Should You Build Your Own Website?
With so many options available that offer the ability to build your own website, I don’t believe it’s a surprise when we see sites that simply do not perform to standards. We’ve all experienced websites that perform and well… those that don’t. I wanted to take the time to cover why these tools when in the hands of agencies, freelancers and do it yourselfers may or may not give you the performance your website deserves.
This blog isn’t to tell you that you should not attempt to build your own website… you most certainly can. It’s more about how to decide if it’s actually the best approach for your business.
Lets break down a few things that make successful a website:
- Information architecture that is designed around user experience research and data
- A strong understanding of user flows, business goals and overall client demographics
- Clearly defined goals and the path to achieve them
- Strong content that speaks clearly about what pages are communicating
- User interface design that combines bullets 1-4 with a balance that applies business goals with user expectations
- Proper SEO, meta, descriptions, site speed, alt tags, on page SEO and then an evolving SEO content strategy
- A site that implements best practices, web standards and is ADA compliant for accessibility
- Tested and assured for cross browser and device compatibility
That is the core of what separates strong vs weak performing websites and the base that all agencies, freelancers and do it yourselfers should build off of.
There’s a common thread that we have with clients, whether we’re auditing their brand or building a presentation breaking down their campaigns. It revolves around the question of performance and quality, and what are some of the key elements that factor into both.
Well… I like to keep this perspective as simple as possible and I usually refer to two quotes.
“There are many talented individuals, but talent does not necessarily equal experience” and “most tools are limited by the individual using them”. Obviously there are exceptions to both, but in most cases when we review work that isn’t performing well or lacks that level of quality that clients are investing into, it’s either one or both that applies.
This is not meant to be a dig, I get it… we all have to start somewhere. Thankfully there are options to help businesses and designers / developers get over this hump.
We have many online resources, Google it and you will most likely find the answers.
There’s also mentoring, hopefully we can all be fortunate enough to have mentors that teach us and help us grow and evolve at what we do. This approach ensures that Entry to Jr. level positions are working closely with Sr. level positions and growing, all while ensuring the job gets done right.
Let’s recognize the go-getters!
The final piece that we see probably more often than we should… individuals who feel empowered, optimistic and eager to impress… all admirable and commendable. While this approach may work out for a business internally to get around the investment of a professional, or a freelance designer / developer to help close a client on a small budget project. Is it really what’s best for the most important people, the end users?
Let’s dive a little deeper and take a moment to talk about the do-it-yourself website building platforms and plugins and explore what is really behind some of the bad rap they get.
So what are we talking about here?
Well, simply put, advertising and marketing is really no different than any other product or service. You get what you pay for and if you’re paying a lot and not getting it. Well then there is an entirely different issue at hand that requires a different conversation. I want to use this piece to focus on what businesses are not paying for and how it impacts them…and their end users.
The web world offers tools that offer simple to use interfaces. I’m sure you may have heard of Wix, BigCommerce, Webflow, Shopify, Squarespace, along with others; and then there is WordPress which is the preferred platform for most professionals. There are builder plugins that can be used with WordPress that remove the requirement to understand anything related to coding or web standards. Some of the popular ones are Elementor, Divi, Beaver Builder and Visual Composer.
All of the above mentioned use themes that are built on top of the core framework code. Themes are the files where you handle the uniqueness of your site, many are free, many are paid and each is unique in what it comes with as a base package.
Over the past 12 years I have taken the time to learn each of these builders and understand the nuances, limitations and application for each. This knowledge has helped me to develop enough of an understanding that I feel comfortable in my approach to web development and how we apply UX research to our clients designs. It’s also enlightened me and helped me to see the gaps in how not fully understanding them can create real world issues in performance and quality.
Let the debate begin… and probably never end.
There’s a constant debate in the wide world of webbies between developers, designers, hybrids, DIY’ers etc. It revolves around platforms or plugins that offer the ability to build your own website or require you to hire the experience of a professional. A majority of the hardcore coders tend to lean towards the anti-do-it-yourself approach while often referring to anything from coding best practices, site performance and compliance. They’re not wrong per se, while I can’t say there aren’t instances of this happening… I can say it’s not to the extent that they are having a drastically negative impact overall.
