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You do not need a big budget to build a great web site.

In fact, there are many advantages to working on a tight budget. A well-run, small-budget production can force you to focus on what really matters. The result is a leaner, more effective site whose immediacy enables you to connect with your audience more successfully.

This book is about finding the correct approach to developing great sites on a meager budget. I call this approach shoestring design. Throughout these chapters, I'll show you how to apply shoestring design principles to every aspect of web production: project management, usability, design, copywriting, hosting, and post-launch maintenance.

In this book, I share an approach that will not only help you survive tough economic times, but could actually improve your work's quality and usability and enhance your connection with the people who read or use your site. When your economic circumstances improve, you will have developed efficient work habits that help you make the most of larger budgets.

Why Web Design on a Shoestring?

I have a reason for wanting to write this book now, and it is personal. In the heyday of the dot-com era, I worked as a web developer in a large New York City nonprofit. We had some funding that trickled in from time to time, but never much. In 1999, that trickle was to become a constant stream of cash. I was about to realize every small-budget designer's dream. We had secured a budget from my city that was going to boost my staff from 2 to 10; this was to include information architects, graphic designers, editors, writers (what a luxury!), and a few assistants. We were going to conduct a series of large-scale focus groups and usability testing studies over two years. I had designs on a large content-management system and was actually going to have the cash to buy all the support services to move legacy content into the new system. We had planned well, and the budget had anticipated every need for a major expansion. We were ready to spend that money well.

Just as the funds were about to begin rolling in, the stock market tanked. The money that was going to go to my beautiful new web team was reallocated to keeping the doors of our bricks-and-mortar services open. A few months later, New York City took another major hit, the city buckled, and the money was simply gone. It seemed as though all my hopes for an excellent web site were dashed.

The irony is that in the cash-strapped year that followed, we in this two-person office locked ourselves in and accomplished much more than I would have anticipated going into it. With a lean budget, we had to develop a lean attitude.

As we focused on doing small tasks well and keeping organized, our site became gradually more focused. We found ways of making do without formal user studies, by conducting small, informal ones. We paid closer attention to the free user feedback that came from our customers' email messages. We perused our old pages for important content that had been buried, and we spent time refining the language, making it warmer and more conversational.

We skipped the content-management system purchase and built small boutique-size systems that supported a few sections of our site. We developed more efficient workflows. We canned staff meetings that were not productive and killed time-sucking projects.

We did take on new projects, but we were more selective; what we built, we built well. We wrote documentation, learned about and implemented open standards, and instituted other best practices.

After a year of working this way, our site was both more polished and more human than it had been when times were flush.

That is when I realized that I had developed a useful approach to working with small budgets, so I began to write this book. Some of what you will find in these pages comes out of my own experience; other ideas come from shoestring warriors I have spoken with. I hope that these cumulative experiences will help other web professionals who face similar challenges.

As I have traveled the country giving lectures on web design, I have realized that my experience and the shoestring design approach is worth sharing; more of us are working on smaller-budget sites. Many of us work in-house for agencies and nonprofits that have scaled back. Others of us are on our own, working with these very same agencies and nonprofits as clients. With more of us in this boat, I wanted to write a book that would serve as a guide for how to create a wonderful site on a shoestring budget.

Who This Book Is For

Few web developers are working with the budgets we had three or four years ago, but we still have the same responsibilities. This book is for those of us who have seen our budgets abated while our customers' expectations have grown. Essentially, this book is for anyone who has to develop great web sites on a dime. There are many of us in this position: Some are freelancers, others work for small design agencies, and others work as in-house web professionals for large agencies. I have written this book thinking about web professionals from any of these categories. Here are four people who represent our gang of underfunded web professionals.

This book is for John, who is not a full-time web professional but has to produce a site as though he were. John is not a designer, but he is under a lot of pressure from the board of trustees to make a beautiful and robust community portal. He needs to pull off a major redesign in the next six months so that his library looks more up-to-date. The site has an events calendar, but it is currently managed by hand. This takes up too much of his time. John wants to buy, find, or develop an automated tool so that his colleagues can enter data into a web form, and the events calendar will appear on the web automatically. His boss is interested in having an online book discussion for adults and wants John to develop the forum for that. All of this work is to take place in the 17 hours per week during which he is the webmaster. The other part of his time is set aside for his work as a children's librarian.

John's major problem: How can I manage expectations and make the most of the few hours a week that I have to devote to web development?

This book is for Clint, who runs his own one-person web-design shop in Ontario. He attracts clients who are looking for sophisticated design rather than web application development. Clint has been in the field for a number of years, but his list of clients has changed in the last two. Some of those that he did business with are now out of business. The clients that he has retained are short on cash; $20,000 jobs have been replaced by $5,000 jobs, and $10,000 jobs have been replaced by $500 jobs. Clint still loves the medium and wants to produce beautiful sites for his clients, so his approach needs to change. He is looking for ways to deliver beautiful designs and to help his clients cut costs in smart ways. He worries that if he and his clients cut back on the wrong things, they will be spending too much money playing catch-up when finances rebound.

Clint's major problem: How can I help my clients spend their small budgets most effectively and still make money myself?

This book is for Janet, who works in the web office of an insurance agency in Phoenix, Arizona. She is an art school graduate and was once the lead designer on a team that included a few developers, a Flash person, and a project manager. After a round of corporate downsizing, the office consists of Janet, who is responsible for every aspect of web production, and an hourly assistant with no real web experience.

Janet's major problem: How can I do the work of five people?

