New Option! Medical and Science Website Copywriting

Maven Medical and Science CommunicationsI am excited to announce a new option available with the Start-Up Brand Identity Package. Red Beret Design has partnered with Maven Medical and Science Communications to offer copy writing for medical, science, biotech, healthcare, and life science websites. Now you have a single source to design, develop, and write compelling copy for your science or medical website.

Maven Medical and Science Communications includes principals Maggie D. Holley, M.A., and Jillian Orans, Ph.D. Ms. Holley received her M.A. in science and medical journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked as a clinical communications specialist at the Duke Clinical Research Institute, and as a science writer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Orans holds a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has done postdoctoral research at Duke, and taught in the Duke University Medical Center Department of Pharmacology.

Now you can launch your new medical or science start-up with a strong brand identity and a professionally designed website with scientifically accurate and compelling content.

Read more about:

The Start-Up Brand Identity Package
The Medical and Science Website Copywriting Option
Maven Medical and Science Communications
Maggie D. Holley, M.A., and Jillian Orans, Ph.D.

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Website Development Lessons from the healthcare.gov Launch

healthcare.gov websiteRegardless of your opinion of the Affordable Care Act, it’s hard to avoid the view that the rollout of its website component, healthcare.gov, has been, umm, problematic. Perhaps even a train wreck. Of a really, really, big train. Carrying a lot of people.

I’ve read a number of articles about the usability and technical issues that have plagued the rollout of healthcare.gov. But I’d wager that underlying those issues were problems of project management.

Reading various analyses of the issue (links listed at the end of this post) brought back some not-so-fond memories of working on projects in technology start-up companies that were also poisoned, not by incompetence or lack of resources, but by deadlines that were determined by outside demands rather than realistic project specifications.

The phrase I’ve heard to describe this problem is “It takes a woman nine months to make a baby. You can’t make a baby in a month with nine women.”

In the projects I worked on, the outside demands were either market forces (we need to get this to market before our competitor!) or funding issues (at our burn rate, we need to launch by March or we’ll run out of money!). And those are real issues that can tank not just a project, but a company.

But good luck getting that baby to term in a month because the VP of Sales demands that you Make It So.

Another issue that caused problems with the healthcare.gov launch is “feature creep” (specifically, the requirement that users register before browsing was added “far along in the development process”). Ideally, the specifications for a project are set at the start, and you build to those specs. The only way that the specs change is in response to discoveries during development, e.g, you realize during testing that you need a different server configuration. But you don’t want to add or change the basic requirements once the project is underway.

The last stage of a web development project, prior to launch, is testing. The testing phase is the one that gets squeezed if project delays push up against a hard deadline. So you have the choice of launching something that hasn’t been fully tested, or pushing back the deadline.

links to articles

Here are some links to articles about various (non-political!) aspects of the healthcare.gov launch:

5 key questions await developers of healthcare.gov (From NBC News, a rundown of general project management and technical issues)

IT experts question architecture of Obamacare website (From Reuters, focused primarily on technical issues)

Launching HealthCare.gov (From the blog of Development Seed, the front end developer on healthcare.gov, written approximately 100 days prior to launch)

How We Build CMS-Free Websites (Also from the blog of Development Seed, giving some background on their development tools and philosophy)

Usability of Healthcare.gov — Performance Problems Trump Effective Design (from the blog of Intuitive Company, a Philadelphia company focused on user-centered design. They have a generally sanguine view of the user interface.)

A design critique of HealthCare.Gov (From the digital design department of the Washington Post, a generally critical view of the user interface)

Healthcare.Gov Fiasco Shows the Problems in Federal IT (from the blog Word of Pie, by a developer with experience dealing with Federal IT and procurement. He believes that the Federal IT procurement process is broken, dooming the project from the start.)

9 Things You Should Know Before Debating HealthCare.gov, From Someone Who Actually Launched a Successful Government Website (From Tech President, a good summary of the big-picture issues, and a refreshingly optimistic view of how to do things the right way.

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Introducing the Start-Up Brand Identity Package

The Start-up Brand Identity Package provides the basic materials a new business needs to open their doors. It includes your logo, business cards, letterhead, a website, as well as logo files that you will need for LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. There are options you can add on if you need more website features or marketing materials right at the start.

