Why the technology you choose to build your website matters

The CMS you choose impacts everyone who uses your healthcare website

First, know this - there is no one size fits all.

The technology used to build websites is complex, contains different programming languages and serves different purposes. There are different roads to the same destination - a functioning, secure website that is easy to manage, maintain and enhance, and serves your users' needs to meet your business objectives. Each choice presents its own features, benefits and challenges. To understand the recommendations people are making for you, it's important to understand what to look for.

This article outlines five categories you need to understand when engaging a partner to complete your new website project and evaluating the technology platforms they are recommending.

When you get started, be realistic about your requirements, vision, timeline, and budget so you build a collaborative relationship with a partner that understands how to choose a technology solution to meet your unique needs. You shouldn't rely on a sales pitch from a vendor trying to sell you features and functions that may not serve your project's unique requirements.

Open Source vs. Licensed

Question to ask:

How do you get started?

The up-front cost to develop your project may be only a small fraction of the overall expense of running your website on certain platforms. Certain CMS platforms commonly used within the healthcare industry have significant annual licensing fees just to access the platform - even before anything is built. In some cases, these licensing fees don't cover the ongoing optimization, content development, and maintenance of your site for the year. Before considering a licensed CMS, it's important to ensure your team has the expertise, bandwidth, and need for all of the paid features being sold. Organizations are often sold on “best in class” features, only to realize after implementation that they don’t live up to what was promised, were overly complex for the team’s current situation, and are expensive to maintain.

For these reasons, Core often recommends using open source software.

Some of the biggest websites in the world are built in open source technology. We've found that nearly all of the features available in licensed platforms can be just as easily implemented on open source platforms. We believe organizations are better off investing in the ongoing website optimization and enhancements you need, rather than vendor referral kickbacks and the required licensing to access closed platform CMSs. 

A custom solution might be the best solution.

Wordpress and Drupal are two of the big names in open source CMSs. We have developed and maintained sites on both of these platforms, but they don't give us the flexibility we need to deliver a great product. Their integrations, maintainability, ease of use, security, and features didn't live up to our web building standards; so we sought a more advanced solution. Our platform of choice ever since has been Django, a web framework developed in Python, one of the most popular languages in the world. There are many reasons we generally recommend Django as a powerful, open source, flexible and secure platform for websites of all sizes. Those are addressed in the following categories.


Question to ask:

Does the technology make it easy to maintain the website?

Certain platforms lend themselves to easier updates and maintenance than others. The components that make Wordpress sites quick to launch (such as templates and plugins) can also make ongoing maintenance and enhancements more difficult. Instead of developing a clean and efficient site from the beginning, Wordpress users rely on more generic template code that requires modification to suit your needs. Because you end up fighting against an existing code base, you are trying to build within an existing framework. It's like trying to turn a triangle into a circle. PHP, the code language Wordpress is built on, also tends to be more difficult to work with and read, adding a layer of complexity that makes it harder for teams to work together and make progress.

In our experience, sites built on Django using Python as a code language end up being easier to maintain and therefore more flexible as your needs evolve and the years go on. Which is, as anyone who has taken on a website rebuild project knows, incredibly valuable. The wrong technology can be a hinderance when you need to maintain your website. In addition to being one of the fastest growing programing languages, Python is also known as one of the fastest languages to develop with, due to its emphasis on readability and simplicity, making it easy to learn and update. (See also: The Zen of Python)

CMS Usability

Question to ask:

How easy is it to use the CMS?

Not all organizations have a large team with time to invest in learning a complex CMS - no matter how fully-featured it is. If a system is difficult to use, few people will be willing or able to work in it. This means website administration will fall on a small number of people who must often juggle a number of other tasks. We routinely emphasize the importance of building on intuitive content management systems, designed with the web administrators in mind. The CMSs we build with Django keep site maintenance simple, showing admins only the pieces they need to maintain and nothing more. Our user experience and development teams appreciate the admin as a key user of the website, and build interfaces to make their lives easier.

Your team shouldn't have to relearn how to use the CMS every time a content update is needed.

Your CMS should be simple enough to build confidence among your internal team that they can simply go in and do what needs to be done, while easily understanding how to use all of the features your dev team has built in to make things great for your end users.

Features & Functions

Question to ask:

What do I really need?

I mentioned before that we have seen organizations sold on expensive, feature-packed systems, only to realize they can't actually take advantage of what is available. Administration in these systems is complex and many organizations don’t have the capacity required to become experts. This leaves the features usable to only a select few. When evaluating a platform, it’s important to remain focused only on the features your team requires - and will use - immediately at launch. Be cautious of “must have features” from CMS vendors. You don't always need the underbody car wash. Ask questions about implementation costs, as well as what it takes to support and maintain those features.

At Core, we prioritize simple content creation and help ensure the features you use most often are easy to use. We then layer additional feature functionality on as needed. 

A CMS can have countless functions, but two of the most critical are search and permissions.

Certain websites - particularly healthcare sites - can get very large and complex. A powerful search function lets your users more easily access their desired content. When evaluating a platform, remember to discuss how you can optimize the search experience on your website. A search experience is how people are used to finding content. For example, since most people use Google for search, providing a similar search experience on your website can vastly improve navigation and engagement. Using a technology known as Elastic search, we can customize, personalize and enhance search to deliver the best experience for your visitors as they use and return to your site.

One of the promises of “enterprise content management systems” is the ability to build levels of access permission for your site admins. This is another instance where it’s important to consider your organization’s current situation. Be realistic about who will be responsible for maintaining the website. Make sure complex permission systems accommodate your needs but don’t get in the way of your organization's website maintenance. We recommend starting with a certain level of user maintenance and permissions. Then, as needed, add higher levels of granularity. An organization with three website admins doesn’t need a system with 10 levels of permissions. At least not right away. Additional levels of permissions should be added as necessary, when your needs and organization change.


Question to ask:

How do you maintain security?

While open source software offers many advantages, not all open source CMS platforms are equal when it comes to security. Wordpress websites make up an estimated 50% to 60% of all CMSs on the web. This footprint makes Wordpress a large target for attacks. Wordpress’s architecture relies heavily on third party plugins - the security of which can vary wildly. This leaves vulnerabilities on core software and plugins. These vulnerabilities need to be regularly addressed and patched to keep Wordpress secure. Unfortunately, these timely updates are frequently overlooked.

In contrast, Django addresses many of these security issues. Because it doesn’t haven’t the large install base of other CMSs, Django is a lesser target for potential cyberattacks. Django also encourages secure code design by notifying developers of unsecure practices before they are taken live. It is secure out of the box and doesn’t require installing third party security plugins. And because it doesn’t rely on third party plugins, updates can be made to the CMS without relying on plugin developers to make timely security updates to their code.

There is no right answer to the content management system (CMS) question.

At Core, we use particular solutions based on our diverse website-building experience and want to share the “why” behind our recommendations.

There are many other things to consider when evaluating the CMS platform your healthcare website will run on. While objectively bad platforms are rare, there are benefits and compromises to each, and we would love to assist you in choosing the one that makes the most sense for your project. If you would like to learn more about any of our recommendations please feel free to email us for a website “second opinion” consultation. 


Know your options when embarking on a healthcare website redesign project

Download our cheat sheet with 4 topics to cover with your web development partner — and the questions to ask — to ensure a successful website redesign.

Download our cheatsheet

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Bob Prohaska is the Director of Digital Experience at at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice.

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