The Business of Web Design

Paul Boag

I have been thinking a lot about our motivation as web designers (as you do!) and am becoming increasingly concerned that in many cases our motivation in projects is entirely wrong.

I say “our motivation as web designers” but what I really mean is “my motivation”. I guess I have been doing some soul searching and have not been entirely happy with what I have found. However, I suspect that if you look honestly at yourself then you will find that, if you are a web designer, you suffer from a similar problem.

Personal motivation

So what am I talking about? Well, the web is a really exciting place at the moment. There is so much innovation and so many new technologies and techniques emerging. From tagging to AJAX, we are surrounding by cool things we are just itching to try out. We are constantly looking for opportunities to experiment with this stuff and that is no bad thing because it is by experimenting that we learn. If you are anything like me you are a diehard geek and love playing with new technologies and ways of doing things. That is what gets you up in the morning.

Benefiting our users

Of course, our desire to use all these techniques and technologies isn’t entirely selfish. Another motivation for us is the desire to benefit our end users. After all we are “user centric designers” right? Technologies like AJAX create a more pleasant user experience and the “trendy” web 2.0 design style, makes a site easier to navigate and read. The fact that we will look good to our peers and more attractive to prospective clients by using these approaches is a secondary consideration… isn’t it?

Business benefits

There is an added bonus to all these innovations too. In many cases they will benefit the clients business. Benefits such as reduced maintenance costs, increased customer satisfaction, fast development… the list could go on. All of these arguments are incredibly useful when trying to convince a client that they need to let you implement the latest “good practice”.

The underlying problem

So what is my problem? It is not that I have an issue with the three motivating factors outlined above. What I am uncomfortable with is the order. If we are completely honest with ourselves, in many cases the order is the same as that outlined above:

  1. Personal motivation
  2. Benefits to users
  3. Business benefits

We are primarily driven by personal motivations and the desire to “play” with new technologies. The business drivers for implementing a new technique come at the bottom of our list and are really only a useful way of justifying what it is that we want to do anyway.

I would argue that the list should actually be completely inverted. I believe that business benefits and objectives should be our primary concern even above the benefits to users. At the end of the day a website has to meet client objectives. Of course, in the majority of cases these objectives are best met by providing a good user experience, but our motivation should primarily be driven by business demands and not user needs. As for personal motivation, well that should come last of all.

There are too many implementations of AJAX which exist only for personal gratification rather than business need. The same applies for design, standards, accessibility and indeed any other “best practice” you care to mention.

Please don’t misinterpret me. I am not saying any of these things are wrong. They can all be hugely beneficial to most businesses. What I am saying is that each of us as designers or developers has to take a long hard look at why we are recommending various approaches to clients and ensure that our motivation is primarily business focused.

As web designers, many of us somehow perceive ourselves above such torrid pursuits as business objectives. There is a definite climate of moral superiority at the moment as we focus on accessibility and best practice. Although it is good that web design is moving away from the early days when we were the web equivalent of time share salesmen, we need to be careful that our new found enthusiasm for best practice doesn’t divorce us from the realities of business online.