Archive for News

Your Brochure, Your Website, and Content-First Design Approaches

I’ve been implementing secure websites with built-in Content Management Systems (CMS) since 2004. I started using Adobe Contribute®, and eventually embraced WordPress™ over Joomla™ and Drupal™ for one very important reason: the ability to modify the back end to improve end-user friendliness. No CMS provides an out-of-the box user-friendly environment quite like is advertised, or as is expected by the client who pays for the site to be built. This means that additional costs are often required when building a CMS-based website so that non-techies can really leverage the power they provide. Training reduces perceived complexity, like boiling the water away to leave only the salt behind, so that actual complexity is revealed. For this to happen, the client has to be fully committed to learning new things, including the many hours required to learn those things. There is, however, another issue that arises once the CMS is mastered, and it is not related to the technology at all. It is the realization that what worked in printed marketing communication (marcom) does not always translate one-to-one for a website; and this is where things can seriously stall during a web project.

The things that should be answered first are often considered last, and put the website on semi-permanent hold once the integration point has been reached. The integration point is the milestone at which all the technology is proven working as per the requirements, and it is time to pour in the content. I have had projects delayed by up to a year from clients who thought once they have a working design they will know what content to create and put into that design because they already have it in a brochure. This is a backward approach, and can be proven as such because instead of solving problems it creates new ones such as these:

  1. The brochure has the text but the method of content progression disclosure is different in print than it is for the web. For example, on the brochure the first two paragraphs might setup your core value proposition, but on the web these same paragraphs might be too long if your goal is to have the most important information “above the fold” before screen scrolling is required to read the rest of it. Likewise if you think you need a few complimentary messaging components above the fold, next to each other, in content boxes with a “more” link.
  2. Between the time the brochure was distributed and now, the core value of the company has been shown to require tweaking. This can happen when marketing feedback shows the brochure didn’t connect as intended with the audience. If the decision is made to re-write key content that establishes your identity and value only after the website project is approved rather than before, the likelihood of project delay increases. I’ve seen one paragraph take over a week to get right in high-stakes, competitive software startup environments.
  3. Content should inform design, not the other way around. Force-fitting content into a design results from this way of thinking 100% of the time. You can easily see this mentality in the way it crams content into a design that was intended for a specific level of content density, but which was exceeded by the actual messaging needs.
  4. Content as a last consideration usually results in re-design expenses after the integration point is reached. Column widths, teaser pockets, and banner ads all have to balance out visually on desktop and mobile. If content is an unknown variable all the way through the design phase, it will change the visual balance once it is finally quantified. Sometimes the modifications are minor, and sometimes it is like shoving a beach ball through a garden hose. The surprise expense shows up here in the form of significant layout adjustments or even full-blown design changes.
  5. Graphics, writing, and file links are all “information”. Information Design is the practice of determining how that information is arranged on a website, and how various navigation elements (such as the websites’ main menu or side-menus) should be optimized to reduce the number of clicks required to access the desired information. This absolutely depends on how information is arranged…and this is determined by knowing what your audience is looking for and how they are expecting to find it. If information is not the primary consideration, but is instead subordinated with the idea that “we just need a design first”, the changes in the site map and site architecture can be significant and expensive surprises to deal with after the integration point.
  6. Search Engine Optimization (SEO), if that is something you need, modifies content so that a search engine can more accurately determine how relevant you are for a given search phrase versus another website with similar content. The ratio of websites serving a particular phrase versus the amount of searches done on that phrase is called the “KEI Value”. SEO can impose far different content, navigation, and design requirements than websites where greater exposure is actually undesirable. This is most common for specialized organizational and corporate websites where the build is more along the lines of a Document Management System (DMS) for researchers or other subject matter experts to check-in content. The content requirements here are dramatically different because the function of the content is different. In SEO the content acts as a marketing tool, but in archival research sites it is to be protected from prying eyes; which in turn means site membership is predicated on invitation-only.

Marketing is the act of connecting those that have a need with those that satisfy the need. The differentiator is usually how the problem is solved, and this often depends on at least some educational content so that the target audience understands why the differentiator matters. If “how we are different” is not understood, then it won’t matter. Existing printed marcom may have been created for exposure in the context of a trade show or one-on-one meeting with a C-Class stakeholder during a complex technical sales effort. These are far more specialized situations than the generalized context of a website. Even if the printed marcom is working well within that context, it is unlikely to translate with the same impact on the web. By recognizing that who we are trying to reach is as important as the context within which our message will be received, we can create content that informs a design naturally, and improves the overall experience for potential new clients.

WordPress Security Updates As Separate Releases

Before we get to flying cars and space tourism, I would really like to see the WordPress ecosphere consider separating release candidates into Feature Updates and Security Updates whenever possible.  

Why Use Self-Hosted WordPress Instead?

There are several traits my self-hosted WordPress clients all have in common. This is not an accident. Not all organizations that need a website need self-hosted WordPress, and not all of those that need such technology need the kind of WordPress websites I build. Self-hosted means an organization has retained their own web hosting service for the purposing of hosting their own instance of WordPress. In contrast, there are “hosted solutions” such as that found at WordPress.com, which provides both WordPress and the hosting in one place, along with many great, affordable update options.

