Sunday, 21 July 2013

Does your website need a CMS?

The short answer is "it depends" - it depends on how big the site is, how technical you are, how many people need to update the site on a regular basis (if any), how often the content changes...

What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A Content Management System is a website admin ("back-end") system comprising a collection of web forms and pages which let you update a website without having to know how to code in HTML or understand the technical issues of website design.

So you can update the content (pages, text, images, videos etc) of a website in the CMS utilising various template page types, eg news page, normal content page, photo gallery etc. The CMS is linked to a database which saves all the data (text, images etc) and metadata (details of when a page was updated, who edited it, etc).

The "front-end" of a website controlled by a CMS uses stylesheets to ensure consistency of presentation across the site, no matter who created or updated the pages, and to ensure that pages will display properly on different devices and to disabled users. So your Headings and text will always be navy Arial font (or whatever), even if someone in the Planning department has a penchant for purple and Comic Sans MS!

There is usually some choice over the "look and feel" of the page templates, and there should be some choice around the layout of the pages and the site structure (what goes where). A CMS will often include "add-ons" or "plugins" such as Shopping Carts or Forums which you can add to your site, depending on the CMS you use.

Why use a CMS?

A CMS is particularly useful in a large organisation where more than one person needs to create and update the web pages - especially if these are to be "subject experts" who are non-technical. It can also be useful even to technical users as it ensures consistency on a large site.

It can also be useful even in a smaller organisation if there is no Web Designer on the staff and the site was created by a Freelancer such as myself - the CMS will allow the staff to update the website themselves without having to learn HTML or buy tools such as Adobe Contribute, and without having to ask the Freelancer every time a typo needs fixed or a price needs updated.

When not to use a CMS

Sometimes a CMS is 'overkill' or will be a waste of money for a client. 

For example, if you only need your website updated once a year (eg an updated pricelist) it’s probably more cost-effective to pay your local friendly Freelancer for an hour or so of work than to pay for a CMS and training that staff will probably forget since they don’t use the system that often. 

What CMS should I use?

This is a harder question to answer, as it depends very much on what your website is and what you want to do with it.

WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are 'free' Content Management Systems which are popular and widely-used, with various add-ons available. For a smallish website with standard requirements which will fit within the available templates one of these may be a good choice.

I have worked on 3 different Content Management System products which were purchased by the organisations I worked for. These gave much more choice over the customisation and layout, as the templates were designed specifically for the organisation. They were used by large numbers of non-technical members of staff and needed to be robust and reliable. But there was obviously a cost implication which puts such a system outside of the budget of most SMEs.

Another option is a mini-CMS written by your Web Developer, which will let you edit certain parts of certain pages that you need to update regularly, using bespoke web forms and a small database. This is a cost-effective solution that I've successfully employed for a number of clients, so if you think this is what you need, please let me know!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Responsive design, mobile website or phone app?

Statistics show that people are using PCs less and less, and mobile devices are in the ascendancy - hey, I'm even writing this post on a laptop via wi-fi!

One website I work on has seen mobile visitors increase from just over 2% in late 2010, to 30% of all the visits to that website today.

So by having a website that's difficult to read or use on a mobile device (not just phones - tablets/iPads count as mobile devices too), you could be disenfranchising 3 in every 10 people who visit your website. And that number is going up every year.

So what's the best way to make your website work for your mobile visitors?

"Can you make me a mobile app?"

I maybe could, but is that the best thing for your customers?

If you run, say, a local Estate Agency, what would your mobile app offer that some of the UK-wide or Solicitors Property Centre apps don't? Would you choose to make an iPhone app, Android, or both? What about Windows Phone users? How would you get customers to use your app? And how many customers would have to use your app for you to receive a return on your investment? 

For most businesses, a mobile app isn't the best use of their budget.

However, if you have a unique product, idea or offering which would work better in an app than as a website, it might be worth doing.

"I'll have a mobile website then"

A website written specifically for mobile devices sounds like an appealing option. You'll keep your customers happy by making sure all your website content (text and images) fits onto their small screens.

But what size do you make it for? iPhone? Android? Windows Phone? iPad? They all have different screen sizes. Even iPhones aren't all the same - the original iPhone is 320x420pixels; the iPhone 4 is 640x960 and the iPhone 5 is bigger again at 640x1136.

And what about future devices? Who knows what size they will be?

To write a mobile website to fit all devices and work on future devices as well you'd need lots of versions of the same site. Not to mention your main (non-mobile) website. Who is going to keep all these different versions in synch? It would be a bit of a nightmare to maintain!

"So how do I get a website that works for all devices then?"

