Web Development Smackdown

Currently eight historical societies have posted reviews of their organization’s web site redesigns on this blog.  Looking over the posts, there are some interesting takeaways.

For most historical societies this was not their first design but this was their second or third redesign. For a couple of organizations the redesign was necessitated by organizational and branding changes, but for most, web site redesigns appear to be about the need for better access due to obsolete software or advancements in back-end accessibility making it desirable to change the technology on how the web site is maintained. For the Edina Historical Society they gained more control, for the Morrison County Historical Society they improved the productivity and efficiency of updating their web site.

Common Themes

There are some common themes on what the organizations were looking for when building or redesigning a web site.

  1. Cheap/affordable – This is probably the hands down leader in what organizations are looking for. Whether it is the cost of the software, hosting service or in operational costs of maintaining it, finding a solution that fits in an organization’s budget is critical.
  2. Easy – For many organizations especially those with no web skills, the ability that it be simple to add and update content this is also a top concern.
  3. Foolproof/security – no one likes when a site goes down, or having to deal with coding problems or – heaven forbid security issues if they site gets hacked.
  4. Control – For some organizations this is not important but for others it is either desirable or critical to have control over the both the updating of their web site and the branding of the web site.

Unfortunately these four common themes are usually not compatible with each other.

Cheap vs Foolproof vs. Easy vs. Control

Build your own
Handcoding your site while cheap and offering the most control is neither easy or foolproof.  Many have used or are using the WYSIWYG web editor Dreamweaver to update their web site and while it can still allow a great amount of control, the application is not cheap and even if it is set up correctly for some it still may not be foolproof or easy enough. There are other WYSIWYG editors some free or cheaper than Dreamweaver however the old adage “You get what you pay for” fits well here.

CMS it
While there are some great solutions such as making use of free open source Content Management System (CMS) software such as Drupal or WordPress or low cost do-it-yourself software like ExpressionEngine which can make building a web site very affordable if you do it yourself, and easier to manage, these solutions still cost in time and require experience to set up correctly. Also, if  not set up right or updated when security patches are released they can pose a security problem.

Both “Building your own” and “CMS it” solutions require a hosting provider as well. There are also some very good deals with hosting services which will host your own web pages, but again they are low-cost, not free. However if you are paying $100 versus $10 a month for hosting that extra $90 buys you a whole lot of attention from your hosting provider should the server go down.

Let others deal with it
If you are not bothered by lack of control and like the ease and cost of having your city or county host your organization’s web pages on their site,  this could be the way for your organization to go. However, more than likely you will have to play by their rules and timetable. In the Edina Historical Society’s case the city did not even allow for linking to external sites, so linking to the organization’s Facebook page or other social media was out of the question.

Put your web in the cloud
If you don’t mind ads, there are many free services such as WordPress.com (WordPress.com utilizes the same WordPress software but the hosting and managing of the software is taken care of by the team at WordPress.com. ) that you build your web site with their tools. There are even some sites like Weebly.com that will allow you to create a basic free ad free web site but the hope is that you will upgrade to to their more fully featured “Pro” account. These sites allow you to a build web site with no technical skills and are much more foolproof and secure than building your own CMS site – and for simple web sites these are great solutions and will can even give you more solutions if you upgrade to their paid services. However,  they do not lend themselves to a great deal of customization especially when you need a database or software solution.

The moral of the post…
There are thousands of ways to build the wrong web site and no way to build a perfect web site. And as Mary Warner said in her blog post, “There are gazillions of ways to structure a website.” This unfortunately is the nature of the beast since every web site doomed to obsolescence as soon as it are placed online and that there is no prefect solution, that every organization has to balance out their own ‘cheap’, ‘foolproof’,  ‘easy’ and ‘control’ needs when building their web site. However, one of the key things in building a web site is planning. That may be taking an inventory of your current site, looking at your organizations needs, surveying your customers, etc… I highly recommend if folks have not already is to look over our Web Site Worksheet and Web Standards Guide which were written to be resources in web site planning. It was great to see some of the organizations listed here do things like surveying stakeholders, useing wireframes and reflecting on their web sites traffic by looking through Google Analytics stats.

Are there other observations on common issues/themes between these sites and your sites?

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About Joe Hoover

Digital Technology Outreach Specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.
This entry was posted in Advice, Information Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Web Development Smackdown

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Web Development Smackdown | Minnesota Local History - Weblog -- Topsy.com

  2. When we redesigned our website in the fall of last year, there were many factors that played into it. First of all, our website looked like it had been designed once and nothing else was done with it. There was no real way of navigating around the site and the information was outdated by almost 4 years! Secondly, the user-friendliness (which ties into point #1) was horrifying. Outside of a form to request research, there was no indication of hours of operation, how to contact us, or basic information that would attract visitors.

    To fix all of these problems, we enlisted the help of a web designer in town. Our initial interview with the person was to determine costs. Little did we know, we were going to get the site for free! Our site looks amazing (still working on tweaking some things a year later) and people can find out lots of information about us and still request research through the form. Check us out at http://www.mowercountyhistory.org.


  3. Joe Hoover says:

    I like your new site! My only recommendation is I would put contact info (phone and/or email) in the footer. As an interesting side note, What do folks look for in hiring a web designer? Can you rank those qualifications in importance?
    Some thoughts on a couple of things to look out for:
    1). Local vs Non-Local – I am a big fan of buying and hiring local, however I have seen enough sites where somebody hired their kid’s best friend who “knows the web” or somebody’s spouse who has built a “couple of FrontPage sites” to be wary about hiring local talent especially with the web there is a wealth of affordable talent out there.
    2). If someone wants to build your web site or even a significant portion of it in Flash run away from them as fast as you can. There are several reasons for this but mostly you are stuck having them do even the smallest of updates and if they go away you are out of luck getting any updates done, you have to build a new site.


  4. Mary Warner says:

    Thanks for the analysis on our website redesign blog posts, Joe. Interesting to see the commonalities between our experiences.


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