If you have ever spoken to anyone from Umi, you will probably have been bombarded with our enthusiasm towards WordPress as a stable, secure and powerful open source content management system for our hospitality websites.
One of the beauties of WordPress is the rich ecosystem of plugins that are available, providing bolt-on functionality without the need to create everything from scratch. Examples of how we use plugins include:
- SEO tools such as Yoast
- Performance enhancements such as Auto Optimise and Lazy Loading
- Contact forms using Gravity Forms
- Website migration tools using WP Engine plugins
Among the many thousands of plugins available on the WordPress plugins library, there is a certain type of plugin that has sparked debate in the WordPress community and that is the use of Page Builders. Page Builders are tools that override the default edit page within WordPress and allow the user to create layouts, design and insert any element into a page in whichever way they like, all through a drag-and-drop interface. Sounds good right? Well, there are certainly many benefits to page builders but there are a great many pitfalls too.
This post looks at how Umi Digital approach page builders and how we use them in our development workflow.
Ultimate design control vs prescriptive layouts
One of the key aspects of our hotel website scoping sessions is to plan the necessary page content and draft up potential layouts. It is then the designer’s job to fit these into an aesthetic layout that will convert well. Our approach to page layouts is “less is more”. With fewer layouts, we are able to create consistency throughout the website that contributes to a more coherent web experience. While there are some ways that a developer can lock down the use of a page builder, they essentially give each page the ability to have a unique layout which very much defeats our “less is more” principle in the design phase.
This being said, there are uses where this highly flexible layout engine might be quite useful – perhaps it is a campaign specific landing page for a newsletter or social advert? These non-standard pages might need a bit more flexibility that couldn’t have been considered at the planning stage of the website.
Page builders certainly speed up development and can remove a certain amount of the coding required by the developer and subsequently speed up development and reduce costs. For lower budget websites, this creates an opportunity to save costs and even offers the ability for businesses to control their own content and design if they don’t wish to engage with an agency.
At Umi, we actually use page builders quite frequently however this is usually restricted to the prototyping phase of the build. Page builders such as Beaver Builder allow the rapid prototyping of concepts that can be very quickly concept tested across devices. Our developers will then summarise these findings, strip out the unnecessary fields and then actually create the page layouts from scratch using Advanced Custom Fields (ACF). If you’re on our Umi 360 system already, you will see advanced custom fields in use when you see unique fields such as ‘hotel features’, ‘header image’, ‘related room types’ and other hotel specific website elements.
In many cases, design and innovation under certain restrictive conditions lead to the most intriguing and successful results. By placing design constraints such as limiting the number of images, characters of text, calls to action and number of columns and rows, we are forced to prioritise. This usually leads to the business goals of the website becoming a lot more focused and subsequently having a higher conversion rate.
Page builders (that aren’t locked down) do not provide these design constraints and the natural salesperson in all of us suddenly wants to fit everything on a single page with a unique, creative layout every time. This ‘kid in a candy shop’ scenario almost always leads to a lack of focus and consistency throughout the website and significantly hinders the consistency and coherence of the user journey.
Having pre-made custom fields ensures you maintain this focus however if you do wish to expand and include more content then each expansion must be carefully thought through and challenges priorities each time. We feel this small barrier along with the critical evaluation of future developments is really helpful for business decisions.
Does it devalue bespoke design?
As Umi Digital focusses on truly bespoke offerings with our Umi 360 website package, we are naturally cautious of page builders. We feel that there is certainly a place for them (in prototyping predominantly) but we believe that a significant part of our offering is actually around the UX/UI decisions over content and data structure of the pages using design constraints, as discussed above.
On websites where we have tailored the WordPress admin area in a bespoke way using custom fields we have seen that performance has typically been higher. I believe that this is largely down to the consistency of the user journey, ease of content management, as well as the business goals, becoming more focussed when the layout is subjected to design constraints.
WordPress and page builders going forward
Page builders are here to stay. The likes of Squarespace, Wix and other drag and drop solutions have taken the bottom end of the market by storm and they don’t show any sign of slowing anytime soon. As such, there is a huge place for them within the WordPress ecosystem. Now, the question is, how does WordPress bring it into the core content management system? It has already been decided that it should not remain a bolt-on plugin and developments towards “Gutenberg” are well underway. Gutenberg is a layout/builder plugin that has the intention of one day becoming part of WordPress Core.
Challenges will certainly arise for backwards compatibility, ensuring the separate “custom field” approach and “page builder” approach remain usable for the foreseeable future.
The evolution of page builders is an exciting place to be following. Umi will be closely following and engaging in the WordPress community to ensure we capitalise on any new tools that will be of benefit to our hotel network. Watch this space as we implement new tools and ensure your websites are always performing on the leading edge of hospitality marketing.