14 April 2006

Perspective and Change

I was talking with an old friend - one of the original Organic guys - you know... sitting on the porch and talking smack about the so-called "good old days."

Once we got through the litany of complaints and memories, we started talking more seriously about how things have changed - and about how things have not. In a weird way, it was a pretty cool coversation. I think that we were among the very first "web developers" available for hire. We've seen this from the very early days - have lived through the boom and the bust, through zealotry about the potential for the medium ("we're going to change everything") to burnt out cynicism ("I'm moving to the dessert where there are no computers").

This conversation has really stuck with me - like a splinter in the ball of your foot. As a result, I've started to get a better perspective onto the topic.

So... some differences, some commonalities and some issues...

- In those early heady days - the folks doing web development for hire were the true serious innovators (as a general rule). Internal (client) folks were far behind us and the work coming out of internal development groups was usually between laughable and terrible.
- These days, it seems like most of the innovation is coming from within product companies. The service companies (folks who do development for hire) seem to be producing "professional" work - but without creating change or pushing the envelope in any real way.

This is depressing to me. I guess I'm stuck in the past - but I love consulting services. And I love that we were the ones setting the standard.

- In those early days we had to just make stuff up as we went along. We had no idea of what we were doing - 0r how to do it. We borrowed and stole from other markets and mediums and technologies as best we could. But we didn't have tools. We didn't have best practices. We didn't have models and methodologies and processes.
- Now we're in a world of Solved Problems. There are the rare situations where things just have to be "invented" but for the most part this has all be done before. We're improving - but not inventing. We have tools - and they get better all the time. We have lessons we can learn from. There are best practices all around us.

And yet... somehow... people don't seem to learn. I see the same mistakes being made. I don't know what is going on - but it seems like folks are not seeing the potential here. People don't see that the tools and the case studies and the lessons learned can be combined to give you the freedom to easily and quickly and reliably do things the right way. Worse than that... the folks who do seem to be learning this are all on the product side.

- Early on, sites were crude and hardly interactive. We dreamed of sites with great functionality and integration into people's lives. As a result, we did crazy things like built our own custom application servers. Because we had to. And even then, sites were weird and crazy and half-baked much of the time. And these were the good sites. The bad ones were huge image maps and the blink tag. Brochure ware and re-purposed content.
- Now there almost are no such thing as "sites". There are complicated applications that happen to use browsers for an interface. Commercial application servers combined with full fledged APIs and web services for every software package available have created the opportunity where anything can become a "website."

This is the exciting thing! This is why I'm still doing this.
There is so much potential.
I just hope that it's not all realized by Google and Platial and other product companies.
I just want us to lead again.

13 April 2006

Education in America

I despair for the future of this country.

Honestly, I had no idea how few people really know how to read. Or, to be more accurate, how to understand what they read.

My weird rant on the True Costs of Corporate Web Sites (aka $10,000 per Page) was all over Digg. While at first I found this amusing and a bit frightening, as I began to read comments I became annoyed and then depressed. Honestly, I'd never thought anyone would find this blog much less read it. And then reading the comments made me wish I'd been right when I'd assumed this.

Shall we clarify?

"Why would anyone pay a designer $10k per page? That's crazy!" -- You obviously didn't read the definition of "True Costs" in the post. The designer or the firm doing the work is going to get a percentage of the costs. Even in the "best" case that percentage is not going to be truly significant.

"Only an idiot charges for a site on a per page basis. That's so 5 years ago." -- Again - this is not about what you charge, but rather what a company's costs are. You can choose any metaphor and metric for calculating costs - but (perhaps oddly enough) the "per page" one seems to hold up best. And this is consistent across all types of site (be they static HTML, semi-functional hybrid sites, database-driven sites or true web-based applications).

"No-one can actually afford to spend that much money on their site!" -- At a certain level, that's my point. But more seriously, that is what large corporations are paying -- not to their vendor but in True Costs.

"I made a site for my local florist and they love it and it only cost about $500 per page." -- Good for you. See my definition of the audience I'm speaking of ("high quality professional corporate web site"). The 3M site - corporate. IBM's site - corporate. Your local florist - not corporate.

Yes - the post was rhetoric.
No - the post was not based on double blind research studies.
Yes - the post was guaranteed to get a rise out of some people if they ever read it.

But honestly... if I'd suspected anyone would read this I'd have assumed they would have understood it. If anything - I oversimplified the case.


05 April 2006

words have meaning

For those who don't know - I care a lot about words.

In college, my concentration was Critical Theory.
I love post-structuralism.
Language is cool.

So learning programming languages has always been an odd experience for me. On the one hand the concept of a new, arbitrary and non spoken language that none the less creates meaning but does so in new and different ways (and often through abstractions)... well it's all very cool. On the other hand, the process of learning a new language (and how it is taught and explained and how meaning is perceived and derived) is usually painful and irritating to me. In many ways it not only violates but rejects everything I hold vital about language and communication.

