Your website is a car
does it have enough fuel?
Most people understand cars. Let’s “drive” my puny metaphor for website design and development a little further.
The difference between web design and development
Website designers and website developers do different things. One person has to paint all the pretty stuff (like the car’s body, finish and colour) while the other has to engineer what’s under the bonnet (engine and chassis). Website designers don’t necessarily know how to code and most programmers (web developers) don’t like phrases like mood board, user experience or colour scheme. I do both (that’s because I’m special). More about me in a minute…
Let’s take my nutso car metaphor to the panelbeater:
- Stay with me on this:
- The road = the internet (superhighway)
- The chassis = the host computer (or server) attached to the internet
- The engine = your content management system (CMS e.g. WordPress)
- The mechanic = your web developer
- The body painter, detailer & panel beater = your designer
- The fuel + passengers = content
Your fuel, in a way, is site content. Petrol keeps your car going.
What content you upload and how regularly you do literally determines online success. Success for a website is very simple. You just have to pass competitors with really good, original content. Like this, I hope.
With a server attached to the internet backbone, running a programming language with a database, the developer and the web designer can begin their beautiful work.
Server & Programming Language
If your website is built with a solid Content Management System (a CMS allows you to update your site via an administration section) there will be a server (computer) running a database into which you will pour your content. That computer will most likely be running PHP (the programming language) with a MySQL database. PHP pulls website content (in the form of text and images) from a MySQL database and writes it to the screen as HTML. Think of the words, pictures and multimedia on your website as content. Everything on your About Us page, photos in your Gallery, every News item and every Event you add – fall under the title of content.
Content is your website’s fuel.
Computer languages are updated every so often (sometimes yearly) to allow for new functionality as the style, social media or new invention dictates. Many servers running older versions of PHP and MySQL. PHP has moved on to version 8. Older servers today still running PHP5.x – which is no longer supported and threfore is a security problem just waiting for the right hacker. A lot of older clients with big, now-bloated websites rely on this old chassis.
Banks are interesting because their chassis is often very old. Companies that run for 20 years are often dependent on old software. Some banks still reply on COBOL, a computer language invented back in 1959. COBOL Programmers are like hen’s teeth. It’s basically Latin for computers. COBOL programmers can earn more than the Prime Minister of Australia. When you hear that your bank has a new and exciting way of doing business, you can bet they’ve been hacked and had to pay a small fortune to computer software surgeons to fix their system. We get to see the trifold flyer and TV ads.
But I digress. Let’s lift the bonnet.
Content Management System (CMS)
(Your website’s engine)
Most websites these days are built with a Content Management System (CMS). WordPress, for example is written in PHP. A CMS like WordPress allows you to into a back-end where you can add pictures, videos, text or PDF documents without having to learn a line of code. Whether you are using WordPress, Drupal or Joomla (there are hundreds) your CMS is the heart of your website – much like a car’s engine. And like an engine, it needs regular maintenance (read about what I do to maintain WordPress websites here). A CMS also needs regular security tweaks to minimise the chance of a hacker getting into your site. Maintenance on your website, unlike your car, should be performed every month.
Without regular website maintenance, like your car, your website will stop working. And, also like a car, it will cost thousands to get it back on the road.
I tweak security on websites every day. I charge $549pa (or $55/mo) for most small businesses.
Drupal, Joomla and WordPress are written in PHP
Drupal, Joomla and WordPress content management systems are open-source. A CMS is developed by many people (sometimes thousands) and each CMS “build” is referred to as “core”.
Some very popular web design and development companies will cripple open-source CMS code so that clients have to pay for basic functionality such as adding pages or forms. Make sure you ask what you can and can’t do on your website – and who actually “owns” the design and content.
It’s the job of a web developer to go in and check to see that you have the latest version of a CMS, but it’s not a developer’s job to touch core files [an article on best practice web development coming one day soon].
(Panel beat and paint)
Web design has to do with everything you see. It’s sometimes referred to as the superficial side of our business, but that’s not a fair comment. Designers have to deal with many issues besides picking colours. They invariably have to lift the bonnet to check to see if programmers have put the right engine parts in. A designer could get away without ever knowing exactly how the website works, but in 2021 it’s almost impossible to keep hands totally clean.
- Website designers typically deal with;
- how a customer uses your website (website usability)
- the overall site layout (website structure)
- navigational heirarchy (can things be easily found?)
- lead inducing buttons and CTA’s (do they entice the user to click?)
- form fields (too many fields and users go elsewhere)
- typography (is the site easy to read?)
- page titles (does my article title represent the content?)
- headings (can Google easily understand my site for indexing?)
- sub-headings (clarifying what the article is about for scan reading?)
