1 website via three website design tools in one weekend? who came out on top?

Launching!

So here at Planwise we are getting ready to launch, super! ready! Which is exciting. A key part of our launch is a roadtrip that I”m going to be doing over a 15 day period taking me from San Francisco to New York City via the southern states and eastern coast. More on that later, but no point doing the trip if we weren’t ready to blog about it.

 

Our previous blog was one that we (me and our designers) put together super quickly when we launched our new brand about 6 weeks ago. Functional, basic and fit for purpose for the ‘stuff’ we wanted to do. For what we wanted to do, it had to go.

Options?

There is a heap of options – I’m not going to try to cover them all here but I ruled out

  • Custom design (whether based on a CMS or framework i.e. drupal, wordpress etc)
  • Custom implementation (coded from scratch, I mean seriously, does anyone do this any more?)
So I looked at 3 options which I will discuss in more detail
  1. Tumblr
  2. Squarespace
  3. WordPress (with store bought theme)

Needs

This is going to be key to what I’m about to say. The three website design tools above are all hugely capable tools/services and used by millions of users worldwide each so with the wisdom of crowds they obviously all have their place.

So my needs were

  • Inline video – being able to navigate multiple videos and watch them from the home page
  • Gallery for photos
  • Traditional type blog
  • Pre-built theme that is able to be customised
  • Social functions
  • Tracking/Analytic functions
So I started with the most accessible of the options, tumblr.

tumblr

Within minutes I was up & running with no theme .. and shortly after trying on a range of themes. There is quite a few but they are just about all designed with a mobile device in mind mostly forcing a 500px main content window or at most 720px main window. This makes sense, tumblr is designed heavily with the mobile user in mind both for consumption and addition of media. All types of media were easily handled and render well. Themes however, I hit some issues. Primary issue was that when you install a theme you can go into ‘custom configuration’ but this doesnt give you the ability to tweak the template (at least not in the demo version). It simply gives you a clean slate. Now a couple of the better premium domains ($49) let you integrate via typekit which although I didn’t do I believe would enable you to modify from the template.
I played around for a few more hours, looking at different templates but in the end started to see the way in which the templates worked and the mobile design principles as being too far from what I needed, so looked for the next option.
I will say that tumblr’s support was excellent and they came back with a template refund on a sunday!
but, I moved on.

Squarespace

SS has been an old fav of mine for years. My personal blog at www.vincentturner.me had run on it for years and it was sensible balance of framework (so you don’t stuff it up) and control ( so you can pretty it up). I knew my way around and within minute I was signed up and authoring content and using their inbuilt editor to control styles, layout, formats, components, menus.. just about anything. This part of squarespace truly is amazing software design as much as anything else. There is a lot out of the box and by combining tools for design & authoring with hosting it really has very little that you have to worry about. The help & documentation is beautifully polished and although I didn’t use their support this time, I have before and it is some of the best support I’ve got from any software company, ever.

It costs nothing to get going and the basic plans that cover a great deal of stuff are only setting you back around $10 – $15 a month, that’s barely more than hosting a website so represents excellent value. So far so good.

But then I got stuck – while trying to implement on my 4th and 5th requirements.

Templates – seriously, unless I”m totally blind the available pre-built templates were the exact ones available 4 years ago when I did my blog. .. there is about 20 of them. and really its about 7 with a few variations of each. Now, I don’t know whether this is the double edged sword of the amazing editor mentioned earlier or a result of not enabling a 3rd party community to create & sell designs but this is a serious issue and ended up being a near show-stopper. 20 themes for millions of users isn’t going to work. Yes, you can implement your own CSS, but if you’re doing that. then why would you have a tool to do that for you?

The nail that broke the camel’s back (yeah, it’s a joke) was, again unless I’m completely blind, a lack of inbuilt social sharing tools. I found a menu for Social tools but the omission was facebook as a point & click ‘insert into every post’ option. I still am not sure I’ve got this right but when I do a search on their help for facebook I get this so am pretty sure I’ve got this right. Squarespace I love you guys, so if I have this wrong, I will correct and re-publish.

so, I moved on.

