How the world thinks the web industry works

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Burns – the poet, not me – said “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” In other words, sometimes it’s good to pull your head out of your own backside and look at yourself from the perspective of how the world actually sees you. And on Burns Night, who am I to argue with that.

I came across some insightful information on how ithers see us – the web industry – in an impartial brochure. It’s part of a series of business guidance brochures supplied by an external company to public libraries in the UK.

This particular brochure, aimed at startups, is about how to choose a web designer. Fair enough, that’s a really important question. And one of the issues addressed is how to find one. Here’s the first tip:

Search the membership directories of web design trade associations, such as the {X.} Members of these associations are bound by strict codes of conduct.

Oh dear.

This gets back to what I discussed in A List Apart. Other sectors, professions, and industries – in other words, the rest of the world – work through industry bodies, professional organisations, and trade associations. To them, that is normal.

The web profession has no industry body, professional organisation, or trade association. To us, that is normal.

The wider world doesn’t understand that. They just assume we are like other industries. The authors of the brochure clearly assumed that too.

As a result, any startup reading the impartial brochure would think that web designers

a) have an industry body
b) which designers are required to be a part of, which
c) holds them to accountable standards, and by extension,
d) designers who are not members of that body must be dodgy.

Where this gets tragic is that the trade association the brochure suggested is not even a trade association. It’s a pay-per-inclusion directory. The organisation does not have consultative status, political standing, or accreditation authority. Its members do not engage in any of the activities, such as lobbying, that trade associations do. Web designers are not required to join it to design web sites. All you get for your membership is the right to display a logo on your site which says you joined the association. That’s it.

It is proof – as I wrote in ALA – that in the absence of an official representative organisation, anyone can buy a domain calling themselves one. But the authors wouldn’t understand that – why would they? – so they’ve clearly googled “web design association”, found one, and pasted a link. Yet in encouraging startups to use that “trade association”, the impartial brochure is merely giving free advertising to a business. It is a business, and nothing more.

As for the “strict code of conduct”, which is buried in the web site’s main terms & conditions page, its first provision is that members must:

maintain valid contact details at all times.

Not “design to PbD principles” or “adhere to accessibility law” or “refuse to speak at conferences without a CoC.” No, just keep your address updated and you’re a pro. The rest of the Code of Conduct is primary school guff about playing nice and putting your toys away.

I would frankly be more suspicious of a designer who joined an organisation like that than one who did not.

So what have we learned from this? It’s that every day, businesses are being fed total misinformation about how our industry works, and that information is encouraging them to judge our professionalism based on completely incorrect criteria. What’s worse than that, though, is that the designers who are smart enough to see through that nonsense may actually be losing business to the less astute designers who throw their money at it.

And still we do nothing about it.

About the author

Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.