The Growing Complexity Of Developing Websites and the Growing Ease Of Using Site Builders

Last week I talked about how I’ve been stalling and stalling and stalling when it comes to building a new site about writing and creativity. I also told you how the time had finally come where I couldn’t avoid it anymore and I’ve been surprised to find I’m enjoying myself more than expected.

I revisited a couple of reasons why I decided to stop taking on clients a few years ago, namely some lessons I extrapolated from an article by Ben Thompson about the smiling curve, and some thoughts about responsive and flat design pushing the industry toward away from the part I enjoyed most.

There were two more reasons and I left both for this week so today I want to talk about the growing complexity of front-end development and the ever improving state of site builders and why both took away some of the enjoyment I found in designing and building websites.

The Growing Complexity of Web Development

As I mentioned last week, I think developers are having a greater influence on the industry at the moment for valid reasons and they’re doing what you would expect developers to do.

Developers like to develop. They like code and development tools and they’re bringing more of those things to the design and development of websites. Instead of writing HTML and CSS directly, now we’re told to write both inside Javascript.

Code is also getting more modular as is development in general. We have frameworks and libraries and we value efficiency and productivity over unique aesthetics and creativity. All things which developers have known for years make development easier and more maintainable and all sorts of other good things developers know how to do.

The downside of this change is that it’s becoming more difficult for someone new (particular on the design side) to enter the field. The barrier for entry is increasing as the requirements are growing more complex. I talked about this a few months ago and don’t want to repeat myself too much, so I’ll point you to that article.

I think in the end it will all be fine. It isn’t the worst thing for the barrier to entry to increase. It’ll keep some people out of the industry who might have built businesses and contributed something back, but those people will be ok and do the same things in other industries.

For the most part, a more challenging barrier will keep out those who were just passing through, people looking to make a quick buck and people who’s interest in web design and development was marginal at best. I suspect there will be plenty of tools for designers to design without the need to learn any code at all and those interested will find a way to learn what they want to know.

Bear in mind this barrier is for professional work only. There’s nothing stopping someone from learning HTML and CSS and building sites for themselves regardless of whether or not they want to learn Javascript or work with command line tools or anything else beyond the basics they aren’t interested in learning.

This same kind of conversation about web development becoming too complex and complicated has been going on for as long as people have been developing websites. What makes it complicated or simple may have changed, but it’s still the same conversation. It’s all just a natural part of the evolution and maturation of any industry.

However, for me personally, it means front end development was becoming more like back end development, which made the work less enjoyable. Again, that’s for me personally.

Site Builders

Speaking of the industry maturing, allow me go back to the scale side of the smiling curve and talk about site builders, including the newest entry, the Gutenberg editor in WordPress. Ok Gutenberg isn’t a full site developer, but it’s a sign of WordPress moving in that direction.

And even if WordPress isn’t becoming a site builder (it is) other site builder services like Squarespace and Wix already exist and make it pretty easy for anyone to build a site. Now, it may not be a beautiful site. It may not be all that organized or as easy to use as it could be, but it’s pretty easy to get a site up and running and it’s only going to get easier and better in the future.

One year early in my transition I planned on taking fewer clients so naturally I received a couple of calls at the start of the year asking about my services. One of the people didn’t come across as someone who would be pleasant to work with so I turned him away quickly. The other person I did want to help and I pointed him to one of the site builders. Based on what he wanted and how much he could afford to spend it was hard to honestly recommend my services over or Squarespace or wherever I ended up pointing him.

It was hard to honestly recommend myself at my prices when I knew the person on the other end of the phone could spend a few nights setting up a site on their own that would be more than good enough for what they wanted. And it would cost a lot less upfront that it would to hire me.

I could learn to work with these site builders. I’m sure most of my clients would still prefer me to do the work to set up the site so long as I don’t charge too much. But for me it’s not enjoyable. I don’t like building websites through a web interface. I prefer to write code.

That said, these changes are good for most people and I’m not arguing against the evolution. I’m just pointing out that while this might be good for most people, it won’t necessarily be good for some and I’m likely included in that group of some. Down the line I think even more people will be included as the site builders become so easy, few people, if any, won’t choose to do the work themselves.

Closing Thoughts

Everything I’ve mentioned, both this week and last, led me to think I was going to see fewer clients no matter what I did and that there would probably be fewer clients for most and so fewer freelance web designers and developers and given my passion for the work was drifting, it made sense to me to do something else, something I enjoyed more.

And again, I mean the kind of freelancer I was, someone who did everything and served micro-businesses of one to five people. I don’t think this will necessarily occur for larger agencies or in-house design teams who sit closer to the end points of the smiling curve, at least for now.

Despite what might seem like me being against all these changes, I’m not against them at all. I think these changes will ultimately prove good for most people. Unfortunately, I don’t think me the freelancer was one of those people. The changes will be good for the market, in part because they help to eliminate the expense of having to hire someone like me.

The barrier for entry to the field is growing steeper, which will keep non-technical designers away, but again this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A greater barrier to entry will force beginners to learn a little more to get started and it will lead those with marginal interests toward other things.

However, as I said last week, whether I wanted to or not, need has pushed me to design and develop a new site for myself. Once I started I realized how long it had been and I noticed a few differences in what I could do now that I couldn’t then.

Oddly enough it’s been more fun to work on the site than I thought. Since I’ve gone on and on about all the bad things I see in regards to web design and development, I thought I should also talk about the other side so that’s what I’ll do next week. I’ll talk about some of my renewed passion. It’s not anything that will get me to transition back to a life offering freelance web services, but it has left a few ideas germinating for what I might do with the new site.

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  1. Hi Steven, so glad to have come across your blog. Great thoughts here. I work as a freelance web designer, mostly for small businesses, and so a lot of this resonates with me. And it’s also reasons for me to be telling myself that I need to climb up to the realms of larger clients.

    I think one of the tougher things with small clients is that a web design is sort of a one-n-done deal and it’s hard to push for any large retainer that seem more possible with a larger company…or for those who aren’t footing the bill from their personal pockets.

    For me, building websites for my personal project (an App) seems to bring me the most interest in that I’m trying to think of new ways to rank and who to connect with.

    Regarding site builders like Squarespace, I gotta say that I do think they provide great value in offering clients an closed, supported environment that will handle the things that open source platforms require you to do.

    I’m actually teaching myself WebFlow right now, which sort of a more complex take on site builders. In a sense, you code “visually”….you need to understand html/css and can get some pretty unique results from it. Check their homepage just to see the interactions that can be built.

    Anyhow, thanks for the writings. I’m bookmarking!

    • Thanks Mike. Good point about small business clients and a retainer. It’s hard to convince them of the value and I get it. I’m a small business owner too. It’s hard to convince yourself to pay for certain things in advance when you only have so much money to spend.

      I think we’re always more interested in our projects. It’s natural.

      I agree too, about the site builders. It became hard for me to honestly recommend myself to certain people when I knew they could get what they wanted from Squarespace for less money if they were willing to spend a few nights working on it.

      Thanks again.

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