I respect the skill set of talented and experienced developers, they read and write code like I read and write simple math. But there is one attribute that coders share with designers… both can be overly critical, overly controlling and over think almost anything. Again, not a dig but a reality that can and does impact processes or outcomes for our clients.
So what’s my view?
Having reviewed thousands of websites, worked with many talented developers and designers and designed and developed hundreds of websites. The one common denominator between them all falls within both of my quotes. When auditing at this level, we need to constantly be mindful of the who, what, how, why and when.
When a site is done well it’s usually the result of talented and experienced individuals who understand the tools they are working with. Again, mistakes will be made by even the best of us, including myself, but these are the exceptions.
You see… a site with slow page load speeds, or bad SEO, or a non-existent information architecture is not 100% the result of the platform. I’ve seen many sites built on BigCommerce, Webflow or Divi that perform very well, are compliant and well thought out.
The issue with both the do-it-yourself and WordPress builder plugins are that they’re designed to be marketed to those who don’t know code or understand the fundamentals to web UX and best practices.
Well what does all of this mean exactly?
Well, when 90% of the sites using these platforms are developed by people without real experience and understanding in web development. That means 90% of the sites you see using these platforms or plugins are going to fall short of the real work that websites need to be successful. This isn’t to say that some of these platforms do not have limitations… they do especially in the areas of customizing to get your site beyond that out of the box feel. But one of the most common misunderstandings among many of my developer friends is that they don’t take into consideration the “who”, even when critiquing a vanilla WordPress site.
Your website is the epicenter of your digital ecosystem!
Social media, search engine marketing, search engine organic, Google My Business, Google Analytics, Search Console, custom events, newsletters, email blasts, promotions etc… they should all be attached to your website.
I always say… “you may know you have a website, but do search engines”?
Website design and development is now a data first approach that takes into consideration UX research, information architecture, content delivery, flows and wrapped in a user interface design that balances client expectations with end user expectations.
If these core fundamentals are not understood and applied by your business on your website and one of your competitors is… then you are already fighting that uphill battle for online presence.
Before you decide to build your own website…
Understand that you will never hear Wix, BigCommerce, Divi, Elementor etc. tell you that just because you can build it, doesn’t mean people will come.
Stop to take into consideration whether or not you understand the fundamentals and how they impact your digital ecosystem. There is no debating the intelligence of search engines and their validation process. While you may have a digital business card that you like, is it really applying the necessary components to fulfill the most important person… the end user?
How we do websites.
Our agency has been using the Divi theme for the past 10 years up to 2019. We’ve recently switched to integrating the Divi Builder into a base starter theme with minimal code and bloat. We chose this path because it offers us a framework of website components and simplifies development processes.
This approach offers us more time to really focus on what and who matters the most. User experience research, strong information architecture, accessibility compliance, site speed, SEO and a unique user interface design that is tailored to a brand and caters to end users needs.
We test our sites extensively and benchmark them against other well performing sites. Thousands of tests have been run testing our approaches to ensure our clients websites fall well within web standards and best practices, page load speeds and scalability that offers easy maintenance and site updates.
Our approach has reduced development time that our team now invests into UX research, design, best practices and fundamentals that offer our clients quality and performance with a unique touch.
We can see that these tools are not the primary culprit of a bad website, it really comes down to the fundamentals and ensuring they’re understood and implemented correctly.
Hopefully you found this piece enlightening… websites have become much stronger tools over the past 5 years and the trends moving forward are pointing towards a more digital ecosystem. This is why we encourage taking these questions into consideration before your next website journey. Having a website experience that not just exists, but competes in the digital world and guides users through a simple and enjoyable interface that answers the questions they’re looking for… is important and worth getting right.
Breaking Down the Costs of Websites
User Flow Strategy
Component & Wireframes
Setting up hosting environments
Preparing for any 404 pages or redirects
Content creation and collection
Credential collection for any connections (Google Analytics, FB etc.)
