Slapping web design

Earlier today my Twitter stream went a bit nuts with various web industry folk posting links to a website which seemed to be upsetting most of the people who visited it. It’s called http://motherfuckingwebsite.com/

The language is somewhat ‘colourful’ but the point is (to me) very clear: Websites are about people and content. Design should support that, not get in the way. This point is made through the use of tongue-in-cheek offensive statements like this:

You think your 13 megabyte paralax-ative home page is going to get you some fucking Awwward banner you can glue to the top corner of your site. You think your 40-pound jQuery file and 83 polyfills give IE7 a boner because it finally has box-shadow. Wrong, motherfucker.

And this:

You loaded all 7 fontfaces of a shitty webfont just so you could say “Hi.” at 100px height at the beginning of your site? You piece of shit.

The reactions I saw were almost overwhelmingly negative.

People called it ‘anti design’ and ‘obnoxious’. I was starting to think that I had read it wrong but, no, when I read the page again I still found it made several good points in a way that made sense to me. And how can a page that includes the line ‘some motherfucker jabbing at it on their iPad with fat sausage fingers’ be deemed unfunny? Maybe I’m just immature.

I wanted to find out if anyone else I know would see things like I do so I threw it out there:

And straight away I started getting some feedback.

Here’s what I think is happening: a lot of web designers are chiefly concerned with how websites look and the technology that goes into making a site look good across a large number of different devices. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you’re paid to do then you absolutely should give your focus to visual design. I’m not saying for a moment that web designers don’t think about content, page load speeds, business goals etc, but understandably if you are brought in to create the look and feel then that will get the bulk of your attention.

But websites are made when business people, content creators, designers and developers come together. All are important but visual design is the only part that you can throw out completely and still end up with a website. It might not look very nice, but a developer can create a single column, black and white, text-based site from business focussed copy and that website will work. It won’t be win any awards but it’ll work. You cannot however remove business, content or code. Much as I hesitate to admit it, visual design is the least important element of a website and I think that fact is what’s upsetting people. It’s easy to say that the tone of voice is offensive and lacking in humour but if that’s really what’s upsetting people why does it appear to be only upsetting designers? Surely designers are not more easily offended by rude words than their developer counterparts? Perhaps it’s that the tirade of satirical abuse is directed squarely at visual designers and they don’t like it? Well… lighten up guys. It might be a slap in the face but it’s to wake us up and get us to pay attention.

I think the way the page is written is perfect. The commenter bemoaning the lack of a ‘helpful, well written critique’ is kidding themselves as such an article would receive far less attention. Is it good that something has to be offensive to grab attention? No, but that’s obviously how our brains work isn’t it? You’re not going to change that. The author of this motherfucking website has used his understanding of psychology to get his message across in a way that led to it being shared and getting widespread attention.

I did see someone else share a link to a page with a similar message with a very different tone: http://justinjackson.ca/words.html

At its heart, web design should be about words. Words don’t come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.

I found it harder to choose a quote from that alternate site. The message is good and the page is well written but it just didn’t grab me in the same way. I sent out a tweet about this page too asking whether it was better, worse or just different but received no replies at all this time. That’s telling. Although this second page is most certainly the one I would I would send a client to it doesn’t have the fire of the other. It doesn’t slap you in the face and sometimes I think that’s exactly what we need.

And if you think I’m wrong, just tell me.

Stop building ghost ships

Do web designers make products or deliver services?

A recent exchange on Twitter got me thinking about the question of what exactly we web designers deliver, or should be delivering, to our clients. I had previously thought that we offer a service (web design) which leads to a product (the website). But I think that something is missing from this definition. Thinking of a website as a product makes it feel static, as if the site on launch day is the finished article. I always make a point of telling clients that launch day is just the beginning so I needed to rethink things a little to clarify my position.

So… who knows where we’re going?

I think there’s an issue with the terminology we use. We talk about websites being ‘launched’. It’s like we’re building a ship in our special ship-building workshop. When it’s finished we take it down to the dock, watch the captain and crew (that’s the client and their staff) pile on board and we give it a little shove and wave happily as they all drift out to sea only to run out of biscuits and die because no-one thought to bring a map. Uh-oh, looks like you’ve just built another ghost ship!

We need to make sure that when the ship launches the crew have a decent chance of getting where they are going. They need that map, which in this tidy little analogy means a well defined strategy. But should ship builders be making maps you ask? I have no idea but it doesn’t matter because we’re not actually ship builders are we? Let’s get back to websites eh?

Redefining the service we provide

So here’s the service I think we should be providing in simplified form:

  1. Learn about the client’s business and help to clarify their goals
  2. Work with the client to define a strategy for achieving those goals
  3. Create tools for the client to use to implement the strategy
  4. Monitor the client’s progress for at least 6 months (ideally longer) and refine the tools as necessary

I think the really important bit in the above is the ‘create tools’ part. Much of the time this will mean a website but it could just as easily refer to email templates, branded social media pages or the integration of third party products (customers surveys, booking systems etc) into an existing site. By keeping our sights set on our clients’ goals we can take a step back from launching websites and hopefully do something that will really help them with their businesses.

I’m on Twitter and I just bet you are too.

Finding my identity online and off

In early 2012 I started working for myself. I had suddenly, and rather unpleasantly, found myself without a job and needed to do something so I registered a limited company in the name of Clark CX and started trading as a freelance web designer. No thought went into the name at all, and I’ve never really been happy with it, I just happened to already own the clark.cx domain.