So what is this “need” anyway? That is the focus of consulting questions asked by people like me of potential clients every day. The answer depends on many factors, and these dependencies are what make each client engagement unique, and in some ways all the same.

Specific Capabilities Are Needed

Cheap hosted solutions often lack the flexibility to build exactly what you need. They restrict what you can do because they have to in order to keep costs down. This is why FlexTech Media competes on value, not on price. If a website cannot satisfy the needs your business planners have identified, it will not satisfy your business plan. Even “free” is too expensive when that happens, but you paid for it anyway in time spent.

Sometimes capabilities need to be phased in, rather than happen all at once. WordPress is familiar to a lot of technology professionals. If anything happens to the current professional midstream, it is not as difficult to find another competent resource who can step in…arguably one of the hardest things for any developer to do in the first place.

 

Ease-of-Use and Training Resources

Employees new to a Content Management System (CMS) usually need about 6-hours of formal instruction, about 4-hours of tech support in the first 90 days after go live, and about 4-hours or more of cumulative time on a practice clone of the website.

Everyone wants their website to be easier to use than their cell phone. It might sound absurd until you realize that much of what you can do with a phone will be ignored as “too technical” by a majority of phone users, despite the fact that phone users pay 100% of the cost for the device and its related services. If you need to update the content of your website yourself, including performing image processing for web-optimized delivery on desktop and mobile, WordPress is for you. It is one of the friendliest free Content Management Systems around, and I build to make it even easier to use whenever possible so that you are able to take advantage of as much of its feature set as makes sense for you.

The attitude toward learning new things your organization brings to the table will also determine if a new CMS website is appropriate. If your designated content manager has never done anything like this before, they will need formal training. Training is not just about providing live guidance, or having employees review videos and user guides that are specific to your build. It also requires practicing, making mistakes, and recovering from those mistakes. This is why I provide additional self-paced training resource, including a practice clone for 30 days after go-live.

I am a web usability expert. This means I understand the critical elements of user interface design, which in this case is your website’s navigation configuration and other interactive elements. My focus is not on marketing and SEO, it is on making sure your website is as friendly to content managers as possible, while at the same time focusing on such considerations for your site visitors and members. It is a dual consideration which differentiates web designers from WordPress integration firms like FlexTech Media.

 

Overall Financial Expectations

Build Costs, training costs, maintenance costs, and licensing fees are factors in your decision to go with self-hosted WordPress or not.

WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS). Only organizations that want to take internal control of their content, or want to at least have that option, should consider a CMS like WordPress. Using WordPress removes the need to know much about HTML (but you must still learn some) in order to keep your website’s content relevant. Employee turnover has less financial impact on training costs with WordPress than having to hire a content manager that also knows a lot about working with HTML.

There are many other CMS options on the market. Some charge a per-seat licensing fee, while others are “Open Source” like WordPress. Here the costs are not for WordPress (which is free), but for professionals like me to create what you need from it.

This leads to the next financial consideration: technologist dependency. It is not unusual for large organizations, like hospitals and equipment manufacturers, to outsource everything about their website, including content management, to a firm paid monthly for the services they provide. These contracts usually run between $1,000.00-$8,000.00/mo. depending. But we are not talking about MRP/ERP systems, or stuff that has to be Sarbanes or HIPPA compliant. Often these firms are taking the heavy lifting for content management (which includes new pages and menu modifications at minimum) off the shoulders of their clients. But sometimes it is simply a case of the organization not understanding what a CMS like WordPress can be made to do for them, and how it can empower them to take control of their content while saving money and reducing technologist dependence.

WordPress is familiar and supported throughout much of the web technology community. Building with a well-documented website from FlexTech Media means other WordPress integration experts or marketing people will be able to continue helping you. You are no longer beholden to a single firm that built something so proprietary only they can serve your needs.

 

The Cost of Ownership

You can expect to pay between $75/mo. and $600.00/mo. for technical maintenance of a self-hosted WordPress website, depending on the build complexity, if you contract for such help. Your WordPress website belongs to you, and you inherit the cost of ownership. This is such a significant issue that my Standard Contract addresses it directly in terms of warranty and future proofing. Any self-hosted website you own will have maintenance costs. It requires consideration from the start about how you are going to keep all its components updated and its security stance relevant to the types of threats public-facing websites experience. Some of my clients have IT people for this, and some do not. The cost for such services varies according to the website’s complexity and the problems encountered during maintenance. Using FlexTech Media for maintenance is usually far less expensive than hiring an employee to do the same.

Licensing fees are also real. Depending on your website’s complexity the cost can range from $550.00/annual to over $900.00/annual. This is not usually the case with simpler, RapidRollout websites from FlexTech Media. In that case, your costs will likely be less than $350.00/annual.

The money saved by using vetted WordPress components like plug-ins to solve common requests is still realized when a plugin becomes untrustworthy. Sometimes the companies that make these components go out of business, or I find subsequent releases of the component fail my acceptance tests. When this happens, replacement components have to be integrated. The cost of this work to you, the client, will not be downtime or any sort of disruption to your website, and if the issue is with something we used as part of our Expansion Service I don’t bill anything for such work. Otherwise, it will require a couple of hours of billable work, at most, to handle in rare cases. Either way, your operational and financial risk are carefully mitigated with my time-tested approaches to this exact issue.