This book is for Steve, who owns a computer store outside Toledo, Ohio. Steve has volunteered to create, host, and maintain the web site for his 13-year-old daughter's entire baseball league. He lives in a wealthy county, and expectations for the site's look and up-to-date accuracy are high. If the site falls short, he is sure to hear about it from the more difficult yet influential members of the community. Unfortunately for Steve, there is no plan, no budget, and no time to do it.

Steve's major problem: How can I produce a fabulous site in my “free” time?

Shoestring is also for people who have volunteered to create sites for social clubs and religious organizations. It is for anyone who is in the business of making web sites and has little time and money to do it. This book is also for anyone who has a decent budget and wants to make the most of every penny.

What This Book Assumes

Shoestring assumes that you have at least some experience building and publishing web sites. Basic knowledge of (X)HTML is required for some of the chapters. If your knowledge of HTML is limited because you have never made a web site or because you have used only graphical editors such as Dreamweaver or GoLive, you will want to brush up on HTML basics as we go along. You might want to pick up a basic (X)HTML book to have at your side as you read Shoestring. I recommend HTML for the World Wide Web with XHTML and CSS: Visual QuickStart Guide, Fifth Edition (Peachpit Press, ©1999) by Elizabeth Castro; XML, HTML, XHTML Magic (New Riders, ©2001) by Molly E. Holzschlag; or Designing with Web Standards (New Riders, ©2003) by Jeffrey Zeldman.

What Is in This Book

Web Design on a Shoestring tackles every aspect of web production from the point of view of a professional who needs to deliver a magnificent site but doesn't have lavish financial resources. Each chapter addresses one of those site production aspects (project planning, user testing, writing, design, content management, HTML markup, and web hosting) and suggests strategies about making the most of it on a shoestring budget.

I have tried to focus on one or two main cost-savings strategies for each chapter, and then to break down these strategies into several techniques that you can put to use immediately.

In Chapter 1, “The Secrets to a Successful Shoestring Project,” I give you techniques for keeping your focus clear. This will help keep an otherwise precarious job on track.

In Chapter 2, “The Pound Wise Project Plan,” you are encouraged to dare to do less. In preproduction, “less is more” must be the shoestring web professional's mantra. I look at ways to simplify your project plan and to manage expectations that, if unchecked, can eat up your budget.

Chapter 3, “Usability on the Cheap,” focuses on how to use small, informal user studies early and often, and on how to create a toolkit of usability techniques that become part of your web development repertoire. You don't have to spend much to have your site benefit tremendously from good usability.

Chapter 4, “Why Good Copy Counts,” should convince you that the savvy shoestring professional takes advantage of good copy. Words are the only aspect of a site that you have complete control over, and they can either elevate or bring down your site. Good copy can also be repurposed for newsletters and other free and inexpensive marketing tools. I look at ways to write well for the web without spending too much money, and show you how to maximize the value of every word.

Chapter 5, “The Design: Looking Good with Less,” is about solid design on a small budget. You might not have the money for expensive stock art or top-notch graphic designers, but if you define your style and stick to it, and keep the colors, lines, and typography clean, you can produce an inexpensive site that looks like a million bucks.

Even shoestring web professionals have to manage large content properties. Our work is not limited to small boutique sites. Managing all that content can be expensive if you do it manually, but a content-management system (CMS) can also be expensive. In Chapter 6, “Content Management on a Tight Budget,” I show you how to find the best CMS for your dime (or for free).

The shoestring professional must do important behind-the-screens work to save time and money on site maintenance, storage, server costs, and even accessibility. In Chapter 7, “Save Time and Money with Web Standards,” I look at the underpinnings of a well-constructed, durable web site that will save big bucks in the long run.

So you've built a site, but now you need to find an affordable way to serve it. In Chapter 8, “Bang-for-Your-Buck Hosting and Domains,” I show you how to find good value in hosting and domain name services, and how to put together a good defense against some of the hidden costs that too often accompany domain and hosting services.

How to Use This Book

It is my hope that you will write in this book, dog-ear a few pages, and splash coffee on the cover. Treat it with little reverence. Let it become an old friend that you can lean on from time to time. Ignore the stuff you don't need, and enjoy the parts that help.

You'll find that each chapter begins with a “Chapter Checklist.” Use these checklists as guidelines to help you move more efficiently through the chapters.

Short sections called “Spinning Straw into Gold” punctuate the book; these sections highlight approaches to the money-saving aspects introduced in each chapter. I have also defined terms and phrases throughout this book; skim the sidebars to familiarize yourself with new terms and concepts.

The “Budget Threat” sections in each chapter identify potential hazards to your limited supply of funds. As in life, emergency spending can quickly clear out your bank account. Fortunately, web site budget threats are a little easier to predict than flooded basements or unexpected veterinary bills. I hope that the “Budget Threat” highlights will help you avoid extra expenses.

Shoestring is not cumulative; you do not need to read Chapter 1 to understand Chapter 2, so feel free to jump around and go at your own pace. You can skip around to the issues that you face now, or you can read it from start to finish. If you are in a hurry, you might want at first to take a superficial pass at a chapter. Read the checklist, and review the “Budget Threat” and “Spinning Straw into Gold” blurbs. Then when you have time, come back and read the chapter in full. I have designed the book for busy people, and even a quick skim should help you move forward in your work.

Begin by Doing Less

If you are reading this book, you are probably short on time as well as money, so I want to jump right in. The trick to making a shoestring budget work is to do less and do it well. If you do not have the money for a full-blown content-management system, select one that does 80% of what a CMS should do, but one that does that 80% well. If you have a tight budget for stock art, use fewer photographs, but make sure the ones you buy are terrific.

As you move forward, keep one principle in mind:

Dare to do less.

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