The plight of the in-house designer

Paul Boag

The more organisations I work with the more sympathy I have for in-house designers and developers. It is a role that can be thankless and isolating. How then can their lives be made that much easier?

I last worked as an in-house designer/developer over 8 years ago, so I don’t feel I can really comment on the subject. I therefore enlisted the help of the boagworld forum and dug out various emails I have been sent over the last couple of years. I also picked the brains of Paul (our researcher) and Ryan (our producer) to compile 10 quick tips for improving the lot of in-house staff.

1. Coding with others in mind

The general consensus seems to be that as an in-house coder it is important to consider the next guy. Whether you are working as part of a team or as a lone developer, sooner or later somebody else will have to pick up your code and work with it.

Two techniques were suggested for coding with others in mind. The first was to carefully comment all of the code your produce and if appropriate even create supporting documentation. The second was to have a library of reusable code so that all work produced is consistently marked up. That way it can be passed around the team easily.

Personally, I believe this is good practice whether you are working in-house or not. Certainly Headscape use an extensive library of HTML, CSS and Javascript snippets.

Of course, if you are working alone the need for a library of snippets is less pressing. However, our next problem is a bigger concern.

2. Seeking out like minded people

Many in-house designers/developers are working in isolation. There are a relatively few organisations that can afford a web team. Working alone has two obvious drawbacks. First, it is hard to keep up-to-date with new approaches because you are learning on your own. It is easy to get stuck in a rut, using the same old techniques. In web design stagnation can be dangerous both for your career and for the evolution of the site you are supporting.

Second, it can be lonely. Even though you have other people with whom you work, they do not share your experiences as a web developer. You cannot moan about shared problems or ‘geek out’ on code or typography.

The solution is something we have spoken a lot about before. Make contacts within the industry both online and off. Use tools like forums, twitter, and mailing lists. Offline, look for meetups and conferences you can attend. Nothing in your area? Don’t let that put you off. Setup something yourself. If somewhere as backwards as Dorset has a web designer meetup then there is no reason why your area cannot!

3. A demonstration speaks a thousand words

The feeling of isolation can be exasperated because management often simply fail to ‘get’ what you are trying to do. It can be amazingly frustrating when you have a great idea but you fail to make others see why it is so good.

One solution might be to build a proof of concept or prototype. It is often much easier to convince management of an idea if they can see it in action. Some even spend their evenings producing prototypes as they are not given the opportunity while at work. Personally, I cannot help but wonder whether you should actually be looking for a new job if you are forced to develop ideas in the evenings!

4. Impose some structure

One idea I agree with is that in-house developer you should work within the same rigid structure used by external agencies. Too many in-house teams are treated like a free resource people can turn to whenever they like. This leads to scope creep and (more importantly) to the web team being undervalued.

So what do I mean by a rigid structure? I am talking about things like:

  • Statements of work
  • Change control procedure
  • Client signoff
  • Project milestones (for both yourself and the client)
  • Resource assignment and budgeting

These techniques ensure projects run smoothly, limit scope creep and project a professional image to the internal clients improving their perception of the development team.

They are also worth applying no matter how small the job. For example if you have been asked to change some copy on the website always confirm what the requirement is via email. This acts as a mini statement of work. Project management doesn’t need to be onerous to be effective.

5. Encourage internal charging

Of course the best way of making somebody value your work is to charge them for it. There seems to be a general consensus that where possible internal charging is a good idea. However, often this is outside of your control.

If you are unable to charge internal clients there are alternatives. One option is to calculate how much you cost the company per hour. Once you have this figure (even if it is an approximation) you can start to include it in statements of work. List all of the tasks to be done, associate a time with each of these tasks and include the cost to the company for each.

Hopefully this will make internal clients think twice before using up your time. If you want further leverage start submitting a monthly report to management outlining what work you have been doing and the associated costs. Let clients know you are doing this as a further incentive for them to think twice.

6. Be the authority

Another piece of advice that was generally agreed upon is the need to be seen internally as an expert. How you are perceived is important if you want your opinion to be respected.

Avoid being hesitant or negative about ideas because you are unsure how to implement them. Instead research solutions and if appropriate bring in an expert. Using specialists does not undermine your authority. Rather it demonstrates that you can manage a project even if it is bigger than your personal capabilities.

7. Exude confidence, personality and enthusiasm

On the subject of negativity, avoid saying ‘no’. Many internal web teams are perceived as a barrier to be overcome. Internal clients often turn to external agencies in an attempt to bypass them entirely. Once you are ‘out of the loop’ you loose control entirely.

A better tactic than saying ‘no’ is to say ‘yes’ but go on to explain the consequences. Once you have explained the negative impact of a suggestion, be quick to provide a positive alternative of your own.

Be confident and enthusiastic about every project. Avoiding being perceived as the stereotypical geek sitting in the dark barely uttering a word. Ensure you are likeable. If people like you they will listen to and respect your opinion.

8. Broadcast your successes

To further enhance your reputation internally make sure you broadcast your successes. If you launch a new sub-site or feature, ensure you tell as many people internally as possible.

If the company has an internal newsletter or mailing list make sure you write something for it explaining what you have done and why in plain English. Focus on what the project brings to the business rather than how it works and why it was challenging.

Offer to run workshops about the web or give a mini-presentation on web strategy to management. Anything to make you appear pro active and a benefit to the business.

9. Understand the politics

A lot of the points so far relate to company politics. Every organisation has its internal politics and ‘rising above them’ isn’t a realistic option.

One area where politics becomes particularly important is sign off. If you are having trouble getting something approved ask yourself the following questions…

  • Does my internal client have the power to sign off themselves or is there somebody else I should be talking to?
  • Who are the people influencing those signing off?
  • Who are the opinionated trouble makers slowing down the process?

In many cases the person who appears to be the decision maker is not really. They are being controlled by management higher up or influenced by a few vocal individuals. If this is the case you need to speak directly to these people or at the very least give your client the tools to force sign off through.

10. Stick to the facts

Finally, always have facts to back up your opinion. This is especially important if people within the organisation do not respect your opinion.

Facts and figures are especially good but when that is not an option turn to an expert opinion. Quoting an internationally respected author like Steve Krug will generally carry more weight than your own opinion.

That said, remember to explain who this person is and why their opinion matters. You cannot expect the heading of marketing to have a clue who Steve Krug is.

Where an internal client remains unconvinced by an experts opinion turn instead to the weight of evidence. Don’t quote just one expert, quote ten. The shear number of people saying the same thing will impress.

So there you have it. Advice straight from the boagworld community. If you have anything to add, post it in the comments below.