What Am I Buying? Understanding Website Technology & Costs

What Am I Buying? Understanding Website Technology & Costs

Your website is a critical part of how audiences experience your organization's brand, and the choices you make about website technology have a significant impact on how effective it will be in accomplishing your organizational goals — often having impacts that will be felt for years. It’s critical, then, to be as informed as possible about what it actually takes to build and maintain a site.

But what are folks to do if they're confused — or flat-out turned off — by technical jargon? And how on earth can you evaluate the cost of building or revamping your website if you and your colleagues don't speak the language?

For starters, there are many factors that impact both quality and cost. And when I talk about cost, I mean more than financial impact. Cost also encompasses time and effort. In fact, a big driver of "total cost" is how technology choices affect an organization's day-to-day operations and your website visitors' user experience.

Since Web technology — everything from how your website is built to the systems integrated into it — affects nearly everyone in an organization in one way or another, it's critical that the technology options available to you are widely understood. As a design-driven Web development firm, our approach is to think about (and discuss) technology from a human-centric perspective.

What choices do you have, and how will they impact your organization, your people, and your mission? It all starts with... 

The Jargon Hurdle

As is often the case in other fields, the biggest barrier to understanding Web technology is its over-reliance on jargon. All those acronyms, weird phrases, strange concepts, and inside jokes (like the ID10T error) almost seem designed to keep non-technical folks on the outside looking in.

When tech people try to explain to the layperson how the Internet works, they often say it's like "a bunch of pipes." Now, while this may be fine as far as analogies go, it's a gross oversimplification that limits how we understand the Web. For example, the metaphor of a pipe implies continuous flow and permanent connection. But that's not how the Internet works. 

The Internet is a distributed network of cables, switches, and computers. It's governed by widely-agreed-on standards and protocols. Information transmission may seem continuous, but in fact information on the Internet is broken up into "packets" that travel many different paths and then are reassembled at their final destination. There are machines and software that route and filter these digital packets to their destination. (That's the TCP/IP protocol in action.) Most everything has an IP Address, sometimes several. There are public, private, and hybrid parts of the Internet...and firewalls to keep it secure...and servers (not the restaurant kind) that are actual machines, and servers that are software running on these machines. In "the cloud" there are often servers running "inside" servers — and server software running "inside" those that are known as virtual machines (VMs). Sometimes it's not VMs on these machines but things called "containers" running server software.

Your website runs on a variant of all this, and more. It's coded, for example, in HTML, CSS, and Javascript, and your organization may use a programming language to customize your CMS (content management system). Oh, and those pipes? Size does matter.

See what I mean? If you're not a technical person, you're head is probably spinning right now — and that's okay!

What Do I Need to Know?

Most of you do not need to understand how network protocols, code, and deployment scripting works. You should, however, understand the basics of what a website is and what it takes to build one. Otherwise, you could wind up with a website and a combination of software platforms for things like customer relations management and grants management that don't work well together — rendering whatever has been 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 for your site. If you think of a website as a house with plumbing and electricity, UX is the foundation for what you'll be building. When it comes to technology, Web programmers rely on "UX and specs" along with design comps and style guides to assemble the pieces needed to meet your design objectives. What's more, some programmers focus on the stuff behind the scenes (the back end), while others are concerned only with how the site looks in a Web browser (the front end).

The What End?

The back end includes all the things you don't see when visiting a site: the configuration and organization of content administration, databases, and the integration of those systems with other systems. The front end is what you see when you browse a site. How the back end is organized can affect the front end; indeed, there's a lot of value to be gained in spending time on designing a well-designed back end.

Choices in functionality and experience all influence the level of effort needed for front-end and back-end programmers, and sometimes what seems like a simple change can significantly drive up development costs. That's why having programmers be a part of the design and development conversation from the beginning is invaluable in terms of helping everyone understand the true costs and trade-offs of different choices. The sooner everyone is aware of those costs and trade-offs, the less likely you'll be to run over budget.

Does My Choice of 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 the day-to-day operations of the site. There are big differences, for instance, in what a CMS offers out-of-the-box vs. available third-party CMS modules (or plugins) that deliver advanced features and functionality. And your CMS choices matter especially for the people who are going to be using its every day (i.e., your site administrators). A CMS that's hard to work with almost always is a long-term drain on expenses and productivity and often can be a demoralizing burden on staff.

Your choice of CMS also will determine how easy or difficult it is to integrate other systems into your site. Need a newsletter signup? What about your customer-relationship management needs and CRM options such as Salesforce or Zoho? Do you plan to ask users to log in to your site? What about Single Sign On? Your website is the epicenter of your organization’s digital strategy and as such it is connected to systems that significantly impact the organization's day-to-day operations. Getting the platform 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 the kind of infrastructure I mentioned above, and all that has to exist somewhere. That "somewhere" also must meet the technical needs of your site. Fortunately, there are many hosting options from which to choose. Your organization's 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 way to go.

Okay, What Else?

While choice in technology can impact costs significantly, the impact of non-technical decisions vis-a-vis 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 site.

Web developers use UX documentation and specifications to make a vision for a website concrete; we 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 big risk factors for blowing out a website budget. If your organization uses other platforms (e.g., CRM or grants management software), you should consider undergoing a technology audit (or business systems analysis) before initiating a major website redesign. An audit is the ideal time to make sure your different systems work together and can deliver the best possible experience for your brand.

Having a clear sense of your organizational goals and functional requirements can help all involved understand the bigger picture in terms of what it is needed in order to execute on those goals and requirements. Focus on what's important for staff, your users, and the organization — and give it the budget it deserves! 

If you don't have the budget, consider using a phased approach. While it’s tempting to try and solve every problem in the first go-around, it's much smarter to build a solid website foundation that is designed to scale and work over the long term, and then add intelligently to it over time and as resources become available.

How Can I Lean 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, great. Bring them into the conversation and rely on their expertise to inform the decisions you make. If you don't, we'd be happy to talk with you about how Constructive can help you use Web technology to strengthen your organization and your brand. 

Good luck and keep up the good work!

Ian Mariano, director of technology at Constructive, has more than twenty years of experience working with organizations to bridge their business, design, and technology needs.