Posted on June 16, 2014
With the remarkable growth in social media, mobile devices and apps over the past five years, traditional websites may seem passé and maybe even a bit quaint and antiquated. But for most organizations they remain their primary digital presence, serve as the home base of their digital networks, and are at the core of their digital engagement strategies.
Given that, a modern, well designed, easy-to-use and easy-to-manage website is critical to establishing and maintaining a strong brand and generating revenue, for both commercial and non-commercial entities. Unfortunately, however, many websites don’t serve their intended purposes as well as they could or should.Particularly in light of the advances that have been made in web design tools (especially content management systems) in the past five years, it’s hard to justify having a site that looks like it was built in 2004 – or worse yet, 1994. Even a site with a 2009 or more recent vintage is probably due for an upgrade.
Lately it seems website upgrades are on a lot of people’s minds. Two of my LinkedIn connections, for example, recently shared Website Redesign: 10 Signs Your Website Needs an Update and Top 10 Tips for Creating a Learning Website. I also came across 9 Simple Tips for Making Your Website Disability-Friendly on Mashable. In addition, two different organizations have reached out to our consultancy to help them upgrade their websites (and interestingly, the primary motivation in both cases was embarrassment).
Website Upgrades: The Essentials
If you’re thinking about upgrading your own website in the near future, here are five considerations that are essential to a successful outcome:
There’s no need to build everything from scratch. Why (re)build a website using HTML, SQL and PHP directly when you can use a platform like WordPress (.org, which is self-hosted, not .com), Drupal or Joomla. All three are great content management systems that can be used to create sophisticated websites. And they’re not just for small organizations and DIYers - many large and well-known organizations have realized the value of leveraging them as well (see WordPress’s showcase for examples). If one of your goals is to have the site maintained (at least in part) by people without strong technical skills, WordPress.org is probably the best option (plus with many hosting services it can be installed with one click). And of course WordPress automatically includes blogging, so you no longer have to worry about maintaining that separately.
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With WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, there are countless free and low-cost themes and plugins available that will enable you to create the functionality you need/want. Themeforest from Envato is a great digital marketplace for finding a theme (most of which are well under $100). They also have Code Canyon and other marketplaces for plugins, images, and other digital elements.
Responsive design is a must. Most organizations don’t need a mobile app, and they don’t need to create mobile versions of their websites. If you employ responsive design, the site should work on a range of devices and environments.Look for a theme that has that. Other state-of-the-art design features include high resolution and retina ready display capabilities.
Make sure the basics are covered. In addition to responsive design, you should look for a theme that offers a clean, modern, streamlined look and feel with good color scheme options, simple fonts, clear layouts, and a balanced use of text and images. Other must-have theme elements include things like:
• Staying current with different versions of the underlying software (e.g., WordPress)
• Maximum browser compatibility
• Clear navigation options, with menu capabilities in both the header and footer
• Sitewide search capability
• Social network integration
You also want a powerful, easy-to-use editing interface. In WordPress, for example, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing is standard with something called TinyMCE. TinyMCE Advanced is a plugin that offers more capabilities, and the Visual Composer plugin is even more sophisticated and useful for non-technical folks. Look for a theme with strong editing capabilities built in, or one that is compatible with a good plugin editor.
Although this may seem like a technical consideration, look for a theme that has the ability to define custom CSS. Most themes come with settings that allow you to customize the look and feel of your website. Occasionally though, there may be an element that does not have setting that can easily be changed. In that case your best option is to ask in the theme developer forums how that change can be made. The best developers will provide a snippet of CSS code that can be placed in the custom CSS section of the theme settings. Very little programming knowledge is required as you are just copying and pasting their code.
Build for today, but lay a foundation for tomorrow. When evaluating website themes, you’ll also want to look for those that have good bones and can accommodate other modules (e.g., ecommerce, private communities). They should also include extensive customization, layout options, and page design features, such as accordions, tabs, galleries, columns, and widgets. Dynamic elements like slideshows and animated galleries are also good (but avoid flash!). You may not need all those bells and whistles at first, but once you’ve completed the initial upgrade you may find that it’s good to have elements that enable you to expand and further enhance your web presence.
As a related point, look for theme and plugin developers who are committed to maintaining and improving their products. This is easy to assess in a marketplace like Envato from the product evaluations, customer reviews,and exchanges in the product discussion threads. A word of caution though: too much continuous improvement can create challenges, not just in terms of having to keep up with regular updates, but also because fixing one thing can break another. Personally, I prefer those challenges (which work themselves out fairly quickly) to the challenges caused by something being out of date or poorly maintained.
Look for a development partner and guide, not a hired gun. Unless you have a web developer on staff, you’re likely to outsource the upgrade project. It’s fairly easy to find people who will build and maintain websites for very low cost, but that’s really only a viable option if your website is simple and relatively static. The more complex your site is, and the more you want to do with it, the more important it is to treat the upgrade as an investment rather than an expense. That means your priority should be to DIR (Do It Right) rather than DIC (Do It Cheap).
Remember that your digital presence is at least as important – and in many cases, more important – than your physical presence, so treat it with the respect it deserves.
If you choose to (re)build your website using a platform like WordPress.org, you don’t need or want an “old school” web designer. Coding skills in particular are not a critical differentiator, and they’re increasingly less important than someone who can quickly understand your organization, your key stakeholders, and your website priorities so that they can be incorporated into the new site design relatively quickly and easily. You will likely have more success with someone who emphasizes content over code, particularly since that person can work fairly autonomously to turn vision into reality.
A website development partner will also strive to empower and emancipate you by providing you with the skills and tools you need to do basic site maintenance yourself (e.g., fixing typos, updating text, adding new images). Though they don’t do it intentionally, many traditional web developers end up holding their clients hostage or being a bottleneck to progress because they must make all site changes themselves. Going forward, you want to be able to handle the basics yourself and rely on your developer for advice and counsel and more complex activities and changes.
Website Upgrades: Final Thoughts
You may find it useful to create a specification sheet to use to evaluate different themes (and theme developers) to ensure you pick one that best meets your needs. Doing so also helps you refine your short and longer-term goals and get a better sense of your relative priorities.
You’ll want to take a similar approach to identifying the plugins you’ll need and evaluating your options. We only addressed a few plugins in this post, but we’re happy to share our thoughts on some of the ones we’ve worked with. If you’d like to see a post on plugins, please add a comment indicating your interest.
As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have and welcome additional ideas and recommendations.