Website owners need more than web designers

Why is it many website owners are changing their web designer even when he or she has built them a great looking, usable website? What more are they looking for?

The prevailing wisdom within the web design community is that you should specialise. However, does that really make sense? Is that what website owners are looking for? I would argue it is not.

Website owners have an increasingly difficult job. Not only do they need to provide visitors with an engaging, usable and accessible website, they also have to interact with them through social media, great content and other online marketing channels.

Think about it for a moment. The most effective online strategies consist of at least the following elements…

  • An effective website
  • Email marketing
  • Google Adsense
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • Youtube

Website owners also have to worry about…

  • Business strategy
  • User profiling
  • Competition analysis
  • Site promotion
  • Site analytics
  • Calls to action

The list could go on.

When faced with such a daunting task they do not want a specialist. What use is an expert in ruby on rails when faced with such a broad and complex set of issues?

The need for generalists

They need generalists. They need people who can advise them on the breadth of challenges they face.

The specialist argues that they can hire multiple specialists to handle these different areas. However, who brings the pieces of the puzzle together? The website owner? I would argue this is asking too much.

Large numbers of suppliers create serious logistical problems, not to mention the potential for shifting blame. Most website owners want a one stop provider who can advice them on the whole range of challenges they face.

Being a web designer in this new decade is about more than building websites. A web designer will need to have a good understanding of business practices, site analytics, marketing, copywriting, social media and more.

Admittedly those who advocate specialising encourage people to have a T shaped knowledge. In other words web designers should have a superficial knowledge of all areas and a deeper understanding of one.

Although I can see the value in this approach as a way to ensure you work well with other specialists, I do not think it will meet the needs of most website owners.

Web designers need a deeper understanding of a broader set of areas if we are to be of real value to their clients.

The alternative is that website owners themselves have to develop this level of knowledge and that is going to be difficult for anything other than a full time website owner.

How then can a web designer broaden his or her knowledge? The answer is simple – start exposing yourself to a great number of sources of information.

Broadening your knowledge

Web designers should of course be learning about the latest CSS techniques and jquery plugins. However, they should also be reading marketing blogs, business strategy books and even attending copywriting workshops.

Here are a few suggestions to start off the budding generalist…

I know what you are thinking – “I don’t have time for that.” Well I am sorry to break the news but you have picked the wrong job!

The web is one of the fastest moving industries on the planet and needs an incredibly broad set of skills. If you don’t have those skills or fail to keep them up-to-date then you will lose credibility. You need to make time.

At the end of the day it is simple. Our website owners are asking for advice on everything from design to facebook and if we don’t give it to them then somebody else will. That is the reality of a consumer culture.

  • What a great article. This is what I’ve been preaching to Mauritian web designers for the past year. We web designers need all these to keep the job alive and attract new ventures. This is all the more important when we’re freelancers.

  • I think this is indeed the web designer’s current role. Most of the business owners (does that equate to your website owner’s definition?) I have come across have heads full of their own expertise and rely on the designer to link them up to all the right things in the web world.

    To design the right website for a client they (ahem ‘we’) need to have an understanding of the client’s business operations, customers, strengths and weaknesses.

    We then become the middle guy or gal who links what the client needs to all the specialists out there and feed that into a design/site/interface that works for both clients, developers, markteeers, social media etc.

    Getting a grip of all that is what web deign ‘is’ and why its so interesting.

    So in short – design is not look and feel – its form and function.

  • Great post, love the topic. I agree with you to a point – designers should have a broader understanding of the industry and all it’s various facts.

    However, I don’t think this translates into “a designer needs to know how to do all these things.” I can see where a freelance designer would have little choice. But if things are really headed in the direction you think, the freelancer’s position is going to get even tougher.

    I’ve done both freelance and agency work. I love the control working independently gives, but I prefer to work in a team environment where I don’t have to wear all the hats. It allows me to be good at one or two things, rather than spreading myself so thin I can’t excel at anything.

    And that’s really the crux of the issue. You argue that not having enough time to do it all means we may have chosen the wrong profession, but I don’t buy that at all.

