Home » website

Tag: website

A gorgeous website is different from a GOOD website

Can over-designing things become a problem?

We like pretty things. I get that.

We like the restaurant to be clean and inviting. Easy to understand.

But where do you draw the line? Where do you find a balance between pretty and functional?

I struggle with finding this balance my work. I want to use data to make a decision and not just my gut feeling.

I am a computer nerd. I design software, I write code, and I take pride in my work. But I am often faced with this dilemma:

Should I invest more in software design or graphic design when working on a project?

Nobody will use a pretty app that is not working.

I think we can all agree on that.

At the other extreme, some people will use an ugly app because it solves a big problem reliably.

But I want to do better and find some middle ground.

Good software design improves stability and performance. Makes maintenance easier, thus reducing the costs.

Good graphic design makes the user experience more comfortable. Reduces the learning curve and makes your application more widespread.

So how do you split your budget? Is it 50/50? Or should you focus more on performance, for example?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that your target audience is the one that will dictate what your focus should be.

If you have software that helps people to solve a big problem, probably nobody will care that it is ugly, not intuitive, and incredibly awkward to use. If they are desperate for a solution, they will accept one, no matter how it is delivered.

On the other hand, if you are talking about a game with bubbles… well those need to be some pretty bubbles to keep the audience engaged. In the case of games, you are not after a solution; you are after an “experience of play.”

How does this apply to websites?

I guess if your offer solves a significant problem, you can be forgiven if your site’s design is still from the 90s. But if there is a lot of competition, then a good design may help you stand out.

And this word “may” is where the problem comes in for me. How can I quantify it in terms of a website goal? It is intuitive to think that a good design will increase sales, but you also need to know how much? You need to have some idea of how close you will get to your end goal, so you know how much you are willing to invest in that good design.

Designers are very excited to make things pretty, to make them pop, to make them unique. And I understand that. You are making art, and you want it to be beautiful. But is it really useful?

I fall into this trap myself with software when I over-design something just for the pleasure of creating a “perfect design.” But in the end, that does not benefit the client all that much. There are so many examples with people doing very well, by using poorly designed tools.

They’re also amazing designs, both software, and graphic, that nobody uses.

To help make this decision more comfortable (and profitable), I’d like to know a way to quantify the benefits of excellent graphic design. Any thoughts?

The Challenges of an WordPress Online Store

Having an online store is a good idea. It allows you to make revenue from your website and your offering. That is obvious.

What is not so obvious is that some challenges come with it :).

I believe in being prepared! So, if you’re looking to start an online store, or to improve the one you already have, read on!

This article will focus mostly on WordPress powered websites and add some general principles as well.

Shopping cart or no shopping cart?

It depends. I much prefer the experience of a one-click purchase. And in some cases that is precisely what you want to offer to your customers. When you have a lot of products in your offer, and it makes sense for people to buy more than one product at a time (like three books for example), then you need to use a shopping cart. For WordPress, I recommend WooCommerce, and some custom work on top of that to make it more user-friendly.

Coupon or no coupon?

Coupons are an excellent way to reward loyalty and to get attention for your promotion. A one-click experience does not lend itself well to using a coupon. There are other tools in this case, like custom links. But a shopping cart (like WooCommerce) can easily use coupons. Just make it obvious where to expect a coupon code. The default user interface is sometimes confusing for people.

Guest checkout?

In most shopping experiences, you are required to create an account before you can place an order. And there is a good reason for that. It allows for later access to your purchase history and the downloadable files you may have lost.

But sometimes creating an account can be seen as too complicated and unnecessary. I prefer this method of purchase. If guest checkout is essential for you, make sure the tool you are using allows for it. Again I have to recommend WooCommerce as they provide for this feature.

Keep the conversation going

Depending on the kind of business that you have and your offer, it may be a good idea to keep the conversation going with your customers or to hold their hand as they discover your product. To allow them to grow by making a more advanced offer, and, why not, to learn from them. The tools to use in this case is WooCommerce integrated with MailChimp. I am personally not happy with what is on the market today, so I have had to create my own plugin that would add specific tags for specific products. This approach allows me to segment the audience or to trigger campaigns based on the product that was purchased.

Also beware, that for bigger stores, the official MailChimp plugin does not work anymore as you would expect. There are a lot of timeouts and missed notifications. Especially true for when you have a significant influx of orders (for example you’ve just sent an email blast to your audience).

Provide support

Providing support should be common sense, but not everyone is doing this right. Your customers need a reliable way to ask for assistance.

I used to think that this would be too much work. But in fact, it is an excellent way to learn about your audience, what they need, what they like, and what is broken with your sales or delivery process. Do not ignore the support requests :). The “Contact Form 7” is an excellent plugin to use for this.

