Confessions of an Agency Owner: I’ve Been Cheating on Open-Source

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UX, Drupal,
For almost twenty-eight years now, my shop has been building websites using open-source platforms—namely, Drupal and WordPress. But I’ve got a dirty little secret: We’ve been sneaking around with a…
Brent Lightner 2

Brent Lightner

CEO | Founder
Ready for the longest ‘about page’ bio you’ll ever read?? I’m Brent.  I run this shop.  I started it out of a college dorm room back in the late nineties…

For almost twenty-eight years now, my shop has been building websites using open-source platforms—namely, Drupal and WordPress. But I’ve got a dirty little secret: We’ve been sneaking around with a new, proprietary platform called Webflow. And we’re smitten.

Webflow isn’t actually all that new—it’s been around for more than a decade. But a confluence of things has resulted in our recommending it to our clients more and more lately. For starters, Webflow has done a lot of growing up: The GUI and UX has matured, as has the hosting infrastructure that it sits on. And they continue to roll out new, meaningful features and improvements on what seems like a monthly basis. Meanwhile, WordPress, and particularly Drupal have become massive, monolithic platforms that are highly extensible and customizable, but at the expense of usability and overall cost of ownership. (And don’t even get me started on Drupal’s upgrade path. They’ve really shot themselves in the foot with all these major version upgrades every year that provide little actual benefit to the client, but keep driving up the cost of ownership. It’s good business for agencies like mine, but I wouldn’t want to own a Drupal website these days.) If you’re a national brand or non-profit, you’re likely going to need to hire multiple platform-specific people to keep your website ticking (or retain agencies like ours to help you out).

Sorry, Drupal… I didn’t mean it!

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Drupal is still one of the best open-source platforms out there. It will let you do just about anything you want to do if you throw enough custom code at it. For websites with complicated logic and unique workflow needs, it is still often the best option. Many of our clients rely on Drupal, as they should be. So I shouldn’t be so dismissive of Drupal. It’s just that it used to be our go-to platform, and now, we find ourselves recommending Webflow for basic sites, and WordPress has become much more capable. We only recommend Drupal now when there are very specific (usually highly technical) reasons to do so, as more and more clients simply don’t need the level of customization that Drupal offers.

What’s Webflow?

If you’re not familiar with Webflow, it’s a “no/low-code” platform that lets you largely point and click your way to a fully functional, commercial-grade website. It’s tempting to compare it to Wix or Squarespace, but that would be diminishing Webflow, as it’s much more robust. To compare it to Lego: If Wix/Squarespace are Duplos, Webflow is Techniques. But the point is that you don’t need devs to do the deving anymore. Just about anyone can spend a week or so on YouTube and figure out enough Webflow to proficiently create and edit pages. (I know because I did it myself, and I haven’t created a website on my own in more than a decade!) Whereas with WordPress and especially Drupal, you pretty much need to be a proper developer to do any real customization with those platforms.

Composable Architecture Is Changing the Digital Marketplace

The other driving force behind our shift to Webflow is the evolution of the marketplace itself. It used to be that we had to build custom functionality to meet client requirements. If a client needed ecommerce on their site, we’d bang out a shopping cart system in PHP (the language in which the open-source platforms are written). If they needed a newsletter system, we’d work through the specs and create a custom module for it. But these days, most complicated website functionality is available as a plugin. If we need eCommerce, we integrate Shopify. If we need a newsletter, MailChimp. Leveraging these off-the-shelf components dramatically cuts development time and reduced downtime due to unforeseen bugs and conflicts. No one builds custom systems for that kind of stuff these days (except for some of the largest players who have high budgets and security requirements.) We just integrate their programs with a few lines of code, and some other company handles all that functionality. (Apologies to my dev team—that was a dramatic oversimplification.) This paradigm in web development is known as “composable architecture.” And without getting into the weeds on that, the point is that many of the websites we build for clients recently are a very simple base with required functionality integrated from third party services. So even though the overall functionality of the site is still very robust, most of the complexity is handled by other services. And that’s why Webflow is a more suitable choice than it was several years ago. It’s not that anyone is claiming that Webflow can do all the complicated stuff that Drupal or WordPress can do. The point is that Drupal and WordPress largely don’t do that stuff on their own anymore either.

Clients Want More Steak, Less Sizzle

Not only do many sites not need all the custom coding that they used to, but the actual UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) trends have evolved towards a more streamlined, efficient layout that sacrifices artistic and technical wizardry for the sake of speed, adaptability, accessibility, and best practices. We don’t win points anymore for coming up with a new navigation mechanism that no one has ever seen. The focus these days is on valuable content over design flair. Steak over sizzle. Webflow’s drag n’ drop approach to layout out pages may not allow for crazy page designs and bespoke layouts. But that’s not really what customers want anymore. (They think they do at first, until the realize that such unique user experiences are expensive to build and maintain, don’t play well on lots of devices, have major accessibility issues, and often are fun to look at but don’t actually improve fundamental KPIs that the website is trying to achieve. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect since they just create barriers in getting users to do what you want them to do.)

Webflow: The Right Tool for the Job Sometimes… And Sometimes Is Happening More.

Let’s recap: Drupal and WordPress are robust, highly configurable, and customizable platforms on which to build a commercial-grade website. But all that flexibility comes at a price in both dollars and complexity. Meanwhile, the marketplace trend has been for most websites to become simpler because the complicated functionality has been unloaded to third party services that specialize in those functions. And the design and functions on the website have become more streamlined (and technically simpler) for the sake of site speed, accessibility, and adaptability best practices. So the primary value of a modern website is based less upon highly custom engineering, and more upon an elegant user experience with a focus on the content and messaging.

That’s Where Webflow Shines

Drupal and WordPress aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Not in the marketplace, nor at Taoti. There is certainly still a need for more robust platforms. But the demand has been growing for a simple, stable, and cost-effective platform for building the most common sites. For these, Webflow is just too compelling to ignore. For the right client whose needs focus more on content than on complicated, custom functionality, Webflow will let us build better sites more efficiently and effectively and let us concentrate our time (and client budgets) on the content and UX instead of reinventing technical wheels that don’t necessarily add value. Not only that, but Webflow-based websites will give clients with non-technical staff so much more ability to not just manage their own sites, but to do so with a level of sophistication and polish that the used to have to hire someone like us to do for them.
It might seem self-defeating for me to recommend a platform that won’t require our services to maintain. That could be one reason why other agencies haven’t been talking about this transition much recently. But we at Taoti want to help you use your budget to produce the best results possible for your organization. And if we think your money is better spent on marketing programs to drive users to your website rather than on custom code, you can count on us to tell you so. Even if that means airing our own “dirty” secrets.