    Architects don’t actually build the structures they design. Neither do auto engineers. The chef doesn’t serve the food or ring up customers, and the pilot doesn’t fix his own plane or book the tickets.

    In every industry there are many roles to fill. One person can probably do a few well enough, but certainly not all.

    Thanks for getting me thinking this morning.

  • Web designers of today (especially freelancers) are generally proficient at multi-tasking (one would hope) and tend to have knowledge across a spectrum of skills that are necessary to produce a truly professional end-result.

    It is not enough to simply be a good graphic designer, or a really good developer (i.e. specializing in one field), the freelance designer of today should also understand business management, web development, SEO, branding etc., as you pointed out.

    I recently wrote an article on my blog re. “The Modern Designer”. USA’s AIGA also has an insightful article re. modern designers and what is required of them in this day and age. We’ve certainly come a long way from the 90’s and early 2000’s.

  • I’m glad I read this.

    Over the past years have I made the conscious effort to expand, maybe not become an expert, but enough to have a basic understanding of topics that naturally fit into my work, such as copy, on/offline marketing strategies…etc

    I was originally worried that I was becoming, ‘Jack of all trades Master none, guilty at trying my hand to anything design related. I then took the time out to look at what I was actually dealing with, elements that where overlooked but still all important.

    It personally felt like I was caring for the whole package, if I built a site only for it to be ruined by lazy web copy then I might as well not bothered.

    I still feel this has been a natural progression….to be a craftsman

  • Totally agree! Far too many online decisions are driven by narrow constituencies, without regard to an integrated view of what matters.

    The question is, how to get this more widely appreciated, and incorporated in hiring decisions.

  • I agree with pretty much everything in this article and especially with Paul’s comment, but I’m afraid that unfortunately, it’s too much to ask. I call myself a web developer as opposed to a designer. I work mainly with graphic designers who have been asked by their clients to design a website for them to go with their collateral and simply cut up their design and make it work on the web. Almost once a week, I have to explain the web development process to such a person: How wide to design for, design it in Photoshop not illustrator.. where to buy the domain name, yes they will also need hosting… etc…

    There are a lot of graphic designers out there struggling to stay in business. Now that print is no longer king and they’ve migrated to web. Their skill set is still somewhat lacking but it’s hard to criticize them. There’s simply to much to know and thus clients should understand that having more than one expert is beneficial.

  • Great post. I couldn’t agree with you more here. As a Network Administrator first, and a Web Designer second, I can attest that stretching yourself thin across all different fields is the only way to maintain value in a struggling economy.

    If your focus is web, having a strong understanding of marketing, financial strategy, and other aspects that complete a business is vital. Pigeon holing yourself into one small aspect of the web isn’t practical now. You have to go beyond your comfort zone.

    Consider this scenario: My company consisted of 950 employees. I started as Network Administrator. We had staff with the job title “Blackberry Support Specialist” – all they worked on were Blackberrys. Our company is down to 65 employees. I now handle Blackberrys; just one of a dozen new responsibilites that I have since we’ve reduced our staff. You can replace BB Support Specialist with anything design related – Front End UI, Development, Staging and Production, Graphics, etc. The story will be the same.

    Independent Designers need to heed this post, too. Why would someone hire three different people to get a job done when they could just hire you to take care of everything at once?

    We all want to be experts in our niche. We all want to produce nothing short of a perfect product. But we have to face the realities in life.

    Sorry this was such a long comment, but this is the first blog post I’ve seen in a long time within the design community that really strikes home.

  • Agree with this. In fact was thinking about it and having to deal with it at the same time recently. Much of the problem comes down to building a site and then the client does nothing and all of sudden wants to be number one on Google. Suddenly we’re talking SEO or perhaps they’ve got a campaign and they want to raise their profile – we’re chatting about Adsense. Or they’ve heard about Twitter/Facebook and think they need this but don’t know what value it will bring or indeed how much work they will need to put in to make it successful.

    What you’re saying is right, Paul. There is more to it, clients do need more support. The problem is, and you haven’t really covered the biggest problem – how can they pay for all this extra service? More importantly how can the industry justify the larger and larger costs of all this additional work (not to mention the cost acquiring the skills or hiring more team members)?

    Web companies have long since moaned about becoming unpaid technical support desks for clients. Now they will become marketing strategists, brand advisors, policy makers, advertising gurus, social media commentators, event managers. The list goes on.

    I’m not sure this is entirely a good thing. As the technology becomes easier to build a website then the industry probably does need to “add more value” and find other services it can charge for in order to make a profit. But suddenly we’re the GP, the ambulance driver, the consultant, the surgeon and the nurse all in one go. We can’t do all these jobs, and many clients don’t even see the need for them all. I think we need to be careful that as a profession we don’t overstate the case for everything.

  • Amen! I am right with you!
    In fact, that’s exactly what I do. I am what you call a “generalist” – I can’t do everything all on my own, but I “bring the pieces of the puzzle together” by “[advising website owners] on the breadth of challenges they face”.

    That’s what HelloLogic is/will be.

  • Couldn’t agree more. Admittedly, my generalist knowledge comes from being the -only- front end person at a company, so I have to do everything from IA, design, markup, analytics, usability, to a/b and multivariate testing. Best thing is, working in each individual field makes me better in the other fields as well – they’re all interconnected.

    I honestly don’t know how companies with one person for IA, one person for design, one person for markup can function successfully.

  • I half agree, half disagree.

    I believe that website design + marketing come hand in hand so yes you should know how to market as that is what the website is for.

    But if you’re a small team or on your own there’s no reason why you can’t team up with other companies that have greater knowledge in a given area and are focused on solely that. For instance we’ve teamed up with an SEO company to take care of the off-site SEO (for clients that wish to have proper advanced SEO) whilst we handle what’s at the core of our business with the web side of it. It takes a load off our back.

    So in essence I agree that to be a web designer/developer you need to know how to market, but you don’t necessarily have to do all the heavy lifting yourself. There are companies better equipped in other fields that may be able to take on elements for you.

    • Jason,

      It may take the load off your back, but if that side of the project were in house, you’d be getting paid for it and not a third party company. Or, it would be absorbed and your cusomter wouldn’t have another bill to pay.

    • No see that’s the thing, we have the option to deal with the other company and we earn a percentage of each sale for referring the client. So the client only deals with us and is still only invoiced once.

  • Sounds like your describing me on a day to day basis. :P

    If you have worked in this field for many years (as I have) you will of been lucky enough to pick up alot of the skills you mention along the way.

    With the lines between each part of the design/development/marketing process becoming blurred it is a role which will become more and more apparent in the future.

  • I don’t totally agree. While I can technically design, I dropped that from my list of services because it wasn’t something I wanted to do for clients on a daily basis. I started freelancing because I wanted to do the one thing I love – development. While I started out just niching myself into front-end (CSS/XHTML) only, I added a few other services (WordPress and jQuery) and I keep a PHP programmer on hand if the client really needs it. I’ve gotten a lot more work now then when I was trying to market design, seo, development, programming etc etc. I believe niching yourself to do a few things only really helps make you an expert in that area. As the saying goes:

    Jack of all trades, master of none :0

    Just my .02

    • I think there’s a happy medium – if you market yourself as an all-in-one designer, developer, programmer & mountain mover, a lot of your clients will feel overwhelmed by what you have to offer.

      Don’t necessarily let the client know your whole knowledge base right up front, but more on a need-to-know basis (ie you are hired to design an HTML WordPress mock-up, then the client asks if you know anyone who can convert it to WordPress, you simply offer your own services (I know you said you already offer WP development, just an example!)

      Jack of all trades; master of none; profficient with most!

    • I agree 100% – for example, I focus entirely on the development aspect, PHP, HTML etc and focus all my energies on that whilst my business partner who is a design purely focuses on the design side. Trying to do everything means you’re just average at doing everything and don’t really have a worthwhile skill set. Narrow down your service and focus at what you’re good at. You can charge more because you’re good at it, and team up with other people who are good in other areas. They will refer people to you and you do the same to them.

  • Great article! Being a self-taught freelancer, I highly agree that a broad set of skills is almost a necessity – unless you work with a network of designers / developers, each with their own specialty.