The Gold Standard of Branding

The $20,000 to $100,000 that a major marketing and communications firm might charge for branding a new company is way out of reach for most entrepreneurs. Which is not to disparage the services that the big agencies provide…if your loan or grant or angel investor will finance that level of service, by all means go for it. But alas, some of us can only afford a Subaru, even though a private jet would get us to our destination so much faster.

Do It Yourself Branding

Many companies try the DIY route, designing a logo using free graphics software and tossing up a website with the free templates provided by a budget webhost. This doesn’t cost money but it does cost time, frittering away hours that would be better spent on your start-up’s core competencies. It’s disheartening to find that the logo looks jaggedy when you print it, or the cheap business cards have the printer’s name on the back, or you’ve spent all night and still can’t quite get the website laid out the way you want. And while you’re trying to figure out some clunky piece of software that you never hope to use again, your product development is neglected.

Cheap Cheap Brand Identity

There are plenty of places where you can have a logo designed super duper cheap. But, to quote the FAQ of one such shop, “We reserve the right to completely overlook your guidelines” (I’m not going to grace them with a link).

Likewise, there are places that will build you a website for a few hundred bucks. These are adequate if you just want to get some information up, fast. They are invariably built on templates, where you simply insert your logo and maybe choose from a half dozen color schemes. The problem is that there is no customization beyond that, and if you want to include some feature that is not available, you are stuck with a website you can’t easily customize or grow. And the same template is probably used by thousands of other companies, so any pretense to a unique brand identity is thrown out the window. I recently saw two competing businesses here in Durham, NC using the exact same website template. You would think they were partners, not competitors.

Where the Start-up Brand Identity Package fits in

The Start-up Brand Identity Package is designed to bridge the gap between Too Expensive and Unprofessional. I provide professional services at an affordable price.

The Start-up Brand Identity Package is not designed to be everything you will ever need for your branding and marketing, ever. It’s designed to be a good start that you can build on as your business grows. Unlike the online chop shops, I spend the time to get to know you, your business, and your business goals. When the time comes that you need more website content, an AdWords campaign, marketing collateral, trade show graphics, etc., I already have a basis of understanding about your business and your brand.

Other Options and Services

In addition to the Start-up Brand Identity Package, I’m offering several options for services you may want right away, such as basic search engine optimization, presentation materials, or training in how to update your own website.

If you were to hire that Gold Standard marketing firm, you would have at your disposal all manner of market researchers, strategists, writers, trademark attorneys, and other professionals. And your fees would be subsidizing all of that high-dollar staff and their Aeron chairs and benefit plans, regardless of whether or not you use their services.

I work with a variety of marketing professionals, writers, programmers, and other professionals who can be brought in on an as-needed basis. Or, I can simply make recommendations of professionals in my network who provide the services you need. I don’t get kickbacks or referral fees. Being able to connect people who can help each other out is one of the benefits of being part of a vibrant creative and entrepreneurial community.

This Could be the Start of a Beautiful Friendship

Here is where I reveal my nefarious plan. It’s true. I don’t want to provide only this one package of services. I want to get in on the ground floor as a trusted partner in helping you launch and grow your business. And if you become so successful that you outgrow my services and move on to that Gold Standard agency, I count that as a big win for all involved.

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redberetdesign.com v.3.0

Image of the Red Beret Design website redesign on a computer screenTwelve days ago, I launched my New and Improved website. It’s been a long time coming. I have a new design, new content, and a great new webhost. I started on this project a couple of years ago, and worked on it in dribs and drabs whenever things slowed down. Like the barefoot cobbler, I had a few blisters on my metaphorical feet before my final push to publish.

The biggest change is the official announcement of the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Even before announcing it on the website, I had booked two packages with start-up companies. One was so successful, they were bought out before the logo design was even finished!

Some of the changes in my website reflect a shift in my business model—incorporating more branding and marketing, and focusing on start-up companies. It reflects a maturing in how I brand my own company as it approaches its tenth anniversary. It also incorporates better techniques for lead generation, of the sort I might recommend should you hire me to design your website:

  1. Design for your audience, not your colleagues
    When I designed the first (2004) and second (2010) versions of the Red Beret Design website, in the back of my mind was how it would be perceived by other graphic designers. I was torn between designing something that looked cool and designing something that was an effective business channel. With this design, I ditched the cool factor entirely, and focused entirely on a clean, clear design of the sort that makes for effective business communication.
  2. It’s about them, not you
    The first Red Beret Design website was basically a portfolio with a contact form. The second had a montage of designs front and center on the home page. The new home page focuses first and foremost on what I can do to help your business. The portfolio links are at the bottom of the page.