Some WordPress firms hate plugins and will do anything to avoid them. But some, like FlexTech Media, test them ruthlessly and rely on them to provide sophisticated functionality supported not only by me, but also by the plugin vendor. I have a relationship with these vendors in that I support their own efforts by beta testing for them or providing structured feedback about bugs while offering test environments for those companies to try things out. That means you have two resources you can turn to if something goes wrong with a component, and I have a very thorough Technical Support approach, inspired by W. Edwards Deming, that most WordPress consultants lack.

Though my build approach reduces the cost and project duration for a website contract, third party components introduce complexity when it comes time to maintain your website. Normally, these components make you reliant on the quality control practices of multiple vendors, whose code you are actually leasing with a license subscription. However, I impose my own set of quality control methods prior to accepting any code into a build, and I am extremely thorough in my testing approaches. Now that you know all there is to consider, I encourage you to read more about why I embrace plugins in this article before deciding if a website from FlexTech Media is right for your organization.

I do offer custom coding through vetted human resources I trust and will bring to the table if needed. It’s just that when you get the same requests over and over again, why solve the problem differently each time…especially when those solutions have withstood years of update cycles and hacking attempts: as can be seen by the fact that many of those who have permitted entry into my portfolio are still running today. This is the impetus for my evolving Expansion Services Library. As it grows, it will continue to offer sophisticated feature sets that have been vetted as secure and ready to go for your Foundation or Solution website.

WordPress 5.x Gutenberg Will Temporarily Increase Maintenance Costs

A major update to WordPress was released on December 6th, 2018 that changes the Visual Editor experience and modifies some of the core underpinnings of WordPress.  The change to the Visual Editor is significant, but WordPress 5.0 itself is different enough to where it has an increased risk of breaking some functionality in a WordPress website. For these reasons, if you contract with me to maintain your website you might incur a higher bill than usual, but not without authorizing the estimate first. My Standard Contract’s section on Future Proofing, which remains unchanged for the past year and which all Project Plans require agreement to, describes this possibility in detail.

Here’s what you need to know about how I intend to manage the transition for your website to WordPress 5.0 Gutenberg. The cost for this work will be individual to your build. Because these changes are dramatic, I will need to clone your website and run these upgrade tests on the clone first. Once I’m satisfied of the results, you will be contacted to login into your clone and verify my claim of stability. Then, we will determine a time together for the upgrade to happen on your live site. Depending on what was found on the clone, your site might need to go offline for a few hours in order to get the elbow room needed to run the upgrade and deal with any unexpected issues.

I will temporarily install the Classic Editor plugin Automattic™ provides (Automattic is the organization that makes WordPress) to prevent the major changes to the Visual Editor from taking hold . This plugin largely disables some of the other core changes to WordPress 5.0 as well, easing the impact on your website but still getting you to version 5.0.

This will get you WordPress 5.0 with the Classic Editor installed. This is a stop-gap measure. I do not want my clients to avoid upgrading to WordPress 5.0 indefinitely.  Eventually using Gutenberg’s new Visual Editor is likely to be mandatory, but nobody knows how long the current grace period will last: it could be a few months, could be longer. Either way, it gives you time to learn how to use Gutenberg (I’ll source training materials and such to make this easier for you, and post those resources on this website) and gives me time to run tests to verify compatibility with your particular website. The maintenance work is billed according to your FlexSupport plan.

If you do modify your build and implement the Gutenberg Editor yourself or upgrade to WordPress 5. 0 on your own, this action cannot be undone without restoring your website from a backup. So, if you do this yourself and it causes problems, please remember that my Standard Contract states I don’t do emergencies but will try my best to get you back to “normal” as fast as possible. My advice is that you avoid the additional cost for such help and leave the Classic Editor intact for now.

Targeting  WordPress 5.x Upgrades for January

WordPress 5.0 Gutenberg will likely go through numerous and rapid revisions over the next month. This means it’s better to wait to upgrade until a few 5.x releases are behind us, probably sometime around January 2019. Since your website was built with my security paradigm, the security risks to you are minimal for now if you don’t upgrade for awhile. Non-core components, such as plugins, will continue to be updated as usual.

When it comes time to authorize the work in January for WordPress 5.0 compatibility testing and remediation under your FlexSupport plan, I will let you know and we can work out the details on timing and estimated cost.

This may or may not include implementing the Gutenberg Visual Editor changes. Depending on what I find, it might be my recommendation that we upgrade your site to 5.0 with the Classic Editor plugin intact.

Learning Gutenberg

For some of you this will be a non-issue in terms of website compatibility. Your invoice for maintenance and security services through SMASH won’t be any different because maintaining a clone of your site is already done according to your individual FlexSupport plan. However, the changes to the Visual Editor are significant enough to where you will have to take time to learn it. While I can provide training and support as you go through this learning curve and bill such services according to your FlexSupport plan, it is likely that you will want the clone created for this transition to remain online for awhile as you practice with it. This “training clone” is not something I can interact with for maintenance testing without causing problems for you, so it will have to be an additional clone. When that is the case, the ongoing hosting fees for that clone are billed as well. If the clone also requires maintenance, that is invoiced according to your FlexSupport plan.

