Crosstown Digital Communications

How Not to Make a Website

In the quiet days before Christmas, revered marketing guru Seth Godin excreted this pile of words, in which he purported to offer marketers tactical advice on how to make a website.

Needless to say, among the web professionals I know, the article caused a bit of a stir. Godin introduces the piece as a guide to “how marketers can work with their teams, their bosses and their developers to get the site they want built with less time and less hassle.” This, in theory, would be great. Increasingly, we are finding that we need to look at the web holistically in order to build successful user experiences that drive business objectives. That includes developers, designers, content professionals, clients, stakeholders and, sure, marketers.

But he proceeds to offer no such guide. Instead, Godin gives the marketer a guide to how to go in a cave, surf the internet, and vomit the things one finds and likes into a developer’s lap before scurrying away.

The tips Godin recommends — browsing websites to find site features you like, mocking up site concepts using a medium with which you are familiar, refraining from diving into code — are not terrible as parts of a process, or as complements to or inspirations for parts of a process. But as a process in and of themselves? Absolutely terrible advice.

In creating this stellar guide, Godin neglects a couple of important things:

1) GOALS. This omission is kinda funny, given that he is supposedly writing this for the “goal-oriented non-professional.” See, a website is not an artistic exercise. It is not purely a visual creation. It is a means to an end. It is a strategic business asset. With that in mind, why do you need a website? What are you hoping to achieve for your business or organization? With whom do you wish to communicate? What actions do you wish for these people to take? These are the questions that the “goal-oriented non-professional” should be answering, not “which shopping cart module do I like the most?”

2) CONTENT. Content is the vessel in which we encapsulate our best answers to the above-listed questions. You can’t find the best content for your website by browsing other websites. And the developer to whom you hand off your Keynote arts-and-crafts project is not going to have it, either.

Just a couple of minor things, you know?

The Elders of the Internet Would Never Stand For It

Breaking news: making internet is hard.

Related news: I am fairly confident that Seth Godin has never actually been within a hundred yards of a modern website development process.

The day after Godin published his screed, Robin Sloan wrote about his realization that writers like himself cannot be tasked with making websites that will succeed in today’s mobile, multi-screen web world.

Today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. (Which is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience.) That’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster.

But you know who can totally craft an experience that works flawlessly on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, and a rice cooker? The team that made Medium. Other teams like it. In a word: professionals.

Sloan is right on. In crafting a successful web experience, everyone holds a piece of the puzzle. The answer does not solely live in one person’s brain, be it the marketer or the designer or the developer. Now more than ever, the web is the result of a partnership of skills. That partnership thrives on collaboration, mutual respect, and ongoing learning.

A week and a half before Godin’s post, digital marketing luminary Mitch Joel blogged about the importance of minimalism in an online marketing experience.

As complex as marketing has become, it is the simplicity of the brand message and product that wins. … The brands that are triumphant in the online world, are scaling back and making the experience as minimalistic as possible.

Thus, the marketer shouldn’t be clicking around websites, browsing functionality options. The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.

“Marketers are going to have to adjust their attitudes and perceptions as to what marketing can be in this world of the new digital minimalism,” says Joel. “Think minimalism. Think bare. Think simple. We often toss these words out into the marketing zeitgeist without really appreciating the amazing opportunity that we have – as a marketing industry – to truly add value to the consumer’s life.”

Now, that’s twice I’ve mentioned a “partnership of skills” or “working with the web professionals.” But what shape does that collaboration take? I recently published an article for HighEdWeb LINK about responsive web design (RWD), and one of the themes that came up with each person I interviewed was the fact that the traditional waterfall approach (design, development, content) was quickly falling by the wayside.

RWD – which is arguably becoming the standard for developing a modern web experience – changes how developers, designers, content professionals, and even clients work together. The process is much more collaborative and concurrent, and the heart of it lies with the content. What are we trying to say? What are we trying to get people to do?

These are questions essential to the development of a modern website that someone like, say, our infamous marketer is well equipped to help answer. No coding required (though sometimes it’s fun and even useful to learn), but they will have to sit down with the designer and developer and, together, figure out how to make the website reflect those messages and goals.

In her response to Godin’s post, Amanda Costello phrased it well:

Building sites is usually a team project, and making an effort to understand what your teammates do and what they know will make the project go a lot smoother. You’ll build respect for each other’s specialties and knowledge. Respect doesn’t prevent conflict, or remove all misunderstandings, problems, and barriers. But it makes working with them, and building awesome websites, a whole lot better.

Working with developers and the like is apparently a scary prospect for Seth Godin. But I promise, Seth, it’s not that bad. It’s actually kind of awesome.

And Another Thing…

It wasn’t enough for Godin to share these blessed insights. Despite the lack of comments on his blog or a meaningful Twitter presence, word of the criticism must have reached his ears, because the next day he filed a retort entitled “True professionals don’t fear amateurs.”