Preparing for a live push (setting up all connections)
Validating Google Analytics, Search Console, Social Pixels
Testing and Bug fixes
Holy Checklist Right!?!??!??!?!
Building a website is certainly more than a few pretty pictures, some nice colors and cool animations. Having all of those with bad content delivery, information architecture, slow hosting and a poor user interface… only leads to a happy designer, if that.
Building a website experience that end users will appreciate and value, takes research, studies, understanding, patience and time.
Keep expectations in perspective
The expectation of spending $1400 on a Mini Cooper and getting the looks, performance and value of a Ferrari are common in the industry. What I’ve discovered is that nine times out of ten, it’s not because client’s are cheap. They simply don’t understand the entirety of the process and value that comes from it. The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies to website experiences hands down.
The WWW has evolved tremendously, it’s big, it’s somewhat overpopulated with bad examples, it’s competitive and it’s constantly evolving on so many levels.
I get it, not all websites are equal nor intended to be used in the same capacity. Some sites are used as digital business cards for a simple reference point. They have no intent for inbound purposes or discoverability. This is a very small percentage of the website experiences I’ve had the opportunity to design and develop.
The list above give or take some items is a pretty standard checklist. Some items may take longer than others depending on the scope of work.
Small talk with big impacts
I’ve highlighted two items above… hosting and maintenance, 90% of the time clients don’t see these as actual investments.
These are two costs that typically occur monthly, quarterly or annually. Hosting and maintenance are probably the two topics that I get questions on the most. Sometimes it’s full on pushback, mostly due to the costs associated.
The reason for high quality hosting.
Hosting, in its simplest explanation, is the service that hosts your website content to be served to the World Wide Web. Drilling down into hosting, it’s much more than that and has an impact in ways you may not be aware of.
Part of a strong SEO plan is having a website that falls within specific page load times. Page loads are impacted by many variables that I’m not going to cover here. However, the speed of your hosting service, along with the type of hosting plan you’re using will have a positive or negative impact on the speed of your website.
During the onboarding and discovery process, assessments are made of any current hosting plans. Diagnosing whether it provides the services, support and capabilities needed for proper hosting, proper development environments and proper maintenance.
What you spend in high quality hosting services will save you in the long run. It’s never a matter of “if” when it comes to websites, but more a matter of “when”. And when that time comes, having the right hosting in place streamlines the process and reduces the workload and costs per hour associated with repairs.
This leads right into maintenance.
Most websites run on a database, use third-party plugins, require php and require updates about once a month, unless it’s a major push. Then the update should be managed immediately.
That statement alone puts a heavy emphasis on how important it is to keep sites up to date. Having outdated plugins, themes, CMS platforms etc. leave vulnerabilities to hacks and breaches. There are constantly bots and programs running that search for these vulnerabilities and exploit them when they find a weakness. Leaving websites in shambles, databases compromised beyond repair and websites out of commission.
Is this to say that with updates your site is not still vulnerable? Absolutely NOT!
I’m simply stating that these are steps we take to ensure that we are at least doing the most that can be done to protect websites.
The good hosting services are WordPress dedicated hosting. They do daily backups and provide development environments. They allow for maintenance to be quick and painless, turning a traditional cPanel maintenance job into a simple few clicks.
So as we can see… in the long run, as with all other things in life these costs save money and become more than a monthly bill. They are an investment that provides an assurance.
Designing a Balanced Website User Interface
Researching User Experience to Balance Who You Are with What End Users Are Looking For
These times are really exciting in the digital landscape with so many mediums at our disposal. The awesomeness with all that’s available and the data that each provides, to better understand flows and trends about markets. Believe it or not, the foundation to building a strong website experience is supported by extensive data research. Offering the insights necessary to build a user experience and user interface that finds the balance between communicating who you are while offering users a simple, branded content delivery that quickly answers their questions.
The really cool kicker to all of this is the creative ways we can use animations, video, great photography with really well written content to effectively answer questions that consumers are asking about the products you sell or services you offer. Vast opportunities to better communicate with engaging content… content that distinguishes you from the rest of the market.
