Do you really need a specialist?

There’s an ongoing concensus in the web industry that we should specialise, but I’ve never seen this as an efficient way of serving our customers. Doggedly pursuing a specialism can remove important focus away from outside factors or ‘the big picture’.

There is certainly room for specialists in some markets, but for small to medium-sized businesses needing web services, I maintain that a broad skillset is more valuable and that specialists should only be called in when there is a distinct specialist need, and I was very pleased to hear this backed up recently by someone whose opinion I respect.

“Our website owners are asking for advice on everything from design to Facebook and if we don’t give it to them then somebody else will. That is the reality of a consumer culture.”
Paul Boag, Boagworld

Paul Boag, in a recent blog post, Website owners need more than web designers, made the point that clients “…need generalists. They need people who can advise them on the breadth of challenges they face.”

And this is exactly where we at Canary Dwarf hang our hat. We continue to expand our skillset so that we can better serve our customers’ needs. Hiring specialists will increase costs for their clients and open up potential avenues for apportioning blame. While the result of hiring a highly-specialised team will be expected to be a high performing product, the project must also provide a sensible return on investment.

When the web designer (and that is what has largely become the generic term as far as clients are concerned) gets the call for a problem outside of his specialist area, will the client be referred to the relevant specialist. That’s not what clients want.

A ‘web designer’ will need to have a good understanding of the following disciplines:

  • Design trends
  • Development technologies
  • Web business practices
  • Ecommerce
  • Site analytics
  • Online and offline marketing
  • Copywriting and SEO
  • Social networks
  • Web and email hosting

My argument is that the industry is marketing, and that we specialise in the web. If we specialised in development for example, would our clients appreciate us outsourcing the design, the hosting, the marketing, and the social media?

Absolutely not. They would go to someone else.

However, if a clients’ needs become so specific that a specialist is required, it is our option to employ a specialist under our ‘roof’, but we must retain responsibility as far as the client is concerned, and having the ability to choose them according to the needs of the client is better than referring it to the client. That won’t work.

Each of these can be considered a specialist skill in its own right, but website owners are largely unaware of where the divides are. We’ve all seen the jokes where web developers are asked to fix computers. And we need better terminology to define an overall scope of a web designer/developer/strategist/marketer etc.

Small web developers can’t afford to bring in specialists just so they can specialise themselves. We’ve spent years trying to educate clients that the web should be taken as part of the big picture. How can we turn around and tell them that they’ll need a team of six specialists for their project. And remember, specialists are usually more expensive by nature.

But website owners must also be sure that the generalists know what they are doing. The web is full of do-it-all web designers, and unfortunately, many are judged only by the bottom line of their quotation, not their performance, portfolio or understanding of the marketplace.

Paul goes on to say that “The web is one of the fastest moving industries on the planet and needs an incredibly broad set of skills. If you don’t have those skills or fail to keep them up to date then you will lose credibility.”

“At the end of the day it is simple. Our website owners are asking for advice on everything from design to facebook and if we don’t give it to them then somebody else will. That is the reality of a consumer culture.”

Paul Boag is a well-known UK web expert and runs the design agency Headscape and web design community Boagworld. He is a regular publisher of blogs, videos and podcasts and has recently written a book called the Website Owners Manual.

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