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

By June 17, 2013January 3rd, 2015Website Design & Marketing
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}.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • nailed it again. Excellent explanation of the two. And through it, you can realize when sometimes a custom website can be more affordable than a customized one. When you spend more time hacking and re-engineering a theme than you could have spent simply building it from scratch, you also open yourself up to problems down the road, should your site need to expand or shift focus.

    • Exactly. I’ve seen lots of companies end up paying way more because they didn’t choose the right path up front. It’s a shame that it still happens.

  • chris weathers says:

    I use ModX for custom websites. It’s a CMS, but not as confined as WordPress or Drupal.

  • Well said, Ralph. As a web designer, I hate it when people just ask for a price without giving me any details or specs. There are far too many variables to just quote a basic price. Either the price will be too high, too low, or will end up costing them much more than they expected when all of the “extras” they failed to mention are factored in. And you mention a very important point–be as specific as possible in your proposal and provide them with every detail and reasons. In the end, you may be the highest bidder, but they will see the value in what you’re providing compared to the other (lower) bids.

    • Agreed. It’s sometimes a gut wrenching process for customers because they don’t know what they don’t know. But I’m not giving them a pass. It’s a developers responsibility to teach, but a customers responsibility to learn.

  • Interesting post. I’m currently using WordPress, but have been talking with someone who builds websites, so will probably be moving toward a custom website at some point in the near future.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Hi George,

      You can have a semi-custom site built in WordPress, from the standpoint that you can have a fairly customized design and layout that still works within the parameters of a theme or framework. I think that makes it a lot easier and less expensive to maintain in the long run.

  • Caleb says:

    Ralph, thanks for writing both articles.

    I really appreciated your first article, and commonly point newer designers who are looking for pricing help to your article.

    The one thing that is hard for many designers to get over is that custom web design is not a commodity. In other words, it is not like you can go to the store and say I would like a 5 page website and you just look for the cheapest option that looks good.

    Your price is a function of value – More value = Higher Price. With custom design you are providing so much more than just “I need a website slapped up”. You are bringing your expertise, skills, customer experience together to help coach your client toward the best solution that will really meet their needs. As designers, we should always be focused on the real needs of our clients like raising their reputation, increasing their sales, and engaging their target market. These are the things that people pay for, these are the things they care about.

    I could go on and on, but thanks for speaking out and giving some good solid pricing advice.

  • Steven Carey says:

    Ralph, much appreciated. As a new design /dev fresh out of school I’ve built 3 working sites based on the Twitter Bootstrap front end framework. A common problem that I’ve experienced with each progressive project is very few small businesses have content, specifically copy writing.

    Having learned the hard way, now after any initial discovery meeting, I probe and position for a content audit and include copy writing cost, image research and either stock license or actual photo shoot costs. While I enjoy copy writing for the web, I don’t like doing it for free, and this is where projects can come to a screeching halt.
    my thoughts,
    Web&UX Designer