How special are you, really?
This is not a rhetorical question. Before you make a major purchase for your business or nonprofit organization, it's an important one to consider. Does your organization's identity require defining by what you're about to buy? The answer will help you decide whether your investment needs to be absolutely perfect for your company, or whether you can safely purchase something more standardized. This is obvious when it comes to something specific to your product or service; if you're opening a candy store, you might want a fantastic custom neon sign outside, but you wouldn't be likely to need high-quality branded ballpoint pens with your logo on them. However, if you were an attorney going into private practice, custom pens might be worth the investment, given the time your clients would spend using them. Sometimes, customization is important. Sometimes, a standardized item works fine.
This is not different in web design. Today we'll be discussing scenarios in which templates and boilerplate functionalities are just fine, and scenarios in which you'll want to pay up for customization. It's different for every web site owner, but there are some basic questions you can ask yourself to decide the best place to invest your technology budget.
Do You Need to Be Known for Beautiful Design?
Answer yes...if your firm does graphic design, web design, architecture, interior design, or something else for which aesthetic taste is a job requirement. If your firm does anything where people will pay you for making their space or business look good, then having a visually boring web site is highly unadvisable. Having a web site where the design isn't at least harmonious is even worse.
What you'll pay to customize: the entire design. You'll want to avoid templates or, if you use one, you'll need to pay someone to make changes to the way it looks until it's hard to see the visual connection between the template and your finished site.
What you'll save through compromise: the design cost, which can be based almost entirely on an existing theme or template. You can add your logo and change some colors quickly and cheaply, and you'll have a nice looking site that, while perhaps not visually inspirational, can provide a perfectly servicable framework for whatever you want to communicate to your users.
Do You Want to Streamline Services to Your Users?
Answer yes...if there are interactions and transactions between you and your users that you would like to automate. If you're a fitness studio, you could allow users to sign up for classes through a custom calendar system with commerce, or if you're a non-profit organization, you could accept donations through an online system that populates your member database. You'll have to hire someone to build these systems.
What you'll pay to customize: Everything that isn't text-and-images displayed on your site. Anything that the user can do that goes beyond just looking at the content you display will require, at minimum, someone to install and configure additional software and, at maximum, a programmer to build you custom software to make it work exactly the way you want it.
What you'll save through compromise: the cost and hassle of a custom software build or search for existing software. It can take time and can be more expensive, and if your analog processes are working well for you right now, it might be best for you to stick with them.
Do You Have Other Crucial Technology Requirements?
Answer yes...if your business or organization has other technology which needs to feed into or collect information from your web site. This is often the case with medical and dental practices which offer patient logins, small craft-based businesses with a presence on a service like etsy, or medium-to-large-sized non-profit organizations with proprietary membership databases.
What you'll pay to customize: Integration that connects all the pieces. When your members or users connect to your site, they'll be able to access whatever information about them or your firm also exists in the technology you already have, whether that's their membership information, patient forms, or a list of the products for sale in your etsy store. Sometimes, connecting all the dots is simple, but there is often a period of learning and trial-and-error, and your programming team will need time to figure out how to access and style the information you want to pull from one system to the other.
What you'll save through compromise: money and time. All those dots take time to connect, and if you leave the systems separate, you'll have to connect them offline for your users.
Whatever you decide, there are always upsides and downsides to your decision. The things that really distinguish your business or organization are the most important indicators for where your customization budget is best spent.