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Does The Web Industry Need A Higher Barrier To Entry?

Web designer certification

Who needs certification when we have Web Design For Dummies?

If I meet another person who tells me it’s easy to build a web site, I think I’ll scream. Usually they’ll point me to their latest creation, a dated site that stands testament to their ability to work in the industry, usually accompanied by a rather large W3C XHTML valid logo at the bottom of the screen. They’ll then proceed to tell me how, with the aid of modern technologies such as Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage, there is no need to learn dying arts such as web programming. Finally, they’ll then end up scoffing at how anyone paying more than five hundred bucks for a web site is an idiot.


And yet, on the rare occasions that I meet people such as these, I nod, my mouth smiling politely as I resist the urge to tell them that there’s actually a lot of work involved in creating a truly beneficial and creative product and, although quickly whipping up a WordPress site with a stock template is great for the right client, by ignoring and downplaying the skill and talent required to create genuinely valuable sites, they are devaluing the industry for everyone.

I suppose I just find it rather strange that when compared to many other professions out there – anything from accountants to lawyers to architects and plumbers – web development must be one of the few industries in the world that doesn’t have any type of barrier to entry. You don’t need to study, you don’t need to obtain a degree certificate, you don’t even need experience – just grab a copy of Web Design For Dummies and you can be out there competing for business by offering rock bottom prices.

“How much for a web site?! My wife/cousin/friend/dog could make you one for free.”

We’ve all been there, we’ve all been in a situation at some point in our lives where a potential client has gasped at a proposed quote with such shock and horror that you’d think you’d just drop kicked their newborn out the kitchen window. After a few moments of awkward silence, eventually they politely and smugly shake their head and explain how they could easily find someone else to do it cheaper.

It’s a lost cause and, although one could strive in vain to describe the importance of engaging and professional design, elegant and meaningful copy, well-built and maintained code and the obvious merits of proper SEO, it would simply be a lot easier to hold up a certificate that proved ones qualifications. At the very least, standardised certification would weed out those who lack even the tiniest bit of skill or genuine interest in the web, increasing and enhancing the public’s opinion about the professionalism of the industry as a whole.

standardised certification would weed out those who lack even the tiniest bit of skill or genuine interest in the web

And that’s what it’s all about, building up trust and recognition in the eyes of clients, users and visitors. It’s about educating people into understanding that the web industry offers a vastly varying degree of solutions, each with their own merits, and that not all solutions are equal or appropriate for everyone. Just because the immediate technical barriers for setting up a basic web site are now lower than ever, it doesn’t mean that the the knowledge required to generate real, tangible results through bringing together all of the extra, harder to quantify factors is any easier to master or less valuable. Indeed, there are a lot of subtle (and tremendously powerful) benefits that can only be achieved through skill, knowledge and experience.

Raising the barrier for entry into the industry would not only raise the base quality of offerings out there but also give clients a reassurance of value, quality and trust. After all, you wouldn’t use a lawyer who didn’t have a degree or commission an accountant without checking they were probably qualified – why should the web industry be any different?

Opportunity for everyone

I’m not a web snob (really) and by no means do I begrudge the open nature of the web industry. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about the Internet is that it gives anyone and everyone the opportunity to thrive, prosper and contribute to it. I’ve met dozens of excellent designers and developers who have no relevant academic training and are, essentially, self-taught in their chosen field, living testaments to the benefits of not having any standardised barrier into the industry.

Just like the idolised American Dream, the web currently offers opportunity for everyone regardless of background, wealth, education or upbringing. You don’t need to spend seven years in medical school or lawyer school or accountancy school or whatever school to gain a piece of paper that qualifies and demonstrates your ability to make great web products. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today if wasn’t for untrained and inexperienced people with the passion and spirit to pioneer the way forward.

So yes, in many ways it would be a shame to lose such a beautiful aspect of the industry and I must confess that it’s a major argument against any sort of required qualification. However, the problem isn’t just the odd incapable person who fancies themselves as a web designer or developer but also the clients who believe the easily accessible nature of the Internet should immediately mean lower prices and less of a need for experienced suppliers.

