You Should Build Websites That Empower Site Owners

You Should Build Websites That Empower Site Owners

Until recently, managing a website required, at the very least, familiarity with HTML. Updating a web page required the ability to work with FTP. Even minor tweaks to the site’s design required the client to know CSS (or to have someone on staff with the know-how).

This was just an accepted part of owning a website. The nature of the Internet created a demand to keep websites constantly updated and interactive by skilled developers, designers and/or IT staff.

Things have changed.

Today, we have plenty of fantastic content management systems (CMSs) that make creating, editing and managing site content easy even for individuals who have the bare minimum computing skills.

Sure, a little bit of guidance at the start is probably going to be required. Clients need to become familiar with how their CMS works and how to use the system’s admin interface.

However, the days of teaching site owners HTML, FTP, CSS, and the other things that are required to edit source code and manage website files are behind us now.

What this all ultimately means is that we can more easily deliver web-based products that are complex, yet easy to interface with.

Instead of providing extensive staff training at hand-off, for example, web designers like the Paper Leaf team build sites using WordPress and give their clients a 30-minute training session on the publishing platform (and a user-friendly guide to WordPress administration basics when face-to-face meetings aren’t doable).

Empowering Your Client

When we restrict our clients — placing limitations on what they can and can’t do with their website — we start to build a list of rules and regulations that their new site comes with.

As a web designer, I hate telling clients that they can’t do something with their website such as changing the font size of paragraphs, re-writing their About page or changing the color of their site’s hyperlinks.

Telling a client that they can’t add a sidebar on a product description page or alter featured content on the site’s home page without the help of a professional is no longer acceptable. We can — and should — build sites that allow them to make basic changes without our assistance.

In the case of WordPress, for example, many themes allow users to specify which pages should and shouldn’t have sidebars, and there are WordPress plugins such as WP Featured Content Slider that you can easily install to deal with featured content on the home page.

What follows are just some of the things you can do to empower your client.

Set Up User Roles

When delivering a website built using a CMS, don’t encumber the site owner with rules such telling them which parts of the system they can and can’t use.

Instead, take advantage of your ability to use and create custom user roles with varying system privileges.

For instance, WordPress comes with user roles that have different capabilities. The Administrator role can do anything, the Editor role allows the user to publish and manage posts but won’t allow her to modify the site’s theme settings and so on.

WordPress table showing user roles vs. capabilities.

And if the default user roles aren’t enough, a great content management system will offer you the ability to create custom user roles out of the box or through a plugin (by default, you can create your own user roles in Drupal and WordPress has the User Role Editor plugin).

Set up accounts that only have access to the tools that can generate or edit the front-end of the site, and give your clients the freedom to experiment with everything they have access to.

Provide GUIs for Basic Site Administration Tasks

Another important thing we need to do is to provide user interfaces for common site-management tasks (even if the publishing platform doesn’t provide them).

Here is a brief list containing some common site administration tasks you should consider providing a user-friendly GUI for:

Providing GUIs is simple if you use a CMS because if it doesn’t come built into the system, you may be able to find an extension/plugin for it or use the CMS’s API to build one.

To determine what GUIs are needed, you can follow these steps:

  1. Create a list of site administration tasks an empowered site owner might want to do.
  2. For each task, determine if the CMS provides a GUI for the task by default.
  3. If the CMS doesn’t provide it by default, research plugins/extensions/modules that you can use.
  4. If there is no existing plugin, use the CMS’s API to create a GUI.

Create Sites with Changeability in Mind

Websites are meant to be alive — they are constantly changed, updated, redesigned, and so on. In other words, what you deliver to the client today might not be exactly the same product a year from now. Change is inevitable.

Having this concept in mind throughout the website-production process will ensure that you make the appropriate design decisions.

When we design with change in mind, our clients can expand and even rebuild their website with significantly less work. When a designer plans for the future around the content, they can reuse the most important part of the site even as technology and their needs change.

