Web design and development is a balancing act. We want a compelling design filled with meaningful content, but we must work within the limitations of technology.
We designers work with software and code, some of which come with limitations. Some design tasks are fast and easy; others can take hours to implement. As a business owner, you might find yourself making some hard choices about how to spend your resources when it comes to designing, building, and maintaining your website. Do you want a flashy slideshow that features your services, or do you want a secure store where customers can purchase your products online? If your resources are limited, you might have to choose.
Understanding some basics about how a website is developed can help you make better choices and set priorities that are right for your business. Before you get a new website, here are a few things you should know about how it all works:
- Websites run on software. Gone are the days when a web designer hand-coded every element on every page of a website. Now we use software that manages the content while presenting it within a user-friendly design. This software has made the process of building a website faster and easier. For example, in the old days, if we changed a website’s logo, we would have to update the code on every single page on the site. Now we can just upload a new logo image, assign it to the header, and it propagates to every page. It’s a huge time saver. But software comes with limitations — sometimes this means we can’t do something at all and other times it means we can do it, but it will take a lot of time (or cost some money).
- Trends are real. The internet has its own design trends, and your website will look outdated if you don’t refresh your design every few years. Styles often change because new technology becomes available, and occasionally, trends will cycle back around, just like they do in fashion. Keep this in mind when you set your budget for your initial design — you might find yourself redoing the whole thing in a few short years.
- Website designers are not IT professionals. The skills required for designing and building a website are quite different from the skills necessary for managing the machines that websites run on — or the machines that websites are viewed on. The IT side of things is handled by your hosting provider. Most designers can find their way around a hosting provider’s services, but if your site runs into major IT trouble (hacking, malware, slow loading, expired domain), you might need to bring in another professional to assist. This is why it’s important to understand some basics about domain registration, hosting, design, and building a website as well as different areas of expertise in the world of web professionals.
- Design and content are two different things, from a development perspective. Sure, they’re intertwined, but most website software treats them separately. The content is all your text, images, and other media; the design is a set of instructions that tells a visitor’s browser how to display everything. When you ask your designer to move the text on a page, they’re not going to work with the text — they’ll be tweaking the instructions that tell the browser how to display the text.
- Content might not be included. A designer might not offer services for writing copy or creating graphics for your website, or they might bring in other professionals to assist with these parts of the project. Some web developers offer copywriting and custom graphics, but these are all different specialties. Most web designers ask you to provide the content so they can place it within the design. Or you might get lucky and find a web designer and developer who can do it all.
- Things that look simple on the surface can be complicated underneath. When a client asked me to change the size and alignment of a series of text boxes on one page of his website, he thought it was just a matter of adjusting a few numbers in the code. But because this component was placed on multiple pages, changing it in one location would change it in all locations. Rather than taking a few minutes, this project took a couple of hours. Make sure you communicate with your designer about your budget, time considerations, and the ETA for any project. A good designer will explain what must be done so you can understand the time and work involved.
- On the other hand, things that seem complex can be quite simple. A cool feature that seems complicated can be installed in a few minutes with a plugin, or a design change that looks like it could take hours can be completed in a few minutes. Occasionally one of my clients will ask me to add some design element to our list of tasks, noting that it will probably take a long time, so I should make it a low priority, and they’ll be surprised to learn that I can get it done pretty fast. That’s why you should check with your designer about all your ideas, even if you’re not sure whether they’re feasible.
- Some of the bells and whistles that you want for your website will cost you extra. From premium themes to premium plugins, there are lots of ways to spend money on a website. Often there’s a free option, and sometimes the bells and whistles are just an unnecessary cost that won’t impact your bottom line. For example, I often advise my clients to splurge on stock images, because top-notch imagery is eye-catching and looks professional, plus it can be used on the site, in graphics, and for marketing. Conversely, I sometimes advise against spending a bunch of money to launch an online store when the website doesn’t yet have enough traffic to support such an endeavor.
- Standards matter. A while back, Google decided to penalize websites that weren’t coded to display well on mobile phones. Any website that wasn’t adequately coded was demoted in Google’s search-engine rankings, and these websites’ traffic dropped — in some cases, it dropped considerably, resulting in a negative impact on the businesses’ bottom line. Sometimes you’ll need to update your website to conform with these types of standards, which is why it’s useful to have a pro looking after your website on a regular basis.
Ideally, you’ll work with a designer or website manager who can explain these and other issues that arise during web design and development. Make sure you keep an open line of communication with the people who work on your website, and try to take a little time to understand the basics of how it all works. Use your resources wisely and keep the end goal in mind at all times. You’ll end up with a website that looks good and fulfills its purpose, which is to boost your business.
Melissa Donovan is a website consultant and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward and the author of over seven books.