1. Do You Need a Web Designer or a Web Developer?

    I get this question every once in a while – and some people don’t even realize there is a difference! Sure, ‘web designer’ is a pretty generic term, or is it? Here’s how the word ‘design’ is defined (the verb):

    design definition

    To translate this to website design: a designer conceptualizes the look & feel of a site, then hands it over to a developer to build. So, the essential roles are this: A web designer comes up with the graphics, the layout, the where and how of the site, and the web developer writes the code to make it all happen. If you have a design, or someone that is going to design the site for you, then you probably need a good developer. On the other hand, if you have someone who writes great code, but can’t draw a stick-figure, you probably need a good designer.

    Can’t you just do both?

    Sure, some folks do both – design and development, but there is usually a division of duties on larger projects as doing both can become daunting. Having a person (or persons) dedicated to each role can help a project stay on schedule and keep decisions from having to fall on one person. That division of labor often makes for a better end result. A good designer will often push for something that a developer initially thinks he or she can’t do – and if the decision was solely theirs to make, the feature would often be skipped, at the expense of the overall site design and/or function.

    Do I really need a designer for a small business website?

    Yes. Maybe that designer is also the developer, but you definitely need someone with a sense of design, both aesthetically and functionally. Aesthetically for the overall look and design, functionally for how the site ‘flows’ and presents the information. Many times a business owner will hire a developer to build their site ‘because they can build websites’ and the end result is well, embarrassing. These days, it really isn’t enough to ‘just have a website out on the internet’ – you really need to make a good first impression, as most people’s first look at your business is via your website.

    But we can just buy a WordPress theme – Anybody can build a site with those, right?

    No. No matter how ‘simple’ your site is, even with an ‘idiot-proof’ WordPress theme, you are probably going to end up needing a developer either to bail you out of a completely botched-up WordPress site attempt, or at the very least there will be some sort of little change that needs to be carried out by someone with coding experience. Many designers make this mistake – thinking they can just adapt an off-the-shelf theme to the project at hand, but eventually find themselves handcuffed by the theme’s limitations. Hello Real Developer!

    Thoroughly screen your candidates for a website project.

    When you are shopping for a firm to build your website, make sure you ask them up front: “Will you be designing and developing the site, or will others be involved?” If one person is to do both, make sure you see samples of their work where they did the design – not just the development. And if you are hiring a developer, ask for references from designers they have worked with – you need to know if they can work well with others on a project. Also ask them if they will be using a pre-built theme. This is becoming more and more common…so instead of a truly custom-designed site, you’re getting a cookie-cutter template and they may even charge you the same price! Don’t be afraid to ask.

  2. Is WordPress Just for Blogs?

    This is a question that comes up often – “Isn’t WordPress just for blog sites?” The short answer is: No. The more elaborate answer takes us into what makes a good CMS (content management system) platform. This is an issue that comes up for each website project, regardless of the project’s end result. Choosing the right platform can mean either smooth sailing or endless headaches right from the start.

    A CMS needs to be user-friendly

    When starting any web project, the decision needs to be made as to which CMS to build upon. Every developer will have a favorite, and part of the decision should be based on which system best accommodates the project. That being said, I always consider the client’s need to maintain and edit the site once I hand it over. If they can easily make changes and manage the site, it’s a win-win for both of us. If I hand over a site that is complicated and hard to update, the client isn’t happy, and the site will ultimately suffer since nobody will want to maintain the content.

    WordPress as a blank slate

    One of the requirements for any good CMS is versatility. WordPress is built on a codebase that offers a wide variety of functions for the developer to leverage when adding features to a site. Many of the custom-programmed add-ons that would normally require many hours of development time are available in WordPress as ‘plugins’. These save the developer time and the client money…’win-win’ again.

    Many CMS systems have much more built-in functionality than a site may need – we call this ‘bloat’…which can possibly slow down the site’s performance and make things difficult to troubleshoot when things go wrong. With WordPress you have the ability to trim down the functionality for the theme you are building – choosing exactly which features to load and not load, which can speed things up considerably and clean up an otherwise bloated coding environment. The less junk a developer has to wade through to find things, the better.

    So why is WordPress primarily known as a blogging tool?

    When blogging became very popular, developers were constantly getting tasked with jobs that required building a blog platform, often from scratch, or using frameworks that we built for other projects and re-used on others. There was a huge need for a standard, flexible platform that could offer the functionality needed and reduce the time for creating a site. WordPress managed to rise to the top of this heap pretty quickly, because of it’s fairly simple architecture and ability to adapt to the client’s needs. It’s theme architecture also made it easy to change the look of a site while maintaining the core content.