The basic inability for clients to determine value

Perhaps the most fundamental issue is the fact that often potential clients are simply unable to recognise and appreciate the value that experienced and talented web designers, developers, freelancers and agencies can bring to the table. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just knocking up a quick site for someone and I’m certainly not advocating that web development becomes a industry belonging only to the elite. The issue though is when clients and end users can’t see past the initial monetary value, unable to grasp why, if someone they know can produce a web site for a few hundred dollars or pounds, would they fork out thousands for the ‘same’ thing?

questioning why one supplier can deliver the ‘same’ product so much cheaper is a fundamental aspect often neglected by those who commission projects

This mentality doesn’t just apply to the little guys either and I’ve born witness to plenty of large, respectable and wealthy companies and establishments reject proposals and tender responses based solely on price and opt in favor of cheaper solutions instead. Of course, price is a tricky topic but if one accepts that essentially a company (or freelancer) needs to earn a certain rate per day to survive, one can determine the time spent on different facets of a site or application. Questioning why one supplier can deliver the ‘same’ product so much cheaper is a fundamental aspect often neglected by those who commission projects – is to due to more advanced technology, more streamlined procedures, more experience or in actuality because less time has been budgeted? Suffice to say, I feel quite saddened when well respected agencies lose out on tenders due to price and then I check the client’s site three months later to find it an utter, horrid, dysfunctional mess.

Overall, theses issues stem from the fact that web development is an industry filled with tiny nuances that can be difficult for a client to appreciate and comprehend. The differences between creating an average project and a hugely successful one can be tremendously subtle and thus the client has no ability to make an informed judgement when faced with dozes of proposals. Standardised certification born out of a higher barrier to entry into the industry would certainly help with this by ensuring a base level of immutable quality.

Survival of the fittest

Of course you would have a perfectly valid point by arguing that a globally recognised barrier for entry is merely an excuse for poor persuasion and sales techniques and that the industry should boil down to survival of the fittest. Those that work in it should be able to demonstrate their skill and knowledge and the advantages and benefits that they can bring to a client without the need for certification or a degree qualification to back them up.

This is how the web industry exists at the moment and often agencies prove themselves through their list of clientele and previous work, an effective technique that, in theory, separates the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ (even though a prestigious client list doesn’t necessarily always translate into quality offerings). And indeed any new web developer or company could work hard to make a name for themselves through outstanding creativity and quality and perhaps there is something just and logical about that.

The major downside, however, occurs when clients value price the most and thus pick the cheapest (and possibly unqualified) supplier without recognising the difference. This not an unusual occurrence and can result in clients being landed with sub-par products because their chosen supplier wasn’t qualified enough to deliver the quality or results they promised at the cost they specified. Ultimately, this inability for clients to determine value not only makes it harder for truly talented people to compete but lowers the overall quality of work we see residing on the web today.

Time for standardised certification?

At the end of the day, although it may sound like I’m all for the introduction of a standardised barrier to entry into the industry, I’m happy to throw my hands up in the air and confess that I really don’t know what the perfect answer is. For every inexperienced, uninterested, disingenuous web developer out there that forces down prices, there is shining example of individual self-taught excellence that just wouldn’t exist if a standardised qualification was required to even begin taking part.

Maybe a web ‘qualification’ would be the perfect solution to raising the base quality of work around the web or maybe the system is fine the way it is we and just need to suck it up and accept that the industry is always going to be competitive in that regard. Or perhaps the answer lies in another direction and we should champion the introduction of an ‘official’ ratings guide, such as the Michelin star system for restaurants, that works to give clients an expected and globally recognised measurement of quality.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Justin L. January 5, 2012 at 5:10 am

    > My wife/cousin/friend/dog could make you one for free.

    Lol, I remember hearing variations of this for years. That’s when I decided to stop marketing myself as a web designer/developer. I believe it to just be the nature of the industry. In all reality, this industry is only in it’s early 20′s, so it has a lot of growing up to do.

    Honestly, I place the responsibility directly on the ignorance of the customer. Not because they are are bad people, but because there’s just no education or understanding of what is required for a quality website to be properly designed and developed. This ignorance allows the “inexperienced, uninterested, disingenuous web developer out there” to sell them on his/her service.

    I believe this will change, but after many more years of this Wild-West type of self-governance. Once the client becomes better educated, the “bad” ones won’t get the jobs and will move on or educate themselves to be better.

    Currently, I market myself as an interaction designer and usability consultant, focused on application development. This has focused my marketing to a unique niche for companies that understand the value of what I do. I haven’t designed/developed a “traditional” website in years, and it’s wonderful!

    Anyways, I enjoyed reading your article. Keep up the good work!

    Justin

    • The VMCA January 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      “Once the client becomes better educated, the “bad” ones won’t get the jobs and will move on or educate themselves to be better.”… – absolutely! I agree 100%

    • Gordon January 5, 2012 at 11:35 pm

      I think you’re spot on when you say the industry is in its early 20s. Right now I think a lot of clients and key decision makers in companies are still somewhat unfamiliar with the web, its possibilities and, more importantly, the difference between good and bad products. Hopefully as time goes on, people will start to understand the industry better and appreciate more the skills required to craft good sites.

