Websites are constantly evolving with new technology and buzzwords. This can be difficult to understand when commissioning a web site. I thought it would be useful to give a simple explanation for some of the main areas of website design and development at the moment. I also go into detail about themes, CMS’s and what buyers should be careful about when commissioning a website.

Responsive web site

With a non responsive website, the site structure and design stays the same irrespective of the device it’s being viewed on.  So where as it may look fine on a desktop screen, on a mobile device it will be tiny, with the user having to zoom in on their phone. This causes usability issues and may lead to the visitor leaving the site. A responsive website deals with this problem by optimising the layout and design based on the screen it is being viewed on. This means the site will be easy to use and view irrespective of what device it is being viewed on.

CMS – Content managed web site

A CMS (content managed website) can be edited and updated by the user by simply logging into the website using a browser and editing the site. Crucially it requires no experience of web design or development. Common CMS’s include WordPress, Drupal, Concrete 5 plus many more. A website that isn’t content managed is called a static site. A static site has no database. This means the only way to change the website is to edit the source HTML and CSS which usually requires a web professional.

HTML

HTML is a markup language and is the foundation of all website pages.  When viewing a page on the internet your browser translates the HTML into the page you see.

CSS – Cascading Style Sheets

CSS was created so that the content and presentation of a web site can be separated. A non CSS layout may look fine on the screen but the underlying content often does not follow a logical order, and makes little sense without the visual elements of the design. This is problematic in terms of accessibility, and also in terms of search engines.

CSS is a separate file to the core HTML/PHP file. The HTML content of a page should be semantic, and logically ordered . There should be no inline styles within the content. This allows for the page to make sense irrespective of whether styling is used or not. In turn this also makes the site easier for the search engines to understand.

PHP – Hypertext Preprocessor

PHP is a scripting language which is common on the internet. When your web browser views a PHP page, the script is run generating the HTML that your browser views. This allows web developers to create web sites which can access databases, and process information. Content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal all use PHP. There are other scripting languages but PHP is the most popular at the moment.

Front end framework – Bootstrap

A front end framework is basically a starting block for website design and development. It prevents the developer from having to reinvent the wheel for each web site they create.  It allows the developer to use pre made structures which have been proven and tested. These can be then customised to create the structure the developer wants. An example of this might be a web form. The developer chooses the basic form from the framework as a foundation for the form on the website they are using. Frameworks are especially useful for responsive sites as they often provide a scaffolding structure for the site. A popular front end framework is Twitter Bootstrap

Themes

Themes are used in CMS’s like WordPress to change the way the website looks and behaves. When you buy a new site in WordPress or similar, you are actually purchasing a theme for that platform.

The term theme is quite misleading. It implies it’s just visual, but this is far from the truth. Most themes have thousands of lines of code, written in PHP to achieve the desired functionality. As well as the php, there is also the HTML and CSS which creates the look of the site. There are many other technologies that can be included in the theme.

Themes come in three guises –

  • Bespoke – A theme built from scratch on the desired platform
  • Premium theme – A theme bought off the shelf for the desired platform
  • Free theme – A theme that is free to use (often not for commercial use)

A bespoke theme, built from scratch is what an established business would often choose. This enables the web designer/developer to create a site tailored to the brand and feature requirements. It also creates a site that is reliable and expandable in the future if coded correctly. An average bespoke WordPress site might take between 4-6 weeks in terms of man hours. So it tends to be a significant investment. This would include research, design, build of front end, build of back end, population and testing.

A premium theme is usually for start up businesses with a small budget. They can be purchased off the shelf for around £100 and you can get a web developer to customise it. There are limits to how far you can customise a premium theme, and it’s difficult to know how well they are coded until you have lived with the site for a while. Another issue can be security vulnerabilities. Because the theme is in the public domain, hackers can work out its vulnerabilities.

Free themes should generally be avoided by businesses, unless they really have no budget. They are often created by inexperienced designers and developers. There are some free themes that are safe to use. Check out themes by reputable companies such as WordPress, but they are very familiar to web users. Free themes are notoriously un-secure as well.

Buyer beware

Be very careful when commissioning a website with a CMS. There are unscrupulous web companies who will use off the shelf themes, and simply customise them and claim them as their own bespoke work. There are even example of companies selling free themes as their own. Using off the shelf themes is fine as long as they are up front about it, as the cost would be significantly different to a bespoke theme.

Another word of caution, is the growing practice of UK web companies outsourcing the web design and development to somewhere like India, without letting the client know. This causes difficulties down the line, as they often have no experience in house. This leads to poor support and problems when you want to grow the site. Also there is the question mark of how good the work will be, as often they outsource it because it’s very cheap.

Finally make sure you own the content on your site and ideally have a life time licence to use the site.

For examples of our bespoke WordPress websites click here. If you need any help with websites feel free to get in contact.

I hope you have enjoyed the article. If you have any questions that you would like added to the article please let me know. Cheers Martin