My wife is an interior designer and has been running her own firm for the past 13 years, serving clients on Cape Cod and elsewhere with the usual technical headaches any small business owner endures. She’ll be the first to exclaim how technology has improved her life — she’s especially fond of her Apple holy-trinity of iPhone, iPad and Mac — and the ease with with she can research her suppliers’ catalogues, pull together proposals, collect photographs and share them across devices.
But her website has always been a sore point, a thing crucial to her business but a completely off-limits creature that mere mortals were not allowed to touch.
I was her webmaster — in the 1990s sense of that word — and I suck.
I am completely unqualified and unequipped to take the design vision of a very talented designer and translate that into an online presence. I may know what looks good, but I don’t know how to make things look good. I don’t know cascading style sheets, PHP, Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML 5 …. but I can do the following basic steps, basic enough to long ago build the first prototype of Forbes.com, launch this blog, and limp along with the help of my friends:
- Register a domain name
- Open a hosting account
- Log into the account with an FTP client
- Build a web page with words and pictures
- Make a link to another web page
- Upload the pages from my PC to the host using the FTP client
- Use cPanel to administer the account, set up MySQL databases, add email addresses
- Make a “favicon” for the website
- Meta-tag the website
- Get bitched at for not updating the website
Earlier this week, in a fit of passionate love for the mother of my children, I decided to hand over the keys to her domain to her and put her in charge. This is a woman who can make Photoshop sing, can do page layouts, draw detailed blueprints, and direct professional photographers like no one else I know, and I’ve known a lot of designers over the years. But she doesn’t want to hear about FTP clients, know about the “public html” folder, or whether “home pages” need to be named “home.htm” or “home.html”
She just wants a good looking website that she can manage.
A couple weeks ago I told her to use some downtime and get familiar with WordPress by opening up a free WordPress.com account. This she did. I told her to check out the themes that were available and find one she liked. She did, settling on a commercial theme used by professional photographers to display and sell their work: Photocrati.
Yesterday I called her ISP, figured out the administrator’s password, and FTP’d in to make a copy of the website I built by hand in 2000 (yes, it was WAY past its expiration date). I downloaded, unzipped and then uploaded the latest version of WordPress, (the pretty amazing blog/content management system that powers this blog), set up a new database, re-read the magic five-minute WordPress installation instructions, and ta-da (or “wah-lah” as an illiterate colleague once wrote in a document I was asked to proofread), a new era was dawning.
Here’s the point of all this: she was able to get a layout, template, functionality and tool kit for under $100. A perfectly nice, crisp, well-designed site with far more options and future functionality than she will ever need (she could even accept PayPal through her site although she doesn’t sell anything online), installed and handed over to her with no manual or weeks of night-school training to operate. She just wanted a very basic, minimalist site that consists of a home page, an about page, contact information, and a lot of photographic portfolios of her work. In the end she needed a series of photo galleries that she could manage without turning to a geek like me with other things to do.
Ten years ago this would have involved finding a “web designer,” communicating the desired requirements and vision, reviewing mock-ups, revising those mock-ups, but mostly waiting for the designer/web builder to publish it all. The notion of giving a “lay-person” direct control over the content management system would never have been imagined unless she was publishing a Geocities page or limping along with Microsoft FrontPage.
I am more convinced than ever that the triumph of Automattic, the commercial parent of the open sourced WordPress, is a triumph over complexity, over licenses and claims of “you wouldn’t understand.” This experience makes me glad I’m not running a content management software or web design company. The marketplace for good design is greater than ever, and the ability for a talented coder and designer like Photocrati to create a great template and sell it as an enhancement to a great platform like WordPress is one of the more profound transformations of digital marketing for small businesses that I have seen.