This was originally published on the Miter blog in January 2021. I’ve made a few updates to reflect changes since then.
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 raised a $140M Series B at the beginning of 2021. (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?
Who is Webflow for?
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.)
Powerful Design, Without Code (9/10)
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:
- Because of the sheer volume of properties, Webflow’s property sidebar is long, and doesn’t do a good job indicating its own scroll position. Some information hierarchy and maybe even customizable panels would be welcome.
- It’s difficult to combine CSS classes in a non-hierarchical way.
- There’s no way to reorder color swatches.
- The UI for adjusting margins and padding is cumbersome, especially for keyboard-centric users.
Streamlined Design Details (8/10)
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:
- Specialty elements like Sections, Containers, Navbars, and Forms do the right thing with their behavior and layout while avoiding unnecessary abstractions.
- Animations and simple interactions are easy — from animating sections in as you scroll to showing and hiding modals.
- Page settings automate the things we often forget: social media thumbnails, search result content, and so on.
- The workflow for responsive sites (those that adapt properly across devices and screens) is straightforward and effective.
- Uploading a single, large image automatically generates multiple sizes, and produces tags to leverage the correct size across different screens.
- Global color swatches mean if you change from one shade of blue to another, it’s a one-minute thing rather than a hunt through your entire site.
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.
Easy Basic CMS (7/10)
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.
Versioning & Recovery (3/10)
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:
- To publish any change, you have to publish your whole site. So, if you find a typo on your home page while in the midst of redesigning your About page, you’ll need to finish the redesign before correcting the typo.
- The CMS and design are horribly intertwined. You can publish a blog post independent of design changes, but only sometimes. If you publish to your webflow.io staging site to test something in the browser, it will unschedule all your scheduled blog posts and prevent you from rescheduling them, or publishing new ones, until you publish the whole site to production.
- There’s no good way to undo or reverse changes. This is one of the most basic workflows in software development — version control. Webflow does make backups of your site as you work, but because of the aforementioned link between CMS and code, if you roll back your site to a previous version you’ve just deleted any blog posts you published in the interim.
- Editing a blog post changes its publication date. So if you fix a typo in a post from last year, suddenly it’s a post from today. (You can work around this by creating a custom “publication date” field and sorting your blog that way, but still.)
- Deleting a blog post stages it for deletion but doesn’t actually delete it. To lock in that deletion — you guessed it — you have to publish your entire site. (Workaround: add a checkbox field to your database named “Pending Deletion” that you flip on when you delete things, then filter your blog index accordingly.)
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.
Multi-User Workflow (3/10)
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.
Custom Code Integration (5/10)
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?
- Wordpress, as always, is the ten-thousand-pound gorilla here. It’s powerful, it’s well-documented, and there’s a massive plugin ecosystem. The editing experience is decent and can be customized. If you want the kind of control you get with Webflow minus the workflow issues, then it’s a great choice — as long as you’re willing to write a bunch of code (CSS for sure, HTML almost certainly, PHP probably). I’ve done a bunch of Wordpress development in a past life, so there’s a good chance that a year from now we’ll be on Wordpress. (There’s also Drupal. I don’t know much about it, but some quick research suggests it’s even more powerful than Wordpress and harder to use.)
- Wix and Squarespace build abstractions on top of the HTML and CSS to offer a more drag-and-drop experience. If you’re comfortable with their constraints, and especially if you’re content with minor customization to a preexisting theme, these are a good choice. Squarespace is straightforward but buggy. I’ve not spent much time with Wix — it seems harder to use than Squarespace but that could just be familiarity.
- If you’re comfortable really turning your website into an engineering project, check out headless CMSes (e.g., Strapi, Contentful) and static site generators (e.g., Gatsby).
- Wix introduced Editor X early this year. It seems like a Webflow competitor with some of what Webflow’s missing; if I were making a platform decision today I’d give it a close look before deciding.
So should you use Webflow?
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.