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#section1

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#section2

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.

20 Reader Comments

  1. I’m so glad someone has articulated this – I also love reading up on all the latest development and try hard to incorporate them into my workflow and practices, but there are times when jobs just needs to be done and there’s very little time, budget and resource.

    Most of the thought leadership is fantastic, but sometimes it does feel like there’s the world of genius idealism that is removed from the harsh reality many developers operate in, and some of us don’t want to be up all night!

  2. I couldn’t agree more. More than anything, though, I think this marks the Distant Early Warning of the generalist’s business sustainability.

    The small-business market you describe is being eaten by WordPress and Facebook and the attitudes these tools help spread that “the web is easy” and “websites should cost little or nothing” (despite the appallingly low quality content often produced by those who think it’s easy).

    Is this good thing or a bad thing? It’s a thing. Adapt or die.

  3. It’s easy to forget that not everyone working in web design and development knows what you know. Within the last few months I’ve had someone running the IT department at a large company ask me what “responsive” meant. And another developer who asked me, “what do you mean by ‘semantic?’ I’m not familiar with that word.”

    It’s important to hear from those who are pushing the industry forward. But not everyone we work with or for is at that same front line. I think this article serves as a great reminder of that. Thanks for writing it!

  4. This article definitely strikes a chord with me. I love reading about all the new developments in web design and development, but the reality is that I’m on a very small (two people, three if you count the project manager) development team with a user base that is still almost 10% IE8 users. So the real world development I’m doing is often very different from the world I’m reading about or the one speakers talk about at conferences.

  5. I think it’s also worth mentioning that there’s a flip side to the developers/designers doing that work too: their customers, who don’t care about Sass, Grunt, Ruby, MVC, HTML5, or whatever technology we care about.

    They care about things like making sure their company’s hours, catalog, and payment processing just works. Every time.

    I tend to work on larger (I guess) teams to work on large site projects, and I’m also amazed how basic the understanding of the web, or how far behind current best practices, it is.

    It’s not just small shops or individuals who have these problems, it’s larger organizations. Perhaps these problems exist for other reasons, but they still exist.

  6. I would like to add that this doesn’t only apply to generalists in business for themselves. Those of us in large organizations sometimes have to deal with content providers who learned the basics years ago, and have not had a reason to learn anything new. When you have someone tell you, in 2014, that “our sites aren’t ready for CSS” you know you have some hard work ahead of you.

  7. I needed this article. So many web devs talk about Grunt and Sass and all this new technology as if it’s the Most Important Thing to do and I’m here like, “Err, vanilla CSS is fine…?” just trying to do my job. It’s nice to be reminded that that’s okay.

  8. Thank you very much for writing this article, I work for a medium sized company that is trying to incorporate as much new web awesomeness as possible, but is challenging because of budgets, and legacy applications. I do appreciate our industry’s thought leaders, but it’s refreshing to see the other side of the world so to speak as well.

  9. Great article Rachel. If we had our “thought leaders” respond to tech support questions for a week or two, we’d have much more useful tools and discussions, I’m sure of it 🙂

    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.

    Yes and we have to ask why is that? Do we not have something to learn from those of us in the trenches about agility ? “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” indeed.

  10. Agreed. I’m shifting away from ‘front-end development’ because I’m more interested in the cool factor of the end product, than which tools I used to create it. Nobody outside of other developers care if you used Grunt.js, Sass or Less, Git or SVN… And these factors only matter when working in large or distributed teams. Node.js is not a requirement for building a web site, and the end user doesn’t care if you used continuous integration or FTP to make the site live.

    Let’s refocus on building cool sites: what’s more interesting, driving a car on a beautiful day, or hearing about how it was built?

  11. As an aspiring web professional, this seems to be my first crossroad. I learned web development and design basics back in 2008-2009 then stopped. So to come back now and see all this new stuff, it almost gets in the way of just being a web professional. I feel like a lot of time is spent learning tools, or preprocessors but all I want to do is design and build. Often I ask myself, do I really need to learn this?