 

WordPress

Sheer scale is really the only way to describe wordpress. It is the behemoth in the room when it comes to building & running websites using 3rd party website design tools. A casual search of the term ‘wordpress theme’ returns millions of results.. 280.. million to be precise. Searching for plug-ins yields a similar result.

WordPress is a bit like Vegas. The sooner you realise you can do *anything* you want want, the more fun you’re going to have and the more you’re going to get out of it.

But herein lies the problem/challenge (or.. opportunity as I like to think of those two prior items). There is so much to know even really to get going that it is most left to an army of web developers & designers who over the years have seen their actual development effort reduce considerably to produce some pretty amazing results. I would say the reason you can get a website done for around $500 these days is because of wordpress. People will say “yeah, a $500 website” but thats the same as saying “yeah a $500 computer” which is infinitely better than what $500 bought you 10 years ago. The point is you can get a hell of a lot now for $500 and it can be pretty good (design, features, functionality etc)

So for my requirements it was not really going to be a case of could they be met but more

a) finding suitable solutions

b) could I implement them myself

Finding a template that you like, even as a starting point, is no easy feat. In fact this part was the longest single part of the whole exercise and although I’m happy I could have spent another week. The only advice I really have is pay, be prepared to pay for a decent design. It will cost you $50 – $75 from most of the major premium retailers but you are in fact getting the work output of unbelievable designers who are savvy enough to realise that 50% of the $50 sold to 10,000 people over a few years is a happy little earner. The other thing (more important) you get with premium designs is the investment in the quality of the tools that show up in wordpress to configure and manage the design. Now, it’s no squarespace but the core of what you want to configure (color, font, sections, images etc) is pretty basic stuff, no coding required.

Don’t think you could do it? well, I cruised the support forums (don’t buy a premium theme unless it is from a vendor who has a well trafficked support forum) and found stay at home mum’s from the midwest tinkering with their templates. Get involved. I got mine from a company called Elegant Themes and in many days of searching a forest of themes (in joke) I found them the best.

With wordpress it took a few hours to get going and there is definitely a learning curve but that is a factor of time only, not really technical skills. However, this only gets you 75% of the way there. The other 25% will take you the next day or more, it’s diminishing returns. This is ironing out how pages, posts and plugins are going to work. WordPress, whilst being like Vegas, is also like lego. Some assembly required. But the result, I hope you’ll agree, was pretty special for an outlay of less than $50 and a weekend’s work.

Summary

Well, there is a space for all three. Let me begin with that. If you want to create something quickly, with zero hassle that looks good and works from computers & mobiles and is much about your contributing content as other’s consuming it, tumblr is excellent. It’s free, hosted, looks nice, plays friendly with mobiles and all the cool kids are doing it. I’m sure some businesses are using it but i really is a product aimed at people, not businesses. Squarespace represents an excellent entry point for a company and some amazing sites run on this and it is truly an amazing product but it is essentially a closed system meaning it moves as quickly as they move. It is hard to compete with armies of people creating extensions to open framework based solution, even if sometimes that resembles a 1000 monkeys at a 1000 keyboards. WordPress is such an army but there is enough monkeys and enough time that the good has floated to the surface and there is a set of base templates & tools to empower someone with only a basic knowledge of technology.  And if you don’t have that knowledge then time/effort is your only barrier.

 

For us wordpress won out but I think consider your own needs based on 3 key factors

> audience

> content

> time/money

and the appropriate website design tool will be one of the 3 above.

 

If you’ve had a different experience or other comments please let me know. If you like our new blog, share it, we’d appreciate it! and if you want to know more details about how I set up word press (themes, plugins, traps etc) contact me at get [at] planwise.com – I’d add it to this post but it’s long enough already!

 

(originally published on http://blog.planwise.com)

 

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