The great irony of the profession of planning, building, and maintaining web sites is that we’re a group of highly trained, experienced, and passionate professionals but that the public perception is that our jobs can be done by any 14-year-old with a laptop on the weekend.
In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the jobs, tasks, and considerations that go into building a truly professional and successful web site.
In a writing class in college, the professor put a random collection of objects on the table at the front of the room one day. Then she picked students from the class and asked them to come to the front and organize the items on the table. Some students organized the items by color, putting everything red together, everything yellow together, etc. Some organized the items by the tasks they accomplished, grouping writing utensils in one pile, personal hygiene items in another, etc.
Once the student was done, the rest of the class had to guess what rules had been used to organize the items. Sometimes we were able to guess quickly because the system used was logical and easy to recognize. Other organization systems had to be explained after many incorrect guesses. A good information architect is skilled at pulling the information of a web site together into an organization system that is logical and easy to figure out, making it easy for site visitors to find their way around and find the information they’re looking for.
Design touches our lives in millions of ways every day – the products we use, the packaging those products come in, the cars we drive, the furniture in our homes, the advertisements we see, the buildings we live and work in, and, of course, the web sites we visit. There are as many types of designers as there are types of products produced by human beings. It’s easy to think of a web site’s design as superficial, but in reality, the design of a web site can reinforce a brand message, entice site visitors toward a certain path of actions, evoke emotions, and solve problems. The design of a web site tells us whether the person or company behind it is serious, professional, and trustworthy or fun, quirky and comical.
Most of us are able to write – we write emails and letters and notes everyday. But it’s a unique set of skills to be able to present a body of information in a persuasive and consistent tone. Much like design, the tone or voice of the copy on our site tells site visitors as much about the person or company behind the site as the content of the copy itself. You would expect, for example, a lawyer’s web site to be written with a authoritative and professional tone, while a birthday clown’s web site would be written with a fun and light-hearted tone.
In addition to engaging site visitors, copywriters with web expertise will be well-versed in writing your copy to be search engine optimized to make sure your site is easy to find.
If your web site is selling tangible products, then high quality photography is crucial to the success of your business. In the online shopping world, customers aren’t able to hold your items, try them on, turn them around, or look them over closely. You’ve got to work to make up for that by providing as much information as possible about your products. One of the best things you can do is to post high-quality, clear photographs from multiple angles.
Photography is also important to service and personality businesses – where your customers will be comforted by flattering, professional photographs of you and your team. Knowing what someone looks like can lead us to believe we ‘know’ that person and to feel more comfortable going to them with our problems.
Front End Development
It’s a front end developer’s job to take the designs produced by the designer and turn them into a clickable, interactive web site.
Back End Development
Back end developers are responsible for writing all the code that runs the web site on the server. Back end code isn’t seen by your site visitors, but if there’s a problem with it, it can keep your web site from working properly. Back end developers write all the logic for assembling the pages of your site from information stored in a database, processing commerce transactions, keeping track of user’s accounts and histories, and processing information entered by your site’s users.
Most web sites these days are dependent on a database to store all the information presented on the site and to store information about the site’s users and administrators. To keep the database organized and running efficiently, it needs regular maintenance. It may also need to be moved or copied to additional servers to support more traffic on the web site. Especially large sites or interactive agencies that maintain many sites will often have one or more dedicated database administrators performing this work. On smaller sites, this responsibility often falls to the back end developer.
Interactive agencies and software companies alike use quality assurance engineers to put any new web site or product through its paces before it’s released to the public. They make sure that everything is working the way that it should and report back to the front end developers, back end developers or database administrators if anything is broken.
If a site is usable, that means that visitors can easily find what they’re looking for and can easily identify what parts of the site they can interact with. While there are usability experts working in the field of web site development, more often than not, making sure a web site is usable falls to the members of the team building the site. The only way to know for sure that your site is usable is to conduct usability testing.
Many of us shy away from usability testing believing it to be expensive and time consuming, and it can be. But quick informal testing can be done to make sure the major parts of the site are easy to use.
If there’s more to your business than your web site, then user experience extends beyond the web site into all the areas where your business, product, or service, might touch your customers’ lives. User experience encompasses not only the experience your customers have when they come to your web site, but also the experience they have while using your product or service, the experience they have if they need to call support or customer service, the experience they have when they walk into your store or place of business, etc. Some companies work really hard at one area of user experience, but fail in others. Strive to make all parts of your user experience as great as they possibly can be.
Accessibility means making sure your web site can be used by anyone, regardless of their level of ability or the technology they may be using. Oftentimes, people think that making a web site accessible is a difficult or expensive process that compromises the experience of the site for abled users, but that’s simply untrue. Making a web site accessible is simple, affordable, and straightforward, and more often than not, improves the experience of using the web site for everyone.
A community manager helps to engage visitors to your site to become a part of your community and also makes sure that the community of users is satisfied with their experience and is not being harassed by trolls or other unwanted visitors. Many people mistakenly think that simply putting a bulletin board or message board on their site means that they’ll soon have a bustling community of people posting, but recruiting new members and retaining current members is a lot of work.
With so many people working together on building a web site, keeping them all on track and managing the relationship with the client is a full time job in itself. Project managers work with everyone on the team to create a schedule for the project, then check in with everyone on a regular basis to make sure things are going smoothly. They step in when things are going off track to bring everyone back together and keep the project moving along toward completion.
Without their expert guidance and people skills, many projects would never be seen through to completion.
If you’ve purchased a hosting packing for your site, then you’ve also likely hired a server administrator, whether you realized it or not. Server administrators are responsible for tracking the performance of the server to make sure it’s responding quickly when visitors come to your site. They perform backups of the site and restore these backups in the event that the server crashes. They keep an eye out for suspicious activity or malicious attacks to make sure that the information on the site is secure, and they make sure your server holds up to traffic if your site suddenly becomes popular.
It Takes a Village
Building and maintaining professional and successful web sites requires many specialized skills, developed with experience and training. HTML is relatively simple and straightforward and most people could get the hang of it in a single afternoon. But building a successful web site takes so much more than just knowing HTML. Understanding the skills and disciplines that go into producing web sites gives you valuable insight into what areas you should focus on to improve your site and gives you the knowledge to evaluate the skills of any individual, team or company you might hire to do work on your site.