Please feel free to contact me directly to discuss any questions or concerns you might have, and make sure you are familiar with the Standard Contract that was used to build your website and covers all other provided other services. Be assured that you will not incur any billable services without explicitly authorizing it.

Strategies for Selling WordPress Websites With Large Plugin Stacks

WordPress plugins are infamous for adding both great functionality and great consternation if they turn out not to be secure, conflict with each other, and introduce unexpected behavior upon being updated. I’ve developed a methodology that allows me to build complex WordPress websites using a large number of plugins (over 20) and still maintain proven stability and security for my client through updates (or lack thereof) after years of use. Not that I endorse this, but one of my clients came back to me after 5-years of not updating their e-commerce WordPress website. It was running on WordPress 3.4.2 in early 2017, the original versions of all plugins, including WP eCommerce, and still worked great. Neither had it ever been hacked. I was both pleasantly surprised and very alarmed. I updated the site pronto, but it provided more validation that my methodology is sound. Of course having an excellent web hosting company is just as critical. Without a great web host that uses solid security approaches on their end (I strongly recommend baremetal.com operating out of Victoria, Canada for shared hosting endeavors, and SiteGround.com), nothing I do in this regard really matters.

I am a lone operator in my company, a sole proprietor. I have to be nimble, able to connect to others with the skill sets I don’t have, and do all of this efficiently to keep lag time and operating overhead at a minimum. My college degree is in Management and Organizational Development, not computer science. So for me, process is key (all hail W. Edwards Deming).

My client websites often have multiple workflows, e-commerce components, membership requirements for accessing research documents, or other protected content. They also usually have at least some custom coding provided by a programmer I outsource to (I am not a programmer) when it becomes obvious during the Architectural Phase (I work in phases, but more on that in another article) that using a plugin is simply not going to work.

Large plugin stacks are understandably frowned upon by many WordPress website developers. The more plugins you use, the greater the risk of unwittingly implementing an exploit or conflict. Every time you update plugins, you risk breaking something because the plugin author modified a hook or other aspect your site relies upon NOT to change. Even worse, the update might have a vulnerability in it that was not present in the previous version. But custom programming has its own drawbacks, so like anything in nature and tech, knowing where to strike a balance is important.

Custom programming is sometimes expensive compared to the planned ROI, and if the coder becomes unavailable years later when a compatibility issue arises, what do you do then? What if the programmer turned over a bunch of non-annotated code? What if they never refactored their work? I have spent more money having custom code re-written from scratch to fix such issues, at my own expense, than I’ve ever spent keeping a large plugin stack updated and secure. However, most of the programmers I’ve hired over the years were well worth it. I won’t let a few bad apples spoil my outlook. It simply reminds me that good hiring practices are as much a part of operating independently as they were when I was managing technicians in a corporate environment.

Plugins are not always the answer of course. Depending on your client’s needs you may indeed have to rely on the integrity of a programmer to get things done correctly. It just depends on the project.

For the majority of my clients, an array of fully vetted plugins, tested and configured for interoperability and stability through aggressive upgrade cycles, does the job just fine. However, positioning yourself as a web designer when building sites like this does not sufficiently communicate the sophistication of your skill set, and this can create a disconnect between the price you charge for your websites and the price the customer expects to pay.

You Are A WordPress Integrator

If you’re creating designs, heavily modifying themes with CSS and other back-end approaches like I do, testing plugins for interoperability and security issues, creating technical workflow maps, stepping through use cases with clients, creating simulations in Invision App, and producing a finished website as the final deliverable, then you are way beyond what most laymen think of when they hear the term “web designer”. Even if you’re not doing all of the above, just the act of finding and implementing different plugins to meet a use case, no matter how simple, is an act of integration.

Except for hyper-focused graphic designers that produce visual brilliance for theming into a website by someone else, most of us that build WordPress websites tend to work in several creative and technical media roles simultaneously. This can include heavy programming, plugin creation, graphic design, UX design, usability testing, responsive or adaptive web design, plugin interoperability testing…you name it. We shift between these roles so quickly and frequently that we forget we are actually wearing a lot of hats. We are integrating different skill sets and virtual components in order to produce the final deliverable. We are, by and large, WordPress Integrators.

Clients Must Pay For Their Own Plugin Licenses

A developer’s license is no substitute for a client getting their own license. Any push-back from a client on having to renew a set of plugins on an annual basis usually happens because expectations have not been set correctly. Clients need to understand both the enormous power and cost savings they are getting by having a competent WordPress Integrator build their website using plugins, instead of primarily via custom coding, when it makes sense.

The estimated cost of annual licenses is one of the first things I address with potential clients. Updating those plugins is another cost I am careful to bring up before anyone signs on the dotted line. Together, these two items filter out a lot of potential customers, leaving only the ones that would never be able to get what they want any other way. This really cannot be overstated. You do not want to be conceptually associated as competing with the many Do-It-Yourself, cheap website builders on the market. WordPress Integrators are able to provide specific solutions to problems their clients cannot readily solve any other way, and at a competitive price-point.