The Refund Policy

Buying things online is risky. Your order customers trust you, but the new ones don’t know you. To me, it makes total sense to make it risk-free for them and offer a full refund policy. Yes, some will abuse it. But for every abuser, there will be more people who end up trusting you more and making the purchase. The refund policy is also a strong statement of confidence in your products or services. Yes, they are that good!

And I agree, in some cases, a partial refund makes more sense. And in others, it is OK to offer no refund if the customer had plenty of chance to change their mind and did not. Like selling tickets for an event, and someone wanting to cancel the day before. In these cases, you have to make it crystal clear in the purchase process what the refund policy is and when it expires.

International clients

I still struggle with this one.

You may discover that you have a big audience in a country that speaks a different language. Say, French. You invest in the resources and process to translate your products and sales process into French to help your audience get to our product. But what you also need to be careful about is providing support in the same language. If the product is in French, and the purchase process is in French, the support cannot be in English. To me, that would not feel genuine. Like you did not go all the way with your offer, and you stopped right after the sale.

If I cannot offer support in French, I prefer to keep the sales process in English. This way, those who buy the French product will know that that is the only French part about it, just the product itself. But the shopping experience and support will have to be in English.

As I’ve said, I still struggle with this, and I cannot say I have found a solution that I am delighted with. As tools, for WordPress, I am using the PolyLang plugin.

The Mobile Screen Experience

Have a look at your analytics data, and you will likely notice that the mobile users are a big chunk, if not the most significant piece of your audience. Your store needs to be mobile-friendly. And again, I have to recommend WooCommerce here, but with some custom work to make it even more usable on the small screens.

Order fulfillment

Don’t forget about the second half of the shopping experience. Don’t stop at just getting paid :). Make sure your customers can get to their files.

You may have to use different tools for different products. Small files can be sent as attachments. For videos, you may be better of emailing links to a platform where the video is hosted (YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia). And for huge files, there are yet other tools to help, like Amazon S3 services.

Use this information to decide what kind of shopping experience you want to create and what tools you should use. And if you struggle with some challenges that I didn’t write about, let me know in the comments below.

Versioned Backups – A form of Insurance

What are version backups and why should your online business care?

Allow me to share a story with you. One morning I get a call for a client of mine. A website they were maintaining had bad been hacked. The service they were providing was not working anymore and they were losing the trust of their customers. They were asking me to fix it for them.

Fixing a hacked website is very difficult and time-consuming and it can mean a lot of downtime. The better option was to restore the site to a previous state when everything was working.

Thankfully this client understood the value of backups so he had one. Took me an hour to restore the backup. And when we checked the site…

Surprise!

It was still looking bad and the browser was still issuing security complaints. Auch!!

It became clear that the hack had happened a more than a week ago, so restoring the most recent backup did us no good.

And here come the versioned backups. Which is a fancy name for backups that go back in time. You don’t have only the latest backups, you have a daily backup for the last 30 days or a weekly backup for the last 10 weeks.

Because we had those I was able to discover when the hack took place and restore the backup before this. Another 2 hours spent, but now the website was working again.

After one more hour, I discovered that one of the plugins installed had a security flaw that had been exploited. I had to disable and delete that plugin or the site would have been hacked again shortly.

Versioned backups are snapshots of your website across time where you keep more than just the last one.

As you can see, this allows you to reach back in time to when “things were working” and restore your data in case of trouble, even if you discover the issue a few days after the fact.

Why should your online business care about versioned backups?

If your website is mostly static and you don’t offer any services online then you don’t need versioned backups. Just an old backup from last year will do the job.

But let’s be honest. Most websites are in fact web-applications. Meaning they are not just static pages. There is content that is updated, products that are promoted, customer lists, fulfilled orders, and invoices. And if you are doing well, these get updated at least once a day. So a backup from last year will help, but you will still lose a lot of your data.

Depending on how you run your online business and the amount of online activity you will have to decide how often to backup and for how long to keep a backup history.

In my experience so far, with small and medium-sized businesses, doing weekly backups and keeping only the last 4 works very well. This means that in the worst-case scenario you can go back a month, and in the best-case scenario you lose a week of your data: new posts, customers and sales.

But I am paranoid and what I usually do is daily backups that I keep for 2 or 3 months.

Lots of backups and a long history sounds good a reassuring. But there is a cost to that in time and resources. Your server needs to work (sometimes hard) to generate the backup, and then you need the storage space to keep al that history. That is why you need to strike a balance between your real business needs and your peace of mind.

The Take-Away

Versioned backups are a good form of insurance because sometimes the ‘latest backup’ is just as bad as the live website.

Website maintenance for WordPress

Gone are the days when you would set up your web pages and you would be done for the next 10 years or so. In today’s world, most websites require some sort of maintenance work and that is especially true for WordPress.

