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.
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.