Why web design agencies need to create gardens

  • by Barry O'Kane
  • Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Web design and development is still a young discipline. I know, shocking statement of the day. Of course our industry is changing at a blindingly fast pace, and we’ve squeezed more into the last couple of decades that many industries have in centuries.

It’s amazing really, not to mention incredibly exciting. Web design and digital agencies are an integral part of a revolution in the evolution of modern human society that will, eventually, make the renaissance look like a tiny change.

Oh and it’s challenging. We need to keep on top of the changing technology and the ever-changing desires and expectations of both staff and clients. Nothing stays the same for long in our industry. That challenge is part of the fun, of course. However we also need to build successful, profitable businesses amongst all this change.

Could this be why so few web professionals and agencies take the time to step back and rethink their fundamental approach to creating web sites? Are they running so fast just to keep up with the technology and changing demands that they are lost in the details?

Is the youth of our profession and the rate of change why so many web design projects are carried out with a fundamentally invalid mindset? Are we so focused on just the immediate finances that we are hurting the long term success of our clients (and thus our agencies)?

It is my belief that this is the case. There are amazing designers, developers and digital agencies that are leading the way, not just in the details of design and technology, but in the mental framework of how they approach our whole purpose. Sadly, there are far too many of us who are still getting in wrong, in whole or in part, but in either case fundamentally wrong.

How we are getting it wrong

The modern internet is a complex, animated place where businesses and people “live”. It is not a “channel” or a one dimensional advertising board. Rather it is multi-faceted, multi-channel, multidimensional and ever changing environment that is integrally interwoven into the fabric of our lives.

That is a blindingly obvious (if hyperbolic) description, right?

Every person and business creates this unique environment that includes interaction with email, web sites social media and multiple different devices. We all have changing desires and needs from our online experiences based on a huge array of criteria from the time of day to the people we are with and the devices we use.
Why then do so many web professionals and agencies treat their web projects like tiny isolated islands? Why do so many of us still treat web design as if we are creating a picture to hang on the wall? Why do so many developers get more excited by the programming language than we do with the outcomes (like a builder more interested in the bricks than the final building)?

You see, that’s what so many of us are doing wrong. It’s not (I hope) that we are bad at what we do or that our skills are not up to the task. It’s more about the mindset and what we think about as we put our skills to use.

So, what?

Although I maintain that this is fundamentally wrong, the bigger issue is that it is not immediately obvious. It’s like we are on an long ocean voyage on a tall ship from the age of sail, our journey seems fine for months until the very last minute, when a small navigation error right at the start puts us on the rocks and the ship goes down with all hands.

Too narrow a focus, whether that’s the design, the technology or a short timescale can only help to cause problems in the future.

It doesn’t take a big change to get so much better though: simply thinking a little more holistically can transform everything.

Everything?

No, we don’t need to think about absolutely everything in advance or make every project hugely complex nor do we need to see into the future. Simply applying our skills with a slightly broader mindset will make it much less likely that our tall ship will sink. We can keep on sailing the world’s oceans for many more wonderful years!

Full service agencies are often already talking to their clients about cross channel marketing and including the much broader business goals when planning web sites and the other specific parts of any project. However, the question they must answer is: are you also helping your clients build in flexibility and maintainability so that the design, tools and marketing can adapt to the changing business needs over periods of years? If not then the risk is that the technology, tools or design become the limiting factor far too soon after the initial project starts. This results in real frustration that will manifest in clients losing opportunities and the agency losing clients!

Of course, this same principle applies even to those of us who are providing more focused web design or development services or working on smaller projects.

My favourite analogy is garden.

A garden?

Great things can come from viewing your next website project as a “living thing” rather than static or frozen in time.

A garden is both alive and a place that we (humans) enjoy spending time. Great gardens (whether they are small and private or large city botanics) must be planned, created and tended in an understanding (holistic) way.

One needs to understand the local environment, soil, landscape and plants to create a great garden. To me this is analogous to the technology, design, usability and other skills we need.

People then interact with the garden, rather than passively watch like a movie. They spend time in the green spaces, smell the flowers, share the experience with friends and family and much more. Then both the garden and the people are changed by the experience.

If you pack too much into your garden then there is no space for people to enjoy. The garden must be designed with the people in mind. How will they use the garden? Picnics? A place for kids to play? What do we (our client) want people to feel and do in the garden? Visit the cafe? Bring their friends?

If you don’t tend your garden on an ongoing basis then it will grow wild and not have the impact you wanted. Keeping the weeds down is analogous with needing to maintain and bug fix your technology. Planning for the changing seasons is like the changing marketing goals of your client.

For me, too many web professionals try and create a static object. Something that is done once, that has limited interaction with people and is not affected by them. Something that will barely achieve its purpose at the start and will very quickly become irrelevant and limiting.

Gardening is not done once

By thinking of the web project as a garden we immediately envisage an immersive experience that must be tended and changed over time. We imagine the experience our visitors will have and how they will interact with what we have created. We know the experience will be different for different people at different times. We don’t plan to “build” it and then expect it to always stay the same.

The garden analogy can also be used to help visualise an iterative (or agile like) approach to a web project. Create the rockery first and that can be enjoyed (and tended and matured) while you then move on to add a greenhouse and so on.

Clients need to understand too

Many agencies struggle to communicate technical concerns or the dynamic nature of web development to their clients. For example, it can be hard to see the real need for ongoing maintenance. It is our responsibility as web professionals to not only understand the holistic context of our projects and how we can use our skills to really positively impact our client’s businesses, but also to explain all that to them!

Using an analogy like this a very visual way to explain (for example) why a web project is not like print design and how important ongoing maintenance and support is important. “It is important to spend time tending and maturing the website to reach its full bloom.” Or how it can be hugely beneficial to approach the project in a series of iterations rather than one long project.

Conclusion

If our web design and digital agencies are to be successful, both in a professional and creative sense and in a business sense, then we must be more holistic in our approach. It is not enough to be technically or creatively great and up to date. We also need to know how to use our skills to benefit client’s businesses in their unique context. Plus we need to be able to communicate all this complexity with clarity.

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