CMSish

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Stupid rocket science and BaseKit

I’ve been playing a little bit with BaseKit. It’s a nicely designed and well executed web app, sort of like Dreamweaver as a SaaS solution. It’s UK based and has some VC backing. Still, when I bumped into one of the investment team at a networking thing last week, I’m afraid I chuckled at the foolishness of the investment (OK, I’d had a drink).

That’s because it’s one of those apps I think of as “stupid rocket science”—brilliant engineering that’s not solving a real problem. It’s a category error. Who’s the audience for this thing?

Here’s the problem that BaseKit and others are trying to resolve: most websites of any complexity require at least two quite distinct specialist skills beyond business skills: design and development. That drives up cost and implementation time. Well, what if we could automate away one or both of these skills requirements? Then, hurrah, the business user would be able to just get on with the job, without waiting on designers and developers to do their thing.

Website-in-a-box solutions like SquareSpace and WordPress.com approach this by fixing both the design and dev axis: design comes from fixed themes prepared by professional designers; development needs are handled by choosing from a plug-in module library.

But there’s an alternate approach where you give the business user a toolset that lets them do the design and build themselves. Technically, this is an interesting problem: challenging but doable. Hey, I’ve tried solving it myself, about 6 years ago.

But here’s the thing: having a design tool does not make you a designer. You don’t have to believe that design is an innate skill that some people have and some people don’t: it’s enough to realise that even if it’s learnable, it’s one hell of a big learn. It’s time consuming and requires practice: a lot of practice. Real design starts with paper and pencil, not a GUI tool.

The website-in-a-box solutions are better not despite being less flexible, but because they’re less flexible, ie. there’s less room for the non-designer to screw up the design.

So, who’s the audience for BaseKit? Can “business users” really handle their own design? No. Do designers want to master another visual tool for web design, or would they rather stick with what they know (ie. Photoshop)? Afraid it’s Photoshop. Do developers want to nudge GUI controls to resize columns, or would they rather write code? Code please!

I guess there may still be a class of hobbyist webmasters out there who might find this useful. Doubt they want to spend actual money though…

A slightly more interesting take on this idea is the forthcoming Drupal Gardens (though I’ve not actually tried it yet; still waiting for my beta invite). At least it will let you export out a real Drupal implementation. I imagine that’s a one way ticket, but at least might give you a graceful exit when you realise you don’t have the skillset and hire in a real designer and developer…

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7 Responses

  1. Gordon says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right that having design tools does not make someone a designer, like having an axe doesn’t make you a lumberjack. Lots of people have Photoshop and clearly it does not make them designers but that does not make Photoshop a useless tool. It’s up to the user to acquire the skills and expertise to use a tool wisely.

    BaseKit is being built for designers who want to build a professional site with dynamic content but don’t want to write code or have all the hassles of maintaining hosting, and who would rather focus on creating a stunning visual website and not have to worry about the restrictions of templates or W3C compliance. Basekit simplifies the process of creating a theme so no coding is involved and this means that any competent designer with Photoshop or a similar tool can make a great looking website, add functionality and get it published very quickly.

    BaseKit is still in beta but we feel that comparisons with rigid inflexible systems are missing the point. If someone can live with the restrictions and frustrations of systems that force them to edit their theme and site through arcane and complex methods then they can do, but we feel different. BaseKit is for people who care about uniqueness in appearance and content and who want to get that content exactly ‘right” using a quick and intuitive methods.

    BaseKit has been created on the basis of evidence about how real designers and clients work. It does take a different view of the process to other systems because it recognises that no web site is ever finished and that no client ever stops asking for changes. For designers and their clients BaseKit offers speed, efficiency and flexibility that no other current system can offer. In future releases it will have a feature set that will be a compelling offering for anyone who wants to make a great looking functional site without having to code (although we have a built-in CSS console if they do want to play with the code).

    I appreciate your feedback, and if you have anything else you’d like to talk to us about when I’d welcome your thoughts.

    Thanks,

    Gordon

  2. Simon Best says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the article – it’s an interesting take on website builders aimed at business people.

    I’m CTO at BaseKit, and I completely agree with your position here! Unfortunately, I think you’ve been given the wrong information about BaseKit. Please check out the website and hopefully you’ll see we’re targeting BaseKit at web designers.

