Templates vs. custom solutions: which is best for your client?
It’s one of the most common questions we receive from clients in early stages of the project, and we’re sure it’s one you have to field just as often: what’s the right design choice for my website—a template or custom solution?
And as much as we’d like to always say the latter (more design work for us!), our job as UX practitioners is to craft the solution and experience that makes sense. But helping clients determine which of those options, custom or template, is the best one for their specific business needs isn’t always easy.
To help, I asked Codal‘s UX designers and business analysts what factors they consider when determining the right strategy for a business’s digital presence.
Time to market
Whether you’re a freelance designer or part of a team at a UX design agency, you’re going to be working on a timeline, and it’s almost always going to be shorter than you’d like it to be. From startups needing to be the first to strike ground in a nascent market space to enterprises trying to edge out the competition by launching a new digital product early, the time to market is a major factor in determining which platform solution the client will need.
Drastically tight deadlines will call for a template-based approach, offering a significantly shorter development time than a custom solution. From coding to testing to deploying, the shortest distance between ideation and launch is the template.
If the timeline is a bit more flexible, the client should consider the custom route. As a more robust solution, the extra time means you, the designer (and even developer), can better tailor the website to fit the client’s specific needs.
Crowded market space
In a limitless digital realm, users have the luxury to be fickle. Chances are that if they aren’t satisfied with the experience of a certain website, they can easily exit the page and visit a competitor instead. This is especially crucial for businesses that operate in a packed market space, where distinguishing yourself from that competition is a matter of survival.
This puts standing out at a premium, and a template solution just isn’t going to offer the same wholly unique experience as a platform that’s been designed custom. Quality user research includes familiarizing yourself with a client’s market space—you should use those findings to help inform their decision on which option is best for their company.
In addition to the ‘cookie cutter’ feel many templates evoke, they also often aren’t as optimized for search engine ranking as their custom counterparts. Again, in a crowded market space, every position in Google’s search ranking counts.
Businesses who already possess a strong, recognizable brand are also excellent candidates for a custom web solution. It’s likely a template won’t be able to sufficiently replicate their branding, and using one could cause their website to look misaligned and incongruous with the company’s overall image.
Finally, we reach one of the strongest factors in determining which solution is a better fit for the client: the desired functionality of the site. Will the client need a slew of third-party integrations for the front- or back-end? Is there a customer portal? A more in-depth web application? The more complex functionalities the platform needs, the more a custom design and development job makes sense.
eCommerce sites have historically required the kind of features only offered by a custom web solution, but with the ascent of eCommerce platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify Plus, many online retailers are finding that the templates these services offer more than meet their business needs.
The templates these eCommerce platforms offer are also usually customizable, meaning certified designers can build a sort of hybrid solution for their clients. It’s a best-of-both-worlds approach, and it’s an important option to keep in mind when designing for online stores.
Support & maintenance
How often will the client be updating their site? Is the content evergreen, or will it be regularly changing? Does the client have an in-house designer or developer to manage their new platform?
These too are questions that need to be answered before selecting the right approach for a new or upgraded website. Templates can be easily updated by the client, and they usually don’t require any sort of technical know-how to maintain.
In contrast, making major changes to custom solutions will likely need the expertise of professional designers and developers. But having that support team at your fingertips can offer much more than adjustments to the website. Bugs, crashes, or any sort of issue causing downtime can be quickly resolved when the client partners with a digital agency.
Putting it all together
There are very few absolutes in the world of user experience design. More often than not, the answer to a UX question is a resounding “it depends”. It would be nice to definitively say a custom solution or a template one is better than the other, but in reality, it boils down to the client.
As design experts, our job is provide that definitive answer by analyzing the factors discussed here in order to determine the solution that fits the client, their business, and ultimately, their users. Selecting the right one lays the foundation for a more informed design strategy, and it sets the table for a successful project moving forward.