    Of course, I think about where I will go to for employment, will I stay in my hometown area that isn’t “techy” but might have a need/desire for things like responsive or will I go to an area that will understand the latest and greatest of web development. Even just starting out, it already feels like a heavy decision. I also have this belief that it shouldn’t be just the big companies with stellar branding, and a competent website. But then the question is how will I go about fulfilling a potential need without undercutting me and the industry? For now I’m completely fine with ensuring I become an expert at what web development/design truly is before I start embellishing, if I choose to even do so.

  12. I read the web design, user experience, and freelance subreddits on Reddit. I find all of those forums quite valuable for hearing how working web designers and developers describe their problems, outside of the rarified world of conferences. What I’m struck by is that we may have different challenges in implementing new technologies or the scale of the projects, but everyone’s client management and project management challenges are the same. Whether your budget is $500, $5000, or $500,000, you need solid management processes to protect yourself. Great article and thank you for writing it, Rachel.

  13. Thanks for this Rachel. As a soloist looking after the small end of town, I often despair that I’m behind the times and there’s so much to learn and not enough time. I’ll stop beating myself up and just take one small, strategic step at a time…

  14. Well said, Rachel. I will throw out there too, that if we are shooting for wide adoption of the methods that keep the web moving forward, there needs to be continued education for designers/devs in smaller markets to know how to sell clients on the value of their work.

    Most small businesses don’t have a clue about something like responsive web design. They just know they need a site up and need it quick and cheap. As these clients learn what’s in it for their bottom line, the budgets become a little bigger and then more of our modern methods can be brought into the process.

  15. There are resources out there for those who don’t care about the cutting edge, we must leave them to their area and carry on working with the best tools and concepts available and enjoying the fast-paced nature of the industry.

    Comparing the bang-it-out brigade to those who invest in their skills and knowledge makes very little sense. We are in very different markets, just as a second hand car dealer is different to an Audi dealer.

    The workload for those who want to break our industry and do interesting things is massive. I’m sure it looks bewildering, this industry was never easy though.

    Back when I started we were doing battle with obscure browser bugs, pulling our hair out at the insanity provided by table-less design in Netscape 4.7 and IE5 Win/Mac. DHTML was a buzzword. That sort of thing was not for everyone but it was not the end of the world. Those of us who got involved moved the industry forward, many of those who didn’t became irrelevant and moved onto other things.

    At the end of the day our crazy bleeding edge ideas *did* trickle down, as we can see by the way most people are working today.

  16. Thank you. For me this needed saying. It’s the first time I recognize myself in an article in this magazine and I never minded, it’s not why I come here — I come for all the wonderful resources I’ve found here over the years and the food for thought it’s given me — but it feels like a balm for skin I hadn’t realized had chafed. For which much thanks; and in addition of course this too provides me with food for thought.

  17. The technologies have become too diverse to wrap around for one designer. Learning new web stuff has become a chase. If you’re a small business web designer you cannot possibly keep up with all the latest and greatest web trends and solutions. You stick with what’s been reliably working for sometimes. The main thing is, at some point you become too exhausted to chase after new development possibilities because there are just too many. Web development growth is occurring like Big Bang, it’s not expanding in one direction, it’s expanding in hundreds of directions.

    What I see happening in large design sectors is that web design duties have been further sliced up. When web was young you were the developer, the designer, the UX guru, the everything web. Today we have, Ux designers, front end and back end developers, designers…etc. A web designer who designs for small budgets still has to maintain the roll of everything web, and he cannot possibly care about everything in great detail. He doesn’t care about pixel perfection, slight ui adjustments to help with conversion and stuff like that in between. He just wants to launch a product that works OK, but not broken.

  18. Great article, really chimed with me as a long time casual developer, starting to get more client work through a Marketing agency. It seems like there are always new technologies to learn, I try to keep up by reading, but you’re right: people shouldn’t presume the reader knows it all!

  19. ALA was introduced to me when I barely knew how to view source. The articles and conference speaker’s resources we so far above my head and I was just dying to understand without letting anyone around me know that I didn’t. Web design and development is truly a new foreign language to students in the 101 phase. We have to help them break the ice.

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