The Observer's Book of Web Programmers
We'd be the first to admit that there are dozens - hundreds - of website programmers out there. But not all programmers are the same.
The Code Kiddie
These days, schools teach children how to put together a webpage and how to make a Powerpoint. It's part of the National Curriculum.
Why don't the schools ever learn? Twenty years ago, they did the same thing with BASIC. A generation of teenagers, thinking they could write programs, used their toy computers and their smattering of schoolbook BASIC to write business and accounting programs - without the benefit of any business or accounting experience at all! A generation of small businesses went bust because they were dumb enough to rely on these toy programs running on toy computers.
And now, it's happening all over again. Teenagers are leaving school thinking they know how to program, but actually without a clue. Every teenager has a computer, every teenager can get a copy of Dreamweaver or Interdev, and any teenager who wants a bit of extra money is suddenly in business, bashing out websites from his bedroom.
Nobody would open a language translation service with nothing but schoolbook French. Nobody would dream of providing structural engineering advice with no more than high-school math. So why on earth do schoolchildren up and down the country think they can program websites with no more than classroom experience?
They've been seduced by the technology. The trouble is that a modern web browser is a very accommodating thing - for a minimal investment of effort you can get some nice-looking, nicely animated stuff that looks as good as most commercial sites (and in many cases, much better). All the tricky stuff, the behind-the-scenes stuff, the actual programming; they've never actually seen any of that. It's not taught in school (it's too difficult to invent tests about programming), and of course, precisely because it's behind the scenes, it's never visible in commercial sites.
To a teenager, the extraordinary sophistication of Bebo or Myspace is just the same as what they've made in school:
Real programmers don't regard these exercises as websites. Real programmers regard them as mock-ups - visualisations which can help understand how the real website is going to work, but ultimately as useless as those display-model mobile phones with no innards that are on display in the supermarkets.
The Lego Engineer
Of course, not all teenagers are that naive. There are some out there who understand that a website needs some interactivity. And they know exactly how to provide it! Subscriptions!
The way it works is this: instead of incorporating the programming you need into your website, other people have already done the hard work for you, and incorporated it into their websites. All you have to do is point your website to theirs, knock up a few skins, and there you have it - instant professionalism!.
It seems whatever behaviour you want, the subscription services are out there.
And your web developer, he just selects these services off a shelf, slots them together like Lego bricks, and - click, snap - instant website! Cheap, quick, reliable!
But there are problems with using subscription services. What they all boil down to is: control. Or rather, lack of it. You see, when you use one of these services, you don't own your data, they do. And that means:
Every time you use one of these services, you're giving up control. Every time you hand over one of your visitors to the subscription site, the service now has complete control of what appears in "your" website. At the very least they'll be promoting their service alongside whatever you want to say. Every time you pass on a visitor, they'll notice the graphics change slightly, and they know they're not in Kansas any more.
And, if you ever want to take the service back under your control, they'll do what they can to impede you. Whether you pay a fee or not - if you don't subscribe, they don't earn. So they want to keep you. That's why: no backups.
The Graphic Arts Loony
You'd think, wouldn't you, that a graphic designer would know exactly how to put a website together? At the very least, you'd think he'd be able to design a good-looking website? But the funny thing is, some of the world's worst, least usable websites are attributable to Graphic Arts Lunacy!
Most of the time, graphic designers have complete control over the thing they're working with. They decide the size and shape of the page, where the visual elements are going to be positioned, how the text works with the images, even how the shine on the paper can be controlled. They work really hard to get a harmonious, effective layout on the page.
When graphic designers start to design websites, they take the same approach - they do exactly what they've been taught to do in art school. But a web page isn't at all the same as a piece of paper. The designer no longer has control of the size or even the shape of the window, the viewer does. In fact, the designer can't even control the size of the text, because the page might be being visited by a partially sighted user who has the text size turned up huge, or even by a normally-sighted user squinting at a mobile phone. The user might even be entirely blind, and is using a voice synthesiser to read the page to him. And even without these difficulties, the designer has no control over what software the viewer is using - every browser displays pages in a slightly different way.
And so the loony designer makes the first of his two cardinal mistakes. He tries to take control of the visitor's computer. He creates a rigid layout that requires the entire surface of a high-resolution screen. It's beautiful, to be sure, but it's unyielding, like board. So when those pesky users don't automatically use their entire screen, the loony arrogantly provides instructions : "Best viewed at 1280x1024 on FireBrick in late afternoon sunlight". He replaces text (which he can't control) with little image elements (which he can, but you can't). If all you've got is the corner of a laptop screen, or you're using a mobile phone, or your contact lenses have gone all blurry: what are you supposed to do? I guess the loony designer would consider that you've got no business being on his creation - you should find some ugly WAP site to browse instead!