    As the WordPress platform matured, developers quickly started finding that they could use WordPress for other types of sites then just blogs. Most websites have a set of basic functions that every developer will use, from logins and user accounts to email, syndication via RSS, social media integration, etc… Any good CMS will have these basic functions built-in, as well as allow the developer to add custom functionality on top of the existing code without actually altering the codebase. This way the core system can be updated without overwriting the changes and modifications added to it. Plus, the changes will be written in a way that any developer worth his salt can step in and understand the code, make changes or edit as needed.

    This all brings me to my last thought on the matter – will WordPress eventually branch off into a system that is not so ‘blog-centric’? Will developers push to create a system that runs on the same general platform as WordPress, but does not lean towards a blog site? It does seem like a good idea…perhaps there will be two versions, or at least an option within the package that tunes it either way. The future should be interesting indeed!

  3. WordPress – Sites Made Simple – Or Complex

    Wordpress web design - you need it

    If you are looking for a tutorial on how to build a WordPress site, this may not be a great article for you. On the other hand, if you want a quick overview of how WordPress has become one of the web’s most popular site platforms, read on.

    I develop many different types of sites, and my web development background is a variegated menagerie of technologies, all chosen for some reason or another, but the web has come a long way since I started playing around with HTML in the 90’s. In all this time very few CMS (content management systems) have had the impact that WordPress has had, and its appeal to web developers of all skill levels is something unique indeed. WordPress has proven itself to be a solid platform for a site, with the flexibility to run right out of the box with hardly any modification, or undergo extensive custom development and personalization.

    The Hardest Part of a Web Project

    In the good ol’ days, a custom web project required building a back-end system that allowed the non-developer site admin to edit or add content. Creating this system from scratch was a bear of a task, requiring all of the forms, logins, database interactions, error handling and other admin functionality to be designed and coded from the ground up, which took hours and hours of development time. All of the time (and money) was spent building this low-level functionality, while the cool stuff that could have been added to the public-facing web pages was sidelined. This made these types of sites cost-prohibitive for small businesses and only available to large corporate firms or other deep-pocket clients. Well, systems like WordPress have changed all of that. Not only is the core system free, most of the add-ons available are free and offer solid solutions to most any website requirements like mailing list signups, social media integration, video and audio presentation, and much more. All of the low-level stuff is built-in! No need to hire a team of developers for 300 hours to build a bunch of stuff nobody will ever see. This brings us to the next question…

    Why is WordPress Free?

    WordPress is an ‘Open-Source’ piece of software, which means it allows users to access the core code and modify it or develop their own contributions to it freely. But wait, you say—Anyone and everyone can access the files on my site and change them?? No…it means the software, once in a developer’s possession, can be modified and customized as needed for THEIR application. The core code of WordPress is maintained and updated by the ‘official’ team of developers that contribute to the project. All changes to the core are evaluated and verified before they make it into a ‘release’ or update of the core framework. This keeps the system more secure and up-to-date since there are thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of expert eyes on the code. Any weakness or inefficiency in the code is sniffed out and optimized. This is a HUGE benefit of the project being ‘Open-Source’.

    So Why Should a Small Business Use WordPress?

    Here is a brief (by no means complete) list of reasons:

    1. It’s Free
    2. It supports user-friendly content edits and updates – it’s simple to update
    3. It has a very flexible and customizable theming system (for visual design)
    4. Most web designers and developers know the system and how to build upon it.
    5. It’s Free (this is worth mentioning twice)
    6. It runs on the most common web server platform (Apache/PHP/MySQL)
    7. There are zillions of free plug-ins and add-ons created by pro developers
    8. It has very good built-in SEO and can be made even better with free plug-ins
    9. WordPress can be custom programmed to accommodate nearly any website requirement
    10. It doesn’t require a huge investment in proprietary hardware or software.

    Why Should a Large Corporation Use WordPress?

    Read the list above – all of those reasons are valid for big companies, but there are some other reasons that may also apply:

    1. WordPress supports ‘multi site’ functionality, or sites-within-sites.
    2. The system is used by many notable companies, such as CNN, Reuters, Forbes, New York Times, Ebay, GM
    3. Sites can grow to hundreds of thousands of pages with no problem
    4. Tons of people use it, and there are answers for most every problem
    5. WordPress sites are more secure than many large-scale corporate systems, and can be made even more secure.
    6. WP offers multiple admin roles, which means varying access levels for different users or departments
    7. It doesn’t require a huge investment in proprietary hardware or software.

    I could go on, but I’m not here to dote on WordPress….well maybe a little, but only because it’s truly a fantastic platform for designing and building websites. From the very simple to the infinitely complex, WP can handle most anything you throw at it, and it just keeps getting better.

    For WordPress development services, drop me an email or a phone call and let’s talk about how WordPress can save you time, money and boost your online presence.

