You Are Not a Robot

by Jonathan Kahn

23 Reader Comments

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  1. The article completely misses the reason why web professionals suffer a lack of respect. It’s not that web sites can be done by robots. The real problem is that anyone can crank out a web site. Almost everyone knows someone whose little brother “does” web sites. A former client of mine actually sent me links to sites done by elementary school students as proof.  Inevitably, when I tell someone I’m a web developer, they tell me about the site they did, either in Front Page, Go Live or some similar tool. Clients know this and wonder how we professional developers justify charging so much. And their eyes just seem to glaze over when you start talking about a complete web strategy involving findability, usability, accessability and maintainability. All they want is a few pretty pics on their site.

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  2. I consistently battle the “well it shouldn’t be that hard, all you have to do is X, Y, Z right?…”? from higher-ups who believe everything happens automagically as long as you have a “web program.”? It can be challenging and, quite frankly, pretty disheartening and demoralizing.

    They think it’s a magic formula, and they already have all the variables to solve the equation. I have come across a few clients who have think similarly to Windy’s higher-ups: “Well I know how to use [insert graphics manipulation software here], so I’m a designer too.”

    This attitude becomes apparent when expressed in their questions. The belligerent “I already built it for you, why can’t you take [my design] and put it on the web?” At this point I begin to wonder why it crossed their minds to hire a professional, when they are so sure they can succeed at it themselves?

    While I make an effort to explain the intricacies of web design, I often feel my professionalism slipping. I am so tempted to say in agreement, “It appears you really do not need my professional services.  Please feel free to contact me again in the future if you have any questions.”

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  3. @Dean Collins:

    It’s not that web sites can be done by robots. The real problem is that anyone can crank out a web site.

    Sure, anyone can crank out a website, but can they do it to a professional standard? My argument is that people assume that web design is straightforward, and that therefore it can be done almost mechanically, for instance by using FrontPage. In fact they need a human who can generalize.

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  4. There are about a zillion web sites telling people how to make web sites. This one is about the best. But, I’ve been unable to find one that gives advice to someone who wants to hire a web design firm or individual. It’s useless for Molly and others to promote professionalism if there’s no way for the consumer to judge if a firm or indvidual practices it.

    I’m not sure what to do about this problem. Perhaps the W3C could make a web site describing what to look for and then advertising it to potential clients.

    The way things are now, the only people capable of judging a web designers competence are those capable of doing the job themselves.

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  5. Very interesting article, I’m a web designer but I had the chance to study AI and computability with some great researchers when I was in Liège (in Belgium, you see? The country as large as a WC where three language communities battle each other to sit on the toilet! Ok… now I… I live in Luxembourg… waiting for “France to conquer the whole territory”:http://www.monsieur-le-chien.fr/index.php?planche=261 ;)

    This is a field I really was passionate about, being creative is all about feeling emotions and triggering actions based on these. You may choose to use the color red somewhere in your comps because you automatically associate a tremendous lot of things to this color, things that occur both in conscious and unconscious layers in your mind—I too just love it when my wife puts on her red underwear, for a computer red is nothing but #ff0000. Knowledge representation always existed in AI, but consciousness is a lot more difficult to grasp.

    I recommend “Gödel, Escher, Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel,_Escher,_Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, a metaphorical exploration of humans’ mind with Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness as a focal point. It has been my favorite book for years, and the emotional feeling that triggered my career.

    Just my 2 cents, bravo for this article!

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  6. The way things are now, the only people capable of judging a web designers competence are those capable of doing the job themselves.

    That’s really true. My husband is in charge of hiring a design firm for a project his company is working on, and he came home and asked me to make him a list of questions to ask the designers. I did that, but then I asked him, “Now that you have the questions, how are you going to know how to evaluate the answers?”

    Hubby’s got a pretty good BS detector, but he doesn’t know accessibility from a hole in the ground. Even with the right questions he lacked the tools to make a sound evaluation.

    What I ended up doing was having a real conversation with him about what I do and why the work I do is important, and explaining to him what a good designer can bring to his company. From there, he was able to formulate his own questions, whose answers he was fit to judge.

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  7. I really enjoyed this article because it touched on something we all must feel at some point or another – Do I matter?  Does my design matter?

    The answer is a bit more philosophy than xhtml/css.  This won’t surprise those of us who believe we are ourselves designed and are meant to actually design things.

    I feel great when I design. I feel part of a greater purpose.  I constantly want to better myself (like reading ALA articles from other great minds) to contribute to a better design the next time around.

    The brain is a wonderful piece of meat, but a piece of meat nonetheless, made of molecules, atoms, particles – much like a mouse pad.  Human persons are more than mere physical brains cranking out 0s and 1s and responding to external physical stimuli. 

    The non-physical human soul is what makes us who we are.  It is with our mind, which is a capacity of our human soul, that we evaluate whether a design is excellent.  The brain, much less the computer, assists in that task but is not and will never be capable of doing so on its own.

    It is with our will, another capacity of the soul, that we take action and review our design.  We delete something because we think it might offend someone, or we rearrange certain elements to make the site more user friendly for the near blind maybe because we’re compassionate about other people.  We have a will, sensations, feelings, a sense of what is right and wrong.  Machines don’t.  Never will.  We are unique.

    So our jobs as designers are secured. Maybe and temporarily not where it is not appreciated, but in the overall framework it is.  What greater good we do with those awe-inspiring skills is a bigger question.

