Paul Boag on the Future of Web Development for Agencies

“Our day-to-day jobs are soon going to be very different.”

That’s a line I read from Paul Boag’s article earlier this year. He called out a few web design trends he saw happening in 2015, and at first glance, it seemed that web agencies were in trouble—teams are moving in-house? Easy-to-use SaaS products are taking over? The decline of the website? I speculated on how I’d break the news to our near-thousand agency partners who every day make a living by building websites in WordPress and Drupal.

So I hopped on a Skype call with him to ask a few questions. A little background on Boag—he knows his website stuff. He founded Headscape, a digital strategy, design, and development firm based in the UK. He spent over 13 years there, building the agency and learning what he liked and didn’t like, what worked and what didn’t. Now he’s a user experience consultant—he produces a podcast, creates informational videos, and spends time on the speaking circuit helping web professionals deliver fantastic user experiences to their clients and customers.

We delved into some of the trends he predicted, what agencies should expect, what role technology plays, and even what advice agencies should take as they’re just starting out. Read on for some insights into the future of website design and development. 

Agencies will be partners in crime with their clients.

Boag had mentioned a trend of bringing development work in-house. But we see clients investing a great deal of money and time into agencies, trusting them to take on complex projects and manage their web presence. I asked him to elaborate.

What Boag sees is a trend caused by necessity. Websites are extremely important now—and are ongoing projects. “It's rare now to see a complete overhaul every few years and nothing in between. Design is becoming more modular, so you can assemble new sections or functionality on the site like lego blocks. The way websites are built is fundamentally changing.” Because of this, larger organizations tend to bring development and design work in-house. They want the reliability of having developers on hand at any time.

The way websites are built is fundamentally changing.

But that doesn’t mean all agencies are at risk, he points out. There’s often a mix of in-house and agency work involved in a website. He sees companies collaborating closely with agencies for specialist work or big overhauls, but having resources in-house to handle the smaller, more consistent work. There will, however, be shift in what agencies take on. The smallest may have to add services or specialize, while the middle will stay, but might be squeezed. "There’s a big middle market that won’t go away. Then you have the large agencies”, he explained. “They may have to adapt a bit.”

There’s a big middle market that won’t go away. Then you have the large agencies. They may have to adapt a bit.

"I believe agencies should work in partnership with internal teams", continued Boag as he explained his prediction of the agency role. "There are times that they’ll need a fresh opinion, or a project they can't take on alone. We’re already seeing, and will see, a more collaborative relationship there."

SaaS products are abundant, but won’t always meet enterprise requirements.

In his trends article, Boag saw SaaS products taking over a bigger portion of work previously left to specialists. We discussed what that meant for websites—should developers and agencies be wary of or excited about the abundance of applications that make processes “easier”?

SaaS, Boag said, is aimed largely at the bottom of the market—the people doing it themselves. "The very nature of SaaS is aimed at the DIY market. But as soon as you need something more complex—several services integrated together, for example—then immediately you’ll need something more robust.” Because of this, many developers or designers who used to make a decent living creating simple websites for clients are being pushed up-market. They’re having to learn skills that can’t be replaced by tools like Squarespace or Weebly or even more experimental approaches like The Grid. At the same time, agencies at the high end are rethinking their pricing models—a trend Boag says will be tough on agencies catering to middle-market clients.

At a certain point, however, larger organizations will turn to more robust options. In addition to the risk and regulatory issues that can be present with SaaS products, there’s some complexity that DIY products can’t address. Enterprise website needs are more complicated.

Take Nestle, for example, one of Boag’s clients. “Nestle has multiple digital teams. They’re internationally spread. They reuse underlying patent libraries to quickly assemble new pages and sites”. Even enterprises using open source products have complex needs like custom integration and installs or compliance with industry security and privacy standards. In these cases, Boag says there’s still a huge market for agency work.

Sysadmin work will kill your profit margins. Standardization will bring them back.