“The best professionals love it when a passionate amateur shows up. The clarity and intelligence of a smart customer pushes both client and craftsman to do better work,” says Godin. “If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.”

(Also, says Godin, “Talented web designers don’t fear cloud services.” It’s true. I don’t know a single front-end web developer who lives in fear of Netflix’s shift to on-demand streaming movies. Related: what?)

So, what Godin says is very true, but I would be careful in how we characterize “passionate.” If you mean someone who has thought through their goals and knows what they want their website to achieve; is curious about how things work, willing to learn, and asks smart questions; is committed to measuring the effectiveness of those solutions; is willing to work with and learn from fellow professionals in the digital space; and who knows what they don’t know, then yes, bring on the passionate amateur.

But if you mean someone who thinks they know all the answers better than anyone else because they filled up their browser cache with click-around “research,” then I think you’re working with the wrong definition of “passionate.”

You know what else true professionals don’t fear, Mr. Godin? The things they don’t know. The things they don’t understand. True professionals never stop learning and are never afraid to admit when there’s something new to learn. In fact, it energizes them. True professionals are both eternal students and eternal teachers.

To this end, Mr. Godin, you would be best served asking a few questions about how exactly websites get built nowadays. I am sure that this knowledge would serve your business well. But until you start asking those questions, I kindly ask that you step away from the internet. I’m sure there’s a keynote to give or a book to write somewhere in the meantime.

12 Responses

  1. Robin2go says:

    OMG. Winning. And thank you for that. Seriously.

  2. Chris says:

    All the likes for this one. Thank you. :)

  3. Graham says:

    Great post. One thing that concerns me is that so many marketers have this idea that They Know How Everything Should Be™. I don’t know why the news that none of us can do it alone hasn’t got to them, but for the love of Pete… learn to collaborate effectively and stop thinking you can pull excellence out of your ass.

    Usually Godin nails it. Hard to understand how he missed it so brutally on that post.

  4. Karen Hackett says:

    You’re amazing. Thank you for basically making my day…no, make that WEEK. Thank you so much – fantastic post.

  5. Brad Colbow says:

    I’ll start with my disclaimer: I’m a full time UX/web designer, so I totally get what you’re saying.

    With that said the one of the biggest obstacles I have to overcome on all new projects is a starting point. I have to understand their product/service then I have to discover who their customers are before I can really design. The first questions you ask are always the toughest.

    What Seth describes is a wireframe. A pretty crappy wireframe, but a wireframe. I like getting these kinds of things from clients. A client wireframe gives me a starting point. Why did you choose this drop-down? Why do you like the layout of Pinterest? Can I see what kind of content will go in this layout?

    If you just take what’s given to you and build it out it’s terrible, but if you take it as an opportunity to expand the conversation it could be invaluable.

    • Georgy Cohen says:

      I agree, but bundled within Godin’s post seemed to be an assumption that the designer/developer is a monkey that should implement the marketer’s whims as-is. I’ve come to developers with terrible sketches drawn on the backs of coffee shop flyers and said, “Here’s what I’m thinking” – but again, it gets a conversation started, I don’t hand it to them and walk away. Seeing specific functionality on websites gives me ideas and prompts me to make suggestions at the appropriate time, but it doesn’t dictate my specs, as Godin seemed to imply it should – my needs dictate my specs.

  6. Brenden Sparks says:

    A great argument that doing all of this requires a bit of critical thinking. Also, nice verbs.

  7. Katy says:

    I don’t know why anyone pays attention to this guy. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. He generated a lot of controversy among librarians a year or so ago with a post about “the future of libraries” that didn’t really seem like it was informed by what goes on in libraries. It’s always odd to have some “guru” from another field march in and tell you what’s really going on. I don’t think that’s the best way to build good relationships or get good results, but maybe I’m the crazy one.

  8. Right on, Georgy. (And as for Seth Godin, here’s a guy who doesn’t accept comments on his blog because his opinion is the only one that matters.)

    Personally, I love to engage with passionate amateurs. Of course, the problem is that their passion often keeps them ignorant because it leads them to ignore smart, well-informed people with knowledge that runs counter to what they believe. Even when data show that their ideas aren’t best.

  9. Thank you for writing this, Georgy. You nailed the issue by noting how collaboration and partnership make the modern web, and Godin seems to shy from that. We’ve moved beyond the days of web shops cranking out brochureware in response to their clients’ fiats, no questions asked. Those questions–and probing, challenges, and give-and-take–demand reflection and discussion, and they take time. But that’s as it should be.

    When we don’t engage with our clients over their problems, needs, and goals, we let them prescribe solutions. That’s a dangerous and costly mistake. If they run from presenting problems and instead offer design ideas and functionality cribbed from competitors, they may demand solutions to needs they don’t even have.

  10. Godin’s article unintentionally makes a really good point about something that we in the web business know firsthand: Defining goals is hard work, and most people don’t want to do it.

  11. cliffyballgame says:

    Georgy! Awesome!

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