Inhouse vs outsourced web designer – The rise and fall

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A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away

Well, OK, maybe not that long ago or far away, but 15 years ago any company wanting to setup their own website would have probably purchased a copy of Frontpage and given it to their IT department. The website would have been largely static, and often designed by someone more used to dealing with spreadsheets.

This was reflected in the general standard of websites at that time, chock full of landing pages, nasty gif animations, and the spinning or flaming logos were all learnt to live with for some time!

Most SMEs at that time weren’t terrible serious about the web, and few foresaw the impact it would have on our lives.

However, some companies were bright enough to realise their in-house IT bod wasn’t going to have the design skills necessary to single-handedly present the company to the world. They wanted more from their websites, so turned to outsourcing their web design requirements. This was great. It created a whole new web design industry, and the .com bubble began inflating.

The honeymoon sours

Things were sweet in the website design industry. Companies were buying websites like there was no tomorrow, and paying handsomely for a dozen web pages or less, which was essentially two or three days work, if that! Sooner or later the company directors began to get frustrated because:

  • their dedicated outsourced web designer was often off snowboarding and they couldn’t get things updated as quickly as they’d like
  • each time pages or content was added or modified they got charges HOW MUCH??!!!

Yup, it’s shameful, but the art and practice of stiffing (i.e. overcharging, knowing full well your client has no choice but to bend over and take it!) became rampant for a while. The technology was new, clients were naive, and the carpet baggers had moved into town and were feasting themselves on your money, and crapping out websites like it was 1999! and it was!

Along came content management

The race was on for websites that allowed the owner to modify their own content. Content Management Systems (CMS), as they have become known, were being developed out of necessity. Allowing the website owner to make changes to the contents of their own websites had become irresistible in the onward surge to produce ever more timely content.

Early CMS solutions were relatively simple affairs, allowing end-users to change a block of text or a price here, a photo there – nothing too adventurous. They were often a bit clunky, but they did the job, and clients loved the feeling of empowerment. No longer were they going to be held hostage by unscrupulous web design companies.

A great number of company websites were now being managed, once again, in-house – usually by PR, Marketing or Communications Departments. These are the guys who deal with the press, and advertising chanels on a daily basis. They could write the copy, and produce the images required.

Everything was well in the world once more. In-house content editors were producing content, and adding it to the website. The web design companies were busy providing the website packages and frameworks to empower the end-users. This is how it was always meant to be!

Oh no, we’ve created a monster

In the past decade we have seen the development of several popular open-source content management systems – some of which have withered, and others have gone from strength to strength. Names like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Oscommerce, Cubecart, Zencart, Magento, phpBB, SMF etc., are all now commonplace in discussing web design.

There is one important maxim which I try and stick to, but geeks in general are painfully incapable of observing.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

In the race to provide ever more powerful CMS solutions, the open-source community (made up of well meaning geeks – who I love, by the way) has succeeded in producing systems that are so flexible, and configurable that the average PR, Marketing or Communications bod would have no more idea of where to start than if you gave them a copy of Adobe Creative Suite and told them to get on with it.

It’s fine for me to sit here and say it’s easy – but then I’ve been involved with this stuff since I starting playing on a Tandy TRS-80 back in the late 70’s. The truth is, content management systems are no easier for the un-initiated that sticking a copy of FrontPage in front of them might have been 10 years ago.

Here’s another maxim for you :

GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out

Unless your in-house team really has the skills to understand basic HTML and CSS, and is able to produce graphics that fit seamlessly into your existing website layout, then your website is destined to end up looking as ugly as any home-brewed solution.

The new guy in town – the Content Manager

In many ways, we have come full circle. Modern websites are so sophisticated that even managing the content of one arguably requires skills on a par with those of the early web designers – especially if your website contains any whizz bang functionality.

However, the job can’t really be called web designer – but content manager. A content manager is someone who’s sole job is to feed and water your website with the daily care and attention it needs to survive in today’s competitive market place. If this is one person, then, in addition to any editorial skills, he/she should at the very least be able to:

  • fully understand the most common features of the CMS you are using
  • have a good understanding of current html and css standards, and maintain an interest in emerging standards
  • be able to (unless supported by another post) prepare photographs and other images for display on the website
  • ensure the website is backed up regularly and archived in case of disaster
  • liaise with the external web design company to ensure security patches are kept up to date

This leaves companies again with the choice of in-house vs. outsourced content manager to do this work.

The farmed-out option here is somewhat more simple, because unless you are a very large company, then the content management function can be just one person – meaning you only need to find someone competent that you can trust. There are many single handed book-keeping services out there, and the vast majority do an excellent job. I see no reason why the job of content manager should be any different. I’d love to shout “Pick Me!”, but that would be shameless, wouldn’t it?

Things to ask when your website is being developed

But seriously, the CMS your website is based on is hugely important. If you want a website that is going to do everything, including wash the dishes, then you are going to be managing a far more complex CMS, requiring specialist skills – and most likely an outsourced or very talented in-house content manager.

I would argue that in order of ease of use, WordPress is perhaps the best option for most information driven sites, followed by Joomla and Drupal, each becoming more complex, and customisable in terms of functionality.

However remember the KISS acronym. It’s one thing to build the Severn Bridge. It’s quite another to keep it painted! A large complex CMS requires more management. It will probably have more custom code – and therefore will present greater security risks to your customer’s information, and to being hacked if it is not maintained, so always budget for regular security updates and maintenance. To do otherwise is asking for trouble later.

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