My clients typically pay between $390.00 to $900.00 annually to keep their plugin licenses current, and about $500.00 annually for me to keep their websites updated. This cost is very competitive compared to using a programmer to get the same capabilities provided by a well-vetted plugin stack or hiring a full time person in-house for the same.

Just make sure to keep a few excellent coders on standby. They can provide immense insight and value that is well worth paying for in situations where plugins are too cumbersome, inexact, or simply insufficient. Often a trustworthy programmer is also your partner for troubleshooting plugin conflicts or identifying better ways of doing things when you thought a few plugins would do the job just fine. Programmers see things very differently, and that contrast will keep you from falling in love with your own ideas. A good WordPress Integrator knows when to say when, and get a programmer involved who can lead the way (hint: let them lead, don’t try and live on the solution side of the issue).

All of this leads to the core value of a WordPress Integrator. Were it otherwise, we would be irrelevant. If you are able to communicate this value, your relevance is significantly strengthened in the eyes of the potential customer.

Have a Formalized Vetting Procedure for Plugins and Themes

This aspect is so important, everything falls apart without it. Here’s my recommended approach no matter the size of your plugin stack:

  1. Have available both a local testing environment and an online testing environment. You can test faster on a local machine than having to “cowboy code” to a web host. Retaining a web domain strictly for testing with your favorite web host is critical to make sure the server technology they use doesn’t result in different outcomes. This is were you need to be very careful about which web hosting companies you trust. My experiences with GoDaddy, Site5, BlueGenesis, BlueHost, and DreamHost exclude them from my trust list. For me, trust has been earned by baremetal.com, SiteGround.com (comprised of a lot of former Site5 employees that were replaced by far less competent staff a few years ago when Site5.com almost destroyed my reputation and those of my trusted allies), and possibly getflywheel.com (I am still vetting them).
  2. Use the exact same directory structure in test that you intend to use on live; or get as close as you can. This is really important when it comes to security. My websites place wp-config.php in an area other than where the WordPress install exists, among other techniques. Fudging the directory structure in test means that I don’t get an exact emulation of live; which of course increases both complexity and uncertainty when dealing with issues that are revealed during testing.
  3. Test plugin interoperability not only for the current versions, but also through at least one upgrade cycle within your optimum security configuration, using the plugin stack your intend to deliver. This means that great plugin you found on Monday will likely not be allowed into a production environment for a few weeks. It is much better to deal with such a delay than the consequences of rushing to judgement and paying for it with instability or security flaws. For example, if a plugin gets updated and suddenly chokes when it cannot find wp-config.php in the WordPress install directory, that disqualifies it from my list.
  4. If a plugin is free and it is fulfilling some critical function, donate money to the developer per website you use it on, and adjust your pricing to your clients accordingly. This isn’t altruism, it’s practical business advice. Maybe you cannot always follow it, but try and you will be surprised how it can help future-proof your work. It makes a significant difference if you run into problems. Developers are human; it’s true, I’ve seen them! If you pay them something, it increases the likelihood they will be more inclined to help. Payment also helps them continue to develop what you have now realized you cannot live without. Just think, “What would it have cost me to hire a programmer to get the same functionality I’m getting for free with this plugin?” I think you will find a small donation, say around $15.00 per site, rather thin by comparison. Also be sure to give them great reviews that include meaningful information those considering using the plugin would find valuable to their decision.
  5. Regardless of if the plugin is free or premium, test their technical support approach. This starts by reviewing any online resources like support forums, and can go all the way through to seeing how they handle a support issue directly up on a test site. If questions are not being answered in the forums, then that’s a red flag. Negative reviews or comments are also interesting, but try to weed out the valid complaints from those made by people too lazy to read directions or the user guide.
  6. If the plugin requires access to a licensing server, get it in writing from the developer what will happen if their licensing server becomes unavailable. If they hedge in their response, do not use the plugin.
  7. For more complicated plugins and themes, a professionally written user guide should be available. User guides should be written with high proficiency in the target language. They should also make generous use of screen shots. I have found that a lack of such documentation speaks to a lack of commitment (and therefor longevity) to the component in question.
  8. Make sure as you add to your plugin stack that you do not exceed the memory capacity of your server. This is really only a problem in lower-end, shared hosting environments but it is always good to make sure. The php.ini file often controls this, but sometimes it’s a C-panel setting or some other control required by the web host.
  9. At the very least, have separate backups of both the full website and it’s database, and a backup of just the database, before you perform an update. For more sophisticated websites, consider hosting a full clone running on a completely different domain and performing updates there first; of course being sure not let web crawlers or unwarranted visitors view the test site. There are many methods for cloning and testing websites securely, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Make sure any maintenance contract takes into consideration the costs of hosting a staging clone, if any, and that any user accounts and protected content are just as protected on the staging site as they are on the production site.
  10. Finally, make sure clients understand before you build their website that all these components must be constantly updated, and that such time is billable. Push back here once again comes from unrealistic expectations on the part of the client which you, the WordPress Integrator, are responsible for addressing in the very first meeting. I have never encountered clients willing to pay these fees until they understand the value of what is being built. Communicating that value is another article, but it definitely starts for some with a light education on what the web design world offers and where your services fit within that market space. This is called “triangulation”, and allows your client to understand the actual market place you operate within as well as what makes you stand out.

