CXL’s findings are based on real users, actual behavior, and verifiable metrics. If an eCommerce agency isn’t constantly referring to research-based data sources, proceed with caution. 

5. What Type of UX Framework Do You Use to Go From Ideation to Completed Feature?

The first question to ask here is whether the agency even has a UX framework at all (many agencies don’t). If not, you should stop right there. That’s a huge red flag.

If they do have a framework, ask for details because there are a lot of frameworks out there, like Lean UX methodology, for example. You need to know which framework they use and, even more importantly, ask for specifics on how that framework was used on a previous project. Because an agency’s UX framework will influence both delivery times and the quality of the work delivered.

Here’s another detail we highly recommend: Find out if their designers start with a sketchpad. Yup, old-school pen and paper. Starting with rough paper sketches helps eliminate wasted hours on multiple design iterations. Only after getting your approval of a paper sketch should designers begin investing the time required to build LoFis and HiFis. 

Lastly, the framework must include a style library or component library. This makes creating HiFis way faster and speeds up development by over 50%. 

To use as a reference, here’s our UX Framework at Anatta:

  • Style Library: Our UX/UI Team puts together a style library for every brand we work with. A style library contains UI & UX elements that are on-brand, and that can be used as building blocks for larger design work. You can think of a style library as a database for your brand’s visual personality.

  • Component-based design system: Building out a style library allows our designers and developers to expedite the development process of UX design projects drastically. By leveraging reusable components, a UX/UI agency can create web pages much faster, and achieve a higher level of design consistency.

  • Sketches + Lo-Fis: At Anatta, our design team always begins design projects with sketches and then moves on to Lo-Fis. Sketching and Lo-Fis help speed up the design process by helping you get your eyes on design concepts within hours, not weeks.

  • Mobile Hi-Fis: Mobile experiences are Anatta’s first design priority. In this stage of our UX framework, our clients receive a functional mobile site design prototype that can be interacted with.

6. What type of UI Development Frameworks Do You Use to Build and Style Features?

All Shopify stores are not built equally. You can tell a lot about a store’s theme by noticing how fast it performs, how quickly features get built, and how seamlessly pages work together. 

The HTML, CSS, and JS frameworks matter, so you need to confirm: first, that a framework is being used and, second, what the benefits and drawbacks of that framework are.

Anatta’s UI Development process:

  • Our UI developers work in VueJS/ReactJS frameworks, including Redux for state management. We also leverage Axios for HTTP request execution.

  • We use NextJS/NuxtJS for built-in-server-side rendering and Next/Nuxt Router for client-side routing. Redux, Vuex, or React context API libraries are used for state management.

  • Anatta’s development team also uses SCSS instead of CSS because SCSS offers greater customization, modularity, and features.

Beyond frameworks, our development team always follows best practices for coding, like “Don’t Repeat Yourself,” which helps us streamline our client’s development process in the future with reusable code.

When it comes to UI development, make sure that your agency is thinking about the long-term impact of their development work. Ideally, your agency should strive to make your development process easily scalable for future projects.

7. How Many Other Clients Will My Assigned Designers and Developers Be Working On?

Our clients have told us horror stories about rarely seeing their past UX team or only being “allowed” rushed conversations with the developers from their previous agency. Believe it or not, that’s common with traditional agencies. Agencies will routinely split their staff among more than one client. This means you’ll have a more challenging time getting project updates, providing feedback or concerns, or knowing who’s actually working on your brand.

And if the designers and developers assigned to your brand are also working on clients other than you, what does that mean for the amount of time and energy you’ll be getting?

Ask for specifics on how the agency operates to get a clearer idea of the quality of work and the delivery times you can expect. Understanding the agency’s working model can also help you determine how much communication will occur between you and the agency’s team.

8. How Will I Communicate with The Team Members Your Agency Assigns to My Business?

Getting in touch with the team working on your project shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth. And who wants to be in the dark when it comes to their business?

Here are a few specific questions to ask about the agency’s communication style:

  • “Will I be added to your internal project management software so that I can see work in progress in real time?”

  • “Will I be able to meet with the entire agency team weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly? How long will those meetings be, typically?”

  • “Will there be a shared Slack channel for quick communication?”