  2. The VMCA January 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    You get what you pay for. That’s what I always say. If someone only wants to pay for a ‘standard wordpress theme/installation etc’ then that is all they get. If someone truly values their business, and has set aside the appropriate budget for fully immersive development, SEO etc then great! No customer has to have the one or the other. If I had a nickel for everytime someone asked me for a “Quick logo, just something simple!” I’d be a bajillionaire! Amazing how many times these requests come from the very same people (family and friends) who SHOULD be the ones who SHOULD value your skills the most.

    I usually find that a quick conversation about the benefits of doing things properly will weed out those who are not serious. If they still won’t “hear” me after 5 minutes, and continue asking for free (or cheap), then I find that emailing them the AIGA’s letter on spec work can be quite effective. They’ll either go for a project with a properly defined budget, or they want, and it’s up to us as designers to know when to let go, in the good faith that the good clients will find us, rather than chasing the ones we don’t want.

    As for certification, it can be very tricky in an industry that advances with such alarming speed. I for one have a dusty old MCSE certification lying in the bottom of a drawer somewhere (haven’t touched a PC in nearly a decade) – and the cost to update it would be ludicrous. So while I agree that your points are absolutely valid, I just don’t know how it would be organised without turning into a nightmare to ‘stay certified and current’. At this stage the only way forward is to continue to educate each client a they come along as to why a certain option would be best for them, and let your work speak for itself.

    • Gordon January 5, 2012 at 11:37 pm

      Indeed, you’re right that trying to stay certified would be a nightmare and spot one when you say the industry advances so quickly. It’s probably evolving far quicker than anyone could actually even certify properly right now! It’s certainly one of challenges (and delights) of working in the web.

      Still, sometimes it would just be nice to be able to hold up a piece of paper to prove ones worthiness :P

  3. Jules January 5, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. I know that W3 Schools offers basic certification at a fairly low cost, perhaps these should be an industry standard ‘entry’ certificate? It would certainly change the way the industry is viewed if certification is required. And it would help competing freelancers from cheaper countries raise their standards and have some sort of unification!

    • Gordon January 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Absolutely, it would be really nice! Maybe it will happen one day. Until then, I’d settle for a Michelin star type system as they have for restaurants – anything to help clients differentiate between offerings would be welcome :)

  4. [...] kid down the street can do” and do cheaply… 8 Gram Gorilla recently posted an article imploring the industry to develop same sort of certificate to separate the casual users from the [...]

  5. Mariusz January 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Standarized certification usually ends up in metric fuckton of bullshit, all you have to do is look at all the Microsoft Certified Application Developers, Java Certified Developers and such – very often, I wouldn’t give them a rock, not to mention a working computer and letting them program anything. Most standard certification exams end up with people learning predefined answers from book with no relation to real world use whatsoever.

    Survival of the fittest works well in the industry – if you’re shit and you work for shit money and you let your client treat you like garbage, it’s your business. If you’re good and you know how to promote yourself, world knows you’re good and you don’t have to work with clients that say stuff like “my cousin can do that for free” because you tell them to sod off and go work with their cousins instead.

    • Gordon January 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Yeah, you’re probably right about the certification – I can’t say I hold the Microsoft certifications in high degree either. What perhaps would be better would be some sort of unbiased rating system similar to the Michelin one for restaurants. Then again, maybe I’m getting too hung on on trying to demonstrate quality through some sort of official stamp rather than the product itself.

    • Espen January 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      The way I see it, self-obtained certificates are not worth much in this context, be it from Microsoft or W3 Schools, as they only prove that you know how to use a tool correctly. A “Master of Photoshop” diploma on the wall makes no man a designer, any more than “Certified MS Word operator” makes you a good writer. The point of the article, in my humble opinion, is that any successful web product is a result of a myriad of skills and considerations, technical and otherwise – just like michelin star food is – and simply learning how to use the tools isn’t enough to create great work.

      • Dotty March 1, 2017 at 8:55 am

        A piece of ertuidion unlike any other!

      • talking tom April 24, 2017 at 5:49 pm

        #50 – Avg. price was down y/o/y by almost %10 too. The real question is, was this done intentionally? Or was this simply sloppy journalism?Good question. I’d hedge and say a combination of both.

  6. Mariusz January 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Also, you should check why W3 Schools is a metric ton of bullshit itself: http://w3fools.com/

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