You Are Not a Robot

by Jonathan Kahn

23 Reader Comments

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  1. I agree that web design is an undervalued and misunderstood profession.  The point that web design is often viewed as a subset of another field is relevant, and both the practitioners and the clients are guilty of having incongruent concepts of web design.  The ambiguity stems from the fact that the medium is extremely young with nary a tradition to define what’s to be valued.  Consequently, people reach to more established professions to inform their expectations from a web designer. From the client’s perspective, they may have had experience in hiring a visual designer in the past, as such, they fixate on the aesthetics a web designer can deliver.  A designer spending time on semantic markup is an incomprehensible waste of time to that type of client.  Others clients may be more savvy to software and view web design as a technology challenge.  A designer careful to establish a cohesive visual language would appear to be spending too much time, as the client sees the technology makeup of the end result and not the hundreds of visual iterations that led to it. There is also a challenge for web designers.  Because the field is at the intersection of things such as graphic design, software development, interaction design, the practitioners are also, and tend to approach it in a way their pre-web-design background would have suggested.  It is in reconciling the divergent value systems that web design is composed of and formulting a distinctly-web-design solution where the field’s ascention lies. Clearly this is not a task for a robot.
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  2. I often use the analogy of _story problems_ from middle school algebra class to describe what I do. That is: define a problem (i.e. simplify the wording), abstract it (concoct the appropriate formulas), then solve the problem (i.e. simplify the formula and solve for 0 [or whatever]). The major disconnect I often have, with clients and non-web-designer coworkers, is that some people assume the “easy” part of this process is turning the words into formulas (i.e. defining the problem and planning its solution), and the “hard” part is solving the equation (i.e. using Photoshop or writing code). Which, from my perspective, is exactly backwards. Perhaps when a client or account exec writes a “specification” or “agreement of work” they assume they’ve sufficiently worded the story problem. Or perhaps this is related to the neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of web design. That is: non-creatives assume the “hard” part is the artsy Photoshop stuff that seems so foreign to them, and non-techies assume the “hard” part is all that prickly code.
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  3. The consequence of the misconception described by Paul (thinking the hard part is about coding) is that who ever knows a bit of HTML or can use an HTML editor may think she/he can design a website. To me this kind of users/customers/stakeholders are the most dangerous and difficult to deal with. I think our profession suffers from the fact that the technology we use is not difficult enough to handle!
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  4. A very interesting point, Jonathan, as many people think “techies” _are_ robots and can just turn up the speed dial to get things done quicker, or add two people and get it done in a third of the time, as if web-design were a production line activity. But I was most interested in your logic point. Some people assume A + B = C is the only logical structure and forget that judgment and experience is also a very strong element of logical processes and that there is not always a perfect conclusive solution to a logistical process. I titled this Kraftwerk not only because of your highlighting the concept of craft, but because Kraftwerk were considered non-musicians, non-human, non-emotional in their time because they used computers to make music, specifically audio and sampler loops and specifically “machine”-sounding tones. But what they actually exercised was musical experience, emotional judgement and historical recall and understanding to create music many people enjoy on an emotional level; something humans don’t get from a machine. Very often it is assumed that computers, because they are excellent at mathematical functions, they are somehow “smarter” than us. This leads to the bizarre conclusion that we can use computers, for example, to detect faces for identification. Whereas it is easy for us to recognize a friend after a radical haircut, a very powerful computer may be successful part of the time, only after quite an involved process of complicated coding, observation and comparison. You highlight quite strongly the difference between automatic, mathematical processes and judgemental processes, and thus the difference why you aren’t likely to be replaced by a robot, or even a computer, in our lifetimes.
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  5. Focusing only on your comments about computers being unable to generalize, you should be made aware that quite a bit is known about the mathematics of generalization.  In particular, the field of statistical learning theory (see Vapnik, and the corresponding scientific conferences like COLT, NIPS, ICML, etc), studies exactly the problem of mechanized generalization (see also Bayesian statistics, information theory, computational learning theory, machine learning, http://wikipedia.com).  In short, modern “AI” is far more advanced than you may realize (but still far short of human level intelligence).  What is the case, however, is that generalization and induction have been demonstrated outside the brain.  And from a theoretical perspective, “universal prediction” (see Solomonoff, Marcus Hutter) characterizes optimal prediction and, therefore, generalization under very weak assumptions (in particular, computability).  What’s particularly interesting is that most of these theories can be seen as a formalization of the idea of Occam’s Razor: given a set of possible explanations for some data, choose the simplest theory that fits the data.  I wouldn’t worry about robots quite yet, but rest assured that thousands of scientists are working every day of the year to characterize “intelligence” mathematically as well as physiologically.
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  6. Everything what humans created in the world are small parts of copies of themselves. Think about symmetry. Almost every object what humans carve, create, or design is symmetric. But not 100% symmetric (like a car - the steering wheel is just on one side) just almost symmetric, like the human body. And it’s not just about symmetric - humans always replicating themselves into objects, ideologies. Humans are transforms the nature via their own nature. We are converters. And this is the reason why I think there is nothing artifical in computers. Computers are We. The machines are part of us - externalized, materialized, mass-produced human thoughts. I believe in progression, and this is why I think everything is possible - it’s just question of time when will be a computer natural part of our life as a decision maker, generalized thinking, inductive-logic skilled ‘things’.
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  7. @Daniel Roy: bq. I wouldn’t worry about robots quite yet, but rest assured that thousands of scientists are working every day of the year to characterize “intelligence”? mathematically as well as physiologically. I realise that people are working on it, but I’m arguing that they’re unlikely to get anywhere near human judgement any time soon. You assert that ‘generalization and induction have been demonstrated outside the brain’, but I think there’s room for reasonable disagreement on whether induction is possible using mathematical processes at all. For me this goes back to David Hume and “necessary connection”:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/#Necessary ... but that’s veering into Philosophy of Science, which I think is a bit off-topic for ALA!
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  8. I don’t think the problem is that the stakeholders don’t appreciate the web designers work. It’s more that they think that designing the web site is like designin a print ad in a magazine. So the specification is also like the specification of a print ad. “I want my web site to look like this: blablabla”. But the point is that to fulfill the stakeholders communication needs you need a information structure, not only a website structure. And that is what’s missing in the specification. So the web designers “invents” it. I agree that web design should be much faster, almost automatic. It can be, if the specification defines the information structure in a way that standard components of web sites can be used to fulfill.
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  9. I think the posts illustrate perfectly part of your assertions. Web design is invariably lumped in as a subset of some other, traditionally known field. Scanning the posts, you see people dealing with the web design as advertising/print design hit the challenge of the client/stakeholder wanting it to look a certain way, but totally ignoring IA and content. And, the reverse for those in web design as software engineering, etc. And while the lumping syndrome is definitely a challenge, Raphaele I could not agree with you more! Those who think “anybody” can make a web page are BY FAR the most dangerous. 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. I would love to hear from others the methods they use for educating/correcting this perspective.
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  10. It is already reality that programs exits to easily create websites. But it is imposible that programs or computers will “design” websites. It is the same when you want machines painting an image. They can do that, but the results often not beautiful or just a copy of something else. The problem is to convince customers that there will be a roi, when a website is professional designed. I don´t have fears that one day a machine will do my job.
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  11. 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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  12. bq. 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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  13. @Dean Collins: bq. 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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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. bq. 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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  17. 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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  18. 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: bq. +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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  19. 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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  20. 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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  21. >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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  22. 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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  23. 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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