    This was another step away from designing for designers. For a graphic designer, the portfolio is the center of the universe. When you are graduating design school, a degree is not enough: your focus is to build a portfolio to demonstrate what you’ve learned. And when you apply for jobs, creative directors and art directors and marketing managers are more interested in viewing your portfolio than they are in reading your resumé.

    Of course I still have a portfolio as a major section of the website. But it’s no longer front and center. It’s there as a demonstration of what I have done for other clients, of the quality and professionalism of my work. But what is more important to convey is what I am able to provide for you, not what I provided for someone else at some point in the last 10 years.

  3. Take expert advice with a grain of salt
    Putting together the Start-up Brand Identity Package—and stating a specific price for it—flies in the face of most of the advice I have received in nearly ten years of running a design business. The expert wisdom is that if you state a price, you are competing on price. And that you need to compete on value. And that you never talk money until the potential customer is so convinced of your value that they will pay anything to work with you, because you are so awesome.

    It is the rare client who says to me “Spend however much time you need, money is no object”. Oh, did I say rare? That’s the wrong word. Nonexistent is more accurate. Everyone is concerned about their budget. Whether the budget is big or small, it’s not unlimited. Clearly stating what I provide for a certain price saves everybody time. If someone has only $500, they know they can’t afford my start-up package. If someone wants a team of designers coming up with hundreds of logo concepts, and months of brand research and focus group testing, they can tell that my process is more limited. But if a start-up company needs a professional brand launch, they can budget under $5k and be up and running.

    I still compete on value. I just do so at a stated price.

  4. Have prominent Calls to Action
    My previous website had a contact form, and had a phone number and email link at the bottom of each page. Now I have a contact form in the sidebar of every page, and a different contact form in the sidebars of the pages devoted to the Start-up Brand Identity Package. This makes it easy for people to initiate contact the moment they decide, but it also makes it easier for me to track my conversions using Google Analytics.
  5. Have lots of search engine optimized content
    One of the nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned about search engine optimization (SEO) is that the best SEO is also good communication for humans. By having a separate page for each service that I offer, I am able to optimize that page for specific keywords. But it also enables me to tell you in greater depth how I can help you with direct mail design, or advertising design, or more about my web design process.

    Keeping a blog, by the way, is one of the best ways to add search-engine-optimized content to your website. Considering that this is my first blog post in eight months, this is another case of the barefoot cobbler.

  6. Don’t use a content slider
    I actually designed this site originally to have a content slider on the home page (a content slider is one of those popular website gizmos where the main image changes every few seconds). As someone who used to do motion design, I guess I just didn’t want my page to be so static. In the back of my mind, I knew it was a bad idea. I’d learned as much when I was art director at a company in the 1990s that tested rotating content in our usability lab. About a week before launch, my husband—not knowing that I was redesigning my website to feature a content slider—railed against content sliders after reading an article about how they don’t work. So I did my own research, and found plenty of evidence from respected usability experts about the awfulness of content sliders (according to leading user experience expert Jakob Nielsen, they “Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility”.

    So I ditched two of the three slides and launched with just the one promoting the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Of course, having a big graphic may just lead to “banner blindness”. I suppose that, being a graphic designer, I just had to have a graphic somewhere on the page. Maybe I need to go back and re-read #1 on this list…

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The Hidden Costs of Open Source Web Design

In a previous post on open source web development platforms, I gave some background about exactly what Open Source means in terms of web design and development. In this post I’ll delve a little deeper into the pros and cons of using and open source web design and content management systems (CMS).

The main attraction to open source systems, for most people, is cost. As in zero. Zip. Nada.

OK, you still have to pay for your web hosting. But budget web hosting starts at under $100 per year.

Once you get your website up and running on your budget web host, you install your theme and plugins (I’m using WordPress terminology here, but the same applies to other open sources CMSs). There are thousands of free themes and plugins, but there are some with more advanced functionality that have licensing fees. These are not going to break the bank, but they can add to the “free” price tag.

