Ah, wireframes. The glorious process where designers get to demonstrate that they’re visionaries by making quick sketches—sometimes on an actual napkin—of what the Home page will look like, and usually a second-tier page or two. Stakeholders participate by saying “a little to the left” or “what if that row has four images instead of three?” After 90-120 minutes of idea slinging (not including travel time) everyone feels smart and creative, and the designer has a milestone achieved: signoff on the concept. Traditionally, this gets transformed into slick Photoshop comps, which are in due course sliced up into HTML/CSS templates.
In today’s development environment, that whole three-step process is pointless
Specifically: it’s inefficient, inauthentic, and wastes time and money. Years ago—when everything had to be coded by hand and from scratch, and changing a two-column layout into three-columns meant hours of code-wrangling, then hours more of tedious testing—it really was a good idea to make sure everyone was on the same page before
carving stone-tablets building the sacred templates. But now the tools are so good (in WordPress, anyway) that this kind of change takes seconds and usually requires minimal testing.
What I do instead
It’s obviously a good idea to have signoff on templates for each unique display concept before populating an entire website with content. The difference is that I build the prototypes with working web pages, using actual content if it’s available. If it looks good (this happens about 90% of the time) there’s usually a bit of fine-tuning, and then we’re done! This saves the client many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of delicious green dollars.
“Whoa! Yikes! Whooaaaaaaa!” the old-fashioned designers are now saying, “what about the other 10% of the projects? Sounds like a recipe for blown budgets and frustration to me. Wireframes prevent that.”
Again, this was a valid point years ago when template construction was hard. Now it’s so easy that in these 10% cases, I can usually process client feedback and whip up alternatives within a few days. Again, these aren’t just concepts—they’re working web pages! And again, when these are okay, we’re done, no multi-week process of creating real software from models. In the small number of cases where the second round isn’t quite right, I’ve sometimes met with a client face to face and made multiple rapid iterations while we work together, sort of like moving furniture around in a living room. This inevitably works, and the clients I’ve worked with this way have always been thrilled with the level of control they have over the process and the final results.
No napkins, no Photoshop, no waste. It’s 2017, learn to love it.
This may seem redundant to with the other two concepts on this page, but it bears repeating: for the foreseeable future, WordPress will be the dominant publishing platform, and it’s hard to make a case for using other software for most small- to mid-sized organizations. Here’s why in a nutshell:
- Inexpensive DIY site builders like SquareSpace or Wix are painfully limited in functionality. It’s easy to build something appealing quickly, but all but the most basic users will quickly outgrow their feature set. If these platforms do exactly what you want, you should use them. But once you’ve thought it through (or built one and experienced the frustration of trying to do anything even slightly out of the box), you’ll realize that you have to start over with something better.
- Industrial strength CMS/frameworks like Drupal or Joomla (Drupal’s ne’er do well cousin) are too expensive to develop and too complex for nontechnical folks to use. Drupal, and to a lesser extent Joomla, are good tools, but they’re overbuilt for most small businesses that don’t have extremely specific and customized data-handling needs. If you have budget in the mid five figures or higher, these may be a good choice for you, but you’re probably not about to hire me anyway!
- There are lots of bespoke CMS options out there, but they all share the same risk: potential obsolescence and extinction. There are a few high-end website designers/developers I respect immensely who have very particular tastes in web platforms. Some of these are great tools, and these developers can make them dance. But if they only power a few thousand websites, the companies that make them could easily: lose interest and stop maintaining them; be purchased by a big horrible company that immediately ruins the product; be unable to adjust to a disruptive new technology. These are just a few of the obvious problems with specialty products, and I’ve seen it happen again and again over the course of my career.
This means that among the many WordPress developers out there, it’s important to choose one with deep experience and familiarity with the best way to get things done.
The advantages I offer over other WordPress designers are:
- Having built lots of carefully-crafted sites over the years, my core installation is heavily modified to start with a solid and advanced feature set and configuration. All WordPress sites are not conceived equally. I understand the best theme(s) and plugins to use for the most common applications, so I have well-honed shortcuts to get up and running quickly with minimal research.
- With an educational background in fiction writing and decades of experience working with artists, fine craftspeople, entrepreneurs, and other creative people, I’m not just a techie. I use well-proven tools to express a creative and intellectual side that’s older than the Internet. It’s not just solid code, it’s inspiring ideas.
In the early 2000s, when WordPress was in its infancy, the only mature software for content management on the web was expensive and complicated, suitable mainly for giant corporations and other enterprise-level customers. Most websites at that time were either hard-coded HTML sites that were appalling to maintain, or they were primitive content management systems (CMS) invented by creative software developers who knew they needed something better and tried to build it themselves.
I was one of the many who worked to co-develop a system that would handle data instead of just pages, separated content from layout so entire sites could be redesigned without have to be rebuilt, and all the obvious reasons to build what we now know as a CMS. Those sites were exciting and satisfying to work on, had high budgets that kept the bank account healthy, and I was proud of the results, given the rudimentary web tech of the day.
As cool as those bespoke websites were, almost all of them have been replaced—mostly by WordPress websites with more features, a better user experience, and a much smaller budget. This is because:
Most websites do the same kinds of things as other websites
and this means that it’s not necessary to reinvent everything from scratch with each website. It hasn’t been for a long time now. It’s certainly possible to create everything to your exact specification, and there are some very talented web designers/developers out there who do exactly this. The results are often wonderful, but those projects can easily cost 5-10 times as much as a similar site that I build with similar features and level of design polish. Leveraging readymade tools available through WordPress has allowed me to cut costs without making noticeable sacrifices on the end product.
Here are some features that could easily cost thousands of dollars each if developed through a traditional planning/design/development/testing cycle:
- eCommerce: any online store or financial transaction that requires a shopping cart, user accounts, online payment, notifications and followup, etc.
- event calendars and timetables: two different tools that organize programs and events and make them easy to visualize. may contain registration/booking component that allows people to sign up and pay for events, automatically notifying visitors when the event is at capacity and can’t sell any more tickets.
- galleries, portfolios, and slideshows: display images/videos and projects in attractive formats that are easy to navigate. may include templates for recurring types of content so it’s easy to fill out and display in a standardized format for consistency across the entire website.
- search and navigation components: make it frictionless for site users to find what they’re looking for quickly.
- search engine optimization modules: tutorials that walk you through the process of creating content that’s readable by humans and easy for search bots to index.
- feedback and reply forms: gather information from your visitors and either send it via email for rapid response or plug it into a database for ongoing analysis.
All of these things used to be complicated and created individually, and many developers still keep recreating them through laborious processes—either out of habit, pride in craft, or some other reason. To me it translates into large numbers of billable hours that rarely result in something demonstrably better than a carefully implemented and polished readymade module. Needless to say, there are many common website components not listed above, but guess what: the ones you’re thinking of probably exist too.
The biggest milestone in a website development project: launch day. This is when a site has the potential to take your project or business to a new place—or it could be the last day your site was actually good.
I’ll be blunt: many websites that are beautiful, intuitive, and effective when the designer hands them over to the client become clunky, awkward, and flawed afterward. The strength of the design may be apparent, but all too often sites decline slowly into looking like a grand old house with beautiful bones, but grotesque renovations in the 70s and 80s that make them superficially awful. This may be because the clients: