Bad attitudes: confessions of a web designer

The web industry has been guilty for a long time of treating it's customers like morons. Will we ever learn? And what's the alternative?

I often have people strike up conversations with me about technology having assumed that I'm a technophile. This is like assuming that a landscape gardener loves his shovel, or an accountant his calculator. Sure it's right a lot of the time but it misses the point of why we do what we do. More than I love technology, I love successful digital communication, just as my landscaping friend loves beautiful gardens more than he loves a particular gardening implement.

This confusion between the means and the end is incredibly strong on the internet. Some of my contemporaries foster fear in their customers by making online marketing and communication seem more technical than they are. They endlessly discuss the mechanisms of the web in highly technical gibberish (count how many times the next SEO expert you meet says the word 'algorithm' - it's fun) and they do so in order to scare you into handing over a lot of cash.

Well I've met these experts, and they're idiots.

You'll know them when you meet them, too. They use industry jargon. They use scare tactics. They talk in terms of metrics rather than real world outcomes. By comparison it's incredibly refreshing when you meet somebody who, instead of telling you how to suck eggs:

  • asks what is most important to you in your business,
  • can tell you, in simple everyday language, how you can make enough money next month to take on that next team member,
  • has run their own business and knows what it's like to be worried about debt repayments, meeting wages, or paying suppliers.
  • knows that getting your online presence right is not a game. That budgets are tight, and nonsense is expensive.

Where's the confession?

Let's jump back a year to where all this began:

12 months ago I started working with a mastermind group of business owners to better define what I do. At the start of that period I was running my own studio of website developers. We built great websites for people. I'm an expert at it and it's something I've been doing for over fifteen years.

The thing is that there are a lot of companies like ours. It's hard to come up with a point of difference when thousands of other people do exactly what you do. Was it our service? Was it our great designs? What was so magic about us that we would stand out from the competition? The answer I came up with - nothing.

There were plenty of superficial reasons of course: we're nice, we do good work, we have reasonable prices. But I could've named half a dozen other companies in the same part of town who met those requirements. The difference had to be larger.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

As so often happens, it was my clients that provided the answer. They kept asking me questions. These questions had always annoyed the hell out of me. Running a web design studio is a challenging occupation at the best of times: there are deadlines to navigate, technology to wrangle, complex testing to complete, endless design amendments from agencies - it never stops. I didn't want to be wasting my time explaining to clients how to do stuff. Why, I asked myself, couldn't they just Google the answers and leave me to my code?

Here's why: because they were just like me.

They were busy. They were managing staff and dealing with their own customers. They were balancing the books, and balancing work and family. They didn't have time to cut through the garbage and to understand how a business in the 21st century should be using internet technology.

I did my best to answer their inane questions patiently and politely, and in plain language. But 12 months ago this approach was costing me a great deal of money. I was trying to sell code and designs, not advice. I saw the advice as something I had to suffer through to keep people happy while I worked on my beautiful code.

You've got a bad attitude, son.

It was a terrible attitude, and it was not good enough. It didn't serve my clients well, and I'm embarrassed to say that it is an attitude you'll find shared among most web developers. Our industry has been guilty for a long time of treating it's customers like morons. This was the humbling message that, thanks to my colleagues and advisors, I finally grasped.

Having lived and worked online for the last fifteen years, I realised it is my job to guide clients through the thickets of web technology and into the sunny glow of profit that this technology has always promised. It is my job to advise what is best, and worst, practice. My insider knowledge and technical expertise can help train teams, build new efficiencies within companies and cut through the techno-babble. Realising this I began putting together the people, the technology and the methods that would help me do it better. I did more study, and importantly I began to listen to what my clients were asking.

Happy endings.

I can happily report that it's working brilliantly, and I now spend my days working alongside business people to show them how we can use the same tools I've been using for years to shape a better online business. The service, of course, is called Digital Advisor, and it has changed the way I see my customers, and the way they see the web.

If you'd like some greater perspective on your business and the web, give us a call.

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