So when I first saw this, I smiled. And then i rejoiced.
It is the first (and perhaps only) example of learning a programming language that respects communication and respects reasoning and respects meaning.

thank you...

03 April 2006

Very Cool

I had an absolutely amazing conversation with an old friend yesterday.

It was one of those weird and wondeful moments where a sudden urge strikes and you do something illogical and inexplicable which turns out to be just perfect.

For no apparent reason, I decided I needed to get in touch with Derek Powazek (of Fray and JPG Magazine fame - among other things). It's been years (and years) since we last talked. But I felt like I needed to reach out to him.

So a couple of emails later and suddenly we're on the phone. Very cool.

Our conversation covered a huge range of topics - from our shared hatred of the phrase "user generated content" to our excitement about where the Web is heading these days to our dismay about the lessons not learned in the consulting space. In the end though - the conversation reminded me of all the wonderful people who are in this space - of all the talent and passion and brilliance.

And that, my friends, is why I'm still doing this.

Absolutely Brilliant

Every now and then you run across something someone has written on a blog somewhere this is so correct that you want to stand up and cheer.

50 Reasons Why More People Aren't Using Your Website

Yes indeed!

Some personal favorites from this (most excellent list):

50. Because they just don't want to read what you want them to read
49. Because it doesn't get them sex and/or love
48. Because it doesn't tell them why to use it
46. Because there aren't enough people using it yet to make it useful
42. Because it says "tags" or "rss" and they feel stupid
39. Because they've never heard of it
38. Because they tried to use it, but something got messed up
35. Because it's more than 1 screen to learn, unlike google
18. Because they've got jobs & kids & they're busy
12. Because it doesn't save them a ton of time

And the top three...

3. Because it won't help them with their problem
2. Because it solves a problem they don't have
1. Because they don't want to generate content, they want better life

The honest truth is that if all web sites merely focused on those top three items - we'd all be better off.

01 April 2006

Oh... I almost forgot.

Interesting post over at 37Signals' blog.

They're intriguing and compelling folks (like most passionate zealots) but there is that same tunnel vision meglomania that you see with all very smart entrepreneurial zealots.

Yes - it's a good time to start a company. But that's always true in a sense.
No - it's not a bad idea to start your company in the Bay Area if you want to get rich. "Rich" can be defined in various ways but for that kind of rich... VC funded startups are the way and if you want VC money you really should move to the Bay Area.

Hmmm... did I use to be like that?

Hard Truths

There are so many ways to do interactive development. The problem is that so few of them are right and (worse still) the ones that are right seem intuitively to be wrong.

The vast majority of methodologies, structures, processes and relationships are dangerous in that they seem very simple, logical, obvious and safe -- but are in fact wrong, bad and high risk.

I'm reasonably confident that the vast majority of professionals in this business know this - and know which of the various options actually are the (few) right ways. But most of us don't even try to sell these solutions to clients anymore. Even though they are right. Even though they would make the client happy (in the end). Even though they'd be better for us.

Because when we have tried - clients have invariably rejected us and gone with another vendor who has been willing to sell them the simple, logical, obvious wrong way.

Maybe I've been in this business too long now - but this situation is bothering me. I've been doing this for going on 15 years. I've seen what works and what doesn't. And the idea that we (the vendors) are knowingly selling a bad solution bothers me. And the idea that clients are, in fact, demanding this bad solution bothers me.

It's bad for everyone.

So - let's state some basic truths here.

1) Time & Materials engagements (with the right process and the right people) result in better products with decreased total (real) costs and better delivery against goals than engagements structured on a Flat Rate/Fixed Schedule basis.

2) The Waterfall process (as commonly implemented) is the best way to get a lowest common denominator result that no-one is happy with long-term (and only your purchasing department is happy with in the short-term).

3) No vendor does everything well.

4) Outsourcing your interactive work to a vendor doesn't mean that you can sit back and do nothing and be successful. You're going to need to invest time and money.

5) As relates to the above... 50% of the success of the product is due to your vendor (and 50% of the blame for the failure is due to the client).

6) Nothing is more effective at guaranteeing success that establishing a fair partnership with your vendor and making this relationship a long-term one that provides stability for the vendor.

7) Nothing is more likely to cause failure than: (if you're a vendor) trying to squeeze unearned money out of a client, and (if you're a client) trying to squeeze unpaid (or underpaid) work out of your vendor.

8) Honesty is key.

The above is a painful list.
The bad ideas are what we see in 95% of all engagements and the good ones seem present in less than 5% of all relationships.

How do we fix this?
I'd love to say that some vendor being brave and saying "this is the right way" would be the great first step. But that is not going to be enough. We're also going to need a client with courage to step up and say 'I want it done right' and we're going to need the media to pay attention to the resulting case study.

A man can dream.... right?