    You’ll see that one of our unique features is the ability to import a Photoshop design instantly into a web site. This is solving a real world problem; many people just wouldn’t be able to do this using HTML and CSS, and it can often be a tedious and time-consuming task for those that can.

    I would agree that any high end functional website (i.e. web app) requires both design and development skills. However, if look at the long tail of websites, there really isn’t any rocket science going on! It’s very rare that we see any truly innovative feature on a website. In fact there are good reasons why this is the case: familiarity leads to good usability, which is one of the most important aspects of a successful web presence.

    At BaseKit, we definitely are trying to embrace the concept of building a website without the need to code. Again, we’re not talking about creating a complex web app here – just building forms, integrating feeds, adding videos, maps, etc. From our research, many web designers still struggle with these things.

    Thanks again for the article. Would be great to hear your thoughts based on the above.

    Simon Best
    BaseKit Founder and CTO

  3. Michael Kowalski says:

    Thanks for your feedback, guys! Just wanted to stress that I’m really impressed by what you have achieved with BaseKit. If I was in charge of that kind of thing at Google or Yahoo or similar I’d buy up your whole team in a snap. And I hope I’m wrong and you do succeed with it.

    But I’m afraid I remain unconvinced that your product has a market. Here’s something that I think would help those designers better: a brokerage service that put them in touch with a developer…

    btw, while the messaging on your site foregrounds the “import from Photoshop” functionality, it’s not immediately obvious how to do that once you’re logged into the product. I did work it out – you go to the Templates tab and click “Create new template”, then you get an import option. But maybe you should have a more obvious affordance in the UI on first use?

  4. Simon Best says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the kind words about the app – I relayed them to the dev team here and they’re now eagerly waiting that call from Google ;-)

    The developer brokerage service idea is good, but here’s what confuses me: What difference does it make to a designer how they get the custom form / Twitter feed / Google map (or whatever else) into their site, as long as it looks good and works reliably? Why is it bad that we’re giving them a way to do it directly themselves?

    An example of this is again the Photoshop import feature. Check out http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=psd+to+html. A designer could use one of these services and pay anywhere between £40-200 per page (there must be a market however big or small if all these people pay for traffic). At best they will be waiting 24-48 hours for the result. They then have to build the site, add the features, set up hosting, hook up a database, buy domains, etc. It’s a long list! Use BaseKit and all this is covered for a whole year for the price of converting a couple of designs! And it’s instant.

    btw, the first screen you see when you login to BaseKit has the words “Import Photoshop Design” at the top in big letters ;-) You’re absolutely right though, if you miss this the feature is quite hidden within the UI. We’re still working on how to bring this more to users’ attention in a better way.

    Simon

    • Dawn Jackson says:

      Hi,
      I am currently trying out the demo- and I must say that as a graphic artist turned web developer that your marketing tactics were spot on. I spent weeks on a WP build for a client and sadly there were many snags and browser compliancy issues. I am anxious to see how Basekit sites hold up in Explorer 7….D. Jackson

  5. bleep says:

    Im a designer and programmer but i *hate* working with css (making it standards compliant, hacking around different implementations, spending hours trying to get the layout to look the way i want). Anything that makes this process easier interests me greatly, and i am definately going to check out Basekit.

    One thing i dont get is the hosting part of it…its one thing to slice up the layout nicely but i cant imagine building a whole site this way, I guess ill try it and see how it goes :)

  6. Brandon says:

    I do agree to a certain extent with all the comments above. The web development community will go through a transition just as the introduction of CMS separated Groupies from the Rock Stars. Meaning true web developers vs ones who were over charging their clients for every little thing. Though it is going to be terribly hard for ISV’s that are SaaS based to compete directly with the likes of Google’s Website Builder, Siteforce by Salesforce etc. They are all integrated as CMS and SaaS platforms rolled into one. More so they can leverage their additional back-end services to start providing those App rich features. It is an interesting place to be sitting in. Sidebar: our website does convert PSD/GIMP directly into WordPress/Drupal/Joomla making it easy for the new fresh creative themes to be built and has been doing so for years. Everyone has a different take on their hosted solutions and how to complete the last mile issue in web automation.

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