Keep in mind that clients don’t care about plugins and themes. They care about functionality and aesthetics. Though this fact makes it tempting to want to hide “all this plugin and theme complexity” from a client, it is often not in the best interest of the client to do so; depending on your business model.

I am developing a subscription based lease model for some client websites, but in my current model the client owns the site and all its assets (as much as ownership is possible for open source projects). Once launched, they are responsible for its ongoing maintenance and health unless they source that aspect to my company through a maintenance package. It is imperative that I educate my clients on what they are buying and the ongoing responsibilities that entails. How effective I am at this educational aspect absolutely determines my likelihood of being awarded the contract and the quality of life we experience together as the project is completed.

Create A Library Of Trusted Plugins and Themes by Use Case

It is arduous, tedious work testing plugins and themes for interoperability and security. Also, many beautiful themes found on the major theme repositories require certain plugins or they won’t operate correctly. It’s important that once you have gone to all the trouble to determine which components work well together, solve certain use case issues (like secure sign-up for a membership site using e-mail validation routines), and don’t impair the website through an update cycle, that you document them and keep on top of what their authors are doing.

You want to have at your disposable a library of themes and plugins with a document that cross-references them by use case. Preferably this document is an Integrator’s Guide you maintain for yourself and those on your team which describes the configuration and interoperability for each use case. It’s true that this allows you to build on past successes, but there’s an even more important point to doing it this way. It allows you to create a standardized baseline pricing model for the different features your client is requesting.

It is also important to realize that, for a WordPress Integrator, plugin and theme authors are nothing less than an extension of the programmers you may have direct, personal relationships with in the analog world. Treating them as such goes a long way toward avoiding problems, or getting their help, when the compass starts to point south.

The Bottom Line

Making a business out of the all the creative and technical work that goes into building a WordPress website means leveraging talent and resources just as it does in any other industry.

Positioning yourself correctly in the minds of potential clients requires educational aspects to your marketing materials that strike a balance between the technical and business knowledge required for the client to understand your value.

Then too, knowing when to get a programmer you can trust involved is just as important as knowing how many plugins you can safely leverage given your own skill sets. By having a methodology, and the right financial expectations set with your clients as it relates to components and their licenses, your ability to serve a more sophisticated and lucrative market space increases…even if you’re the only employee of your company.

How To Document A WordPress Build to Reduce Cost of Ownership

Dependencies between WordPress core, plugins, custom code, or other components will always add complexity to the WordPress ownership experience. Complexity adds cost.  

Five Reasons WooCommerce Offers The Best ROI When Compared To Other E-commerce Solutions

The hardest part of selling your products or services online is probably choosing the best ecommerce platform for your website. This right platform can reduce costs, minimize development time, and increase the ROI of your business.

After doing extensive research, we found five reasons why choosing WooCommerce for your website will give you the best return on investment.

It’s A WordPress Plugin

WordPress is the most popular CMS, website creation, and blogging platform on the internet. It offers a wide variety of handy plugins to turn your websites into anything you want them to be, and if you want your website to become an e-commerce destination that operates like a well oiled machine, you are certainly in luck, because the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress offers exactly that.

WordPress is also one of the easiest platforms to teach yourself, which means it will take much less time to get your e-commerce website running than with other platforms such as Squarespace™. This means your website can start generating income quicker, which will lead to a faster ROI.

It Has The Best Pricing Options

Where other platforms such as Wix™ and Squarespace offer rigid, set monthly subscription models, WooCommerce will let you set up and run your e-commerce website for free. That means that you can spend your money where it really matters, like getting some good web hosting for your website and making sure that it performs well at all times. It also offers affordable custom packages for when you decide that it’s time to start growing your website or add more features.

This means that you can test the waters of the specific market you’re catering for and actually start generating income without spending a cent, which will send your ROI through the roof.

It Offers The Most Features

When compared with other e-commerce solutions, the WooCommerce plugin for WordPress most certainly offers the most (and the most advanced) features. These include pre-installed payment gateways, geolocation support, automatic taxes, shipping tables, support for discount coupons and codes, products reviews, and everything else you’ll need to build and maintain a profitable e-commerce website.

Its integration options are endless

WooCommerce is open source and completely extendable, which means it can integrate with just about any service provider including Zapier®, Taxamo®, PayPal®, and Amazon® payments. Easy integration means smaller development costs and less time spent on developing custom solutions, both which will lead to a faster return on your investment.

It Offers Multiple Language Support

WooCommerce offers support for languages spoken in China, Germany, India, and Japan, which means outsourcing work to developers and other freelancers in these countries is easy and efficient. Employing the right freelancers will mean reduced development costs which can, in turn, increase the ROI of your e-commerce business substantially.