Why is maintenance important?

The number one reason is security. Your site is not alone. It exists in an ecosystem and it is connected with many other systems for it to work and do its job. All of this is in a continuous state of change. Change means that potentially new software problems are introduced that could affect your site. This change also means that new security exploits are discovered that could make your site vulnerable.

Unless you are a security expert and keeping on top of web security issues is your job, it is a daunting task to keep up with all this change. I get it. But that is no reason to just give up on it entirely.

At the very least keep your website components updated (core and plugins) and have good backups in place [link to backups].

The second reason is to continue to be relevant. As the services and business around you evolve, your website needs to evolve to keep up or even to lead the way. So maintenance, in this case, can go from simple website updates to constant incremental improvements so that your users’ experience gets better and better. The most common issue here is that integration points with other services change and without a maintenance plan in place, your site would just stop working at some point.

The third reason is to make sure your website is still functioning properly. You don’t want to hear from your customers that your store is not working. How many sales did you lose before someone took the time to contact you? You don’t want to wait months to discover your most valuable page is broken and so Google dropped it from the search index. The solution here is to have a test plan in place. Once a week you could check your home page, your purchase process, and the signup process and make sure they work. For bigger businesses, an automated test plan may be a better solution.

The Cost of Website maintenance

There is a cost for maintenance. That is time if you need to do it yourself, or money, if you need to hire someone to do it for you.

Instead of thinking just in terms of costs and maybe decide not to do it, ask yourself how much would it cost you in the long run *not* to maintain your website. In that sense, maintenance is a form of insurance that you pay for your peace of mind. It can also be an investment that you make in your business growth.

How to do it?

At the most basic level, you need to keep your software updated. For WordPress, that means updating to the latest stable version, and also updating your plugins. It also means that you delete (not just deactivate) old plugins that you no longer use.

A more intermediate level would also include some database operations to keep lean, optimized and fast.

For more advanced users you may have to hire someone to do this for you constantly: monitor the uptime, make sure that the core business processes are still functioning, check the integration points and update the software as required, optimize for performance and so on.

The Take-Away

Don’t ignore maintenance. When you build a new website make sure you include a budget for it and that you also discuss it with your developer. And if you already have a website, you should also have a maintenance plan in place.

Do you have any “lessons learned” the hard way? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

WordPress and the Email Problem

Have you ever had a WordPress site and your outgoing email was just getting sucked into some kind of black hole, never to be seen again?

I have discovered through experience that this is very common. And the problem is not with WordPress, it is actually with your hosting provider.

The only reason WordPress seems to be the most affected it is because it is so widely supported by hosting environments and that it is free. And not all of the hosting providers do a good job with delivering your email.

When your website is using what is called a “shared plan”, this means you share the server resources with other websites as well. And those websites may not be as friendly and ethical as you are. In fact, because it is free and so easy to use, there are many people who abuse the email feature of WordPress to send spam.

The easiest solution for the hosting providers, in this case, is to just block the outgoing email capability for everyone, including you!

This does not only affect shared plan users.

After 10 years or running an online business, and keeping an email quality score of 9+ out of 10, our email got suddenly dropped. We had a dedicated server, so we were not sharing our IP with anyone else. And we only found out of this problem because of our customers complaining about not getting their orders delivered. Yaiks!

Contacting support did not help. There was just a general reply that all outgoing email was now routed through a different grid and they were very strict in their rules. The problem was that everyone was treated the same: spammer or genuine business! And of course, the common rules were those applied to spammers. The good history and reputation of our business did not matter anymore.

Complaining did not help so I had to look for

Alternative solutions

There are two that I found:

1) Move to a different hosting that knows how to manage outgoing email well. At the moment of writing, the only one I can recommend is SiteGround.

2) Buy an outgoing email service.

I will focus on the second one because there are some mistakes I made and lessons that I learned.

Since we were used to having free outgoing email with our server, it did not make sense to me to get a paid service. So I just looked for companies who offered free email delivery if you stayed under a certain quota.

This plan backfired big time. Most of our email was sent all right, but it was going straight into the spam folder of most of our customers.

Out of the Spam Folder

The problem was that the free plan was again shared with other people who were in fact spammers.

It was time to do the math and it became obvious that we were losing a lot of customers because we could not communicate with them any longer. At this point paying for a high-quality outgoing email service began to make much more sense. Once I took the leap I had no regrets. The kind of tools you get with a paid service, and most importantly the deliverability, generated more than enough customers to cover the costs.

For an online business where it is important to stay in touch with your audience, it makes sense to have a paid email solution.

I have used SendGrid in the past and I was very happy with them. But I have moved to MailChimp because of their better automation and better integration with WordPress.