Why would you pay for a plugin or theme, when there are usually dozens of free alternatives?

  1. Quality. Free plugins and themes are created by developers for a variety of reasons: as a labor of love, to give back to the community, to learn new skills, to boost a resumé. And although most developers of free plugins are competent, some are not so competent, and their work can be riddled with bugs. Someone who is selling their work as a business has a vested interest in happy customers.
  2. Dependability. For many developers, writing a free plugin is a side project—something they do in their spare time. A new job, a new baby, or simply getting bored and moving on may mean that a plugin is no longer supported. As newer versions of the core software are developed, the free plugin you love may no longer work as the developer does not make the necessary changes for it to keep up with core upgrades. Unless a business goes out of business or discontinues a product, they are likely to do their best to keep it current.
  3. Ease of use. Many plugins are easy to use as a tricycle, which is one of the aspects of open source web development that is so exciting to a web designer. But some plugins still require a greater knowledge of HTML or PHP than your average user is likely to have. Businesses—the successful ones, at least—know that their customers are not likely to be fellow engineers, and will go out of their way to make the software user-friendly.
  4. Documentation. Plugin developers are focused on the code and functionality of the plugin. There is usually some minimal amount of documentation, but for more complex plugins, it may not be all the information you need to get the most out of the plugin. Often, it is written in engineering-speak rather than user-friendly language. Businesses are more likely to hire an experienced technical writer to write documentation—or at least to give documentation more than a glance and a nod.
  5. Support. This can be iffy whether the plugin is free or purchased. It’s rare that there’s an 800# you can call and talk to someone about your issue—but that’s par for the course with most software these days. Hopefully, whether pay or free, there will be a forum where you can post a question, and be helped not only by fellow befuddled users, but by the developer or a knowledgeable person on the developer’s team. The more complex and critical the software—e.g., an ecommerce system—the more important it is that you know you can get answers when you need them.

Yes, these are generalizations. There are developers of free software that is easy and solid and well-documented and well-supported. You can pay good money for difficult to use, buggy software with poor documentation and no support, that is abandoned by the developer after version 1.1.

So how do you figure out what free software to take advantage of, and which is worth paying for? More on that question in a subsequent post.

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Web Design Templates: The Good, the Bad, and the Copyright-infringed

In a recent post, I wrote about the pros and cons of using the free website building tools that come bundled with a web hosting account. Another way for someone with no web design or development skills to build a website is by using a web design template. Like the free tools, web design templates can be a good solution for some, but you should be aware of the limitations.

How web design templates work

A web design template consists of a set of html files for your home page and (usually) at least one other page of your website, plus all of the supporting graphics and style sheets (CSS). You can find hundreds of websites offering web design templates by doing a Google search on “web design templates”.

As mentioned in the review of website building tools, one of the risks of using a template is having a website that is nearly identical to the website of anyone else who has used the same template. Not the best idea if you are trying to brand your business uniquely.

The advantage of a web design template is that you can get up and running quickly with a nice looking website based on standards-compliant code. Depending on your budget, level of expertise, and need for a uniquely branded look and feel, a web design template may be a good choice. But beware: web design templates may not be as easy and cheap as they first appear.

Easy and cheap, or frustrating and expensive?

Many “free” templates are restricted to non-commercial use only, which makes them unsuitable for any business. Pay-to-play sites usually sell templates for commercial use for under $100. Some template websites also offer limited customization of a template, which can add anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars to the price tag, depending on the level of customization. Some also offer the option to pay a premium price and buy that template outright. It’s then removed from sale, so you don’t run the risk that your website will look identical to hundreds of others. A lower buyout price is offered if the template has already been downloaded by others. The buyout doesn’t change that, but prevents anyone new from purchasing the template. The cost for a unique or buyout template is usually in the $2,500-$3,500 range (although I’ve seen them for as low as $400 and as much as $8,000). In this price range you may be better off hiring someone with whom you can work directly to customize the site to your needs.

You can also customize the template yourself if you know a bit about HTML and CSS, or you can hire a designer to do the customization for you. I would recommend that you bring the designer in before you purchase the template though, as what appears like a nice-looking site may actually be a mess of bloated and deprecated code under the hood. At the very least, make sure that the website offering the template makes some guarantees about the quality of the underlying code.