  4. Why Redesign Your Site?

    First off, great websites don’t always start out that way. Many websites go through dozens of revisions before they even get launched. Many internet-savvy businesses keep their site updated and redesign every year or so, adding little improvements each time. On the other hand, some companies rush to get something out on the web, then they neglect it with the attitude ‘build it and they will come’ (regardless of the content and design!) Don’t make this mistake!

    Websites are like fruit – people like them best when they’re fresh

    An old tired website says a lot about your business, at least to the visitor who only knows you from their first visit to your site. After all, first impressions leave lasting memories. It can make the difference between a valuable customer and a lost lead.

    After a site has been up for a while, you are certain to hear some feedback (good and bad) from your customers. Listen to them with an open mind – not that you have to rush to change every little thing one person doesn’t like, but if you hear the same complaints over and over again, you can be pretty sure it’s worth changing. And likewise, listen to the compliments and be sure to maintain the things people DO like about your site. How many times have you used a program or website that was updated and now lacks some convenient feature the old version had? Those people probably weren’t listening to their customers!

    If you let your site just sit on the web and don’t tend to it regularly, it will become stale and your search ranking will plummet. Search engines like fresh content too.

    The Web Redesign Process – Where to Start?

    So where do you start? If you don’t do this everyday, a redesign may seem like a daunting task. Never fear, it just takes some planning to put the right pieces together. First, assess the current site and find the strong and weak aspects.

    Site Assessment Top 10 List

    • Instant Site Identification on Every page
    • Good use of whitespace – not cluttered and crowded looking
    • Navigation is clear and intuitive
    • Site displays on various browsers and screen sizes
    • Contact info is prominent
    • Overall design caters to target audience
    • Fonts are sized and styled to fit the design
    • No reliance on 3rd party plugins or extra software to view site
    • Strong ‘call to action’ used (prompting user to do something)
    • Pages use consistent design and format throughout site

    These are the simplest of issues we want to look for when assessing a site’s design. This is of course just the tip of the iceberg in terms of evaluating a site, but many of the key improvements in any redesign can be traced to one of these 10 items. Keeping your list simple will help keep the redesign effort focused and help prevent things getting bogged down in details that may not add value to the project.

    Old Sites Are Like Closets

    Sites that have been up and running for years without a full redesign can be like old cluttered closets or garages – things are added and piled up, but never taken away. A redesign is a great opportunity to clean out the junk that accumulates over time. Users like simplicity and clear layout, not a maze of clutter. When doing your site evaluation, find which pieces are essential and lose the rest. It probably won’t be missed!

    To sum up, it takes some planning and tough decisions to make a redesign project work, but it is essential to do this regularly. Just letting your site sit on the web will do very little for your business and the ROI can be great. It also shows your customers or visitors that you care about them and their experience on your site.

    If you need some help getting started, contact me today and I will make sure your site stays fresh!

  5. Small Business Website Design and Credibility

    In today's increasingly computer-centric world, many businesses are discovered online first, brick and mortar second. The customer's first impression often comes from how nice a website looks, not how the actual store looks. While this is certainly a new frontier for most business owners, it should definitely be something that is embraced, not ignored.

    The Online Gauge of Trust

    When a potential customer first visits a site, they start with a clean slate of trust—a clear, unclouded opinion of this world they have just entered. As they take in the information and graphic treatments that make up a site, they judge the site's credibility by the presentation of info, imagery, and general usability. If the site is for a photography business and the photo work is second rate, the visitor is immediately going to lose some of that trust. Likewise if the site is for a copywriter and there are misspellings or bad grammar on the site, there is an instant drop in that gauge of credibility. And all it takes is one tiny slip!

    Watch Those Pixels!

    The human eye has an incredible ability to detect spatial alignment. Even the tiniest inconsistencies in typography, graphic elements, or form elements will be noticed by the observant web surfer. Setting proper CSS margins, padding, floats, and line heights are crucial for a designer, not just because it ‘looks pretty’, but because when things are not well styled, the business takes the hit, not the designer.

    As I mentioned, a site visitor shows up with an unbiased opinion of the business behind the site—after a bit of clicking around, how much of that opinion is still positive? How many times did they think “Hmmm…that looks a little Off…”
    Each little moment of “hmmmm…” is a ding for the business.

    form field and buttonWhat's wrong with this form submit button? Even a quick glance and you can see that the 'Password' label is too high in relation to the field, the 'sign up' text is too far down within the button's border, and the button itself is not lined up with the password field above. In other words, a big mess! And that is only subtle alignment issues. Poor grammar and misspelled words look even worse, lowering that gauge quickly.