WooCommerce is by far the superior option when choosing an ecommerce platform for your website if you are serious about your ROI. Have a look at the handy infographic below and find out even more about the amazing WooCommerce plugin for WordPress.

https://websitebuilder.org/Facts-You-Need-to-Know-About-WooCommerce

Avoiding Complexity In Workflow Diagrams

Workflow diagrams map use cases into a coherent visual story, providing far more context than mere bullet points in text. The trick is to keep the diagram simple, and this requires evaluating what the reader brings to the table. One person’s “simple” can be another’s “confusing”. Too much information can be a bad thing when it comes to explaining processes. Likewise, if the workflow has branching logic, or simultaneous events (common), the job of keeping it simple gets harder. However, there are a few universal rules that can help:

  1. Complexity is the enemy, and it is everywhere. Getting to simple is the goal, and it can require a lot of work. When you’re done, it might look like you didn’t do much at all to create the diagram. You’ve succeeded when it becomes intuitively obvious what’s going on just by looking at the diagram and reading legend text.
  2. Keep the chart elements adequately spaced apart and font type variation (bold, italic, colors, etc…) to a strict minimum.
  3. Use the design principle of negative space to suggest groupings of elements without having to draw actual lines between them; lines add to visual complexity.
  4. Unless you are charting complex logic with database read/write activity, passing variables between functions, or other software behaviors, you should be able to keep the number of shapes used to construct the diagram to a minimum.
  5. Flowcharts and workflows are read with the “Yes” or “positive” flow leading down the page. A “No” branches off horizontally to another shape or set of shapes. If the “no” answer doesn’t result in anything significant to consider, you can probably omit it.  This allows you to limit horizontal paths and the need for additional shapes (like a circle with a letter in it).
  6. Some events might trigger multiple, simultaneous actions by the system. These need to be included in the diagram. To add to the fun, different users types for these event driven system responses can be important to clarify as well. Just like conditional logic requires branching the diagram, the requirement to identify multiple user types (such as system administrators or end-users) within the diagram imposes more complexity. Perhaps we branch off into another diagram cluster next to the main diagram, or maybe it’s possible to find a way to avoid that without cramping up the main diagram. This is where good graphic design skills serve well.
  7. The Marketing Department needs this as an Infographic. It will provide a surface treatment of the process using creative design approaches for telling the user story.
  8. The Operations Department needs a technically insightful visual resource.  This is an audience that needs to understand how the user story is fulfilled.

Let’s take a look at two diagrams, each concerned with the same goal: a predictable, positive experience interacting with a web design agency. This Infographic is what website visitors see:


Figure 1: The Infographic

In this use case, several main workflows that run the agency are presented as the ideal outcomes (benefits) of a phase. Each phase is seen as a layer, rather than a step, through which the project must pass before the website can be launched. The virtue of speed is communicated graphically, as is the implied promise of a smooth, structured project experience. These diagrams require more artistic skills than their technical counterparts, and a lot of imagination to determine what sort of metaphor will connect best with the client-audience. This is where technical writing and marketing converge to tell the story and communicate value.

For operations, the actual workflows behind the scenes required to deliver the optimal customer experience need to be consistently applied. This usually focuses on software workflows for completing administrative tasks such as we see here:

In this use case our audience is internal company employees. This document is also useful for identifying the type of CRM software required to run the company, or what would need to be developed if nothing off-the-shelf will do.

The graphic uses only one shape: a rectangle. It uses no branching logic and progress flows from top to bottom as in a traditional flowchart. A blue line connects the end-user related experience, while the colored boxes with either letters or numbers naturally delineates the admin experience from the end-user experience. Simultaneous events are visually implied by occupying the same row together.

One can easily see how the promise made to the clients is expected to be fulfilled by employees. As it turns out, Figure 2 is the same pattern that works for several other back-office workflows, including the process for taking and tracking Change Requests.

Why It Matters In The End

Diagramming the internal processes that are supposed to deliver the optimum customer experience can provide a more intuitive frame of reference for comparing how you are doing things with what you are promising. Consistent results are easier to achieve with methods that are not mired in complexity. Even then, the more someone understands a thing, the less complex it is perceived to be. Good diagrammatic information can communicate a lot of high level information accurately, and clarify other details in a way words alone cannot. Keeping these diagrams as simple as possible for the intended audience, without losing the required level of resolution, makes them invaluable visual resources.

 

 

JIRA Service Desk Enhanced Workflow Map

Powered By S3 Media Maestro

This video provides a quick overview of the workflow map I use to guide my support desk tasks at FlexTech Media. I only cover the critical path in this video, and not some of the other paths  you can clearly see in the screenshot of my map, which you can also download by right-clicking on the image below. It took quit some time for me to figure this out, and it’s part of what I learned as the Price-Waterhouse Problem Resolution Protocycle. I hope you find this helpful!

_michael

The Price-Waterhouse Problem Resolution Protocycle implemented in JIRA Service Desk’s Worfklow Map

How SearchWP Proves Value

“I looked into creating a secure, searchable PDF file archive for your researchers,” I said sitting across from my expectant client.  It was the winter of 2013 and my client had paid me well to evaluate the landscape of options.

“I reviewed both WordPress options for your current site, and hosted third party options, or options on some of the same intranet platforms you are running inside your organization. The other options come in at around $8,000.00 if they are a dime. This plug-in is from a company called SearchWP, and it will work within your current website after some configuration. It runs about $80.00 a year.”