A web design template is not a content management system. If you want to customize it yourself, you need to be comfortable editing copy and changing graphics within the HTML file. That’s generally not too difficult once you learn what to avoid, but be forewarned that accidentally deleting so much as one “>” character in the file can break your entire page. So you need to be careful, and save backups of your files as you go along. You may also be able to make changes using a WYSIWYG editor, but they often add a lot of unnecessary code to pages, which you can avoid if you edit the HTML directly.

You can make pretty substantial changes to the look and feel, and even the layout, of a template using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). In theory, it’s not too difficult to learn to make basic changes in CSS such as font size and color; in practice, how the “cascade” of styles is structured, relative size values using ems, !important tags, collapsing margins and browser inconsistencies can turn “I’ll just make this one simple change” into hours of head-scratching as you wonder why your changes don’t look the way you intend.

A decent web design template will come bundled with the layered Photoshop files needed to modify any of the graphics used in the template. So in addition to being conversant in HTML and CSS, you may also need to know how to use Photoshop in order to do much in terms of modifying the template. As of this writing, a new copy of Adobe Photoshop, not bundled with CS5, lists at adobe.com for $699.

Realize that a web design template has nothing whatsoever to do with web hosting. You will still need to sign up for a web hosting account so that you have someplace for your files to live. You’ll also need a way to FTP the files onto your web hosting account, either by using tools that are including with your hosting account (such as the File Manager that is part of cPanel), or by downloading and installing FTP software. Some template websites offer an option of installing the template for you, usually for another $40-$60.

Support and documentation

Little, if any, support is offered with free templates. If you run into problems, you’re on your own.

Some templates are documented. Documentation can be a good starting point, but may not be that useful. I worked with one client who was very excited about the template he’d purchased because it was so thoroughly documented. But the documentation was not much more than a guide to what sections of the Photoshop mockups related to what sections of the code. I use the Firebug extension to Firefox, which gave me the same information, and more, in a more usable format.  The documentation didn’t save me any time, or the client any money.

You may purchase a template assuming there is support, because you can see a tab labeled “Support” on the menu. Be sure to investigate how deep and useful the support is before you buy. The support “tutorials” about CSS on one template site consisted of a definition of CSS, a pointer to where to find the style sheet, and instructions on how to do three random style changes. If you were counting on it to help you style your website, you would not get very far. If you want a more thorough tutorial on CSS, check out w3schools CSS tutorial. They also have a CSS reference guide that is useful to keep bookmarked.

Beware the wrath of Getty

Getty Images is a major publisher of stock photos. They have a number of different licensing agreements with photographers who supply them with photos. Photos are generally licensed to a single user, and may have additional restrictions on where, how, and for how long a photo can be published.

Some completely innocent, unwitting, well-intentioned people have found themselves to be recipients of the dreaded “Getty Images Settlement Demand Letter” as a result of having used images that were part of a web design template. This letter may demand thousands of dollars (or pounds or euros) for copyright infringement. They will not care that you got the photo through a template. If it is on your website, you are the one in violation. In their eyes it’s the equivalent of stolen goods. Telling them you downloaded a free template is about as effective as telling them you bought that photo off some guy who said it fell off the back of a truck. Be absolutely sure that you have proper licensing or permission for any photos on your website. When in doubt, don’t use it.

Templates vs. template frameworks

From a design point of view, I make a distinction between a template and a template framework. Most templates are designed to be used as is with minor customization; a framework is intended as a starting point for a custom design. I commonly use the Thesis theme framework for WordPress websites. The distinction is that Thesis, like other frameworks, offers a structurally sound, standards-compliant platform that is close to a blank slate, visually. The documentation is actually helpful, and provides capabilities that an ordinary WordPress theme does not include. There is also a support forum in which questions are answered by identifiable experts, not by random people who happen to pop into the discussion that day. As a designer, I can dive in to customizing the look and feel of a website without worrying if the basic structure is going to break in Internet Explorer, or choke on the next WordPress upgrade. Websites I’ve designed using Thesis include this website, as well as sites for Natural Healthcare and Diagnostics and Excellence in Performance (and a couple currently in progress). If you are looking for an instant look-and-feel, a template that begins as a clean and spare starting point may not be appealing. But if you are looking for a stable starting point for your own customizations, go with a quality framework.

