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What Am I Buying?! Understanding Website Technology & Costs

Your website is a critical part of how audiences experience your organization’s brand. The choices we make about web technology significantly determine how effective it is in accomplishing our goals—usually having impacts that are felt for years. It’s critical, then, to be as informed as possible about what it actually takes to build and maintain your site.

But what’s a person to do if they are confused—or flat-out turned off by—technical jargon? And how on earth can you evaluate the cost of building your website if you don’t speak the language?

Well, there are many factors that impact both the quality and cost of building a website. And when I talk about cost, I mean more than the financial impact. Cost also encompasses time and effort—and a big driver of a website’s “total cost” is how our technology choices impact an organization’s operations and a website’s user experience.

Since web technology—everything from how your website is built to the systems that will be integrated into it—impacts nearly everyone in an organization in one way or another, it’s critical that technology choices be widely understood. As a design-driven development web development firm, our approach is to approach (and discuss) technology from a human-centric perspective.

What choices do we have and how will they impact our organization, it’s people, and our mission? This all starts with getting past the first stumbling block.

The Technical Hurdle

Similar to the medical industry, the biggest barrier to understanding web technology is the over-reliance on jargon in technical discussions. All those acronyms, weird phrases, foreign concepts, and inside jokes like the ID10T error—they almost seemed designed to keep non-technical folks on the outside looking in.

When people try to explain how the internet works to the layman, there’s an analogy that is often that it’s like “a bunch of pipes.” Now, while this may be passable, it’s also a gross oversimplification that completely limits how we understand the web. For example, a pipe implies, from everyday experience, continuous flow and permanent connection. But that’s not how the Internet works.

The internet is a distributed network of wires, radio waves, machines, and software. It’s governed by standards and protocols. Information transmission may seem continuous, but in fact is broken up, sent to travel across many paths, and then reassembled as needed. (That’s the TCP/IP protocol for you.)

There are machines and software that route and filter these broken up packets to their destination. Most everything has an IP Address, sometimes several. There are public, private, and hybrid parts of the Internet. Firewalls to secure the perimeter. Servers (not the restaurant kind) that are actual machines, and servers that are software running on these machines. One example of a software server is a database. Another, a web server. Another, an email server.

In “the cloud” there are often server machines running “inside” server machines—and server software running “inside” those, known as Virtual Machines (VMs). Sometimes it’s not VMs on these machines but things called “containers” running server software.

Your website runs on some variant of all this, and more. Coded up in HTML, CSS, Javascript, databases, and “written” in some programming language customizing a CMS (Content Management System). Oh, and those pipes? Size does matter.

See what I mean? If you’re nontechnical your mind is likely spinning right about now—and that’s OK!

What Do I Need to Know?

You don’t need to dive as deep into understanding network protocols, code, or deployment scripting. You should, however, understand the basics of what a website is and what it takes to build one. Otherwise, you very well may wind up with a website and a combination of software platforms for things like CRM and Grants Management that don’t do their job well together—making whatever’s spent on them a sunk cost that delivers little value.

What’s Actually Being Built?

You’ve probably heard of user experience (UX) design (or information architecture), but what is it? Combined with the functional requirements of your website (written descriptions of how it needs to work), they’re the blueprints to your website. If you think of your website as a house with plumbing and electricity, this is the foundation of what you’ll be building. When it comes to technology, through code and configuration of the server and content management system, web programmers take “UX and specs” along with design comps and style guides to assemble the pieces needed to meet the design. Some web programmers focus on the stuff behind the scenes (the backend) while others on how the site looks when delivered through a browser (the frontend). 

The What End?!

The backend includes all the things you don’t see when visiting the site: the configuration and organization of content administration, databases, and integration with other systems. The frontend is what you see when you browse your site. How the backend is organized can affect the frontend, in fact, there is value in spending time crafting a well-designed backend—it can help dramatically with administration of your site.

