between pixels and plumbing: why paul boag is right to call it web strategy

Submitted by jpamental on

I know, I know. If you listen to the Boagworld podcast or follow his incessant tweeting and audioboo-ing you'll doubtless be saying something like 'good heavens, don't give him any more reasons to inflate his overblown sense of self-worth' - but I think that he's struck upon a really important topic, and one that has an enormous impact on the future of our industry.

In episode 199 of the Boagworld podcast the topic came up about what clients expect of their (increasingly inaccurately defined) 'web designer.' I think most of us who call ourselves that have a much wider set of experiences and skills than those purely of graphic or visual design. Most will have some understanding of marketing. Many will have experience with Information Architecture and usability (after all, it's hard to design without organizing the content, understanding the audience and how they interact with the site and why). The good ones will know how to take their design and code it in HTML, CSS and sometimes Javascript for exploring more dynamic interaction experiences - at least with frameworks like jQuery. A smaller but significant number of them have also built entire sites or web applications, knowing PHP, Python, .NET, Ruby on Rails, or frameworks that use those languages such as Drupal or Dot Net Nuke. But the field is more complex than that.

Increasingly there are concerns with SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. How you build the site, and how you structure the content on it is critical to success in this arena. Social media - how it's used, how it integrates with the web sites we design. Recently I met Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot, and heard him speak on the concept of Inbound Marketing. Fascinating, measurable and clear-cut results - completely dependent upon having good content on the web site, promoted and reinforced through a cohesive strategy across relevant Social Media platforms. Forgot to mention that we're supposed to be able to help with content too.

So there's a thin skimming of the many skills within the field. But what does it have to do with the client? Yet another crucial area, ill-defined and yet critical to the success of any web site: how does it fit with and benefit the client and their business? Is it more than marketing brochureware? Does it really work for the client, connecting the client's business units and its customers in ways not previously possible, creating efficiencies and opportunities heretofore unimagined? Is it, dare I say - web strategy?

Having worked in, on and around the web for over 15 years I can fairly say that I've done a little or a lot of just about everything: design, development, direction, architecture, usability analysis, infrastructure planning, implementation and management - all for some very small sites on up to some really really big ones: America's Cup syndicates; an NFL team; one of the best known (though not currently best liked) golfers in history; a fortune 25 healthcare company; ecommerce, web and intranet for the largest sailmaker in the world, with millions of dollars in revenue going through systems I designed and developed.

But one of the biggest reasons clients have trusted me with projects like these is because I've spent a lot of time looking between design and development for the ways web technology can really benefit their business. It's just not enough to design what's presented. That's too often limited, short-sighted and in many cases just the wrong idea. By taking time to understand the client's business, explore the underlying problems or challenges faced, and being constantly in tune with what's happening in our field, what technologies are out there and how they can be applied, I can have a much better chance of getting beyond the expected solution to something that can deliver real value, solve bigger problems and result in an exponentially more valuable solution. That's strategy.

Unfortunately, it's also not easy to find, and to the best of my knowledge - never taught. Not yet anyway; I hope to help fix that. There will always be room in the field, and a tremendous need, for those who simply want to specialize in what they want to do. But even in specializing, you simply can't be unaware or unskilled in some of the adjacent spaces to your core skill. Real designers code (to borrow a phrase from Jeffrey Zeldman).

It's inexcusable for a web designer to not be able to (and regularly do) produce the HTML and CSS required to bring their designs to life. You just can't design effectively without that - nor can you work efficiently with a developer without being able to communicate that middle ground and show why and how your design can and should work in a particular way. Likewise, every developer should sit through a usability test and see what happens when you don't implement a design with the user in mind. Cross-training is no less critical in the web industry than anywhere else. Education breeds understanding. What's missing is the layer in between and above.

Where are we going to find the great leaders within organizations or agencies who can champion the whole and not just some of the parts? How will we nourish the insight that looks at the whole of the client, their audience and the web to find the perfect synthesis of ideas, design and technology to finally realize the full promise of the web? It needs to be taught. Web strategy needs to be considered a discipline in and of itself, not just as something that emerges organically in those few who have crossed enough boundaries to gain a bit more perspective. Not that experience isn't required, but until we as an industry start to treat the disciplines in which we engage as skillsets in their own right, we'll never be able to describe ourselves as anything other than 'someone who makes websites.' And that devalues us all.