What are some of the challenges that may come with these exciting times.
Simply answered, the landscape is big! This is not a negative. It’s just a reality. Understanding your users and comparing their trends with data research helps to develop informed strategies. Here comes the buzzword mania… the goal is to develop a website that provides a user experience, user interface design and information architecture that balances your brand with an end user’s expectations and answers questions quickly.
There’s a lot happening in that last sentence. A lot of buzzwords or keywords all related to the industry that might not make sense. I’m going to take the time to define the keywords, explain a bit on how data and research are used and what types of data and what types of research assist with making really good decisions. Then bring it all together to develop a user experience and interface that can really help communicate who you are effectively.
What is user experience design?
User experience or UX encompasses how an end user interacts with all aspects of your business. In website terms, UX design is a reflection of user experience research and data which are combined for a strong information architecture. Delivering content to effectively help an end user navigate through your website and answer questions quickly. UX is not the process of visual design. It primarily revolves around the feel of the experience as a whole.
What is user interface design?
In web terms, user interface design revolves around the process of creating elements both for visual and interactive purposes. Creating a visual guide based on brand standards that remains in line with the rest of a brand that is both aesthetically pleasing and understandable.
Overall, it’s an interface that is creating an experience that’s intuitive to an end user and answers questions quickly and effectively.
What is information architecture?
Websites are puzzles, and information architecture is the process of putting those puzzle pieces together. Primarily focusing on how the organization, labeling, structuring and navigation of items relate to each other within the system as a whole. The overall goal is to help end users find information to answer their questions as easily as possible.
If you’re just doing without really knowing, you may not be failing but you certainly aren’t succeeding.
Now that we have the buzzwords cleared up and you’re feeling up to speed, it’s a great time to say that this stuff doesn’t really just come together. Ultimately what’s happening is you’re investing a lot of time, money and resources into developing a brand that you’re proud of and that also relates to your target audience. The process isn’t to just kind of come up with a couple ideas and say hey this looks right and that sounds good and put everything together. That’s not really how this process works.
Developing a website that speaks to your end users can be managed many ways. Simply taking a few ideas, a bit of instinct, a lot of opinion and topping it off with some creative flair with the expectations of a successful outcome is not a very good recipe.
The balancing act… brand, end users and stakeholders.
A good amount of focus goes into appeasing or satisfying stakeholders of a company and their views or values of how they see their business. Stakeholders are key voices in the process and it’s vital that we work with them to find a balance by taking into consideration how end users see their business.
We need to ensure we are not just satisfying both voices, but validating why we make the decisions that lead to this satisfaction.
What happens when we accommodate opinion over research… a website fails to serve the true purpose. End users are traveling 3, 4 possibly 5 pages deep, they aren’t getting the answers they’re looking for quick enough. All of the time and financial investment ultimately doesn’t provide the conversions expected to get from a new website. A bad user experience, interface design and information architecture have a tremendous negative impact through the entire ecosystem.
The most successful websites invest a lot of time in tracking data analysis and understanding users flows and engagement on their website. The data is compiled to make informed decisions and begin capitalizing on a user experience that’s much cleaner and effective.
What data is used for data research?
I mean Colonel Sanders hasn’t shared his secret recipe… fair to say some secrets will remain close to the chest. That said, there are many tools native to sites and add-ons that provide strong insights into end users and behavior.
When all of the data and research finally comes together there is a much stronger understanding of your end users, your product, your peers and competitors. This offers the ability to make informed decisions and problem-solve more effectively. Strategically create an information architecture that’s clean, simple and to the point. End users visiting your website understand exactly what they’re looking for and you’re telling them where to go to find it.
With all of these pieces in place we now have the ability to focus on content and content delivery. Speaking to who you are, how you benefit an end user and the simplest path to conversion.
The best approach is the team approach.
Working together to empower clients with the knowledge necessary to understand the process, best practices and why specific decisions are or are not implemented. In the end, the goal is an experience that we all grow from, with healthy communication which ultimately produces a website that is fast, accessible and a representation of your brand that an end user finds happiness in using.