How Much Should A Website Cost? Part 2: Customized Vs. Custom

How Much Should A Website Cost? Part 2: Customized Vs. Custom

One of the most popular and widely discussed articles on this site is “How much should a website cost?” The comments include a range of reactions and supplemental thoughts on a controversial subject.

As a follow up to that article, I’d like to discuss a specific topic related to website development that has a direct impact on cost: customized vs. custom development. While they sound similar, each offers a radically different approach to development that is important to understand in order to control a project’s cost.

Customized Websites

Customized web development almost always includes a software foundation such as WordPress, Drupal or some other open source or commercial content management system.  These systems often include themes or templates which give the site its structure and general appearance as well as plugins or add-ons that supplement the system’s capabilities. We’ll refer to a CMS, themes and plugins collectively as a framework.

As an example, the framework for this site includes WordPress as the CMS, Genesis as the theme and a variety of plug-ins that provide supplemental functionality such as social widgets and forms.

Using a framework means a developer does not have to start from scratch. Typically, a framework is preconfigured with a limited set of options. In creating  the design, for example, a developer can simply point, click and select a series of options that renders a layout and design in very little time. The developer can then focus almost exclusively on content. As the project nears its end, the developer can have reasonable assurance of functionality because popular frameworks are rigorously tested before being released.

By fundamentally decreasing the amount of labor in each step of production, the cost of developing a single website can be greatly reduced. The trade-off is that the customer needs to be comfortable with the constraints offered by a framework.

Custom Websites

A custom web site at its most complex is built from scratch. However, this is usually only in very specific cases.

Many times, custom websites are built on top of a framework. Custom code, markup, style sheets or design supplement the framework features with ones that do not exist. Developers can even opt to write their own themes or modify the core software of the CMS.

While there is no blueprint for when to go customized versus custom, the most reasonable reason to go with custom development is when a business need cannot be achieved with preexisting frameworks.

Here are a few examples for selecting custom development:

  1. The layout or design requirements of a project are such that no preconfigured theme can produce the desired look or interactivity.
  2. Interactive or technology elements of a framework do not provide the needed functionality.
  3. The project must interact with third party systems and no commercial of software plugins allow this functionality.
  4. The functionality of the CMS must be modified to adapt to specialized content.

Why Choose A Custom Vs Customized Site?

The two most popular reasons for opting for customized development are speed and cost. A customized site can be produced quickly and inexpensively but the project must conform to the limitations of the framework.

Custom development includes increased labor and cost, but also greater freedom. A consequence of custom development is that the framework may become incompatible with future feature and security updates offered by the developer of the framework, so long-term maintenance costs may also be increased.

What Should You Know?

Most developers understand these differences, but don’t explain them well. If a developer proposes a budget based on a customized project, this presents a challenge if the requirements exceed the scope of the project and the customer needs to come up with more cash.

A developer should always explain the limits of the project scope. Conversely, companies hiring a developer should ask up front what the development methodology will be. If the customer is expecting to have fine control of the layout and design, but the developer is expecting simply to click on a few widgets in the CMS administration tool, then each side is cultivating a recipe for disaster.

A Quick (But Relevant) Story.

Many years ago, a prospect approached my company with a web site project. Based on our discovery, the project was clearly a custom project. Our proposal included building a custom theme, integrating existing plugins and writing custom code to meet specific business needs.

The prospect received a bid higher than ours and one that was about 40% lower than ours. They picked the lower cost bid. Because the low bidder and my company both proposed using WordPress as a framework, the prospect assumed parity in our proposals despite our exposition.

The developer went to work, built a site based on WordPress using a commercial theme and plugins. While some of the required functionality was implemented, much of it was not nor could not be without custom work. The developer had to go back to the prospect to ask for more money, but had to restart the project because the work that had been competed could not be retrofitted to meet the customer’s needs.

In the end, the developer abandoned the project and was not heard from again. The customer spent more than we had proposed in additional fees and did not have the capital to start the project over with another developer.

So who is to blame here? Is this the developer’s fault for not explaining or knowing better? Is it the customer’s fault for not being diligent in their research?

That is a question for the ages and one that I’ll leave up to you in the comments.

Tell me your thoughts and experiences in the comments below and most importantly…

… thanks for visiting {Web.Search.Social}.