Some Thoughts About Website Templates

An ugly website will turn away good customers, so a dollar you spend to make your website beautiful and accessible is usually a pretty well-spent dollar!
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A friend of mine asked me to look at a landing page on his website, which is hosted on Shopify. My feedback went straight to design:

  • The content goes all the way across the page, making it hard to read.
  • The design is not responsive: it doesn’t work well across different screen sizes.

It turned out they built their site before they migrated to Shopify, and the site’s template did not translate well. They’ve hired developers to find and correct the issue, but this effort has not been successful and they fear falling down some site-design rabbit hole.

Tribify is not a web-design shop. Far from it! But we are software developers who operate online, as do all of our customers. So I had some thoughts.

In this kind of a situation, you basically have three choices:

  • Leave the site as it is. This is not a bad solution! If you have to prioritize between fixing the site and serving customers, choose the customers all day long and twice on Sunday.
  • Fix the template. With a list of issues like my friend described: just don’t. Lipstick on a pig, literally throwing good money after bad.
  • Move to a new template. Let’s talk about that.

New customers are the life blood of any growing business. And poor website design is a barrier to the acquisition of new customers!

People’s expectations are very high today. A website doesn’t have to be complex or feature-rich, but if it is unattractive or hard to read, a depressingly high proportion of people will simply go no farther. So a dollar you spend to make your website beautiful and accessible is usually a pretty well-spent dollar.

Picking up a new site template is something a lot of people screw up badly. Here’s how it works:

  1. You want your site to do X, Y, and Z. But you aren’t a coder so you want a template that does it out of the box.
  2. You buy a template that has MOST of the features you want. Maybe the layout is off, but you figure you can vector it in.
  3. A year later you’re exactly where my friend is.

The trouble is that every piece of functionality in the original template imposes some constraints. And because the template builders are selling to people who don’t want to code anyway, they take the easy route and write their template in a manner that locks those constraints in structurally. The cost of transforming a complex template into what you want is usually higher than the cost of creating a new template from scratch!

A better way is to go is to start with a really simple template! Here’s an example… WordPress, not Shopify, but the principle holds. The Tribify website—the one you’re looking at right now—is reasonably nice-looking and features some event-management stuff that is definitely not out of the box. But the theme (which is like your template in Shopify) is simply the default WordPress theme for this year’s release. All else is layered on.

We made that choice because a lot of people put a lot of work into getting the 2021 theme to work exceptionally well. And exceptionally well means that it is easy to layer stuff into the theme. So we didn’t start where we are now… but the baseline theme gave us enough to display core content in a reasonably attractive way. And then a sustained low-level development effort got us where we are now.

I get the lure of the whiz-bang template. But the dance I just described is how actual software developers get there while doing a minimum of coding.

My advice to my friend, based on where he is now:

  • Choose a template built for Shopify that looks nice and works well out of the box on all devices.
  • Move your content. Copy & paste with a minimum of structural HTML… that’s what your template is for!
  • In as much as possible, leverage your blog engine… only make PAGES when you have to. Another Tribify example: here’s the Help link on all of our dashboards. It’s a blog post. Why not? What is a blog for, if not easy publishing??
  • If you need special functionality, use plugins where you can and layer it onto your simple template. You can mix & match and you will wind up with everything you need but nothing you don’t.

Again, Tribify isn’t a web design shop. Not our superpower. But we are in the business of helping our customers find customers, and all of those people will wind up on a website. None of the superpowers we do bring to the table will matter if they don’t like what they find there.

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