So should I use a template, or not?

Web design templates are a big step up from free website building tools. In summary, here are the issues you should be aware of if you’re considering a web design template:

  • Free templates are not usually free to commercial businesses
  • If you are not technically adept, you may find it frustrating and/or limiting
  • If you are technically adept, a well-supported template framework may be a better option
  • What appears cheap may cost a lot more if you want installation, customization, or exclusivity
  • Be careful that you get good, solid code and support
  • Be sure any images are licensed for you to use
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Easy Website Building Toolsor, how to run into the walls of a small room

A few years ago, a friend called me on a Friday afternoon in a panic: the next day was Earth Day, and her organization had a booth at a local fair. They had ordered thousands of pencils with the URL of the organization printed on the side. She had planned on putting up a simple, quick website using their web host’s website building system, which was touted as being so easy you could build your website overnight.

She couldn’t figure out how to get word one on the home page.

We sat down together to build a simple page on the web host’s simple template system. I’ve been geeking around with various website building methods since the mid-90’s, from hand-coding HTML to Adobe Dreamweaver to both open source and proprietary content management systems. I figured I could whip up a web page for her in 5 minutes, no problem!

It took me 45 minutes to figure out how to enter content on the page.

Once I figured out the logic of her host’s website building tools, I was able to kluge together a functional page for her. Not nearly what she had hoped to build for the next day’s event, but at least visitors wouldn’t be faced with a blank “This domain is reserved” page. The tools were very slow and clunky to use, requiring multiple clicks of the mouse to do the simplest task. Attempting to lay out the web page in an aesthetically pleasing manner was both difficult and limited. At one point I turned to her and asked “Couldn’t I just build you a website from scratch? I think it would be faster.”

The website building tools that come bundled with a budget web hosting package have their place. If you have to toss up a quick Under Construction page with minimal content and your contact information, and you don’t know how to code HTML or how to FTP an HTML page to your hosting account, then having a website building tool comes in handy. But I wouldn’t recommend it as the ultimate solution for building your website.

Pros and Cons of website building tools that come bundled with your webhosting account

The advantages of simple, template-driven website building tools are:

  • No need to know HTML*, CSS*, or any other alphabet soup
  • Free or very cheap
  • You can do all updates and maintenance yourself
  • No need to worry about upgrades—the web host takes care of those automatically
  • Usually a good variety of templates
  • Usually some level of customization per template (e.g., add your own logo, color/font choices)

The limitations may not be as obvious until you start actually using the tools. And while someone may encounter technical or aesthetic limitations fairly quickly, the business limitations may not be obvious to someone who is building their first website for their first small business:

  • “Easy” is not instant. There is still a learning curve, and if you’ve never used any kind of design template before (or even if you have!) you may find it frustrating to figure out how to do something relatively simple, e.g. resize a graphic. Since it’s likely a proprietary tool, the knowledge you learn won’t be directly translatable to another tool.
  • There are things you simply can’t do. I had a client who insisted on using his web host’s tools for his website. He also wanted a subtle image in the background of the entire page. It was simply not possible with his web host’s website building tool.
  • There are things you simply can’t do unless you know HTML or CSS. Some website building tools do have a back door that allows you to circumvent the limitations of the tool. But that back door is that you know how to hand-code HTML or CSS.
  • Generic website designs. Many of the templates are designed to be all things to all people, so they can look very dull and generic. Sometimes it’s possible to personalize them with your logo and some unique images, but you are often limited in what you can do.
  • Standard website designs for specific purposes. Sometimes the web design templates will have themes: e.g., there may be one soccer-themed template. The problem there is that you risk having a website for your soccer team that looks nearly identical to the website for your chief rival.
  • Non-unique, non-branded web design. Using either the generic or specialized templates for a business is not ideal. Your website should help to define your brand, and your brand should convey your unique selling proposition. If your brand is generic, or looks the same as your competitors, then it’s not really a brand at all.
  • A website that is not standards-compliant. Standards compliance is one of those aspects of web design and development that most end users don’t appreciate. A website that is not standards compliant can have several limitations, including limitations in search engine optimization (i.e., being found by Google) and accessibility. Your website may not read well, if at all, on mobile devices, which are a rapidly growing segment of the web browsing market. If you decide to move your website to a more robust system in the future, you may discover that most of the code is unusable because it is built using tables or includes deprecated tags.
  • Limited set of features. You may discover that simple things you’d like to have on your website—a contact form, an embedded video, an interactive map—may not be supported by the tool.