    Spending the extra time it takes to polish up every piece of type, layout, or imagery on a website can mean the difference between new customers and lost ones. Don't let tiny pixels make a giant dent in your bottom line!

  6. Web Project Planning – Just Do It

    No matter what size a website is, the future success of the site is dependent on how well the site delivers content to visitors, and how pleasant that experience is. A well-planned site is easy to navigate and organized so the user doesn't get confused or have to think (much) to find what they need. A solid project plan is essential for bringing a great site to life.

    What is Involved in a Website Plan?

    Unless you routinely manage projects and have that experience under your belt, planning even a small project can be a dreaded exercise. There are two sides to this:

    1. 1. The Client
    2. 2. The Company or Individual Building the Site

    In many cases, the client is a small business owner with limited time for planning web projects, since they are obviously running a business. That is why they hired a developer, right? They want to be led through the process by an expert with experience. The developer's job is to make sure things are planned and executed correctly and delivered on time.

    The Basic Site Plan

    • Set Goals – What should the site offer?
    • Set Timelines – When should things get done?
    • Assign Responsibilities – Who needs to deliver what and when?
    • Test & Launch the Site

    Set Goals

    At the onset of a web project, the first goal is usually very simple – the client needs a web presence, or needs to revise their current one. Beyond that, there are many specific issues that need to be decided as far as site design, layout, navigation, technology utilized, etc… All of these decisions make up the site's overall focus. The more specific you can get here the better, since a loose, unfocused set of goals can lead to never-ending time lines, indecision, and ultimately a weak end-result.

    Some simple ways to set goals can vary from drawing out a basic plan on paper to using some of the free online tools like Mockflow or Balsamiq, to just using your favorite software like Photoshop, Illustrator, or Visio. Once you have a visual reference for how the site is structured, you can start to see how things are organized and if there are potential problems with navigation or future expansion. Once you have an overview of what the site is supposed to do and how you want to lay things out, you need some deadlines for getting things done.

    Set Time Lines – Solid, But Flexible

    The hardest aspect of many site projects is setting a solid time frame to complete and launch the site. The client has a business to run and is often unavailable when decisions or input are needed, and technical issues can arise that hold up the developer from completing tasks on time. Folks with experience planning projects know that a too-rigid time line is a bad idea waiting to happen, and factoring in some cushion is a skill learned only from that experience.

    A good rule of thumb is to add 20% to a project's deadline, assuming that things will go well. It takes a really honest look at the possible delays and complications, which go with every project. Just make sure there is enough elasticity in the plan to compensate for these delays.

    Responsibilities – Define Who Delivers What

    This one should be fairly easy to define: Who is responsible for providing each piece of content or info? Start with a list of deliverables and assign them to the appropriate folks. Sure, it can get more complicated than that, but even for small projects this can eliminate confusion and unintended delays because someone was waiting for something you didn't know you were delivering! In the planning stages, have each party sign off on the list to make sure there are no issues that may hold the process up.

    Testing – Websites Just Work, Right? Right…

    Oh, how we wish that were true! Testing and fixing errors can actually be the longest phase of a web project. Things like browser compatibility, coding errors, typos, client change requests, and poorly planned web applications will all factor into the testing and quality assurance phase. This can be tough when the client and developer both have small teams and little time to devote to testing, but needs to be a priority with a dedicated time line. If you see a project plan with the building phase quickly followed by the launch, with no testing factored in, chances are someone forgot this most important of all pieces.

    Ideally, testing a piece of software or a website should be done by a team of professional testers, who have a list of activities to carry out, while being observed by a user testing expert. This obviously is not always possible, or within budget. So, you often have to get creative with your test methods. You might recruit your relatives…your kids, your friends or co-workers to try out the app or site, giving you feedback where needed. Sometimes an outside party can bring a perspective you would not have thought about, spawning new ways to solve a tricky problem or finding issues that an expert user would not find.

    This would be a good time to point out that expert users do not make great testers. Why? Because they know how to get around better than novice users…they are familiar with all of the common conventions with apps and websites, and don't get tripped up as easily as a novice user. The site or application needs to be as user-friendly as possible, with the novice user being the target user. You want people to say 'It's so simple even a _______ can use it!'. A good plan for testing and user acceptance will go a long way towards earning you that 'accolade'.

    Embrace the Plan, Check Back Often

    All of this planning and effort can get you started on the right track, but it is also important to refer back to the plan and make sure things are staying on track and the goals are being met. Don't be afraid to revise the plan as well, since unintended circumstances can always crop up, requiring a change of thought, new addition, or modification. Maybe the client decides to scrap the contact form and just wants an email address, or perhaps they want to add a mobile formatted site, or change the look & feel. Get used to incorporating any changes into the original plan and adjusting time lines as needed…the fewer surprises the better!