A major source of time suck and margin erosion is sysadmin work, according to Boag. He was pretty adamant on this: “Drop sysadmin like a bad habit. It’s the kiss of death—dealing with security updates, patches, server administration. Salaries are high these days, and at the same time clients are demanding lower prices. That means the time you spend on sysadmin is hacking away at your profit margins.”

Drop sysadmin like a bad habit. It’s the kiss of death.

“Server admin takes up so much time, and it’s horrible when something goes down,” he continued. “You have to drop everything. And it’s not just the 10 min to reboot a server that you’re losing. It’s very disrupting. You probably lose another hour going back to what you were doing.”

But it’s not just dropping some of the DevOps work that can keep an agency in the game. Boag says standardization will play a big part in keeping agencies competitive. “Standardize, certainly, wherever you can. Get everyone on your team working on the same platform, coding the same way, deploying the same way.” That way, he explained, when someone new needs to pick up a project, they can get up to speed much more quickly. And it doesn’t just apply to agencies—in-house teams need to standardize too.

If you're starting an agency, you’ve got to know your goals.

Boag has a lot of experience running an agency. So I asked what advice he’d give to agencies just starting up today’s changing web design market. Here’s what he said:

#1: Learn on the job before going off on your own

“Don’t go straight into running your own business”, Boag advised. He suggests going to work for someone else first to learn a few things.

#2 Know how to sell yourself

“You can be the best developer in the world, but you have to know how to sell yourself. Sales and marketing is hugely important.” Boag explains that often, developers transitioning from an agency think they’ll be making the hourly rate themselves—that they’ll be making a lot more. But the reality of it is that half of that revenue from billable hours will go toward overhead and non-billable work. “You have to be very committed to selling yourself and building your business. Just being a great developer won’t get you any business."

#3 Ask yourself why you want to grow

"Everyone thinks they need to grow”, said Boag. "But you should ask yourself why. There’s the business where you’re growing it to sell it, and then there’s the lifestyle business."

Boag explained that most developers start their agencies to improve their lifestyles. But over time, the business gets out of control. It becomes its own entity, and often the owners find themselves spending all of their time “feeding the monster”, as he puts it. "Taking on more and more isn’t necessarily the way to improve your lifestyle. We grew our agency up to 20, and it sucked, frankly. I spent a ton of time on overhead—it wasn’t what I wanted. It’s easy to forget what we’re trying achieve."

For agencies who do want to grow, they need to find a way to maneuver a changing market, overcome inefficiencies in workflow and project management, and embrace technology that lets them play to their strengths and specialties. Boag believes the that the most successful agencies will be the ones who embrace change—adapting quickly and collaborating with their clients.


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What does it all mean??

By the end of our conversation, Boag’s insights had me confident that, in fact, our agency partners are doing it right. They're designing and developing websites with all of his predictions in mind:

  • They’re using collaborative tools to work closely with clients. They’re embracing things like ongoing support revenue for special projects, or big overhauls that are handed off to in-house developers until the next big feature is needed.

  • They’re embracing best-practice workflows that won’t be confusing to new developers joining their projects. They’re pushing code fast, iterating like truly agile teams and getting clients the features they want without breaking the bank.

  • They’re using open source—Drupal and WordPress—to lower the risk of lock-in and unfamiliarity with proprietary systems that make clients nervous. They’re concerned with security too, building client sites on infrastructure that doesn’t let human error put them at risk.

  • They’re not sending their developers to the trenches by putting them on-call for server maintenance. In turn, their developers are happier—the get to build cool features for their clients instead.

  • They’re standardizing. We’re seeing more and more agencies use our platform for all of their client sites, and it’s building up their profit margins.

Web design and development is fundamentally changing, that’s for sure. Agencies won’t all find success with the same strategy, but these underlying themes seem to apply to a large percentage of them. We expect, and I suspect Boag would as well, that many of our agency partners have an exciting road ahead of them as the market evolves.

To learn more about the future of web development, download our eBook, Hosting Is Dead.

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Topics Agencies, Agency Partners, Digital Agencies