By now, you’ve probably heard of Webflow—the flexible, no-code way to build your website. More and more startups are turning to Webflow instead of Wordpress, Drupal, Squarespace, or Wix. And the market has noticed: Webflow just raised a $140M Series B. (And yes, that’s a massive Series B.)
Webflow’s appeal comes from its promise of powerful, flexible, codeless design (including data-backed sites) and speed to publication. Platforms like Wordpress offer all that power and more, but require more management and real development effort. Wix and Squarespace provide point-and-click simplicity, but at the cost of flexibility. Webflow is (or has been) unique in sitting in the middle, promising the best of both worlds. So, does it deliver?
Webflow's bus stop ads proclaim, “Designers use Webflow for web development,” and that nicely summarizes Webflow’s niche. Webflow is great if you’re a designer who singlehandedly manages a website, especially if your blogging and CMS needs are modest. It’s also worth considering if you’re a small team with a fairly simple site. As your team and workflow expand, though, you may find its limitations problematic.
(Note that I’m reviewing only those aspects of Webflow that I’ve encountered in the course of creating Miter’s website. There’s an entire set of e-commerce features that I haven’t touched.)
If you’re happy with someone else’s template, don’t bother with Webflow—check out Squarespace, Wix, or even Wordpress.com. If you want ultimate flexibility in your design without full-on development work, though, that’s where Webflow shines.
Webflow’s UI will look familiar to designers: layers and components and pages on the left, properties and settings on the right, canvas in the middle. It does a near-perfect job of being WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), so while you’ll obviously want to test your site in production from time to time, most of the time you won’t find surprises there.
Hybrid design/development tools generally follow one of two paths: they add concepts and abstractions on top of their platforms, or they streamline the platform’s own concepts. Webflow has chosen the latter, and it’s a great choice: the tools you work with are, at most, a thin layer atop HTML and CSS patterns that will be familiar to many designers. What you can do on the web, you can generally do in Webflow; if you want to dip into actual code, the things you did in the GUI will be available to you; and, I suspect the approach helps Webflow provide broad support for web capabilities, since they can simply be passed through to the user rather than requiring fresh abstractions each time.
Like any design tool, Webflow has a learning curve. If you’re conceptually familiar with HTML and CSS, that learning curve is pretty manageable (and aided by Webflow’s excellent documentation).
I do have a few quibbles with Webflow’s UI, but no more than any other design tool:
Webflow’s design workflow may be a direct reflection of the CSS and HTML underneath, but that hasn’t stopped them from streamlining and automating some of the more tedious aspects of designing and building a polished site. Notable examples:
Great documentation is rare. Too often it’s overlooked, or hard to follow, or corresponds to out-of-date functionality, or it’s painfully comprehensive:
“Let’s get started laying out your website! First, locate your browser’s address bar. Then, type in ‘http://www.my-product.app’. You should see the editor experience. If you don’t, make sure your internet connection is working. If your internet connection isn’t working, contact your provider.”
In contrast, Webflow’s docs are fantastic. They cover everything. They include getting-started tutorials that feel like a good time investment. They’re the right blend of comprehensive and concise. And they come with a good, snarky sense of humor. I think Webflow may have the best documentation of any product I’ve ever used.
If you need a simple blog, or want to separate content from presentation, Webflow’s CMS is great: it provides the basic power of a relational database (including all the data types you might need for web work), wrapped in a straightforward UI that avoids the need to write SQL. It comes with templates for common use cases (blogs, recipe sites, etc.) to get you started. We went from zero to blog in about ten minutes.
Software of any complexity—and make no mistake, a website is a software-development project—needs the ability to undo mistakes, to manage multiple concurrent tasks, to update content and code separately. Webflow is incredibly inadequate in this regard:
We’re working around these issues as best we can—writing posts in Google Docs (as advised by Webflow support), avoiding the staging site except for final checks, and breaking larger design projects into smaller publishable chunks. But it’s not ideal, and the only reason it works at all is because there are only two of us who touch the site, and only one of us editing anything other than the content.
With a larger team, all of the above turns from a huge inconvenience into a potential disaster. Webflow has an “Editor” experience with which content-focused folks edit just the content, but it’s limited in weird ways and, in my experience, a bit buggy. It also has a big Publish button that publishes the entire site while you’re looking at a single piece of content. That’s right: someone without the ability to modify your site can still publish any changes made to it. And probably will, by accident.
Multi-user work also gets expensive, fast. A site with CMS costs $20/month, which is pricier than Wordpress.com or Squarespace but in the same ballpark. With that, you get three “Editor” users—so one person can design and implement the site, and three others can work with content. Want a second design/implementation user? It jumps to $90. Want a third designer? Now it’s $160/month. More than four designers? $300/month. Bear in mind that a comparable plan in the Wordpress world is still less than $20/month.
Given Webflow already has UI for attaching animations to click actions, it surprises me they haven’t simply added a “run code” action alongside those animations—a well-established pattern that goes at least as far back as pioneers like Dreamweaver and Flash.
If you don’t use Webflow, what are your options?
As an early-stage startup with a designer-founder we may have chosen the right platform in Webflow—but had I known its limitations, it would have been a tougher call; the flaws are pretty severe and will get worse for us over time.
If you’re a small team—one person designing and managing the site, 1-2 people writing a not-too-active blog, and a high degree of comfort coordinating with each other—and you want significant control over the design—Webflow is for you.
If you’re a little larger but design flexibility and speed to market are critical, Webflow may be for you, with an expectation you’ll be moving off it at some point.
But if your team, site, or content needs are more complex, you’re going to run into Webflow’s limitations quickly. Your designers will be burning the midnight oil to wrap up site changes so you can publish a blog post the next morning. Your content editors will be frustrated because they can’t fix a typo until the big redesign is finished. And so on.
Note again that Webflow just raised another $140M in funding. I can’t imagine that was based on a story around solo designers, so I’m hopeful some of it will go toward resolving the issues mentioned here. At Miter, we’ll probably stick it out with Webflow for a few months, at which point we’ll see what Wordpress, Editor X, and Webflow itself look like; perhaps things will be different by then.
How do you manage your website? How’s it working for you? What’s your experience with Webflow? We’d love to hear about others’ experiences. Drop us a line.