9. Are There Scheduled Check-ins and Deliverable Reviews with Directors of Departments? Will I Have Access to Senior Leadership?

If senior leadership is out of reach, that’s a problem. These are the people who guide strategy and manage the workflow of your project on a daily basis. 

Instead of settling for short “How’s it going?” catch-ups on the odd call, we highly recommend selecting an agency that schedules at least monthly meetings with all department heads. You should also have quick email and Slack access to these people whenever needed.

In short, senior leadership can provide a critical perspective on your project and direction and help you find blindspots before they become an issue. That’s why at Anatta, each of our clients has fractional access to our team’s deeply experienced senior leadership. We highly recommend you partner with an eCommerce agency that offers the same.

10. What Happens in An Emergency? Who Comes to The Rescue?

While the eCommerce world isn’t brain surgery, urgent things do come up. Your site can’t underperform in any way when you’re driving tens of thousands of dollars in ad traffic each day, or you’re in the middle of a huge influencer campaign. The last thing you want to happen is to have your website go offline or your checkout stop functioning during a high influx of visitors.

So, you should be clear on exactly who your 24/7 contact person is and how to reach them to address time-sensitive concerns immediately. 

11. How Does the Agency Bill You? What is The Real Cost of Their Services?

The way agencies bill their clients is not the same across the board. Therefore, an agency’s billing structure can also reveal a lot about their incentive for working with you.

For example, hourly billing can mean that an agency’s services are incentivized by how many hours they put in. And when more hours = more revenue for the agency, your project could end with insertions you only learn about once the engagement is slated to end. In our experience and the past experience of our clients, an agency’s initial price estimation is not always the actual cost of their services.

On the other hand, if you go the monthly route, check references to know what approximate output you can expect per month. Also, try to get an idea of how often a project will carry over past the agency’s proposed timeline and why a project may need to be extended.

Our best recommendation when it comes to pricing? Partner with an agency that offers a retainer-model price. A flat retainer cost can be more transparent than an agency that charges solely by the hour. At Anatta, we’ve found that by offering a retainer price, we can prioritize your brand’s most urgent work while also having the flexibility necessary to shift priorities as needed.

12. Is QA Included?

You might be surprised to learn that many agencies either don’t provide QA, or provide it but then tack it onto your next invoice. Some agencies will also expect you to do QA yourself — for their work. In addition, most do not do regression or functional testing per deployment, both of which are outright vital to the success of each deployment.

If you are in conversation with an agency that does include QA, confirm whether other designers and developers are doing the QA, or if they have a department solely for this purpose. The meticulousness of dedicated QA experts is hard to match.

Closing Thoughts

The partnership between a brand’s internal team and their UX/UI agency is a crucial success component. Making an informed decision about an agency begins with understanding exactly how the agency operates as a business and how they approach working partnerships.

In the best-case scenario, your UX/UI agency will practice transparency, listen and address your concerns, be super easy to reach, and help you increase sales. But finding the right agency will require you to put in a little work. Start by researching their past client work, connect with their past clients if you can, and keep the questions we’ve highlighted above within arms reach.

While vetting potential agencies can feel exhausting and frustrating at times, doing your due diligence will help ensure your business finds a reliable agency partner.

Anatta Offers Game-Changing Partnership to DTC Brands On Their Journey to Scale

For the first few years of our history, Anatta operated just like a traditional eCommerce agency. But as the DTC industry evolved and changed, (and continues to evolve today), we quickly realized that the traditional way of operating led to a lose-lose scenario for both agencies and their partnered brands.

That’s why we restructured our working model to instead offer our clients dedicated product teams with experienced eComm executives at the helm.

Our team can help your brand:

  • Uncover valuable CRO opportunities

  • Help your brand make an informed decision about your goals, needs, and roadmap

  • Enhance the performance of your eCommerce website for incredibly fast load times, and build back-end systems that enable your website to scale with your brand

  • And more

Learn More About Anatta’s Services

  • avatar
    Nirav Sheth
  • Nirav is the CEO and founder of Anatta. Nirav received his engineering degree in 2006 from George Washington University. Prior to Anatta, he served as founder of Dharmaboost, a software company working with Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, and New Leaf Paper. He is also cofounder of Upscribe, a next-level subscription software for fast growing eCommerce brands.