Clutch spoke with Jill Starett, a design strategist at Fresh Tilled Soil, about the platform options that people have when building a website. Learn more about Fresh Tilled Soil on their Clutch profile or at freshtilledsoil.com.
Introduce your business and what you do there.
Fresh Tilled Soil is a strategic design firm focusing on user experience and user interface design for digital products and websites. I am a design strategist, which means that I work with clients in a number of different capacities—from taking a leadership role on project kickoffs, to facilitating design sprints for validating new concepts, to working more closely with our UI/UX designers to really understand the product and produce a functional and tested design for a website or product.
When a potential client comes to you for a web design project, what are their typical goals or challenges?
Sometimes it’s a threat from a competitor, and other times it’s the result of a rebranding effort, a pivot in their business/strategy, or just a desire to refresh their messaging. But regardless of what’s pushing them to start a web design project, it’s ultimately the result of a desire to improve the experience for their users/customers and visitors. They recognize that their website IS their product and is often a customer or prospect’s first opportunity to engage with them and their solutions.
What are the different options people have when choosing a website, and what should they consider before settling on one?
There are many website platforms out there, and we’ve broken them down into five different groups.
- There are content management systems, also called CMSs (the WordPresses and Drupals of the world), which tend to be more popular and generic but can also be highly-customized.
- There are drag-and-drop builders like Squarespace, which are becoming a more popular option and tend to be more user-friendly for non-developers.
- There’s a hybrid of these first two, HubSpot, which has the drag-and-drop usability approach, but is also highly-customizable. As a Boston firm, we get many questions about HubSpot, which is also based in Boston. This is not their main solution, but it is an add-on to their other services.
- There are static websites, solutions which are more developer-oriented and which aren’t designed to be updated frequently.
- E-commerce platforms are the last category that’s appropriate for anyone looking to sell goods or services on a site, with a complete shopping-cart experience.
What should people consider before choosing one of these 5 options?
The first thing we always ask is “What is the main purpose of a site?” Is the client trying to establish a web presence, or are they going to be distributing content? Are they trying to create sales leads, or are they trying to move people along a sales funnel with their website? Lastly, are they aiming to sell different products or services?
People will often want a site to serve multiple purposes, from being a recruitment platform to providing information to investors, but, at the end of the day, there is typically a single main goal of a website. We try to get clients to answer this question in a confident way, and break down the options from there. Typically, for each one of these uses, there is a small set of platform types that would work best (CMS vs. drag-and-drop or static sites).
In terms of the drag-and-drops vs. the CMSs of the world, what should people consider as far as building or maintaining a site?
There is no one basic formula. We thought about creating a decision tree tool to help people answer some of these questions, but it’s not that simple. Different organizations weigh things differently, and when considering a new website platform, you have to look at the level of desired customization and who will be maintaining it. If it all rests on a single person’s shoulders, what happens if that person leaves? This is actually what prompted many of our customers to contact us — someone left their organization so they need a more autonomous solution.
For larger organizations with multiple rules, there is a need to limit access to certain types of content—only certain people can publish certain types of content, or there is a review process in place before publication. Having all of this live in a website platform is different for smaller organizations, which might need a more lightweight solution for a show they have in a couple of weeks.
Focusing on CMSs, drag-and-drops and hybrid solutions, do you have examples of what makes them great, and what drawbacks each might have?
We’re a big fan of CMSs. We can do the most with them, since they’ve been around for a long time. WordPress is used for 60-70% of the published web, and it’s open-source, which means there are multiple plugins available. A lot of people have added to the capabilities of this platform, and it’s all available for others to use. There are also robust CMS communities in place for support, whether it’s WordPress, Drupal or Joomla.
A CMS-based website can be easy to get up-and-running for anyone with a bit of web development experience, but the challenge is that there are so many plug-ins. It can be a challenge to find the right one, and make sure that it’s the best choice. You don’t really need to worry about malicious plug-ins, but it’s important to find the ones which will actually do the right job. It can be a bit time-consuming, but, as someone becomes more familiar with creating CMSs, or when working with a partner or agency familiar with these platforms, they will begin to have a list of favorite plug-ins to make the process a lot easier.