    An important thing to consider is the client budget – if they e-mail you looking for the full package, but you can only offer one or two of the specialties, how much extra is it going to cost the client to find the remaining specialists? This could put the project out of budget, ultimately resulting in the client going elsewhere to find the skillset required to see the job out from start to finish.

    Learning all these new skills can be a hassle, and extremely time consuming, but is unquestionably invaluable not only as a personal skillset, but also from a client point of view. Developing your skill level in all forms of web design and development can save you the trouble of out-sourcing those bigger jobs, and can save you clients by being able to offer them everything (or at least most of) what they require.

  • Yeah! A group I fit into — generalist. I love telling my client that it is possible that no one signed up for the call to action because maybe their service offering needs to be re-considered (are you offering a relevant service that people want?) Well, I don’t really love this conversation but after we have exhausted seo, placement/content, and incentive issues — sooner or later you come right back to the business model.

  • I see where your going but I don’t believe that designers are the ones who need to be social media experts as well. You need a solid team.

    Your right-on about needing to know more then “web sites” Six Pixels of Separation talks a lot about that.

    We can play in the vertical and horizontal markets but its best done as a team. One person doing everything is not a “purple cow” its just ok, and ok doesn’t sell.

    Not saying your wrong. I’m just saying it takes more man power to create something really good. And more importantly… sells!

  • I think one of the biggest reasons why a website owner wants a one stops shop is to save money, why hire specialist in each of these sections to only be left with multiple bills.

    I agree that hiring one person eliminates blame and the need to have a “project manager” on the website owners staff to keep everybody inline.

    If the web designer could take on each of these roles it would be a much smoother process.

    I have been thinking of building a pricing model that is a one time fee for the designs then a retainer to cover the other assets. And although I think its a great idea it is being met by customers who think I am trying to sell them, and in fear of being sold they say no for now lets just deal with the website and we’ll do the rest later, to not ever hear from them again.

    I guess I should forward them this article along with my pitch to show the real value of a one stop shop handling all aspects…

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for
    a graphic design studio

  • Malcolm Gladwell spoke at the AIGA Gain Conference in 2008. Not sure if you have to be a member to view the video, but everything right down to his thought process was amazing.

  • Excellent article! I think this is a great argument for being a generalist.

    In my opinion, to be a good Web Designer you need to have a broad and ever changing skill set. That’s the best thing about this field, and also the worst.

  • Your article is right on the point, being a generalist fits in what I could call the XXI century webmaster. It’s not anymore about weird things like internet, computers, make-the-thing-work, nor simply designing a website, it is about content to be usable, shared, promoted and re-distributed on this new platform called the Web.

  • Ah, vindication at last! I jokingly refer to myself as a marketer who builds Web sites and consults on SEO and social media. Basically I’m a front end developer. I design, code and build out sites using W3C standard semantic HTML, build with on-site SEO in mind, create custom themes and installations for WordPress and advise on related marketing strategies, primarily those involving social media. I don’t do back-end programming and I don’t do much in the way of high concept design.

    I ended up with this skill set because I came to the Web (back in the ’90s) from the marketing side which included copywriting, design as well as product management and direct marketing campaigns (I’ve always liked variety.) So when I started building sites I always approached them from a marketing rather than a design or tech perspective. Up until last winter I had spent the last several years serving as Webmaster of Case Western Reserve University.

    There I wasn’t just building sites, but also advising Web maintainers across campus on how best do X, Y or Z. They would ask me anything from “How do I use a server side include” to “Should I promote my event on Facebook.” To serve their needs I had to learn a bit of everything and keep reading, reading, reading to keep up with it all.

    Last March I set up shop for myself, but my experience at the university served me quite well. Clients who hire me to build sites invariably ask me for social media advice when the site is up and running. Clients who need social media plans may also need help redoing their sites. It all works collectively. And when I can’t do it all, I can work with partner firms to bring it all together. Obviously I can’t know everything, but with the right skill mix and the right partner connections I can accomplish much more than I could with a more narrow focus.

    It’s nice to know I can also point to you to justify my strategy!

  • Great article. I do agree that when providing a site design, you need to provide more than just a design but solution to each of these.