Jason - interesting thoughts. As you know from working with us, we at C. Murray Consulting have likewise put the emphasis on "web strategy" before "guys who make websites" (which we are).

Don't know if it's just a Sunday afternoon haze, but I'm fuzzy on what you're actually proposing.

Are you suggesting more firms should hire consultants or personnel who "take their hands off the keyboard" and stay focused on marketing strategy concentrated on web? There are "media strategy firms" and generalist "technology firms" that don't do actual execution, but look for or manage specialists across various sub-categories. Are you suggesting that "web" has reached the tipping point where it should no longer be seen as a marketing or technology "sub discipline" but a major discipline on its own accord?

Are you proposing universities develop "web strategy" programs / degrees?

Can you give an example of something you'd like to see change or happen?

Sorry if I'm being dense! I've thought about this subject a great deal, and I'm genuinely curious about the specifics.


jpamental's picture

Hey Jake - thanks for the comments. My cousin Kevin ( asked about my missing 'bullet list summation' - which I'll try to address.

First - I'm definitely writing to my fellow web professionals more so than trying to address potential clients. I think that our industry is at an inflection point: the web has been around for over 15 years, and the tools at our disposal and technologies with which we can work have never been greater. That means it's time our thinking goes beyond each of our narrow focus and look at our clients' businesses and across our varied disciplines to truly innovate and make a real difference. It's not just marketing, communications or IT. It's the synthesis of all these things in service of the user, the customer, for which we all must strive. 

The problem is that too few of us (as Paul Boag puts it) 'specialize in being generalists.' I don't think for a moment that any of us can do absolutely everything, but there must be an awareness and enough depth and breadth of experience to effectively advise our clients, find the right solutions and bring them to life, either ourselves or leading a team.

Not everyone is capable of embracing design and technology and really understanding both, to mention nothing of marketing, social media and all the other disciplines in our field. But we're not helping that cause by never teaching it. We see web design degrees, web development programs, web programming and more. But generally there's a focus too narrow: only development within the IT programs or design as a subset of a graphic design program, or in some schools information architecture or interaction design. Never a synthesis.

I'm not sure it's a major in and of itself - but I do think it's critical that we begin to raise the awareness early on that there's a big something beyond those narrowly focused classes within their programs that spans our industry. If we can do that, we might be able to identify and foster those students who really 'get' the whole picture. Maybe it's better as a Master's program of some kind - better suited for someone with a little more experience, a little more ready to recognize and take on the bigger picture.

But it's not just a school exercise. For those of us working on the web every day we must acknowledge that our clients are looking to us for expertise in an industry of whirlwind changes. It's not enough for us to simply take their brief and fulfill the checklist. We owe it to them to look behind the RFP, get to know their business and provide insight, not just answers. To do that we have to at the very least grasp the opportunities for marketing, business process integration and user experience. And we have to know design, interaction and the technologies in the marketplace well enough that we can make the best use of the tools available to us and provide real, smart, innovative solutions. That means lots of homework for us, and lots of teamwork.

So here's my bullet list:

  • We need to think about strategy as an integral part of our response to and interaction with our clients
  • We need to teach web strategy in order to develop more 'whole picture thinkers'
  • Our own thinking needs to expand. We can't just look at design, marketing, development or social media as silos of expertise. We'll never provide the solutions and expertise our clients need and expect without it.

It's a great industry, and I absolutely love what I do. I'm just hoping we can take it further and really start to reach the web's true potential.




...I know what I am. A General Specialist, or a Special Generalist. Actually, given that I have quite a bit of new information to absorb over the next 16 days I would currently classify myself as a Lieutenant General Specialist. Reading the original post, and then the comments, I felt like someone reading their name in the weekly police report of the local paper. I'm ready for the homework but I'm too long in the tooth to go back to school in the real sense.

that was from Mark B at newschoolyard, by the way.


jpamental's picture

I think that you've hit one of the most important bits for any of us: to keep learning. That's one of the best things about quitting the agency where I was working. It was really stagnant there, and I've been spending a whole lot more time reading and experimenting and thinking since I left. 