Planning for the Website’s Future

As web designers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that our clients’ websites will stay functional while continuing to deliver a rich experience long after a project is finished.

The best way to achieve this is to plan ahead as much as we can.

In the initial stages of a new project, make sure you sit down with the client and hash out a plan for growth. Any project for a brand new or freshly redesigned website should involve stakeholders that are familiar with the current state of the company, product or service, along with where they want it to be several years down the road.

If a company knows they want to expand into a new line of service in two years, it should be a part of the consideration of a website that’s being developed today.

Getting these plans out in the open will help the web designer predict what kinds of content additions, changes and expansions to expect down the road. This way, when the client decides to expand their site, they can do so with a minimal number of surprises or additional work.

I’m not suggesting that we have the power to build a website that can predict the future. However, we should be able to make websites that are as flexible and accepting to whatever lies ahead.

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About the Author

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

This was published on Aug 22, 2011


Abs0lute Aug 22 2011

Great article Jason!
I totally agree with you. The quicker you can find a system that works for you to enable your clients to do the majority of basic changes to their website, the happier they’ll be and the less time you’ll need to spend on menial tasks, freeing you up to concentrate on the big pictures, such as eCommerce and various other advanced uses of websites. Not to mention the word of mouth effect you’ll get from your happy clients!
That being said, when choosing a system, here’s some good criteria to judge your system by:
1) Can the system be transferred should the client decide to leave you?
2) Can you run multiple websites from 1 install of the CMS(this will save you alot of trouble as you run more and more CMS sites)
3) How easy is it for the client to update? A CMS that requires a manual for the user to use is like shooting yourself in the foot. They simply won’t read it or update it, and you’ll be back to square one — you’re updating it.
4) What kind of support community does the CMS have.

Off the top of my head, those are the basics one needs to ask themselves when choosing what CMS is right for them. It’s also good to have a couple options, from low-end to high-end, and decide which one works best for the clients needs.
Of course, WordPress is becoming the default standard, but it’s not really a full-fledged CMS. But it can handle the load for most small sites.
If you want to go all out from the get-go though, I’d recommend Concrete5 ( It’s insanely easy to use. I’ve had clients doing updates before I’ve even told them how to. They’re also currently developing an add-on, rumored to be free, that will import WordPress into the system, so you can have the best of both!
Check it out if you want to save yourself some time in finding the perfect CMS!

Drew Dello Stritto Aug 22 2011

Jason –

Interesting idea, overall but I really don’t think this is too applicable. I develop wordpress themes and I do my best to make sure that they adapt to my clients needs, based on the contents they enter (eg. if certain fields have content or not, use of templates, etc.) but I can go only so far. When a client comes to me, I’ll do my best to make the site as flexible as possible but there are somethings that the client nor myself can foresee the client wanting in the future. Nor is it possible, cost-time wise, to develop a theme for every possible content layout and then apply all of the standard conventions on that layout (eg. responsive design, cross-browser, etc.).

Thanks for the link, Jacob, but mostly for the great article. Building websites that empower the owners is super important for any web design freelancers; especially for referrals. The ease of CMS use is a huge benefit to users; perhaps more than anything else in some people’s eyes. We’ve now started delivering screen casts to our clients for some of the more “complicated” sections of their website too; this way they can refer back to specific videos dealing with specific tasks pertinent to their website. Feedback so far has been positive; we’ll continue down this path too.

Craig Wann Aug 22 2011

Love the article, but really, not every website needs to give the user the ability to control content. Some of my clients simply don’t have the technical or creative ability to manage their own site. Some don’t have the time. Some sites need a more simplistic or graphics heavy interface, and a CMS like WordPress would only get in the way.

When taking on a new website project, I always try to sell the client on a CMS. If it doesn’t fit their needs, or the client would simply prefer to pay me at my hourly rate to handle their updates, then so be it. I like residual income.

To all you new web designers reading this: you’re not wrong to build your clients a static website, or to restrict function. Your responsibility is to present your client with the solution that you feel best fits their needs, and still makes you money.