When is it appropriate to web host’s website building tools?

As a professional web designer, you might expect that I’d look down my nose at the so-easy-a-caveman-can-do-it website building tools. But I really don’t—I just believe they have limited usefulness. With all except the first of these, I’d include the caveat that there are better options that will allow you more features and greater aesthetic options. Nonetheless, here are some circumstances in which I think it would be appropriate to use your web hosts’ website building tool:

  • An under construction page. While you’re building your real website, you can toss this up with your phone number and/or email address so that people at least have a way to contact you, and you can start directing people to your URL.
  • A temporary page. If you are just looking for a place to deposit information temporarily for an upcoming event, or make a birth announcement with a couple of photos, it may be worth using these tools rather than going through a longer installation and learning process.
  • A hobby page. If you are just looking for a place to tell the world about your passion for model trains or growing orchids or collecting pez dispensers, this will allow you to do so cheaply.
  • A small association or non-profit. By “small” I mean a group with an operating budget somewhere between $1,000 and zero. If you are serious about gaining members or raising funds, there are plenty of better options. If you just want people to be aware of your mission, find your phone number, maybe see a couple of photos or news items, your web host’s website building tool may be sufficient.

*HTML (hypertext markup language) and CSS (cascading style sheets) are the scripting languages used for building websites. HTML is used for the basic structure of the page, and CSS is used for styling the page with color, images, typefaces and spacing. HTML and CSS are not programming languages, i.e., you don’t need to be a computer programmer to use them, but they nonetheless require a fair amount of study to master.

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Custom web design, web design templates, open source content management systems, software as a service…how do you choose?

One of the most confusing aspects for a new business building their first website is determining what level of customization is ideal. Prices vary wildly—from free to hundreds of dollars per month. Systems touted as “user-friendly” still have a steep learning curve if you’ve never done anything like it before. Deciding on the merits of various web hosting accounts can be baffling when you have no idea if you will ever need cron jobs or php.ini access or custom style sheets. Determining the value of extra perks such as $100 worth of free Google ads is difficult when you don’t have anything to advertise yet.

The first step in determining how to build your website is to determine your website goals. Whatever your goal—lead generation, ecommerce, fundraising—there are likely to be open source modules designed for your type of business, specialized services that can build websites precisely suited to your needs, and online marketing firms that can not only build your website but also provide strategy and support so that your website is constantly optimized to meet your business goals.

The second step is determining your budgets. And yes, I mean that to be plural. You need to determine not only your financial budget, but your budget in terms of the time you want to devote to your website. Many business owners are more than willing to have someone else design and build their website, but assume that they will be responsible for ongoing copy writing and other updates. What often happens is that the website is never updated, and becomes a public sign of neglect rather than the engine of business growth it is meant to be.

Many business owners never consider their budget past building the website, and figuring in the cost of web hosting and domain registration. But a Software as a Service (SaaS) system, although more expensive per month, may save you hours of headaches and enable you to build a more powerful website than you could do otherwise. Being found via search engines is also not a one time expense: you will want to monitor and tweak your search engine optimization on a regular basis. So you don’t want to only think about the cost of building the website, but the investment you will make in growing your website as a critical part of your marketing strategy.

It’s also important to remember that your website doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is your social media strategy? Will you be incorporating email marketing? Will direct mail or other offline advertising be driving traffic to your website?

In the next few posts I will be looking more closely at the pros and cons of various web building strategies, including web design templates, open source content management systems, custom content management systems, Software as a Service, and custom web development.

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Goal-driven web design

I wrote earlier about the importance of determining your business goals before embarking on a web design (or web redesign) project. What you are trying to accomplish—find leads, sell products, provide a service, raise funds, sell advertising, etc.—will influence everything from what platform you choose to how much you need to budget.

