Let there be web divisions

We are still crunching numbers on the Web Design Survey—with over 32,000 responses to 36 questions, there’s a lot to crunch. But in one area, preliminary data supports what anecdotal experience led us to expect: almost no one who makes websites works in their company or organization’s web division. That’s because almost no company or organization has a web division. And that void on the org chart is one reason we have so many bloated, unusable failures where we should be producing great user experiences.

Ponder. No matter how critical the web experience may be to the organization’s mission, the people who design and build those mission-critical sites work in divisions that have nothing to do with the web, and report to leaders whose expertise is unrelated to web design and development.

It’s a startling fact with profound implications—and as such has gone unnoticed by the business community and press.

IT or marketing

From law firms to libraries, from universities to Fortune 500 companies, the organization’s website almost invariably falls under the domain of the IT Department or the Marketing Department, leading to turf wars and other predictable consequences. While many good (and highly capable) people work in IT and marketing, neither area is ideally suited to craft usable websites or to encourage the blossoming of vital web communities.

Competent IT departments handle a dazzling array of technical challenges requiring deep, multi-leveled expertise. But tasks such as equipping 20,000 globally dispersed employees with appropriately configured PCs, or maintaining corporate databases and mail gateways, don’t necessarily map to the skills required to design great user experiences for the web.

Large-scale systems expertise takes a different mindset than what’s needed to write usable guide copy, finesse markup semantics, or design an easy-to-understand user interface employing the lightest and fewest possible graphic images. Moreover, nimble development and support for open standards are not the hallmarks of large IT departments (although undoubtedly there are noble exceptions). Additionally, developers with a background in IT (again, with some exceptions) tend to create from the point of view of technology, rather than that of the user.

What about Marketing?

Organizations that don’t entrust their website to IT tend to hand it to Marketing. The rationale for doing so is easy to see: Marketing has been briefed on the organization’s business goals (at least for the next quarter), and the division is staffed by communications specialists who know at least something about writing and art direction. If nothing else, they know who to hire to write their copy, and they are comfortable telling the in-house graphic designers to make the logo bigger.

Like IT, Marketing has valuable organizational knowledge (plus certain skills) to contribute to any serious web enterprise. The leaders of Marketing, like the leaders of IT, should be frequently consulted in any web effort. But the skills of Marketing, like the skills of IT, don’t necessarily map to what is needed to create great web experiences.

For one thing, as anyone reading this knows, the web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue. It can be a great monologue—for examples of which, see The One Show Winners or the AIGA Design Archives. But a monologue and conversation are not the same, as an hour spent with your windy Uncle Randolph will remind you.

And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

If not them, then who?

Business and non-profit decision makers, for your users’ good, consider this request. Stop separating the members of your web team. Cease distributing them among various (often competitive) divisions led by people with limited web expertise. Let the coders, designers, writers, and others charged with creating and maintaining your web presence work together. Put them in a division that recognizes that your site is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be web divisions.

[tags]webdesign, webdevelopment, design, development, web divisions[/tags]