A List Apart

Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev

Our Enclosed Space

I speak fairly frequently at conferences, and I get to listen to a lot of web designers and developers giving their presentations at these events. I often have my laptop open on my knee to keep an eye on Perch support while I listen. What I hear from designers espousing the latest techniques in my conference circuit world jars with the queries I answer in support. An ever-widening gulf seems to be emerging between the “thought leaders” of the web, and the reality of people doing great work for clients on often extremely limited budgets.

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At one conference recently, a speaker was reminiscing about how we used to charge for websites by the page. Yet the fact that companies such as SquareSpace are doing so well shows that out there in the world, people do want to build a few web pages. There are many people who do see their sites as being a homepage and a collection of other pages. Perhaps design businesses are charging “by the page” because it makes sense to their customers.

The echo chamber

It is very easy—and I know because I’ve been there—to assume that everyone knows what we know, cares about the things that we care about, or has and wants the same business opportunities we do. We can end up participating in a Twitter echo chamber of people who have experiences similar to ours; who are at a similar stage in their career, and tend to think in a similar way. We attend conferences that have a high ticket price and so attract only those sent by companies—and therefore working in larger teams—or highly successful independent designers and developers.

Unless you are sent by a company, speaking at a conference has a cost. If you are someone who charges an hourly rate, you will find that even where a speaker fee is paid, it doesn’t cover the time it takes to prepare the talk, travel, and attend the event. Writing web books is a money earner for only a very few authors. Therefore the voices we hear most frequently are from a particular segment of the industry—those who can afford to spare the time.

We can find ourselves with a small segment of our industry speaking to the same small part of our industry. We can quickly forget that there is a much wider industry, and people working outside of our circle often have quite different challenges and concerns.

Through supporting Perch, we encounter people who are the web designer for their local area. They operate in a “high touch” world, sitting down with their customers and working out how to best serve their business. They are often charging very little for their services, yet are making a huge difference to the businesses they develop sites for. They are doing great work, if we value that work by the difference it is making to those who benefit from it. Yet I rarely hear this type of work discussed outside of talking with our customers.

It is important that best practice is discussed and strategies for working in large teams hammered out. We need thought leaders; we need the people who enjoy debating specifications; we need people who create new tools and ways of working and want to share them with us all. It’s important that there are people who have the time, energy, and space to do this—because people who are just working hard to make a living often don’t have time. The fact that it is perfectly normal on the web for companies to share the things they have learned, even releasing the source code of projects for other people to use, is one of the brilliant things about the world in which we work. It is something we all benefit from.

Like talking to a wall

My fear is that by allowing ourselves to believe that everyone knows certain things, or everyone is working in a certain way, we stop producing great materials for the generalists who create small websites, on their own, with a tiny budget.

For example, when I see someone in support struggling with an issue that is front-end development and not related to our software at all, I want to be able to send them to a straightforward CSS or JavaScript resource. I know that at the point they post to our forum that person is stressed because they have to deliver a site by the end of the week. It would be completely unhelpful to preach at them about modern development techniques, or send them to a forum where everyone will tell them they should be using OOCSS techniques, a preprocessor, and installing Grunt. Learning all of these tools and practices may very well improve that person’s workflow, however the point at which they are just trying to get a simple thing done is not the point at which they will be receptive to learning them. Making assumptions such as that everyone is using Sass or everyone understands how to clone a project on Github makes potentially helpful resources useless to the person who just needs to achieve an end result today.

When we assume that everyone is working in a similar place to us, we risk masking the important things behind a layer of opinion about the “right” way to do things. We risk creating a barrier to knowledge by bundling accessibility with workflow and solid good practice with personal preferences. It then can all be dismissed as irrelevant in one batch, by a person who builds a website a week for a few hundred dollars for a business who couldn’t afford anything else. That’s no way to encourage the wide adoption of modern methods of building the web.

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