Our choices in functionality and experience all influence the level of effort needed for frontend and backend programmers. Sometimes, what seems like a simple change can actually significantly drive up development costs. That’s why having programmers be a part of the conversation from the beginning of the process, all the way through to UX, functional requirements, and visual design process is invaluable to helping everyone understand the costs and trade-offs between different choices. The sooner everyone knows, the less likely you are to generate cost overruns.

Does My Choice in CMS Matter?

Absolutely! Programming for one content management system over another (for example, Drupal or WordPress) makes a huge difference—not only in how much time, effort, and cost it will take to build your website, but also in the impact it will have on your organization’s operations. For example, there are big differences across CMS’s in what’s offered out-of-the-box (think of this as “standard” when buying a car) vs the extras via third-party modules (or plugins) that add advanced features. And your choice in CMS especially matters for the people who are going to be using the CMS every day—your site administrators. A CMS that’s hard to work with is a long-term drain on costs and productivity that’s often a demoralizing burden on your people.

The choice in CMS can also determine how easy or difficult it can be to integrate other systems into your site. Need a newsletter signup? What about your CRM needs, like Salesforce or Zoho? Do you have or are you going to allow users to login to your site? What about Single Sign On? Your website is an epicenter of your organization’s digital strategy that’s connected to systems that significantly impact operations. Getting the choice of platforms right matters! (Want to know more? Watch our webinar: WordPress vs Drupal, The Choice is Yours)

Where Will My Website Live?

Your site will run (be hosted) on servers and infrastructure I mentioned earlier, and that has to exist somewhere. That somewhere must meet the technical needs of your website, and there are many hosting options to choose from. Your budget and capacity to manage the infrastructure (or not) should be factors in any decision—but long story short, for most websites, a solid shared hosting plan or cloud-based solution that leaves server administration and maintenance to your host provider (so you only need to worry about your website and CMS) is the best way to go.

OK, What Else?

While choice in technology can impact cost significantly, as I alluded to earlier, the impact of non-technical decisions about things like functionality and features should not be taken lightly—especially at the start, where choices can have cascading effects on other areas of your website.

Web developers use UX documentation and specifications to make your vision for your website concrete; to build according to the design. Programmers are specialists who spend time researching, writing, and testing countless lines of code to create the user experiencing (for your audience and your site admins). The devil is in the details, and not surprisingly, the more complex a website is, the more developer time is needed, and the more it will cost.

Uncertainty and unknowns about technology are also risk factors for blowing your website budget. If your organization uses other platforms such as CRM or grants management software, before initiating a major website redesign consider the value of undergoing a technology audit (or business systems analysis) to understand your technology landscape. It’s an ideal time to make sure your different systems work well together, deliver the best possible experience with your brand for all involved, and allows your agency partner explore proof-of-concept work when evaluating systems and integrations.

Having a clear sense of your goals and functional requirements bridged with technical insight can help understand the bigger picture in what it will take to execute. Focus on what’s important for you, your users, and your organization—and give it the budget it deserves! If you don’t have the budget, rather than trying to fit in every feature and wish-list item into a redesign, consider about using a phased approach. While it’s tempting to try and solve every problem in the first go-around, it’s much wiser to build a solid foundation that’s designed to scale and last for the long term; then add intelligently over time as more resources are available.

What Can I Do to Learn More?

Yes, web technology is confusing (and constantly changing!). But you don’t have to become a technologist to make better decisions when it comes to your website. If you have a technical expert in your organization who can help you bridge the knowledge gaps for you—great. Bring them into the conversation and rely on their expertise to inform the decisions you make. If you don’t, we’d love to talk with you about how Constructive can help you use web technology to strengthen your organization and your brand.

In the meantime, Constructive will be holding workshops for the social impact sector that will give the non-technical get a foundation in understanding the fundamentals of web technology to better understand the technology you are using, the cost, recommendations, and strategy. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up for our monthly newsletter at the bottom of our website and we’ll let you know when the workshops are open.

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