I’m not going to mess with installing sidebar control and extra user management plugins if the client doesn’t want to pay for it, or if they wouldn’t use them. Those are great tools for the right project/client though.

Steven Aug 22 2011

Empowering site owners is fine, if that is an important criteria for their website. Bloggers might love this, geography students would love this too, so would my grandma and her local knitting club.

However, what these websites generally have in common is that they don’t need branding or professional design. The internet is full of this **** whether we like it or not, but giving power to poeple does not mean that it will always be used properly and it is important to know when to empower people and how. Hell, look at the lack of disciplin in the UK to understand how misplacing empowerment can also be a ngetative thing.

I just think this needs to be kept in mind.

sanjay Aug 22 2011

“As web designers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that our clients’ websites will stay functional while continuing to deliver a rich experience long after a project is finished.”
I always have this in mind whenever I work for a client or personal projects. Good read!

theComplex Aug 22 2011

I’ve actually been implementing “empowering the client” lately and they’ve been picking it up fabulously. Keeps my stress down and their engagement up. I have had to set up many users (more than 5) but I do I’ll use these tips for user roles.

ratnakar Aug 22 2011

I am new to this blog, but i came to know the thing that we need to respect our clients and plan accordingly to achieve their need, a give best results. This keeps me in a road thanks for the post…

Benjamin Ulrich Aug 23 2011

Great article, and allowing the clients freedom is something I believe in.

However, I believe that the client should first and foremost be educated about the many different aspects. I’ve been told by some of my peers that I make my clients difficult for them to work with, simply because they consider so many different angles. From targetting the right audiences, capturing the right feel and user flow, all the way to SEO and light footprints of the sites, as well as catering for the right information that THEIR CLIENTS (and not necessarily my client) want.

For many people in the business of web development/design, especially around southern Africa, this is a complete paradigm shift that they aren’t ready for.

Giving my clients all that information, discussing options with them at every junction makes the client more web savvy, and makes for websites that are not only more effective, but also more useful for everybody involved.

Andy Griffin Aug 23 2011

I understand how designers would feel threatened by the idea of building client-maintainable sites. I feel the same way, but have come to recognize that it is an expectation now, and refusing to offer such features will end up hurting business for you. Certainly, there ought to be limitations. We can’t allow them to change the design entirely, but giving them some choices, customizability, but most importantly, dynamic content without having to call you up and pay your hourly rate will be very appealing to your clients.
I do get frustrated by the limitations of other pre-made CMSs. It was that very frustration that drove me to learn PHP and MySQL so I could build it how I want it. Now, I build custom CMSs for my projects. That’s something unique you can offer to a client: a CMSs tailored to their specific needs, rather than bending another to “make it work.”

Gustaf Eriksson Aug 23 2011

At my company we always provide our clients with a CMS. (Joomla most of the time). My experience is that in the end, the client is happier paying us by the hour to do the updates. Even though it is quite simple for them to make changes themselves.
The average small business client just don’t have the time, skill or the interest.

We have been trying to do this for a couple of years but keep running into the same problem – rich text editors require the client to learn new ideas (something often resisted). A good example of the problem is your very first image in the article. In the text editor you show a headline (maybe it is a subhead), body copy, a photo that sized and placed, and an HTML table that is floated to the right. We can setup the image processing and uploading in our CMS of choice (Drupal) and some of our clients can handle assigning H2, H3 and so on – but not a single one can figure out how to make a table in an HTML editor without a lot of training.
Most of my clients would prefer to work their copy in Word and then drop it into the CMS (which is a recipe for disaster) and most don’t even know how to make a table in Word.
This does not mean that we should not build sites using CMS’s – it just means that we have to set the right expectations up front. Our best successes are around highly structured and frequently changing content – general pages of text and images are usually the hardest for clients to work on.