The introduction of HTML5 and CSS3 has given us the tools to make the 'one website to rule them all', by using "responsive design".

Websites which utilise responsive design keep the same content (so you only have one website to maintain) but use the new features in CSS3 to work out what device is viewing the website, and display the website at an appropriate size and in an appropriate format for that device.

For smaller devices like phones, the website might display in one single column in 'portrait' mode, and 2 columns in 'landscape' mode, with navigation links made bigger or even changed into icons so they're easier to activate using your finger, and images made smaller so they don't take so long to download over your impatient customer's phone network.

On a tablet, the same website might display using 2 or 3 columns, and on a laptop or PC it might have a bigger content area, more images and normal text links clickable by a mouse rather than finger-friendly icons.

Different monitor sizes and future mobile screen sizes can be catered for by making the responsive design adaptive, using percentages to keep the proportions the same no matter what screen the viewer is using.

This is all a bit more work for the designer, who has to create different versions of the 'style sheet' for the various devices, so a responsive and adaptive website will probably be more expensive to design than a simple "one size doesn't fit all" website, but it should pay for itself in longevity (it should adapt for most future device sizes) and because you only have one website to keep up-to-date.

"Okay, I'd like a responsive design website then"

Existing websites can be converted to HTML5 and CSS3, so talk to me if you think it's time to make your website mobile-friendly, or even for a fresh new design.

For a new website, I'll usually recommend going with a responsive design right from the get-go unless there is a compelling reason not to. 

Friday, 18 January 2013

PayPal should be easy, right?

Paying by PayPal is easy. Too easy, some would say!

Just click a button, enter your PayPal password, confirm the payment, and, hey presto, you're the proud owner of a new iPad / collectible classic LP / ticket for T in the Park (depending on your taste and budget) which will be sent to you as fast as Royal Mail will allow.

No worries about entering your home address and credit card number into some dodgy-looking website; PayPal already knows your details and doesn't reveal them to the merchant, so you feel much more secure that your personal information is safe.

That's the customer's perspective, and it's probably because PayPal is perceived as so easy and safe by shoppers that many stores report an increase of at least 14% in sales when they implement a PayPal shopping cart.

Implementing PayPal isn't so easy

But not in a bad way.

Screenshot of a PayPal 'Buy Now' button
It's actually quite easy to whack a PayPal 'Buy Now' button onto your website, and allow the customer to buy something. It's all the other stuff around it that takes the time.

PayPal keeps the merchant (seller) safe, as well as the customer, by setting up lots of checks and balances to ensure that nobody (hackers or the like) can spoof a payment and get goods for free, or masquerade their way into your PayPal account and relieve you of your hard-earned cash.

Implementing those checks correctly and checking for errors along the way takes a bit of development time, but it's worth it to know that the transaction is secure.

A Digital Download system using PayPal

I've just finished implementing a time-limited digital file download system, integrated with PayPal's Express Checkout 'Buy Now' payment button.

Once the payment has been confirmed by PayPal's Instant Payment Notification (IPN) and Payment Data Transfer (PDT) APIs, the application automatically creates the digital files and sends the temporary download link to the customer's email.

Although developing and testing the application took some time because of the aforementioned checks, I'm happy that the resulting online store is better and safer as a result. Plus, from my client's point of view (the online store merchant), he's got a bespoke application which is saving him money compared to the online downloading site he was using previously.

See the new online store here:

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Don't tell me how to do it!

Today I was working on a client's online payment system, and came across the following paragraph on the online bank's merchant account page:

"To help you navigate through this system, please use the boxes below."
This is an example of one of my pet hates on websites. 

If you have to tell me how to navigate through your site, it's not intuitive, and therefore almost certainly not as usable as it could be.

Don't make me think

Steve Krug (an internet usability guru) wrote a book called "Don't make me think!". If users have to think about how to navigate your website, then you're putting barriers in their way and they're likely to go elsewhere to a website which is easier to use.

In the old days of the web we used to try and make all pages reachable in less than 4 clicks. However recent research has shown that people don't mind so much if they have to make a few clicks if they don't have to think to make those clicks, ie if the website navigation is intuitive and their options are obvious.

Don't make false promises

In my last post I mentioned that you shouldn't put links to pages that haven't been written yet.

In a similar vein, don't put instructions to things that aren't there!

To add insult to injury, on the online bank's merchant account page that I quote above, the boxes it refers to didn't even exist!

It reminds me of another online payment gateway which has the following instruction on the payment page:
"To modify a payment click the Modify link. To remove a payment click the Delete link"
...except neither the Modify or Delete links exist! 