This won me an incredulous look. It was probably the same look that came across my face after I acceptance-tested the SearchWP™ plug-in on a clone of my client’s website. As part of the evaluation process, I had put both the plug-in, and the support structure of the company, through a few paces. Both passed with flying colors. I explained this to my client, and then showed her a real-time demo on the clone using their exact PDF library archive; but now with the UI configured to make Searching the archives as intuitive as possible. She gave an appreciative nod.

“What about general site search? We don’t want that stuff being available in front of our membership wall.” The client had indeed been clear on this point from the beginning. I demonstrated the site search experience and results set for a non-logged in user. None of the research PDF files bled through. The client was able to see this in action, approve the anticipated costs that I projected from what I learned in the paid research phase, and off I went. I had this same success with many other clients, and every time I ran into a problem, the folks at SearchWP were all over the solution.

A Matter of Trust

When a business builds a website for a client and recommends some technology, whether it’s a plug-in or something else, they are essentially endorsing that technology and the business that provides it. This means placing a great deal of trust that the provider will do what they say they will do.  In this case I am focused on a WordPress plug-in called SearchWP, but it could be any company in this story that you’ve ever had a great experience with and find yourself becoming fiercely loyal to their brand. We talk so much about such brand loyalty in marketing circles (yes, even in tech writing this is a big deal or at least it should be), but what about how great that experience is when we are the ones becoming the fans? What can we learn when we are on the receiving end of such an experience?

The first lesson I learned was how dependent on the expertise of someone else I become when I implement third party technology and get paid to perform the integration. This lesson continues through the life of the engagement as the switch from build mode to maintenance mode occurs. Now maintaining this technology becomes a responsibility as well for the integrator. This means dealing with any future conflicts that may arise due to the rapid update cycle found in the WordPress universe. The good news is that this is easy to plan for and test prior to making the recommendation. Just let the plug-in go through a few update cycles on a clone site and see what happens. Yes, this takes time.

This leads me to the second lesson. I want my clients to have the same great experience working with my company that I enjoyed with SearchWP. To me this meant a focus on building only the kinds of websites I was already good at, and setup a testing environment to try new categories of websites to offer clients. I did not do that here. This was my first encounter with a client requesting a searchable PDF archive behind a member wall.  It creates enough unique issues both with performance and security that one has to plan this sort of build carefully. After that it’s easy, of course, but the first time out is rarely the best. If I had been maintaining a generic feature-driven clone that created the sort of website capability this client was asking for, I could specialize in fulfilling that sort of request (and eventually I did!) using the well known CMS of WordPress. There would have been no testing delay through update cycles, because I had been maintaining that type of site in a generic fashion already for months, through multiple update cycles.

I knew that what I had put together could be improved, and if so then marketed to future potential clients. It worked. I obtained three more complex website projects based on my demonstrated ability to deliver this capability alone. At no time did I feel like I was a lone wolf out in the field (which I was). This was because throughout these engagements I was frequently in need of help from the excellent team at SearchWP, and help was rendered at such a depth I almost felt like their only customer.

As a marketer (and tech writer, and web integrator, etc…) I evaluated how I did things and changed them to increase the odds that my clients would start to feel toward me as I did toward SearchWP. If this seems a bit over the top, allow me to provide some context.

Confidence With No Suntan Required

If you’ve ever put it on the line and staked your reputation on saying you could accomplish something in 6 months that a previous, entire agency team could not accomplish in 1.5 years, then you know the sort of heat I’m talking about. People like me thrive on that kind of pressure, but only if we are confident that the claim is supported by data. Making a statement like that has to be more than just cosmetic promises with good intentions. In this particular case my client was dreading getting yet one more web design company involved in what had turned into a protracted nightmare for their corporate office overseas. The money burned so far, compared to what had actually been delivered, was depressing. Nothing functioned as they had expected,  since the site was still in various phases of ongoing work, and the design disintegrated on mobile.

Within the promised time frame I built them a WordPress website replacement that exceeded the requirements they had given the previous team of developers. There is only one reason this worked. First, I had learned both of the above lessons and implemented strategies to leverage my new knowledge into a niche that I now had expertise in. Second, and just as important, SearchWP technology worked exactly as promised, as did access to knowledge resources, both automated and human. In fact, I would say the documentation team at SearchWP deserves a virtual standing ovation. They have anticipated not only the most common integration issues people have with their plug-in, but also understand that some education has to occur in order for their instructions to make sense. They provide that education so naturally and kindly in their documentation that you almost don’t notice it.

But beyond that there is the personal touch. I got into some trouble a couple of times on these projects. Nothing unusual, but some things seemed odd though I had followed the instructions closely for creating the sort of search experience my clients needed. Working directly via e-mail with the plug-in author, who is responding the same day as we work through it, and then fixes it within two days of this effort, almost ruined me for other plug-in companies!

Fortunately, this isn’t the only success story I intend to share in the coming weeks. One commonality among the stories you will see me post is that these are premium plugins or themes. I focus on those because, in my opinion, without real-time support available from the authoring company, it puts a web integrator in an unacceptable position of exposure (see my first lesson above). I’m sure there are some great free plug-ins out there that offer excellent levels of support. For me, the experience has best been had with the paid stuff when there is any sort of complexity involved in what it does, how it does it, and the environment it does it in.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a spokesperson for SearchWP and this article is by no means an endorsement by that company of FlexTech Media.

(970) 541-0145