Drag-and-drop platforms offer beautiful out-of-the-box websites. They all come with starter templates that allow users, to drop in content, whether it’s images, video or copy. You can do more customization work, and it’s a nice platform for someone with no development background who wants to use a tool that feels more like PowerPoint than a web development platform. The drawback is that the customization has some limits. Users have to know the markups of particular providers, they typically need to find someone who has developed on the platform before, otherwise they will have to learn much of the markup during customization the process. It all depends on how much customization is needed and the level of existing experience.
Lastly, HubSpot is a nice hybrid between the former two. It has all the broad functionalities of the CMS platforms with the ease of use of drag-and-drop solutions. There is a monthly cost associated with it, so it depends on your budget. HubSpot is good for people who will be doing a lot of sales-funnel testing. If the aim isn’t to get people through your rapidly changing funnel, then HubSpot is probably not something you need to invest in. Hubspot will also try and pull people to their business model, as a way of selling their CMS platforms and other services.
Are any platforms better or more customizable than others from an SEO standpoint?
Basic Search Engine Optimization is easy to implement on CMS platforms and static website platforms. HubSpot is optimized for this. Drag-and-drop website builders can take a bit of extra custom work. Google doesn’t aggregate all the different pages of a site together; so you have to do a bit of customization work in order to bolt those together and add up all the hits for a higher ranking.
Could you talk more about what can and can’t be done in terms of design on different platforms?
Static sites, CMSs, drag-and-drops and even HubSpot, to a certain degree, offer a lot of customization options, too many to start listing off. It really depends on the level of experience you have with a platform. They’re written in different languages, and you have to know how each platform does what it does in order to customize it.
E-commerce platforms offer the least amount of customization; many times, there is a traditional shopping cart path. There have been additional functionalities added over time which can be turned on or off for a website. For most people, we wouldn’t advise going too far off the path anyway, since we want to leverage the known, learned behavior online shoppers are already familiar with.
Are any of these types of platforms more vulnerable than the others from a security standpoint?
We haven’t assessed the security of each and every platform provider, but in general, if the things which need to be done are done, you should be okay from a security standpoint. Any CMS or static site needs to stay on the most current version of Drupal or WordPress. Running an old, legacy version will miss some of the threats which for which developers have built securities. When you hear “WordPress isn’t safe anymore” it refers to websites that have been attacked that were using an old version. Changing passwords frequently and making sure you’re staying up-to-date are little things that make a huge difference. We tell clients, if they don’t want to be bothered with these tasks or be responsible for making manual updates, they can retain a third-party for a small monthly fee to keep an eye on security and make updates as soon as they come out.
WordPress is being used by an overwhelming majority of websites out there. Just because they’re the biggest, they are targeted more often. At the same time, if site owners are taking the right precautions, they should be okay. The number of threats reported by security firms can be a little deceptive because there are fixes in place for a vast majority of reported threats.
There are no platforms I’d mention that we would label as a bad choice where security is concerned. We’ve worked with medical organizations subject to HIPAA privacy and security compliance. It’s a whole new layer of security that needs to be employed, and we’ve never been afraid of using any of these specific solutions for any of our clients.
How do different platforms affect website performance and speed?
Performance and speed aren’t mentioned to a great extent on the platforms’ websites. The important thing is making sure that your code is up-to-date. You don’t need things in your code that browsers already handle, so it’s important to make sure you’re pulling unnecessary Java out and so on, making sure it’s optimized. From a design perspective, you can budget your bells and whistles. There may be a feature on a page that looks nice but they can come with a heavy performance cost and with limited usability or benefit. Is loading 20 pictures into a carousel really necessary, given that it will slow the page down? We look at what’s on the page, what components are being used, how many plugins are loaded at the same time, and whether the load is too much.
Is there anything else you wanted to add around choosing a CMS or building a website?
It’s important to note that there’s not always a right and wrong answer when choosing a CMS or platform type. These are unique conversations we try to have with every client, and it’s important to make sure that the code is semantic and accessible. We pay careful attention to this for all of our clients.