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  8. Jonathan,
    You’ve written a very interesting brief history of programming in your introductory statements here, but you kept using the term “Web design” when you meant “Programming”, and the term “website” when you meant “program”…  Here, I’ve fixed it up:

    Programming (web design) is still a young discipline, and it’s generally poorly understood. As computers (the web) becomes mainstream, an increasing number of people and organizations want programs (websites)—and so more people are involved in commissioning, managing, and designing them. It’s not surprising that many of these people aren’t familiar with how programming (web design) works. Clients, managers, and colleagues often assume that programming (web design) is a subset of some other discipline, like…

    …like engineering.

    Many programmers, me among them, and many actual engineers put little stock in the misnomer of “software engineering”; the “real” engineering disciplines recognize there is nowhere near the rigor or body of hard knowledge and experience in programming that there is in any of the true engineering fields.

    What you’ve described here is eerily familiar. I believe almost everything you say here about web design as a field—the ignorance and subsequent lack of respect by uninformed decision-makers, the mistaken belief that it’s a subset of another field, the value of individual judgement—can be said about programming. An essential element of a programmer’s job is generalization.

    Programming is also a young discipline. People (i.e. managers) want to treat it like a construction project; scheduling with Gantt charts, throwing more resources at it, without understanding the completely different nature of what’s involved.  Construction, and the related design and engineering involved, is at least 10 thousand years in the making.  We’ve been programming for around 50 years, and Web Design has been around for only the last part of that.

    Programming and Web Design are more … intangible … and may (or may not) always be more of an art/craft than a science.  It’s still early.

    I, as a programmer working with web related technology, would appreciate the unique talents brought to the table by a true Web Designer, even though I’ve done much work with program UI design and usability—it’s not the same.

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  9. I think web design covers three disciplines. Information, Design and Programming. I’ve yet to meet a person who is sufficiently good at all of these to be able to work in anyone of these fields in their own right. And that is the problem with web design. Most websites are created by someone who is “professional” in only one of these fields. They then deliver a substandard product and a lower price than if you hired three professionals.

    In fact I would say the problem is the term “web design” itself. Personally I’ve always thought of a web designer to only be the “Design” part of the three disciplines above. Web programming would be another and Information Architect would be the third. The industry has to stop lumping all these three disciplines into one Job Description.

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  10. I agree wholeheartedly that “design” is much more than just painting something with a coat of “pretty”, and web design is much more than banging out some html. As I like to characterize it, “knowing how to use Photoshop” doesn’t make you a graphic designer, and “knowing html” doesn’t make you a web designer – just like knowing how to use a typewriter doesn’t make you a novelist.

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  11. >The problem I’m describing is a lack of respect for web design as a profession.

    In most cases it seems to stem from a lack of understanding. This company for instance is worth $9 billion, but has generally, working but, naff websites, none of which I was responsible for (thank god).
    I can easily say that if they could replace us with robots we’d be gone in a heart beat.

    For a company that has sold via brochures and mailers for the last few decades selling via the internet still seems to be a grey area that they refuse to accept advise on. Therefore as they won’t allow us to increase the presence, and the soup of platforms and 3rd party Content Companies that hold the sites hostage. We have no choice but to work with what we have, which in turn reduces ROI. Therefore ROI = Worth of Employee.

    As were not waving the title “consultant” and claiming management wages, any advice we give is undermined by “higher forces” even though those forces don’t really understand the potential of the web beyond the buzz word.

    So here’s to us, the undervalued, overworked, web-designers.

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  12. I comment on this as a client, not s designer. I’m a writer, so I wanted a website whose content I could easily add texts to—the visitors to the site, after all, would be readers of my book, and the thing they were likeliest to want was further writing from its author. I gave the designer the example of a website I liked, Haunchofvenison.com—a website that looked like one I would be happy with as an environment for new texts. The designer talked about how boring websites were that had too many words; she created a site in a Flash movie. I don’t know Flash, so there was no way I could update the site except through her.

    Three years went by during which the website was effectively dead. All the texts I sent were attached as PDF and Word downloads, because formatting them in HTML was too fiddly. A few months ago I set up a blog in Blogger, not because the format was ideal (it wasn’t), but because this VERY lo-tech environment meant I could write for it frequently. Many of the posts would have been much more use on the website, but they couldn’t go on the website because putting them there would have involved long negotiations with the designer. In a few months the blog had 150 posts and a following.

    I finally asked a friend whether the website could be brought into Dreamweaver; I’m not a power user, but at least I know the basics. She said Sure, and set the whole thing up in CSS; meanwhile all the legwork of formatting all the texts in HTML was left to me. The result was a website that was still too hi-tech for its owner: it could be updated, yes, but the place where there was a lot of action was still the blog.

    It’s not good, of course, to have an unprofessional-looking website, but one should not really have a trade-off between a site that looks good and one that gives visitors what they’re looking for. My guess is that clients who ask for a rough-and-ready website just want to have something they can play around with: you can’t tell what will work best for the content until you try things out.

    My poor little blog, locked into chronological order, restricted by an unlovely template, gets five times as much traffic as the website. This is a robot that would be very easy to beat—but both designers chose not to do so.

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  13. I really agree with Paul here.  The real issues I get into in my firm are with the “face people”.  Salesmen, in general, are employed to get clients.  In the organizations I’ve worked for in tech, “get clients” is usually appended with “by any means / cost necessary”, which reflects poor judgment on whether or not specific clients are a good fit for the organization.  This rests on the supposition that “someone else will figure out what the problem / need is”.

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