Three clicks and they’re gone
Remember that ditty?
Web Design and Development: Usability
Usability is a big part of web design and development work. Is the site easy to use? Can site content be easily read on a tablet or smartphone? No? What needs to change?
More often than not, web designers are not usability experts. This is particularly true for designers with a print background. Designers moving from print to web who are enamoured by the tech, can overlook things like usability (Does that button really look like a button or is it just a circle?) and SEO (Can Google see my site? Is my text really a big image?).
A website is NOT a brochure.
I often tell my students (I once taught this stuff at Uni sometimes) “Be conservative with layout and creative with images, fonts and graphics.” In other words, don’t re-invent the wheel.
People need to know where they are just by looking at the site. There’s no need for mystery meat or crazy navigation.
One other aspect to a web designer’s job is to make your website look like all other parts of your business. Your business logo down through to colours and overall look and feel of your site needs to be consistent. In many cases, designers are lumbered with old logos, colour schemes and tiny graphics. If a business has been put those graphics on the side of their fleet of cars, then they have to be rolled into the website design.
I don’t add every single website to my portfolio. Some don’t look that great because of outdated logos or colours the client had to have.
Designers need to incorporate the existing business look and feel into a modern web design and development workflow.
In short, everything you see on a website is the responsibility of the web site designer. That’s why they need to know how to read the oil stick.
Your Website Developer
Imagine topping up your oil up every 2 or 3 months, doing a full oil change every year, topping your radiator up with water, checking spark plugs and turning tyres while keeping an eye on the automatic door-locks and window winders. That’s your developer’s job.
Like your car, your website needs a mechanic. You can get away with not putting oil and water in your car for a while, but one day, it will stop.
Websites which have stopped are where I get most of my clients. Some sites have so much malware, I just scrape the text on each page with my mouse and start again.
It’s often cheaper (easier) to build a new website than fix an old one.
Web development usually refers to the overall functionality – what is happening on the website.
- Do you need an e-commerce shop with a checkout?
- What about an event scheduler?
- Do you need on-site membership?
- Membership levels
- or just a password-protected page?
- What platform do we use?
- Magento or
The developer works under the hood, working with the computer programming language that transports content to and from the database.
Hybrid Web Development + Design
(The artistic website mechanic)
Sometimes it takes a team of people to develop a website (more expensive), but more often than not, with 2021 tech and a multitude of CSS frameworks to choose from, a website can easily be built by a single person (for example, a freelance web developer like myself – here are several reasons to choose a freelancer over a web firm).
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
There’s nothing more embarrassing than going live with a site – only to find that 2 months later, Google hasn’t indexed it because it wasn’t properly coded in the first place. Or the page was accidentally left set to “noindex” while it was in development.
In 2021, I spend most of the time working on getting sites found. To this end, I recommend people try a Google Adword campaign in the early days – as a way to boost traffic.
Ten years ago, a basic website opened to an audience of about 300 people per month. These days, with very late adopters hopping on the web, that number has dwindled to as little as 1 visit per day. You might as well have a physical shop. And because Google keeps changing the algorithm to avoid black-hat SEO spammers (read my article about SEO here) it’s doubly difficult to get found.
My journey from Website Design to Web Development
I used to design websites in Photoshop. Coders would cut up my image and load bits into tables (now CSS frameworks). As time went on, it got harder and harder to get eyes on my wonderful website designs. There are lot of gorgeous websites. Most get little to no traffic. Like fantastic art films, they look fab, but they play to empty seats.
20 years ago, a pretty website did the trick, but as competitors and tech late-comers hop online, competition is fierce. Websites need traffic and only a small percentage of that traffic turns into a lead. My clients can’t make money without leads. That’s what led me to One-off SEO (closely followed by ongoing Monthly SEO), Pay-per-click Advertising – and eventually, back to computer programming.
I started programming when I was 12.
Programming computers is where all of this began. I don’t think that I’m the only web designer who needed to learn other skills. My work now has an audience. Clients who leave Geoffrey always come back. They remain loyal and ongoing. Ahh me.
Final Word on Webbies
Your website really is a car, right?
Cut a long story short and take time to talk with both a web designer and a developer. They will have very different takes on your website ideas. But be wary of marketers who seem to know all the answers.
Just don’t talk to a systems administrator. That’s another post entirely.
If you found this post interesting, leave a comment below.
Edwin wrote his first (Harrier Jump Jet) text adventure computer program in 1982 during the Falklands War conflict. He now builds websites with best practice, future-proof web development, Ad marketing & SEO. He taught at Curtin Uni and OUA and in 2007 was voted 5th best lecturer (out of 2,500) across all disciplines taught in Australia. He loves sharing what he knows.