Back when the internet was still new and not taken for granted, I got into web design because it was fascinating. One day, someone came along and asked me if I knew how to make one of those “web site things”, and being the adventurous liar that I was, I said yes. Well it wasn’t a complete lie, more like a stretch. I knew what a website was, how it worked, the idea behind HTML, and how things fitted together to create a website, but I’d never made one. Two months after I mildly twisted the truth about my internet knowledge, I did know, and my first website had been made.
Such stories are dramatic and invariably gloss over the effort it takes to collect all the knowledge and understanding about things and apply it to practical solutions, ever learning the limits of your understanding and stretching them. But if you’re interested, stretch them you do and your understanding soon becomes expertise, and it cannot be contained in a list of attributes and capabilities any more. That’s the sort of understanding any good designer should maintain in their field.
This knowledge and understanding grows into a design intuition in time, where things are measured, studied and looked at in easily understandable discrete steps that anyone could repeat, but the picture that emerges and the analyses and conclusions that are arrived at become more and more removed from any repeatable formula. Such is the gift of experience. The burden of experience is that you become enamoured with handling large projects that truly test your understanding and challenge you to reinvent, create from nothing, and innovate. With that change in outlook, you sometimes lose touch with the mechanics of your craft, and sometimes you lose touch with the people who could use your expertise but simply cannot have you re-inventing things with too much of a fervour, not to mention too much of a cost to them.
When your design realities move beyond the ability to solve the problems of most clients, it’s usually time to look deeper at what you do and what you could be doing, because while you wish for your grand sweeping gestures of design and invention, the simple mechanics of function and effectiveness should not be lost. It is a loss of expertise to the client, and a loss of ground level understanding to you; A price neither party can truly afford. There are two distinct ways to move past this impasse, one being to become your own client. Many designers turn to personal ventures as external clients begin to prove less challenging in the good ways, and too challenging in the bad ones. The other route is to find a way to simplify what you offer to meet a broader need.
The Vagaries of Website Quality
In our increasingly system design sort of business, where most projects are entire dynamic systems, interfaces and clever methods that make everything tick in the background, this is the reason I have been considering ways to get back to the basics. After all, whenever I get passed on a website by a client to find out more about them, or come across a URL in general, my ability and interest in seeing how things tick on the web goes into over-drive. I skim the site in the browser, like any normal human being would do, and then there is a barrage of tabs opened as the site is studied in HTML source, and search engine presence, and how people link to it, and how its directories are structured. What surprises me is not how naturally this sort of analysis comes to me, but how often the subjects of my study fail on several basic points.
You’d think website designers and technicians shouldn’t be making the basic errors any more, but it’s not true. With an increase in the available web talent, the average level of true understanding of the technologies has decreased; That is the nature of the popularity of any medium. This isn’t something I only notice during informal investigations. This has come up in professional requests as well. The journeyman web designers who are abundant vary from people with a decent level of graphical and technical talent, to those who simply bought the right template and then had at it with tweezers, or a hacksaw, making what changes they required to arrive at what pleased the mostly ignorant client. This can result in many messes. Often, the technical knowledge is there, the mechanical ability exists, but how to implement it or make decisions about it for the best results and in keeping with the best interest of the client is simply an alien concept.
An SEO Story
We had a small hotel come to us a few years ago to design their site for them. Appropriately, I suggested a content management system based website, in keeping with a hotel’s need to make constant updates, and sent them a quote, which by current standards was practically cheap. It was rejected, because they were, as is often the case, expecting something in the range of very inexpensive garden furniture. Of course, like an alarming number of clients, the only way this was communicated was by silence, and not being the pushy salesman type, I assumed the project wasn’t coming through, and moved on.
Six months later, I received a call from a lady I wasn’t familiar with from the very same hotel. She was their PR manager and was now handling their new website, which they had gotten done from some contact in London (for very cheap, obviously), but they were wondering whether I did this SEO thing. I passed on my email address and asked her to send me a detailed message of what the problem was, what they were looking for, and I’d get back to them. It would seem the site had been up for a while and they were now noticing that their own site wasn’t appearing in the search engines when they searched for the name of their hotel. A fairly glaring inadequacy when your hotel name is a long three or four word local-specific name that you shouldn’t have significant competition for on the search engines.
I did have a look at this site and it was an ugly mess. It was one of those things put together by people who want to make things fancy and stylish for people who want it to look modern and pretty. I’m sure all involved thought their baby was beautiful, but that simply wasn’t the case. Then I looked at the source code of the pages. The entire thing was made of HTML
table structures and images, including most of the text. There was little wonder the site wasn’t being found for any significant combination of text to do with their name, there was very little actual text anywhere in the code!
In that particular case, I told them there was nothing I could do without a complete re-coding of the entire site, in which case they might as well have gone with my more pricey web design proposal months earlier. The PR manager gave me a call when she received my explanation of the situation and thanked me for sending such a detailed reply, because it contained more helpful information than they had gotten from other people who had claimed they could solve the issue over night with SEO magic. I even suggested a few simple techniques over the phone to improve their site’s profile, and mentioned the need for more text on the pages. Even if the help provided was of no commercial benefit to me, it was good to see more recently that they did take some of the advice and are now appearing as at least the second result on Google for a search for their name.
Getting Websites to Work
Of course, that hotel’s site is still pretty bad and there are a ton of things they could do to improve their site for users and search engines, but I helped as best I could under the circumstances. This experience, among many similar ones, and my mentioned investigative streak with websites, got me thinking that there must be a way to package this thing we do, this evaluation of sites and their effectiveness in various technical and human ways, and offer it as a limited service product; A departure from our usually comprehensive site design and development services. Many already have websites, and they just want them to work. Although they might not have the budget or will to start from scratch, maybe they could improve their web presence using their existing web technicians and IT personnel, if someone would chalk-out for them what improvements needed to be made. A fixed scope website audit service to provide this technical expertise to people seems like a good idea. There is also the thought that providing a model page, converted from the existing site to do things right could be an added benefit which would take this beyond mere expert advice into the realm of the practical implementation. Even mid-level code technicians could help clients implement these changes to sites without the need for our time.
These are the thoughts behind the experiment that begins here, an experiment to create a not excessively comprehensive, but complete and practical, website audit service product with a fixed cost, fixed time-frame, a fixed methodology and expectations for the client. If the purpose of design is ultimately to help solve the communication problems of clients, this sort of correctional service is surely an integral part of that greater aim. Sometimes things cannot simply be thrown out for the new model, but the expertise to know what is wrong and how it can be resolved is lacking. This sort of site optimisation service and website audit product would give a wider range of clients access to our expertise in the field, and it would allow us to do what we like to do and do best, investigate websites, solve problems and find solutions to make online communication that little bit more useful.