A good friend of mine wrote an interesting response to this post on his blog. His focus is more in print design, and he makes some interesting parallels. I think you'd like it.

Mitch's response



I'm with you on bullets 1 and 3, Jason.

I'm skeptical about bullet 2. I've never known someone to go through a "management" degree and come out the other end a great manager that I'd take very seriously, particuarly within any specialized discipline. I might be projecting my own biases, but I've never had much respect for the "leaders" who have never been in or worked their way up through the trenches, or don't understand the craft their managing.

Fundamentally, web "strategy" - like any strategy consulting - is a leadership role. It's about understanding your service, guiding others in the right direction, devising a plan to execute, and often, coralling resources to execute the plan.

Maybe I'm just protective of the value of my decade plus of experience, but I'd like to think good leaders -- good strategists -- emerge from the rank and file with time, experience, and knowledge, not just with a set of theories taught in a classroom. And while leadership strategies can be taught, ultimately, good leadership is not a tool that can simply be imparted in a classroom.

I think another issue here is that web is not seen as a "silo" strategy. It's one  component of a larger strategy or "forest": marketing or technology. Often, web has to support the marketing strategy - not vice versa. Good marketing leaders will seek out web teams that can add value to the plan, but they're probably looking for teams to help them execute at the end of the day (people that build websites).

Just some thoughts. -Jake

jpamental's picture

OK - it's taken me a few days to get my thoughts and time together. But your points are central to what I see as big problems for us to face as an industry. Two challenges: who and when to teach 'web strategy' and a thornier issue of who should control/drive web efforts anyway.

You're right that it requires experience actually DOING to effectively develop a broader strategic view: that's why I don't think if this as any beginner level kind of offering. If you do look at the MBA model, while not perfect, there are some great examples of programs that target mid-career professionals who need the refinement of ideas and vision to make the next big leap (think programs like Roger Martin's at the Rotman School of Management).

In the web industry I see this as a way to take those who have a significant amount of experience in either design or development, and a knack for seeing the larger picture of how design and technology interact and to give them the tools and knowledge to develop that knack into a truly strategic view. Many of these ideal candidates need a little more grounding in marketing, business process analysis and depending on background, possibly more strength in either design, user experience or technology. By rounding out these skills it's easier to connect the dots and see all the ways a web project can impact a business, and to make a better judgement about what technology might best fit or which elements of user experience will matter the most. It's a lot to know - but you see that in the best in our business all have that ability to bring that larger picture into focus. Those who organically develop this more wholistic view are too few and far between. Our industry would benefit greatly by actively taking part in nurturing that talent.

Now with regard to your picture of a larger strategy - that's where I think many companies and projects fail utterly to live up to their potential. Web technologies can reach so much farther than marketing or communications or sales or traditional IT departments that it just seems crazy to me have one of those groups solely in control. While it may be a reality that a marketing department going outside to hire a partner to develop a site for them will likely stay trapped in that silo - it's the users (i.e. their customers!) who will often suffer.

Marketing cares about marketing - not the lifecycle of that user's involvement with the company, which often spans becoming a customer (marketing), purchasing (sales), using the product or service (customer/technical support), and staying apprised of new developments (communications). If the user isn't supported well and consistently across that entire lifecycle, the likelihood that they will remain customers decreases greatly. This is why I argued in 'who should own the company website' that there needs to be a separate group with appropriately high-level executive leadership that provides web technology 'glue' to bring together solutions that benefit the enterprise as a whole rather than only developing projects for each slice at a time. All the while they can then also act as a champion for the end users (customers or employees), ensuring that the whole experience is cohesive across that contact lifecycle. (and that high-level executive leadership has to develop somewhere, and a program that helps develop their strategic view would certainly help!)

Our industry is still in its relative infancy, so not enough time has passed for a sufficient number of 'web strategists' to develop, progress in their career path and make there way into senior executive roles - but it has to happen. Anything we can do to further that end will only benefit us, our industry and our clients.