Recently, in a LinkedIn forum, someone asked if it’s possible to “design a great website without code” (i.e., with a drag-and-drop website building tool). As someone who has spent the last 20 years designing and coding websites, I thought this was an interesting question. So, I took the bait.
So What Exactly Is a Great Website?
As far as I could tell, he had no idea what a “great” or even “good” website is in the first place, and figured he would genuinely want to know. After all, would ownership of a scalpel make me a surgeon? Would an F-15 make me a fighter pilot? Or, would a metal box full of tools make me a master mechanic? I think not. So I tried to explain…
At the very least, a great (or even just a good site) must be designed to satisfy the owner’s strategic objectives, and those of the end users (aka, the target audience).
By strategic objectives, I’m referring to:
- Success Metrics;
- Site Promotion Tactics;
- Target Audience;
- Competitive Landscape;
- Brand Positioning;
- Visual Consistency (with other media);
Because none of this information is available to the original designer of the predesigned template you’ll be using, and because these templates that these companies typically offer must appeal to a wide variety of businesses, the site cannot possibly accommodate these objectives, without modification.
Pretty Templates Aren’t Enough. Get It?
So, I told him, if you’re using a predesigned template of any kind, as is, and you expect it to be great (or even good), you’re already off to a bad start. And even if he could find a predesigned template that was miraculously designed to accommodate all of his strategic objectives, content still needs to be added to the site. And of course, there is a lot more to a great or good website than a pretty template. Everything from the logo; to the selection of photos; the copywriting; and the way the pages are actually laid out are just as important (if not more) than the template itself.
In fact, the designer of a great site will likely have years of experience as a graphic and web designer. S/he will be keenly aware of the consequences of bad typography and will know how to prevent it. S/he will likely be a visual communicator who is nearly a master of concept development, color, and composition. S/he will use images (including videos and animation if appropriate) that work well with the branding (color) and reinforce the brand messaging (a picture is worth a thousand words). Photos and illustrations will be expertly resized and cropped so that all vertical lines are in fact vertical, and all horizontal lines are in fact horizontal. And so on.
S/he will have the ability to art direct photographers, illustrators, videographers, and animators, and work closely with a copywriter, who knows how to write just as well for human beings (i.e., the target audience) as s/he does for search engines.
Furthermore, the designer of a great site will likely be an expert in organizing content (information architecture) on small-to-medium sized sites, and ensuring a good user experience (usability). Navigational elements will have a fair and tasteful amount of contrast to set them apart from other elements and will be visually prioritized (to create an obvious hierarchy). Custom graphics will be used to create strong calls to action that gently guide visitors along a path that is consistent with strategic objectives. And, these graphics, as well as the whole site, will (or should) help the company differentiate in a very crowded marketplace.
Get Ready to Write a Big Check!
I also told him that these design modifications would require many code changes. But unfortunately, as soon as a professional developer realizes that anything he does directly to the code to a site generated by a drag-and-drop tool will break the “user-friendly” control panel for making relatively simple modifications, and he sees how the site was actually coded, he will know that it will take far more time to do the necessary work than usual, and you will insist that you are being overcharged.
I know this because I regularly hear from prospective clients who stubbornly insist that they just need me to fix a few “simple” things on their website. It’s like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.