As technology matures, the burden of custom code increasingly shifts away from the end consumer. In the early days of the Internet, nearly every website was essentially a custom software piece, necessitating developer involvement for even minor changes. Today, platforms like WordPress and Drupal rely on vast code bases, but the costs of developing and maintaining that code has shifted from the customer to these independent platforms.
A Brief History of Content Management Systems
I began my first web development company, Newfangled, in 1995. Back then all you needed to build a website was Simple Text and Photoshop. But very quickly clients expressed a desire to update their websites without needing to write code. At that time, off-the-shelf options for content management were scarce, limited to a few expensive enterprise-level solutions funded by venture capital. The very earliest versions of open source CMS platforms like Drupal and WordPress were not released until 2001 and 2003 respectively. Meanwhile, Newfangled developed its own custom proprietary platform called the Newfangled CMS to empower clients in managing their own content.
Content Management Required Extensive Custom Code
Creating a platform like the Newfangled CMS, allowed us to construct custom sites using our proprietary software. But that necessitated a substantial amount of custom code. Newfangled had to dedicate staff to support and further research and development for the CMS itself, in addition to designers and developers who built websites with it. This overhead proved burdensome.
The Rise of WordPress Page Builders
In recent years, a new category of tools known as “page builders” has emerged for WordPress. Initially, these plugins primarily offered enhanced control over the content area of WordPress sites, allowing the insertion of various elements with flexible styling options. This was a significant advancement, revolutionizing basic front-end marketing sites. However, they were not yet capable of building the more sophisticated and dynamic websites.
Meanwhile, technology progressed rapidly, and one page builder, in particular, made remarkable strides, enabling the creation of fully customized and dynamic websites with minimal or no custom coding.
The Impact of Elementor & Low Code Development Platforms
Elementor, one of the leading page builder platforms for WordPress, made several key decisions that set it apart from competitors. Firstly, they followed the Drupal/WordPress playbook by making their core code open source. This allowed third-party developers to extend its capabilities through their own add-ons, resulting in a rapid proliferation of new features for the platform.
Secondly, Elementor expanded its system to not only control content but also to create custom templates and manage all aspects of themes through its theme builder. This change positioned Elementor as a comprehensive site control center.
Thirdly, Elementor introduced dynamic content, enabling each element to display content from other WordPress assets and custom fields. Coupled with its template builder and a wide range of third-party extensions, Elementor eliminated the need for extensive coding even in the creation of intricate and dynamic websites.
With the advancements of tools like Elementor the overhead costs of custom code is shrinking even more, approaching near-zero as it transfers from the customer to product developers. While professional versions of products like Elementor and premium plugins may still have license fees, ranging from $40 to $200 per year, the overall expense remains significantly lower than the cost of building and maintaining equivalent features with custom code.
Continual Improvement and New Features
As custom coding becomes the responsibility of product developers rather than consumers, the benefits extend beyond cost savings. Consumers also benefit from ongoing research and development, resulting in regular upgrades, improvements, and expanded capabilities of these low code development platforms. The customer’s investment in a plugin or platform covers not only its current use but also contributes to its ongoing development, enabling websites to gain new functionalities without additional investments.
Always Consider the Trade Offs
It is always important to recognize that in any market, including software, consumer choices involve trade-offs. So, when considering custom code versus off-the-shelf solutions like Elementor and professional plugins, certain trade-offs need consideration.
Trade-Off #1: Complexity
One notable trade-off is the relationship between flexibility and complexity. With a simplified web page admin interface offering just a few fields like title, content, and featured image (as seen in older classic WordPress pages), users encounter minimal difficulties—but also have very few options. However, when a page provides numerous content options such as images, video embeds, galleries, accordions, and sliders, each with various style and display choices, the gained flexibility increases complexity.
Frameworks like Elementor provide significant flexibility but come with increased complexity compared to the default WordPress content area. And for every other advanced tool we deploy, such as integrated CRM and email automation plugins, they each offer extensive options, often more than what is necessary, adding to the complexity. Navigating these options requires learning what to ignore, which can be its own learning curve. While the hard costs of software development are shifted to product developers, the learning curve does shifted back to the client.
The HOLTER Strategic Solution
At HOLTER Strategic, we bridge the complexity gap, leveraging cost shifting and flexibility while minimizing the learning curve. Through our prototyping process, we strategically identify the features our clients need and structure them into pre-built components that can be easily added to pages with pre-defined styles and structures. We also create specific training videos and offer ongoing support to assist clients in managing their websites efficiently.
Trade-Off #2: Speed
Frameworks and plugins do add to the codebase of a website, affecting its speed. However, the impact of this trade-off is often overstated. While page speed is a factor in search engine optimization (SEO), the exact weight given to it by Google’s search algorithm remains unknown. But Google always prioritizes relevance, matching search intent with the most relevant content. If page speed were heavily weighted, it would provide an easy tool for spammers to manipulate search results. The real function of page speed is to enhance the user experience. While some speed trade-offs exist, they are negligible compared to the costs of eliminating frameworks and plugins with custom code.
Additionally, through the use of caching plugins, and investing a bit more in server resources (a much lower expense than the alternative costs of custom code) page load times can be very fast.
Trade-Off #3: Dependence on 3rd Party Developers
Low code development platforms still rely on code, often maintained by various developers responsible for different plugins and frameworks. The interdependence of these systems carries a degree of risk, as updates may introduce bugs or conflicts. However, the alternatives of not including certain features or developing extensive custom code bring their own challenges.
But the alternative, custom code, is not immune to bugs or future incompatibilities either. And maintaining custom code is very costly. And turnaround time for new feature development or maintenance on custom code is usually slow, since it usually relies on the specific developer or team who coded it in the first place. The occasional plugin bug, fixable by the supporting companies, is a trade-off preferable to relying solely on custom code.
The benefits of the low code/no-code revolution far outweigh the costs. Adopting a flexible platform unlocks significant potential and allows websites to expand capabilities with minimal additional investment for years to come.
Welcome to the Low Code/No Code revolution!