Five Tips for Better Business Catalyst Websites

Tips to help reduce errors, frustration, load times and client conflicts, all while increasing revenue and fun.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - Posted by Adam Cook to Technical How-tos

Did I get to you with any of that? If not, let me ask you some different questions. What are your least favorite parts of building a website? What are your most favorite?

In a nutshell, I’ll tell you my least favorites: when websites and clients act up. I hate it when things and people stand in the way of progress. I hate getting a puff of smoke and bird flying out of a hat, when I was trying to perform a miracle. I don’t like being normal. I don’t like doing normal. I've never dreamed a normal dream, or thought I would one day come up with a satisfactory solution to a problem. And I don’t like having my ideas materialize into ho-hum. Things that cause that to happen drain the life out of me.

My favorites all boil down to feeling in control of my environment and future. I’m a creator. That word has everything to do with control and progression. I have a feeling other creatives need that as much as I do; the need to make something better than it was; to feel that surge of growth, and with it energy and life. It’s in this spirit that I want to share a few tips with you. I have five for you. I’ll start with some real technical practices, and end with more behavioral, but all will make a big difference in the outcome of your creations and your goals.

Obviously I can’t cover everything here, but I’ll try to mention the most important steps. If you dig this, and want to continue the journey, you can always subscribe to my blog.

Cut down on HTTP requests

Say what? I’m sounding all religious and stuff and then I go and say something like that! What are http requests anyway?

HTTP requests are simply what happens when a browser wants to connect with a server. And every time it does, your website’s load time increases. Having a lot of requests actually increases the chances of errors on your page as well because it can affect timing of scripts and stylesheets. It also puts more load on servers, which hurts other people’s sites as well, but in this article we’re just going to focus on ourselves.

How do we decrease these requests? There are great resources on the web for this, but for starters, every stylesheet and script we include in our document creates a request. Included fonts and images also increase the number of requests. Here are some ways to improve on http requests:

  1. Combine stylesheets and scripts into as few files as makes practical sense. This is obviously a balance, as you may need to keep some separate to maintain order and simplicity for yourself, but having seven or eight stylesheets is likely decreasing that sense of order. I usually have two stylesheets and three script files that contain everything I need.
  2. With few exceptions, include the same scripts and stylesheets throughout your site. This promotes browser caching, which eliminates the need to redownload from the server, therefore less http requests.
  3. Use less images on your site. I’m not really talking about images that qualify as content, like an inline photo that goes to a story. I’m talking about icons, backgrounds, and such. CSS is super powerful these days. It can do amazing effects that used to require images or JavaScript. As far as icons go, you probably know about sprites, combining multiple images into one, but have you ever used icon fonts? Check them out. I like the ones from Zurb. Icon fonts have all the benefits of normal fonts. You can change size, color, add effects, and they scale perfectly because they are vector. Plus they have a tiny footprint, space-wise.

More CSS, less JS

CSS is incredible. It’s fast, fun and effective. There is so much that can be done with it. In my opinion, it is the most important skill in a web designer’s tool belt. It’s hard to overuse CSS. The same is not true for JavaScript. This might sound strange to those of you who know me, because I love JavaScript. I mean, I’m the BC Plugins developer, for crying out loud! I love JavaScript for how it opens doors to creating more intelligent websites, and makes it possible to communicate with the customer right then and there. But that love comes with a healthy respect. Scripts add overhead, and too much of that will slow sites down. And besides decreased speed, too many scripts can cause nasty errors that cost hundreds of dollars to troubleshoot. My rule of thumb is to keep the scripts lean so they stay mean.

Another reason to rely more on CSS is the skill required. You can master CSS in a couple of months. It’s also pretty intuitive, since its results are visual. Requiring JavaScript usually involves hiring someone who is much more expensive. Save that money for your new jet ski.

Leverage content holders and page templates

Probably the most misused features in Business Catalyst. I suppose that’s debatable, but what shouldn't be under debate is their purpose. Content holders and page templates serve the same ultimate purpose: reduce the amount of repetition you need to perform while building a site.

Page templates are a great way to speed up site creation. Used correctly, they often make up over half, and sometimes more, of any given page’s html. That’s a lot of saved time. It’s also a lot of saved headaches, because less html means less troubleshooting. Restrict it’s contents to items that should be constant throughout the site. A page template should usually include the header, navigation, and footer of your pages. Most sites can make do with three or less page templates. More than four, and you should be thinking hard about the logic and consistency of your site’s design.

Content holders are much the same as page templates, except they are more flexible in their use. They should mostly be used to reduce repeating blocks of html. Used intelligently, they can save many hours of work and troubleshooting. The balance with content holders is the same as with page templates. You can both over and under do it. The right balance is where you are the most productive, both during and after the build.

Productize

Don’t you get tired of doing the same thing over and over? I do. I’m a creative. I have to create. I have to solve problems. That means moving forward and not reinventing the wheel. The wheel was last week’s project. This week, it’s engines.

If you look at the last three sections of this post, you’ll notice a theme: Reduce. Well, then, this one is reuse and recycle. In our field we have an awesome ability to reuse our work without lowering our prices. Business Catalyst makes that even easier with content holders, page templates, site replication, and more. Learning to resell our work is a crucial step.

Here is a little formula for productization:

  1. Create a simple site template.
  2. Sell a site for $X.
  3. Improve something on that site.
  4. Sell it for 20% more.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 until satisfied, then start at 1 again.

The benefits of this process are amazing. If you create the site in advance, it is a product, not a commission. You label the parts, list the benefits, and state a price. You find the right customers to buy it. There is no dickering or complaining. No under-delivering or delays. Most importantly, you are doing something today that makes something better.

There are other ways to productize, you don’t have to follow the steps above. But, you do have to productize if you are going to be fulfilled as a creative. Productizing simply means that you create things that have ability to be reused, expanded upon, and resold. Every time you create a content holder, ask yourself if that could be reused on every site you build. Do you have a specific way you build your page templates? I do—and the same for my content holders and stylesheets and JavaScript. The key to productization is to expand upon and refine your existing work, then profit from it and repeat the process.

Productizing creates natural benefits for you over time. Your work becomes quicker, profits higher, satisfaction soars…you get it.

Maintain creative control

This last tip is not technical by any means. It’s a rule. If you want to create better Business Catalyst sites; to create a future for yourself by productizing and gaining more profits and satisfaction, you have to maintain control of your creative process. Under no circumstances should you ever give it up. If you have clients that like to take that from you, get new clients.

Seriously. The moment you give up creative control, you become a puppet to your clients and your needs begin to be less important. That will put your fire out. Find people who appreciate your creative process, and make sure, even with them, that you are very clear up front about your role. If you are used to giving up that control, you might be saying no too seldom. Your creativity is why you do what you do. If you want to be happy in your field, you have to hold on to that all important why.

Jonathan Hinshaw, with EBWAY Creative, told me once that he doesn't have any clients he wouldn't invite to a barbecue in his own backyard. When I think of that, I imagine a relationship of respect and fun, where roles are understood and talents are appreciated. Picturing that scene, I can feel how true success should be defined.

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