Some Technical Details

Correctly setting up outgoing email involves some technical details about DNS, MX records, DKIM, SPF and others. These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you need some guidance ask me in the comments section.

The Successful WordPress Recipe

In almost all of the cases where I was hired to help with a website, I had to deal with a WordPress setup. I have done this often enough to discover some patterns and to create a “WordPress Recipe” that I can use and apply really fast and that was proven to work!

Why the recipe?

WordPress’s power is that it is simple to install and set up by a non-technical person. But that is also its weakness. It is easy to conclude that after a successful install “you’re done and ready to go”, but that is usually not the case.

The common elements

The online store. Most of the websites today sell a product or a service. The most flexible solution that I know of is to use WooCommerce, connected with PayPal. And of course, there are all sorts of add ons you can use to customize the store to your needs.

The newsletter service. As a business, you need a way to stay in touch with your customers and to get leads. The best way I know how to do this is by capturing emails and using them with a newsletter service. MailChimp is a common choice. Contact Form 7 is the plugin that connects MailChimp with your site.

The contact form. If you are selling a product, you need to allow your customers to ask for support. Also, prospective customers should be able to reach you with presales questions. You can solve this with a contact form done right. What do I mean by “done right”? Two things: first you need some sort of spam protection so that only genuine contact requests get to your inbox. And secondly, you need to save these requests in a database in case your email happens to not be working.

Website Analytics. It surprises me how many website owners do not have any analytics reporting setup. If you don’t use analytics you could be missing out on potentially vital information ranging from technical problems with your website to discovering how your customers find you and where, in turn, you can find them. The best tool for this is Google Analytics. It is easy to set up and does not require any maintenance. Once you have it on your website any time you need to make a big decision about your business you can consult the analytics data to determine what the impact may be on your traffic and customers. Usually, the WordPress theme has a way to add this code. If you need something more advanced then PixelYourSite is the tool I’d recommend.

Search Engine Optimization. This a very broad topic, but a good start can get you a long way. At the very least choose a theme that is SEO friendly and properly configure your website structure through permalinks. Also, install the free plugin from YOAST and follow the configuration steps to make your pages more “google friendly”. I should add here that starting with 2018 the mobile users have surpassed the desktop users (in the data I have access to), so the website needs to look great on mobile first and desktop second! This is a big departure from: let’s make a great desktop website and then we’ll fix it on mobile.

Social Share. This is one is optional in my mind because I am not very convinced that it helps. If you know better let me know in the comments below. Some themes do provide this feature as do some plugins, but I have not found anyone that I could recommend. What I usually end up doing is to create custom code to add social share on the pages that I need to.

Website Security. Unfortunately, none of the websites I was hired to work with had good security in place. In fact, many times I was hired to try and salvage a hacked website and that is not always possible. WordPress is notorious for being easy to hack. This is not actually their fault. The paradox is that the software is so easy to use and install that many people who use it are unaware of the online security pitfalls so they fail to take the required steps to secure their website. To get you started you should only use popular plugins that have a good reputation of high quality. And you need to install and configure a security plugin. The one that I use and I recommend is All In One Security. Your hosting can also help here if they provide a malware scanning service.

Backups. I have learned the lessons of good backups the hard way. These days I don’t even take on clients if they don’t agree with a backup policy. It is too risky and so easy to make a mistake that costs both me and the client. I don’t have a plugin to recommend here. I personally have a backup server, with custom code, where I keep version mirrors of my work and my client’s data. This allows me to do quick restores in case of trouble and to work fast, knowing that even if I make a mistake, I can always roll back.

The WordPress quick setup Recipe

  1. Install WordPress
  2. Install a theme. I recommend DIVI (with some caveats)
  3. Install WooCommerce and connect it with PayPal (or Stripe)
  4. Install Contact Form 7 and connect it with MailChimp
  5. Setup the contact form in Contact Form 7 and also install Flamingo. Configure spam protection with recaptcha. Do a test of the contact form to make sure it works.
  6. Add the Google Analytics code in your theme
  7. Install and configure YOAST
  8. (optional) Install a social share plugin (or use custom code)
  9. Install AllInOne Security plugin and configure it.
  10. Setup automatic, versioned backups.

A note about choosing a theme

As you know I recommend DIVI from Elegant Themes. What I like about it is that you can quickly have a beautiful website that is mobile friendly, it is super easy to update and it’s very customizable without having to write any code.

But all this comes with a price!

I am not very happy with the performance of the theme. Sometimes it feels bloated. But there are ways to mitigate this problem. Another much bigger issue is that you are locked in with this theme. If you decide to use DIVI you might as well purchase the lifetime package because it will be incredibly hard to change to another theme down the line. If you think this may be an issue for you then you may want to look into Beaver Builder.