Posted on 4/10/06 by Felix Geisendörfer
As some of you might have suspected for years,- our fine field of web development is a place of war. The alliance of passionate web developers who care about standards, good code, accessibility, usability and other things are in a constant hate/love relationships with the union of clients who know as much about this field as some presidents know about 'nucular' weapons. The battlefield is filled with table layouts, WYSIWYG editors, inaccessible web 2.0 sites and bad code.
I think one of the biggest issues thesese days is, that we, the passionate developers, try to create systems a 10 year old could use. We fall for the clients demanding Word-like WYSIWYG editors and build right management systems for people we wouldn't trust to spell out the word 'Security'. And to make it even worse, the people we work for consider our work to be something everybody could do. The 90s created a mindset saying that everybody could make a web site (see this article). And it's true, every 12 year old can make his own web page. So I can understand the difficulty clients have when they are demanded to pay somebody $50 (or more) per hour for something their kids could do. I mean, how should one go about explaining them the difference between invalid tag soup and standard compliant beauty? How do you raise their aweareness for quality that's invisible to them?
I think the answer is education. Uhm, that doesn't sound very original, does it? So let me try to rephrase it. Taking away their WYSIWYG toys and replacing them with our geeky alternatives like Textile is not going to cut it. Telling them it's going to be very benifital for them isn't going to cut it either, because after looking at the obscure markup they already decided it's way to complicated and stoped to listening to you. I've tried it - saying "it's really simple, just take a look at it" - and failed. Same goes for other things like standards based html, accessible JS and good php code. Clients will not be able to percieve the difference between a good and a bad site just because you tell them it's bad to use table's, inline JS or even worse crimes against progress in our field. I think we've all tried to convince a client to use a certain technology or follow our suggestions and failed misserably because we bored them to death by being to technical. We spent way too much time talking in our geeky language with our geeky friends and build a huge barrier in terms of communication. And I think our only way out, is to understand how our clients think:
If I was a client, I would think it's perfectly fine to expect somebody to make a web page, for $300. I would tell the developer that I want this really sharp looking site and the ability to maintain it myself. I know my 13 year old son has his own site, so this should be more then enough money for the task, so maybe I can get it for as low as $250. So after sending out a short email with my basic requirements to 2-3 developers, they give me estimates ranging from $350 to $1500. The cheapest one says he'll use some system called Joomla and editing my page will be as easy as editing a word document. The most expensive one talks about (x)HTML, CSS, PHP, MySql, Textile, ACL, AJAX, Accessibility, Usability and how all of this will be really good in terms of SEO and standard compliance. Hm the expensive guy sure sounds like he knows a lot of stuff, but I really can't see how this beats "editing my page like a word document" for $350. So I give the job to the cheap guy, get an alright-looking web site, fill in my content and finally got rid of this "get a business web site" task from my todo list.
We as the passionate developers will look at the resulting web site with disgust. The cheap guy used Dreamweaver and created a table based layout, and if that wasn't bad enough, the WYSIWYG editor added an ugly tag soup called 'content' to the page. Search engines might have indexed the site, but the non existing alexa rank indicates the amount of traffic the site recieves. But I say that's the better of two scenario. The client got what he paid for. The other scenario is that you dropped your price and talked him into hiring you for $500-600. But now he expects magical things to happen in terms of design, while you are enjoying the frustration of tweaking CSS to work in IE and getting the WYSIWYG (he rejected to use Textile) editor not ruin your efforts and to spit out valid html. All of this while being payed ~$20 per hour. This is no fun and at some point you'll just want the project to be over. You'll fix some php bugs without knowing what caused them, deliver the site and take your money. You might have invested a lot more work, but the site won't get more visitors, nor will the client feel like he recieved a better page. Why? Because your passion turned into hate for the ignorance of the client. Because you feel like you were paid badly and the client was demanding too much.
Now it wasn't until recently that I got to enjoy working for media agencies instead of end consumers, that paid me a decent wage doing exactly what I'm good at - php coding. They were happy with the quality they got and exited about the passion I brought into the project. On the other hand this felt much more like a regular job and I couldn't make all the decisions I was normally able to make. So I still want to work for end clients, but I want to do it for a reasonable wage and with the feeling of having created a web site that will help the client increase his/her business. So how does one go about this while maintaining high standards?
Let's join our efforts, let's educate our clients
I think it's about time for us passionated developers (and designers) to unite. I think it's the time to create a foundation dedicated to educate clients and to tell them the truth about web development. Let us talk to them in a language that makes sense, one that isn't filled with technical overhead. Let us work with illustrations and let's maintain a list with the most common questions clients have about pricing, technology, what can be done and what can't. Let us create something we can referr to when clients demand WYSIWYG editors, or don't understand the difference between table based layouts and ones that rely on CSS. Let us put up example's and demos demonstrating the difference between good and pure quality sites. But most importantly, let us KISS ; ). As soon as articles gets longer then 1 page or get filled with technology abbreviations something goes wrong.
So let me ask, who would be interested in such a project? This isn't something I could do alone in my spare time. It would need a couple people who are willing to donate content, a skilled illustrator and somebody helping me to create a little CakePHP CMS for it. We would also need a name for the project, maybe something like "The truth about web development"? We could also need the support of some of the leading people in the field, and a good amount of blogsphere buzz. Let me know what you guys think and if you would be willing to help.
--Felix Geisendörfer the_undefined
PS: If you think I should stop ranting, write about PHP, and put my head in a cake, that's fine too. It will happen ;).
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