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: