A couple of weeks ago I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I saw an ad for Webflow. As someone working in the web design industry who’s constantly on the lookout for content ideas, I was like, “ooooooooh”. In the ad, Webflow described themselves as a platform that’d allow designers to code visually as they designed, and to be fair, Webflow is fairly robust and powerful for a visual builder. But at this point I wondered what the difference really was between this platform and Wix, or Squarespace, or any of the others…
I mentioned it to our designers and developers and it launched a massive conversation about the direction these visual builders are taking. Platforms like Shopify Plus, Bootstrap, and other visual builders were mentioned. Some were applauded and others were described as “walled gardens where you can only use their flowers”. Yeah, a lot of designers seem to think these website builders are dime a dozen with pretty few actually providing the industry with real value — our designers think these builders definitely hold some merit. Meanwhile our developers just seem concerned we might actually replace them.
So, what are these visual builders capable of creating, and where do they fit into the web design industry?
There’s a huge difference between an agency’s budget per project and a freelancer’s. Freelance web designers have been somewhat confined in what they can create, unless they have coding skills of their own. So, visual builders offer freelance web designers the opportunity to create these websites faster and more efficiently. Theoretically, you could design and build out a website in a day if you knew which content you wanted to put on the site. In saying that though, you can do the same on a WordPress template if you don’t want to customise the elements.
While some of these visual builders are definitely marketed towards designers, the idea is that anyone can use them. The whole point of them is to allow people who aren’t trained in web design or web development to create a website for cheaper. So, these builders are a neat option for companies or small businesses that are just getting started and need to create an online presence. In a way, visual builders kind of level the playing field for companies who don’t start out with a massive budget.
The problem with businesses relying on visual builders to create their website is that they might not necessarily get to choose all the elements they want or need. So an online store might be better off using Stripe for their payments, but certain visual builders will lock you into their chosen payment method.
The other issue is that visual builders can add, update, and delete elements as they please and that affects your website if it’s built on the visual builder. So, say you build your online store on one of these, and you set up an abandoned cart feature that’s supplied by the builder. Say the program then decides it no longer supports that feature, it’ll be removed from your website and you can never get it back. Whereas with an open source platform like WordPress, plugins may come and go but there’s almost always going to be another plugin for that function.
Visual builders are definitely a huge positive in this area, but they’re not a comprehensive solution. They’re such a good option to get the ball rolling with your online presence, but they aren’t ‘set and forget’ — they’re more ‘for now’. So, once you’re getting those enquiries or sales through your existing website, it’ll probably be time to move on to something more powerful, customised, and suitable for you.
If you’re on your way to creating a new website with an agency, be sure to read our post about getting the most from your web design agency.
There could be an opportunity for these visual website builders in web design agencies. They mean that simple websites can be built fast, so they could become a good solution for those lower tier clients, the ones that want a website quickly and don’t want to pay too much. But for a truly responsive website, that’s completely customisable and has every element a business needs, we need a developer with best practice coding skills. These builders can’t produce code that’s as complex as is so often needed.
There’s definitely a view in the web design industry that these platforms are evil or subpar or whatever. But overall, if they’re used as they’re intended to be, then they’re a really positive choice to have.