One day a small business owner, known to dabble in the do-it-yourself arts, was reading the visitor statistics from the website that his nephew had made him. Disappointed by the long page loads, low traffic, and cross-browser inconsistencies, the small business owner went to his kitchen for a glass of water. He turned on the faucet and nothing happened. A minute later, water started pouring out from under the sink. Quickly, he turned off the water and rushed back to his computer and looked up the name of a local plumber, he called, and had a plumber dispatched immediately. By chance, he also saw an advertisement for a local “low-cost, satisfaction guaranteed, web developer” and called him as well.

Twenty minutes later, they both arrived. Apologizing for the timing and offering a cup of coffee, the small business owner asked if the web developer wouldn’t mind waiting while he got the plumber started. The web developer, figuring he’d only had six cups of coffee today, decided a little waiting was not a problem.

The small business owner took the plumber to the water shut-off valve, and the plumber quickly shut it off. While discussing the solution, the small business owner told the plumber that he would like all of the pipes from the valve to the sink to be replaced with PEX pipes instead of the existing copper. Concerned, the plumber warned that there was nothing wrong with the existing copper pipes and that he was unsure if PEX was even allowed by local commercial building codes. The plumber even offered to first double-check the codes, but in a hurry to get back to the web developer before he drank all of the coffee, the small business owner told the plumber to just do it. He blindly signed the contract, completely ignoring the written warning about violating building codes, and left the plumber to do the job.

Relieved to have one problem scratched from his list, the small business owner left the plumber and returned to the web developer, who had already drank all of the coffee. Annoyed, the small business owner began making a new pot of coffee while explaining the problem with his website. Hearing the same thing a thousand times before, the web developer began his speech about web standards, usability, accessibility, and information architecture. Within seconds, the small business owner’s eyes had glazed over, and he began ignoring everything the web developer said.

A few hours passed. The plumber finished the job, the small business owner signed the web developer’s boiler-plate contract with 100% satisfaction guarantee, and both the plumber and the web developer left the small business owner to finish his list of things-to-do.

About a month later, the web developer returned to the small business owner’s office to show him the finished product. Coincidentally, the city building inspector arrived at the same time. Learning his lesson about web developers and coffee from the last visit, the small business owner told the building inspector that the work was done down the hall in the first room on the right, and left him to his job.

The small business owner and the web developer went to a computer and the web developer showed the small business owner the finished product. Unimpressed by the lack of motion, flashing, and changing colors the small business owner said that the new site was “nice, but needs something.” The web developer, who truthfully knew this was coming, began regretting his 100% satisfaction guarantee. By the time the small business owner was done stating his “satisfaction requirements,” the site had lost its information architecture, the typography was small and low-contrast, the flash-intro was back, and bigger than ever, and the back end programming was changed from a lightweight CMS to a large enterprise framework that the small business owner’s friend had heard about at a trade show. Concerned for his portfolio, but tired of this particular client, the web developer left the small business owner’s office; defeated and hoping to just get the job done as soon as possible.

Glowing from his victory against the tasteless web developer, the small business owner went down the hall to find the building inspector. The building inspector was sitting in the corner of the room finishing up his report on the plumbing changes. He looked up from the paper and told the small business owner that all of the PEX pipes had to be removed because it was against code in a commercial building. Aghast, the small business owner quickly called the plumber to chastise him for performing such a blatant building code violation. Unimpressed, the plumber simply referred the small business owner to section 4c of their signed contract where it stated that the small business owner had been informed of all building codes to the best of the plumber’s knowledge and that any specific requirements performed by the plumber per the customer were the responsibility of the customer. The plumber also stated that he would be glad to come out and replace all of the PEX with brand-new copper, under a brand-new contract.

About a month later the “improved” website was live and still suffering from the same long page loads, low traffic, and cross-browser inconsistencies. The web designer however, had already folded his company and taken up a new career as an apprentice to the local plumber.

The Morals

Mostly everything we do as web developers is according to some specification or recommendation, but it’s still very easy to ignore them all and still produce a “functioning” website. We compete in an amazing marketplace against everyone from the boss’ nephew to Fortune 500 companies. Because of this, highly skilled web developers working at small companies or even as freelancers often make stupid promises, including 100% satisfaction guarantees. These guarantees do not help anyone because the client is rarely satisfied, the end result isn’t worthy of the web developer’s portfolio, and none of the original problems have been solved.

Plumber’s have the law, the union, air-tight contracts, years of collective experience, and the fact that there’s no such thing as WYSIWYG plumbing software to keep the average Joe from calling themselves master plumbers.

The Soapbox

I’m not sure if it’s a question of attitude, experience, or the fact that there are parts of the plumbing profession that literally stink, but people rarely tell a plumber how to do their job, and I doubt many plumbers would even let someone if they tried. To the same extent, a plumber’s work is usually not up for scrutiny in the public eye, in fact other than in basements and under sinks, it’s rarely even visible to the property-owner’s eye.

So what’s my point? With the amount of very talented web developers and designers available world wide, the web has the potential to be a very beautiful, very usable, and very accessible place. However, the web wasn’t build by graphic artists, typographers, interactive designers and information architects, it was built by tinkerers, inventors, and do-it-yourselfers, kind of like the first indoor plumbing. We have a long way to go before there are laws requiring best practices, and professional reputations that allow us to say “this is the way I’m going to do it, and it’s non-negotiable.” But that doesn’t mean we should stop educating our customers and return to table based layouts and excessive use of the blink and marquee tags. It means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Until until we reach that time, sell the fact that you’re an expert and not the fact that you’re guaranteeing satisfaction. Let your work speak for itself, a well-designed and well-implemented site will just work and will lead to a satisfied customer, whether or not it’s been guaranteed in writing.