Lauren Aug 23 2011

A big YES in agreement on access control! Every site owner needs to know how serious a risk it is to give excessive access to lower users. Sometimes owners are tempted to pass out their own password so that others can make changes to the website — when in fact a lower level account should be created for the purpose.

jason mark Aug 23 2011

Good points. I agree that these rules apply to small mom-and-pop type organizations where budget is a HUGE concern.

I think less of it applies to larger and/or well funded organizations. For instance any organization that hires a design firm to do their design work probably shouldn’t be tweaking the color of their text. I mean if they were trained and qualified to do that, would they have hired a design firm in the first place?

Minor tweaks might be OK, but many of our clients come to us asking specifically for stronger brand cohesion, and letting *some* of their editors change font colors would be inappropriate.

Some clients specifically request that some editors not have image upload permission for the same reason. While anyone *can* crop an image, you have to have some training and experience to be able to crop an image to tell the story you want to tell.

In terms of content, I agree that in the *ideal* world clients should edit their own words on the page, but the reality is if the person doing the editing doesn’t have a smart-phone they probably don’t fully “get” how people use the internet, and therefore really *aren’t* the ideal people to write the content.

If their choice is between having their jack of all trades programmer edit the copy or do it themselves, obviously they should be doing it themselves, but clients often need help with content.

As web experts part of our job should be assessing what a client can do GREAT and giving them tools to do what they do best, and then providing them with help (not just tools) for the things that they’re not as strong at….

ff-webdesigner Aug 24 2011

Just completely my opinion! I used to be absolutely anti-cms until about 4 years ago. the were complicated, bad for seo, hard to install and maintain. but nowadays, we got wordpress, and it’s a webdesigner’s dream helping people to manage their own content.

Stewart Aug 24 2011

I have been building websites for many years and I have never used a CMS that fully impowers the sites owners, if this could be achieved it would be fantastic.

Chief Alchemist Aug 24 2011

1) Actually, not all clients want to be empowered. Some have experience with HTML, FTP and such and are quite comfortable with that model. In 2001 the idea is foreign to me but these people do exist. Any time I’ve witnessed an attempt to convert such people it has been a waste their time and stress for everyone else who was on the project.

2) With empowerment comes responsibility. For example, updating content, properly naming image files, thinking about SEO and keywords, etc. These all matter now. A state of the art site today – note: I’m not talking bleeding edge, just standard best practices – is quite a ways from a lot of clients’ last static HTML website. Some want to move past their current ball & chain and are all ears. While others have high expectations about results but haven’t quite caught on to the fact that the “just a website” days are long gone. The level of the game is higher. Excelling takes time and attention to detail. But not everyone is up for that challenge in spite of what they say about the results they seek.

2) Access roles should be assigned based strictly on need. For example, the primary client (e.g., owner) should be given two sets of credentials. One that’s for Admin things and one as Editor (if we’re sticking with WP). Only when there’s a need for Admin powers should that risk/responsibility be exercised. Day to day editing type things are for the Editor persona.

3) Finally, @Andy Griffin (comment previous to mine), I’d like to suggest you check out ExpressionEngine. In short, EE is the best of both worlds. I love WP for a lot of things. But the fact is when it comes to fully customizable work, EE is years ahead of WP. And there’s just no way anyone can do up a proper CMS for $300 what EE does out of box for that price. The real games begin from there :)

Henry Louis Aug 25 2011

I completely agree with the conclusion of Jason in the article. The website should be customizable basing on the client’s need.

kailash Aug 26 2011

In theory, this is a very sound idea, since I don’t particularly enjoy web maintenance. In practice, it never works out.

There are so many times I built a site using a cms because the client wanted to make updates themselves. I even spent a lot of time sitting with various personnel on the client’s side, teaching them all the various functions and features of the cms, and what they could do. However, I always ended up either cleaning their mess or doing all the maintenance myself anyway.

Nowadays, I use a cms only to make things easier for myself, and don’t offer access to the clients.

Jan-Willem Bobbink Oct 02 2011

What do you think of the extra costs of developing a custom made CMS against the low costs of using an open source solutions like for example WordPress?

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