Don’t Let the Website Kill the Party: Part 4, Development for the Rest of Us

6/30/2016

The fourth installment in our series of common ways technology can bite you…and how to avoid them.
 
In the web design/development world, “no coding required” is a phrase that should inspire either joy or dread, depending on who you ask.  But two things are certain:

  • Its a huge benefit to be able to create & manage site content with no coding
  • There will be coding at some point  
Nowadays, if you can click a mouse, you can build a website. Services like Weebly and Squarespace make it possible to create a beautiful site in minutes.  We use templates, themes, and plug-ins to build websites because its fast, but mostly because its free or carries only a nominal cost. 
 
But as we covered in our first installment, free can sometimes be expensive.  In all “WYSIWIG” site builders and content management systems, a ton of complex coding has been done relieving you of the burden of coding.  That’s the good news.  The bad news: you’re in a sandbox.  There are limits to what you can edit.  And in order to exceed those limits, the underlying code has to change.  And at that point, the same complexity that brought you all of those wonderful click-and-drag features now works against you, often turning what would otherwise be simple changes into complex and expensive ones, and exposing you to conflicts created by future software updates.  So trying to reduce or eliminate costs can actually escalate them.
 
Here some strategies to avoid common pitfalls of “no-code” web site platforms: 

1. Understand the scope and limits of your no-code editing tools 

You need to know what you can and cannot change with your content management tools.  This may sound straightforward, but many people overlook this.  Do a demo/walk-through, and see how easy or tough it is to do the following:
  • Create new pages
  • Add columns and rows to a page
  • Add images and videos to a page
  • Edit headers, footers, and sidebars
  • Add widgets from external sources (e.g. a social feed or calendar events)
  • Navigation (can you add a super-menu?)  
This is a partial list; write comprehensive requirements for your site and consider what you need to be able to change in the short and long term.  Find out if it can be changed without coding.  And if not, how tough is it for a developer (ask one).
 
Takeaway:  if you are using any no-code tools, test-drive them extensively.  

2. Make sure coding is easy/efficient 

When coding is required, small differences in tech platforms can translate to more or less coding hours and costs.  Find out if it is easy or difficult to access the code on your website platform.   Again, asking a developer is the best way to determine this, especially if it is a developer in your organization, who is likely to be the one doing the coding.  Some tech platforms do a good job of organizing and exposing the code; others do not.  Make sure your developer can access the logic (functional) code as well as the style sheet (HTML/CSS) code, ideally in separate places.
 
Make sure that the technologies employed are common languages (such as PHP, etc.).  If the platform has obscure or proprietary technology, you may be stuck buying services from the vendor at a premium cost. 
 
Takeaway: assume you will have to change the code, and understand the feasibility of coding in your system and the risks.  

3. Don’t lock yourself in to a theme if you don’t have to 

Don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to an existing theme because of cost.  If you are destined to edit the theme extensively, you may be better off without it.  Many tools have recently emerged to make front-end development much more efficient and inexpensive.  There are now great tools for taking a photoshop (from scratch) page design and converting it to an HTML (web page) file.  There have also been recent advances in prototyping tools.  And finally, many web site platforms are built to accommodate custom designs.
 
All this means that designing a custom (bespoke) site is faster, simpler, and cheaper these days, so if your site or your brand would benefit from a singular look and feel, consider a custom design.  In all likelihood, you will pay a bit more but you will have a unique site and you will still have all the content management bells and whistles you need.  And you may avoid complex and expensive coding required to get the same result by customizing a “free” tool.
 
Takeaway:  don’t use a theme if you think you will customize it extensively.  A bespoke site might be easier and cheaper.  

4. Plan for updates 

When you use content management systems, website themes, and plug-ins from different providers (and you will), keeping your site up to date becomes an important (and often challenging) issue.  Different items update at different times and this can create conflicts.  With open-source software, you often will have no prior warning of updates.  Or worse, the software updates may stop altogether. 
 
Count the number of different developers/providers you are counting on to keep your site working.  If it’s five or more, proceed with caution.  As we have noted in a previous installment, developers, especially those who don’t have large installed bases for their software, will sometimes simply go out of business, leaving you high and dry.  Use tools from developers who have been around for a while and have large installed bases.  Consider buying a maintenance package to minimize the risk of costly downtime.
 
Takeaway:  updates to your no-code tools will create risk of downtime.  Use only battle-tested, broadly used software and buy “insurance” with a maintenance contract.

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