Imagine that you’re buying a car rather than building a website. Do you need to take half the soccer team to matches? Do you commute by yourself 70 miles every day? Are you a real estate agent taking clients to gated communities? Do you want to haul your fishing boat to the lake every weekend? The goal you’re trying to accomplish with your vehicle will determine whether you are looking for a minivan, compact, luxury sedan or SUV. Once you’ve figured out your goal, then you can look at dealers, options and pricing. If you shop on price alone, you may end up trying to haul the boat or impress the clients or cram seven kids into a vehicle that won’t accomplish any of those goals. You won’t have saved money—you’ll have wasted it.

When you are setting the goal for your website, the first factor that comes to mind will usually be the personal desire that’s driving you to build a website, such as

  • I need more customers.
  • I need people to donate money.
  • I want to sell my products.
  • I want people to vote for me.
  • I want to sell ads.

The first challenge is to turn that idea on its head and think of it from the point of view of the person coming to your website. Why is he or she at your website in the first place?

  • I have a problem and I’m on the web looking for a way to solve it.
  • I am concerned about an issue and would like to know more about it.
  • I’m looking for a certain product and want to find the best one that will suit my needs.
  • I am trying to figure out who to vote for in November.
  • I am amusing/informing/educating myself.

The next step is to bring you and your visitors together: they have come to your website for some reason of their own. Now that they are there, what do you want them to do?

  • I want them to contact me to set up an appointment.
  • I want them to click on the “donate now” button and send us money.
  • I want them to click on the “buy now” button and buy a product.
  • I don’t care what they do at my website as long as they vote for me in November.
  • I want them to spend time at my website, return to my website, tell their friends about my website, comment on things on my website, and click on the ads on my website.

Now we’re getting somewhere that can begin to translate into the design, content and functionality of your website. But how do you know when you’re successful? If one person comes to your site and sets up an appointment, that hardly justifies the time and expense of building a website. You need to put some numbers to those goals, otherwise they’re not goals but desires.

  • I want to have 60 people per month fill out the contact form requesting an appointment.
  • I want to have $2,500 per month in donations through the website.
  • I want to sell $40,000 worth of products on our website each month.
  • I want 25 people every day to click on the “Yes! I’ll vote for you in November!” button.
  • I want $12,000 in ad revenues each month.

Now you have some real goals for your website. Working with the end in mind, you can begin to build, promote, and measure the effectiveness of your website.

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What has your website done for you lately?

Is your website working for you? If not, why not?

I get a number of emails from people saying “I need a website. Can you send me a proposal?” or, “I need a website. How much do you charge?”

Why do you need a website?

The answer may seem obvious—”You just gotta have a website these days!” but if you don’t have a clear idea of what you expect your website to accomplish for you, then the technical and aesthetic details are irrelevant. And no matter what the price, the money won’t be well spent if you don’t know what goal you’re trying to accomplish.

One of the key distinctions is whether the website is the business or whether the website promotes the business. If the website is the business, are you selling products, services, or advertising? Or do you have a non-profit, and if so, are you looking to educate? Raise funds? Recruit volunteers?

If you have an e-commerce site, security will be critical. You’ll be needing integration with Paypal or Amazon payments. Usability will be much more important—you don’t want users to abandon a shopping cart because they can’t find the “Check Out Now” button. It might be worth including usability testing in your budget. Likewise, if you have an online service—let’s say a job board—usability testing will be critical to make sure that it’s a smooth process for people to post or reply to jobs.

If your business model is to create a site that attracts so much traffic that you can sell advertising, then content creation, online community creation and social media integration become much more of a focus. And if you are inviting people to join or post, then you will need to consider both spam control and community moderation.

For a non-profit website, making it easy for people to donate funds is often the critical purpose. Similar to e-commerce, you need to be concerned about security and usability. Political and advocacy sites may want website visitors to stay in touch and get instant alerts via email, twitter or facebook.

Websites that promote a business are often looked at as online brochures, but they can be much more. For most businesses, the point of getting someone to their website is to get leads. If the website can’t be found, and there is no compelling reason for a visitor to stay, return or contact you, then a website has no more value than a billboard. Search engine optimization (SEO)—getting found via google—is critical. But what happens once someone finds the website via google is just as important. A lead generation strategy implemented through the website will drive more business than just a 5-page brochure website with a contact page.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be going into more detail on all of these topics, and discussing different strategies and solutions for different business goals.

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