The second big mistake is camouflage. Functionality and meaning (what in the design business is called "affordance") is sacrificed to design integrity. The loony provides you with buttons that don't look like buttons, pictures that do, and all sorts of thingumajigs which make sense only once you know how to work the website. The website looks great, but it doesn't tell you how to use it. And so, it doesn't get used.
And that, crucially, is the core of the loony's mistake. A hardcore graphic designer is interested only in the screen itself. To him, it's the surface which is interesting. But the visitor to a site, while he may appreciate the visuals, wants to reach through the screen, through the graphics, into the website, and do something. Just like the owner of the website, the visitor is interested in what's behind the screen. And this kind of design just keeps him out.
You've seen Flash - it's the thing that makes those little windows with cute animations in them. Handled properly, Flash is really good.
But when a Graphic Arts Loony gets his hands on Flash, then a horrible transformation occurs, and he mutates into ... Flash Harry! Flash Harry doesn't want to put small animations on your screen - he wants to sprawl all over it. He doesn't want to provide subtle and delicate interaction - he wants to take control of your screen and make you sit, Clockwork Orange fashion, as he inflicts his creation on you.
Flash Harry is making the same mistake as the Graphic Arts Loony - he thinks that all you want to do is gaze at his creation, not use it. But flash sites have even more problems than graphics sites:
There are good reasons to use Flash on your website. There are even good reasons to build your whole website out of Flash. But if those reasons don't apply to you (and if you have to ask, they don't) Flash is best avoided. As is Flash Harry.
At the other end of the scale from teenagers and self-employed designers you'll find the huge software factories. These are companies that employ entire towns in India or Russia - and they're packed to the rooftops with programmers who are skilled, experienced - and cheap! Surely they'd be able to put a decent website together!
Well, yes they can. They take an approach rather like the Lego programmers, slotting together standardised units and then wrapping them all up in catchy graphic design. The difference is, they write the units themselves, and (generally) they give you access to the data. If you're looking for a prefab, mass-produced website, then the factories can be just what you need.
But the cracks start to show if you want anything custom, anything specific, anything that's about you. Consider:
Provided you're running a perfectly normal business, and you want a perfectly normal website to run it out of, code factories can do a great job - just like the Lego programmers, only better. But if you're doing anything unusual, specific, or out of the ordinary (or you might ever want to do anything like that in the future), code factories will probably cramp your style. And if you have a unique way of doing business, a unique competitive advantage - well, you won't have it any longer!
So, if the professionalism of a code factory isn't enough to build a great website, how about industry professionalism? How about buying a website from another company in the same industry sector as you?
It's a persuasive idea: If you're a bookstore, and Amazon offered to sell you their software, you'd be mad to refuse. So if you can see a competitor or an associate running a successful website, and they offer to sell their website to you, you know you're getting a good deal? Right?
Wrong! The fact is, that for every successful website development, there's a gazillion unsuccessful ones.
If you had a great website which was putting you ahead of your competition, why would you want to sell it to anyone? Answer: only if
Either way, the only reason why anyone would want to recycle their old website is because they don't want it any more. And there's easier ways to make money out of somebody else's garbage than running your business off it!
So, who do you trust?
All these villains, from the code kiddie right through to the recycler, have one thing in common. They're interested in the technology. The code kiddie knows how to throw a page together, the factory knows how to write programs, and the recycler has a second-hand website. To them, it's all about the technology.
But to you, it's not about the technology at all. You're not buying technology for its own sake - you want a business tool. You have a business to run, and you have objectives for your business, and you want your website to do more business for you. For you, it's all about your business.
When you talk to The Webgineers, we won't dazzle you with dancing graphics or baffle you with technobabble. We'll talk about your objectives, your products, your customers, your business. And we'll make our recommendations in business language. We may even recruit some of the people we've mentioned above - but you can be sure we'll keep them under tight control, and we'll never forget, even if they do, that it's never about technology or egos, it's about your business.
Put us to the test. Contact us now, and tell us: what do you want to be different about your business?
About the AuthorJules May is a director of The Webgineers, a web marketing consultancy based in North Scotland. They can be contacted on +44 (0)1241 830679