Over the years I’ve used a mishmash of my real name on sites where I got in early and other things in other places. When I was working as part of a team I never really minded if my username for whatever site didn’t match my real name but when I started working on my own I found that it started to bother me. I felt this weird disconnect between me, my business and my online identity.

Fractures

Offline I was Pete Clark, online I was called different things on different sites and my business was Clark CX. I should’ve felt like these were all different names for me, but I didn’t.

My identity was fractured and I felt the same thing was happening to my idea of who I actually was as a person. I found myself feeling unsure of which the ‘real’ me was. Was I the man who put on a shirt and went to meetings, the avatar on Twitter or the guy sitting at home staring out the window? I don’t know if there’s any psychological basis for this but I feel like things might’ve been better if I had had a more consistent identity online. I could tweet some positive sounding things or write an optimistic blog post but none of it felt like me. Not the person who’s sitting writing this anyway. Had my twitter account been in the name of @peteclark and my website been peteclark.com maybe I’d have taken ownership of the words I was saying but as it was I felt like an actor playing a part. I think this is the power our names can have over us.

The power of our names

Recently Robin Hawkes blogged about his own experience of changing his name from Robin to Rob in his youth. To many people this perhaps wouldn’t even register as a change, but it was a conscious decision and it clearly affected him. He says

I’ve always regretted this. I’ve always felt sad about it. I’ve always felt like a part of me has been missing.

Andrew Clarke has also written about changing his name. He refers to it leading to a ‘lifetime of regret’. Both Robin and Andy use that same word: Regret. That’s a powerful emotion which tells you something about how much of ourselves is wrapped up in the names we’re known by. They’re talking about their ‘real world’ names but I wonder how different the situation really is when most people you talk to are online?

Version control

When I recently thought about it there were four distinct versions of me in my head. I subconsciously ranked these in the following order of importance from most important to least important:

  1. Business me
  2. Business me online
  3. Personal me online
  4. Personal me

Without realising it I relegated my ‘actual’ self to a position of unimportance as I tried to concentrate on projecting the right professional image. This was also a reaction to the fact that my unexpected departure from my previous business destroyed one of the most important friendships I’ve ever had in my life. I was suddenly working from home and on my own most of the time. I had no close friends nearby and my personal life had been so wrapped up in my previous business that it was now pretty much non-existent. It took me ages to realise how much of a problem this was because I like what I do for a living. I enjoy meeting with clients and attending web industry events like Second Wednesday but I was always Business Me in those situations. From an outside perspective Business Me might not have always seemed that business-like but it’s definitely a persona that I put on. When someone would ask about my week I might say “Yeah, really good! I have some interesting projects I’m working on.” — that’s Business Me. Personal Me might have more accurately said “I don’t have any work on so stayed in bed until midday eating biscuits and watching X-Factor. I don’t really like it but I watch because when the contestants cry I feel slightly better about my life.” Do you see the subtle distinction between those two answers?

I eventually realised that I needed to do something about this situation. I either needed to build a personal life separate from work, or make room within my professional life for the real me to get involved. I’ve heard advice on both sides of this debate. Some people say that you should act exactly the same in business as you would anywhere else; others maintain that cultivating a ‘personal brand’ distinct from your private self will serve you well. Which advice is right probably comes down to your individual personality. I’ve seen people tweeting things like: “For f*** sake! Why do client’s always take the p***?” from their business accounts. That strikes me as a bad idea, but is it any worse than going on about how great everything is all the time even when you feel like crap? I’m not sure.

I decided to adopt James Altucher’s motto of honesty to a point. He writes

“I will never harm anyone. I believe in what Buddha said to his son Rahula … before, during, and even AFTER you say something, make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

How well I get on with this over time remains to be seen.

A need for consistency

I needed a consistent identity which would work for my business, my online self and not sound too stupid if I said it out loud when talking to someone at an event. Deciding that made me happy, but then I actually had to come up with something.

In the same way that I always want the content sending before I start designing a website I felt like I couldn’t really do much until I figured this out which effectively put my life on hold. It sounds silly, but I suddenly found making calls to potential clients really difficult. When they inevitably asked where I was calling from I would panic and say things like “Nowhere” or “My house”. In one call I uttered the quite pathetic line “I’m not really calling from anywhere, I’m on my own.”

I started changing my Twitter name regularly, sometimes several times within the space of a day. I guess I was hoping to hit upon something that just worked which I was happy with. I went from @ClarkCX to @WrongPete. After that I breezed through @_Intentional, @peetclark (close, but it’s still not my name), @70657465 (which is Pete converted into hexadecimal code — catchy eh?), @CarpetElk (an anagram), and then briefly back to @ClarkCX again because a client asked me and I didn’t want to tell them it was @CarpetElk. Some people try to find themselves through meditation and trips to the far east; I sat in front of a laptop staring at a blinking cursor in a search box.

The solution

So by this point I’d effectively driven myself mad. Finally I decided to take the approach of deciding who I really am first, and then letting that filter down into how I behave in public and present myself in my professional life. It sounds obvious but for ages I think I’d been trying to do it the other way round. I’d been trying to decide on how I should be seen by others and then moulding my personality to fit that. It’s a subtle change but one which made a difference to me.

For an online identity I finally settled (as much as I ever settle anyway) for @ClickySwitches. I like clicky switches because from a UX point of view they’re great. You can hear and feel the click when you press them and that kind of thing matters to me. I still haven’t figured out the business name part of all this but at least I feel like when I do it will be an extension of me and not the other way round.

If you managed to get through all that I applaud you. Seriously!
Please let me know on Twitter.