The biggest problem you're going to face is that the terminology used is essentially a foreign language. To make matters worse, there are some digital strategists and web developers out there -- the bad ones, whom you want to stay away from -- who assume you're a luddite when you look bewildered by things like responsive design, media queries, CMS or HTML5.
Don't worry about it and don't be scared off by this. It's not your job to understand the technologies behind the Web. I'll walk you through some of the basics of websites today to make you a little more conversant and hopefully able to filter out the charlatans trying to win your business.
1. What is responsive web design and why do you need it?
The explosive adoption of the iPhone, iPad and other smart phones and tablets has changed the way digital content is consumed. If you're going to succeed in your business, you need to provide customers with a quality, frictionless experience. That means you need to build one website that is usable across a multitude of devices.
Responsive web design (RWD) is the strategy being used today. This essentially involves developing a flexible website that will “respond” and adjust itself to the various screen dimensions of devices. If you're looking at a responsive website on an iPad and rotate it, the website will readjust and reconfigure itself automatically to the screen shape. This doesn't mean the website will look or behave in the same manner on a laptop versus a tablet, but the user experience will be optimized for each. RWD maintains aesthetics while optimizing usability.
2. What is HTML5 and CSS3 and why do you need them?
All you really need to know is that these two languages are the basic building blocks of websites. HTML5 is like the foundation and framing used to build a house. It provides web browsers with instructions on how to structure and display content. CSS3, on the other hand is like the details that make a house unique: paint, landscaping, furniture, and art. CSS3 takes care of the overall aesthetics of your website.
HTML5 and CSS3 are complementary technologies that aren't terribly useful when not used together. Both are required components of responsive web design. For example, CSS3 provides different layout and aesthetic instructions based on the device accessing a website, so that a website may show or hide certain things if the user is accessing it on an iPhone instead of laptop.
3. What is a CMS and why do I need it?
You need a content management system (CMS) to simplify the task of managing a website. In the old days, website content was managed by creating an HTML file on your computer and uploading it to a web server, where it was accessible to the world. The problem was that sites started to get very large, with thousands of pages. When you wanted to update something minor like the copyright date in the footer, you needed to update every file on the site. Enter the CMS.
You shouldn't have to know how to code to manage a website. A CMS separates the content from the presentation, giving you the flexibility to update your website. Some examples include WordPress and Drupal -- both open source and free to install or Expression Engine, which is affordable at $299. One of our Atlantic Media sites, Quartz, runs on WordPress, and WhiteHouse.gov, which I also worked on, is powered by Drupal.
You don't have to be a mechanic to own and operate a car. Likewise, you don't need to be a developer to understand the basic components of a website. Understanding common terminology like responsive design, knowing the complementary building blocks of HTML5 and CSS3 and recognizing the importance of a CMS will demystify the world of web development.
Bring yourself up to a conversant level so you can make educated business decisions about your digital presence. Then let the pros take over from there.