The world of web design is changing at a scary rate. Once all we needed was Photoshop and Frontpage. Now we have to endure list posts like this one telling us to learn more than ever. It is kind of depressing.
Of course one option is to specialise. You can limit your expertise to one area and turn down work outside of that specialism. Although there are a lot of advantages to this approach it is not an option for most web designers.
Many of us are not able to turn away work even if we wanted. What is more our clients tend to presume we know ‘everything about the web’.
For the majority of us we have to continue being generalists. This involves expanding our knowledge into ever more diverse areas.
I believe we are seeing demand for five skills that you would not associate with the role of web design. Five skills that clients have come to expect from us. These are…
- Contextual awareness
Let us look at each in turn.
Clients understand that their online strategy has to be about more than their website. The ‘build it and they will come’ mindset is long gone. They realise that their website is the hub for a broader strategy.
At the most basic level clients expect us to have an understanding of SEO. Unfortunately their expectations in this area are often unrealistic. They want to be number one on Google and it becomes our job to educate them about the reality.
Of course to do that we need to understand the discipline ourselves. What is best practice within SEO? What impacts does SEO have on usability, accessibility and copy?
But, SEO is not the only consideration. There is also the gorilla in the corner – social media.
Advising on Social Media
Clients know they need to engage their potential and existing customers via social media. They even use it themselves. But, they don’t understand how to use these platforms from a business perspective. Often when they try they make horrendous mistakes. Even big brands suffer from this problem. The Skittles and Nestle incidents make this obvious.
Once again they need help and so turn to us. We have to know more than how to design an attractive Facebook page or open a Buffer account. We need to be able to help with community building, social media and engaging content. We need to understand how to deal with conflict, encourage participation and inspire action.
The most important skill we need to learn as designers is copywriting. Let’s face it, most websites have terrible copy.
The majority of that copy is down to the client and so we tend to wash our hands of it. But, it is not all the client’s responsibility.
Who writes those little pieces of microcopy that appear across the websites we design? You know, the error messages, section headings, instructional text and button labels. Most of the time it is the web designer.
The problem is that the words we use can have a big impact on usability, comprehension and conversion. Take for example 404 pages. Other than web designers who the hell knows what a 404 page is?
It is not just us that needs to learn to write better copy. The client does as well. The question is who will teach them? Once again the burden falls to us.
Web designers shouldn’t be teaching copywriting. But often there is nobody else. That means we need to understand the principles of writing for the web. In fact we need an understanding of general copywriting techniques. In particular I think we need to help the client establish consistency and tone in their copy. After all we have worked hard to project the right tone in our design.
3. Contextual awareness
There was a time when you could be certain about how somebody was accessing a website. The chances were they used a desktop computer and sat at a desk.
Things have changed. Now they could be using a tablet on the sofa or a mobile phone at the bus stop. This has a profound effect on how we design websites. We need to be aware of the users context. We need to understand how both environment and device alters the way people use a website. If we do not, we cannot deliver a good service to our clients.
The impact of environment
Do you take time to consider the environment in which users encounter your website? Do you understand how these environmental differences could impact behaviour?
For example a mother with a new born baby may be accessing the web from a home computer. But, her environment could well be far from perfect. Her child could be crying. She may be sleep deprived. These things impact how well she can use your website.
The impact of the device
With a growing number of devices accessing the web we need to consider a greater number of factors. Screen size, functionality and input method are just three examples. We are good at addressing screen size. But we don’t pay as much attention to the other factors.
Take for example when a person uses a touch screen or mobile keyboard. This changes the experience a lot when compared to a full size keyboard and mouse.
In this multi-device, multi-environment age we must think a lot more about context. For example, when was the last time you visited a user in their home or office? Or do you navigate your website with just a keyboard to see how it changes the experience?
There was a time when you could ignore these things because clients didn’t care about mobile. They didn’t see it as worth the investment. But now that has changed, because each and everyone of your clients has a mobile device in their pocket. They use these devices in a variety of circumstances. They expect their website to be easy to use whether they are on the train or on their sofa.
So many clients do not know why they have a website or how to measure its success. They hire you without understanding their website should be apart of a broader strategy. Often it falls to us to guide them through the process.
This means we need to brush up on our business strategy skills. We need to be able to help our clients:
- set business objectives,
- identify target audiences,
- establish success criteria,
- and decide on calls to action
It strikes me as insane that many clients do not already have these things defined. But, they do not.
The question is do you feel prepared to guide users through the process? Are you confident in talking about market segmentation or business analysis? If not then it is time to broaden your horizons.
My final skill may well be the most important of all (yes I know I said that about copywriting). It is the skill you will use more than any of the others.
To be an effective web designer these days, we need a good understanding of psychology.
For a long time psychology has been a part of our job. Designing usable websites requires an understanding of how users think and complete tasks. But, it is no longer enough to create websites that are just usable. Clients want the sites we create to make users passionate and engaged. That takes a deeper understanding of what makes people tick.
A good grasp of psychology goes further than just design and usability. If you understand how people think it can also help build an engaged community. It allows you to write better copy, promote your services and win more pitches.
Our role is to understand and engage with people. Whether users, clients or colleagues, we must understand how they think. This will allow us to motivate them into action. We can convince and persuade, nudging them in the direction we wish to go.
To survive in the modern world of web design we need to understand the human condition.
How do I learn all this stuff?
By this point you are most likely feeling somewhat overwhelmed. How the hell do you get your head around all this new stuff on top of everything else.
It’s a fair question and I have no easy answer. But, I would suggest one thing. Do you need to read yet another CSS article or watch another Photoshop tutorial? Do you need to attend a conference about the latest jQuery techniques? Would your time be better spent broadening your horizons.
I read books on business theory and follow blogs on customer service. I listen to audiobooks about marketing.
The problem is that the web design industry has become isolated. We only talk to one another and regurgitate the same old stuff. If we want to meet the needs of our clients, we must start looking further afield for our education.
Is this unreasonable?
You may suggest it is unreasonable to expect one individual to learn all this. The answer is yes it is. But, that does not change the reality that this is what our clients want and expect.
Clients are looking for a one-stop-shop. They are not looking to deal with different suppliers. There is too much work associated with managing different companies. Sure, this is a generalisation and I am not arguing against specialising. I am just saying that we all need a broad knowledge in todays marketplace.
Does that mean we need a deep knowledge of marketing or copywriting? No it does not. But, it does mean we need to know enough to point our clients in the right direction. Sometimes that might be us suggesting solutions. Sometimes it might be us recommending an expert. But, without some knowledge on our part we cannot make those judgements.
If you want to delight your clients and deliver more than the competition, it is time to broaden your knowledge.