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Why Not Just Use a Template?

Designing and building a website can take a lot of time, and cost a proportionately large amount of money. Even a static item – like a print brochure – can be time consuming. But it is perfectly possible to buy a template that will handle the conceptual design and (for a website) basic coding, for about fifty dollars. Sounds like a bargain! Since some of these are very good pieces of work, why doesn’t everyone just buy templates – for their websites, and more?

It’s worth remembering that the templates don’t necessarily do all the design (or coding, for sites) – but they do take a lot of the load. Maybe 75% of the work is done for you, in some cases. And, moreover, a client knows roughly what the finished product will look like before agreeing to spend the money, which removes uncertainty at the start of a project.

So, what do templates not do?

The common sense answer is that a bespoke web site avoids embarrassing similarities. Wouldn’t it be awful if your website shouted about your unique selling point and powerful business proposition, but actually looked exactly the same as 100 other sites out there?

Emotionally that sounds like a compelling argument. But for many people it’s actually not an issue. If you are Apple, then your unique design is key to your identity, lots of people will see your site, and they would shout loudly about how ridiculous you’d look if you had an off the shelf website, undermining your claims spectacularly. But if you’re a little Poodle Grooming Parlour in Boston, do you really care if Poodle Parlours in Miami, London and Rome, or a bunch of unrelated small businesses, have very similar websites to you? Your ego might be massaged by the idea of being unique, but really, if your customers won’t notice (or care) then it isn’t an issue.

This brings us to the idea that with only with a truly bespoke website can you feel that it’s really “yours”. Okaaaay… but is that really valuable? To quote Pulp Fiction, “That’s pride ****ing with you. **** pride!” Pride pays no bills. Your ego isn’t worth spending money on. Except… that sometimes it might be. For a big company there may be an internal company morale boost to getting a beautiful new website, there could be a PR story to spin out of the process, or a benefit from involving distributors or suppliers or collaborators in the process to strengthen links. Working client-side I’ve done a few projects where we used a site to build relationships with partners, and once considered (but ultimately vetoed) a plan to get publicity from using the same agency as our most admired competitor. But this requires a very deliberate approach, and in many cases someone’s ego (or desire to build their CV by creating a high-profile site that their peers will admire) takes over, and the company spends a pile of cash on someone’s pet project.

What is certainly true is that if you design from the ground up, you can control every detail of the content. Want that video box just slightly larger? Want more space around the photos? Want a particular type of button to appear in certain places? All of these can be designed quickly, and then handed to a coder to build. But if you have a template, then the answer will probably be “you may want that, but it isn’t in the template, so you can’t have it.”

So, bespoke builds give you control, but lets be very clear about whether that’s a benefit to you. Sure, you may enjoy tinkering with the design and making a mark on your website, but do you really need the video box slightly larger? Is there a business benefit to having a little more padding around photos which already look OK? For most people, the answer is “no”. That’s pride again. It’s ego.

But for many companies, especially established firms or medium to large businesses, there are specific issues where you need close control, and some of these issues may require either that we avoid templates, or do an amount of coding to modify one. Maybe you have legal obligations to present information in a way that regulators demand: as a US pharma company you can’t tell the FDA “no, we won’t comply with that, because that isn’t supported by the template.” You may have contractual obligations that make demands on your website, perhaps set by your licensing agreements: I’ve done both packaging and websites where licensor requirements placed very strict constraints on design. And if your company already has a lot of materials, and a strong visual identity, then you need to maintain continuity in order to preserve your brand identity: you aren’t likely to find a template that mysteriously already meets all your brand guidelines. Not to mention big company politics: when the group MD swoops in for a half hour meeting and blesses the website on condition that you make a few modifications, then “Sorry, we can’t do that, we’re using a template” will not impress the boss.

And for many businesses, the key reason to want close control, is because it allows you to communicate or operate more effectively. A template gets your content available, attractively, fast and inexpensively. But making the content available isn’t always the whole battle. Sometimes it is. For our Poodle Grooming Parlour example, above, it may be enough to just get onto the web basic information like contact details, opening times and key services, in a format that doesn’t look too amateurish. But that isn’t necessarily the most effective communication.

As one example, imagine that you want to make it as easy as possible for people to hire a car from you. You will easily find a template that, with the correct plug-ins, can be used to let people book cars. But your objective is to make it as easy as possible. That means the home page and key user journey has to be designed as carefully as possible to help the visitor get to that one goal. “It is possible to do X” can be accomplished with a template. “We want it to be as Y as possible to do X….” is a whole different conversation.

As another example, lets assume that you want to communicate a particular proposition. Lets say that your finance company offers customers the fastest loans approval in the country. You want people to get to the site and immediately understand: we are the fastest! A template allows you to state that you are fast. Yes, this template has a slider that we can set up in half an hour to have your slogan, and a stock image of something unimaginatively speedy (a speeding super-car would say fast and wealth – there we are, done in ten minutes!) But although this says the right thing, does it say it as effectively as possible? If we design from the ground up, perhaps we can craft the whole graphical concept to embody that message visually; maybe we can code the transitions between content and the navigation system, to give a sense of speed and action through adding bespoke movement to the site; etc. The template will say what you tell it to. But an original site can be built to push the message as effectively as possible.

If you have a clear message that you want to communicate as clearly as possible, or a clear function for your website that it needs to achieve as effectively as possible, then a good, custom design can get you that. If the designers and developers deal with the brief well, then this is the only way that you will get an optimal web build. There just won’t be a template out there that happens to express your proposition perfectly, or is optimized for your particular sales funnel, audience, service, etc.

What templates let you do is to create something which isn’t optimal, but which is pretty good. And in fairness, a mediocre custom design will do no more than that.

So what your bespoke website offers is a shot at getting your messaging, or function, as close to perfect as you can, and to accommodate any constraints or requirements that are placed on you by legal, contractual or branding obligations. For a lot of businesses – especially medium to large firms – that is very valuable, indeed, vital. But it is not, in reality, what most people want from a web site. For many small businesses and individuals, something that is just “pretty good” is all they need – and for that a templated route is both faster and cheaper.

The question is, just how effective does your website need to be?