What is it about online payment gateways that makes them have such poor usability? Is it any wonder the "abandonment rate" for online shopping carts is almost 90%?

Intuitive navigation

So how do you make a usable navigation system for your website?

There are several ways to do it, depending partly on your budget, the time available and the size of your website.

People have written whole books about it, but if you want to skip the reading and commission me to help you, then please get in touch:

Friday, 30 November 2012

Websites - under construction

Are websites ever truly finished?

In the old days of the web it was common to see an 'under construction' icon on a page that hadn't been written yet.

Nowadays that is seen as bad practice; you should only ever link to existing content so that users aren't misled into thinking your website has content that it doesn't.

But my experience of website design tells me that it's only the smallest websites which are ever "finished" - ie all the content has been written and added - but larger websites are always going to change and be added to.

Just think how often prices will change, or staff will leave or arrive, or new products or services get added? Most websites (even the smallest ones!) will need to have at least some of their content updated at least once a year.

And then there's the design.

My own website is barely a month old, and I'm already on the 3rd version of the design:
There are still pages to add and tweaks to do. I wonder if a web designer's website is ever "perfect"?

Design for today

I guess the other thing I've learned is that you need to do the best design you can for now, but expect to revisit it every 2-3 years as the design starts to look tired or a bit old-fashioned (trends change even in web design!).

Standards-based web design

One of the great leaps forward in web design some years ago was the creation of standards-based design using HTML and CSS.

With a standards-based website, the HTML purely covers the content and structure of the website - the text, images, headings etc, and what follows what - and the CSS takes care of the layout and design - the colour scheme, and where things go on the page.

So with a small change to the CSS your website can change from purple to pink, for example, or you can add a background image or change the colour of Headings. And the change will apply to the whole site, just by changing the one CSS file, rather than you having to change the Heading colour on each and every page of your site (a chore unless the website is very small!).

So standards-based design makes for re-usable design - or should that be re-usable content? You can give your website's "look and feel" a makeover without having to change the content and structure of every page on the site. This means that updating your website every 2 or 3 years becomes less of a major upheaval.

Using standards helps Accessibility too

I've always been an advocate of making websites as Accessible as possible to people with varying abilities. browsers and hardware. 

Using standards-based web design also means that your website will be more likely to be Accessible to (for example) a blind person using a "browser" which reads and describes the website to them, rather than them seeing it.

So standards-based design really is something that every website designer should be doing - I certainly do!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Website design should be the last thing you do

No, I've not had second thoughts about being a freelance web designer!

I'm just sharing something I've learned in many years of developing and designing websites.

The design of the website should be the last thing you do.

So how do you develop a website?

The first thing you should do when starting to create a new website is to think about the content of the website. 

What do you want to say? Who are you saying it for, or to - who is your audience? What are you trying to achieve with the website?

Write a list of all the topics you need to cover to meet your website's aims.

Content creates navigation

Once you know what content you will have on your website - what the pages will be - you can then start to think about grouping them together (if there are more than 7 pages) and that starts to create the website navigation.

Why 7? Well, research has shown that the ideal number of items in a navigation menu is 7 +/- 2, ie between 5 and 9 navigation choices.

Once you know how many pages or sections your website will have, you can then start to think about the design. But only then.

Don't get fixated on design

You want users to find stuff easily on your website - otherwise what's the point? So the navigation structure is really important.

If you start with a fixed idea of what you want your website to look like, you'll immediately constrain the options for setting up the navigation, and might end up with a website that isn't very usable, and therefore won't get used as much as you want. 

So try to keep an open mind on design.

Think of concepts - for example: uncluttered, professional, friendly - but don't get a picture in your head too soon, or you'll give your web designer a really difficult task.

Putting it into practice

I'm in the process of designing my own website - ISPs permitting (this may be the subject of a future blog post!) - and I've followed my own advice, and thought about the content first, before I decided what I wanted it to look like.

Did I practise what I preached? See what you think:

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Twitter - the water cooler of freelancers?

Do you tweet?

I've never been a great fan of Twitter - it was always too "one-way" for me, difficult to have a proper "conversation" with someone.

But my hubby really likes it. He uses it to communicate with other freelancers, to share tips, to pick up news and to find out what his favourite sportsmen are up to. 

I began to think this was because he worked on his own all day - this was his "water cooler", where he could chat and pass the time of day. Whilst I could go into the office and trade pleasantries or discuss something with a colleague, he had nobody to talk to except the cat. 

Should I tweet?

Now that I'm also a freelancer, I wonder if I will start to use twitter more?

Find out here!