Asking a Web Developer Stupid Questions
16.07.20Reading Time 10 MINUTES
Hello there, I’m Michael, you may have already read my introduction to the desgindough team on this very blog! I’m still relatively new around here, so please be nice!
I’ve recently been listening to an awesome podcast called Ologies with Alie Ward, why am I telling you this? Well, the main theme of the podcast is “asking smart people stupid questions”. I am not for one second suggesting that I am somehow ridiculously smart or smarter than you, but I do know an awful lot about the voodoo that makes the internet. Given this was my first chance to write something, I thought I’d give everyone the chance to ask me “stupid questions” about the internet!
(Cue shameless plug) We made a post on our instagram stories, giving YOU the chance to ask questions, maybe you should follow us in case a chance like this comes up again… (end shameless plug).
I will do my best to answer them honestly and give you as straightforward an answer as possible. If I don’t give you a simple answer, that means there are 27 different solutions, and sadly there isn’t an easy answer.
Enough of me talking nonsense, over to YOUR questions.
What is your typical web design process? From meetings and workshops to design & dev?
As I said, I’m relatively new at designdough, and we have been in lockdown the whole time! This is a hard one to answer, but I’ll throw out the process that has worked in the past.
First stop is a client meeting, this is purely project scoping and gathering rough ideas about the client’s needs. Second, conversations with the team, so you can quote correctly based on all the correct information. Assuming the project gets accepted, let’s move onto the third step, a workshop, if it is possible, everyone who is going to be on the project team should be involved, that way everyone can get on the same page and we can get the best result. Fourth step is with the designers, they have to make something that looks awesome, then check everything over with the developers, before going back to the client for sign off. Fifth step is to start writing a heap of code, then the designers come back in to keep an eye on things before the site goes back to the client, and onto the last step! Sign off, training and go live!
There’s also a content/planning strategy going on amongst this, but that’s with our copywriters and strategists!
How do you feel it’s best to start learning – inspiration sites you can recommend?
Start with some understanding of HTML, it is a primary building block of the web and is a great place to start. I learnt a lot from HTML Dog when it came to wrapping my head around the basics of HTML and CSS.
Maybe you learn better with a teacher, I know people who swear by learning resources like Skillshare or uDemy. There are 1,000s of hours of tutorials on YouTube as well. The web is an amazingly open place to learn, it is most important to find out what works best for you.
I think the hardest part of learning about coding in general is, as soon as you feel like you have wrapped your head around something, you learn something that totally changes your outlook and opens you up to a mountain of fresh knowledge. There is always something new to learn.
I was first exposed to coding back in the 80s when I was a kid using a BBC Micro, and left it alone until I was in my 20s when myspace layouts were a thing. In each case there was trial and error – in the 80’s we had tech manuals, now we have Google.
What is the most difficult part of building a website?
This varies from developer to developer. A friend of mine struggles with making the big choices; should you use this coding language? Is this the best platform for this project? There are so many possibilities, it can be a little daunting.
I know developers who have no design background and find the fine tuning of a site incredibly stressful. They don’t understand the idiosyncrasies of why there needs to be more white space or why this font isn’t quite right.
I think every developer struggles when they are stumped by a problem. We don’t know everything, but we sure do know how to find answers and solutions. As I said before, we are constantly learning and doing new things, it’s incredible, rewarding and stressful at the same time.
I’ve often joked that if you see your web developer staring mindlessly into space, don’t shout at them for not working their brain is operating like those screens in The Matrix.
What is the easiest part?
Building the foundations of a site. From the outside, it might look like we haven’t done anything for hours, but you need to start somewhere! Setting up colours, text sizes, getting files (logos, icons) in one place…that sort of thing. Each site is different, so you just need to stick your headphones in and get on with it.
You know when you do a jigsaw, you always start with the outside pieces. That is what we are doing at the start of a project.
What does a web devs IDEAL website look like?
A simple site with a search box that will bring back the EXACT answer to your problem!
Code resources do not need to be fantastically designed places, because you need to be able to scan-read them as quickly and easily as possible! They are utilitarian, but that is exactly what we need.
How do you keep up with the latest developments in tech / web dev?
One of the biggest influencers on my development skills, weirdly, is designers! As developers, we tend to be concerned about big changes, new versions of code, updates to a CMS, that sort of thing. Designers can create something that looks amazing, and then it’s on us to figure out how to make it come to life, that can be the reason to learn something new.
Keeping up with web development is often linked to tech. If Apple decided to stop supporting a code language, you need to know about it. A great example would be the folding devices, there are a different set of rules there, we don’t know if it will take off, so you have to keep an eye on things, just in case.
For general tech, I love YouTube. There is such an amazing mix of bleeding edge thinking, news, nostalgia and outright idiocy. Linus tech tips, MKBHD (Marques Brownlee), MrMobile (Michael Fisher) and The Retro Future to name a few awesome channels. They can educate, inform and do REALLY strange things that make you believe that anything is possible.
How do you feel about websites such as Wix and Squarespace?
I feel like this is the web developer equivalent to asking a designer how they feel about comic sans.
DIY website platforms are great if you need to get a web presence in a hurry and don’t know or want the stress of building, hosting or maintaining a website.
The problem with them is misunderstanding. Just because you can build a website without knowing about design or coding, doesn’t mean you should. I can buy building supplies, but that doesn’t mean I should build my own house!
The best case scenario with platforms like this is working with someone who knows what they are doing to get the best result. If you have a limited budget, and couldn’t afford a bespoke website, work with a designer to help you get the best results possible. They can make the decisions about the way you structure your content, help you choose images and make you a few custom elements. This will turn a generic off the shelf website template into something personal.
In short, they are a tool, you’ve just got to use them correctly.
You have got to be kidding me! I just covered this!
I said there were no stupid questions, so here we go…
Comic sans gets a bad wrap and as I explained in the previous question, the fault lies with the user, not the font. A police force should not be using comic sans on crime warning posters (yes, it has happened), but a primary school poster? Sure.
You wouldn’t hammer a nail with a chainsaw.
Quick shout out to Comic Sans Criminal (https://www.comicsanscriminal.com/)
I’ve read that some people argue it should be used because it is easier for people with dyslexia to read. Counting myself amongst that number, OpenDyslexic (https://opendyslexic.org/) is a much better alternative and it even has a Chrome extension (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/opendyslexic-font-for-chr/cdnapgfjopgaggbmfgbiinmmbdcglnam/related?hl=en)
What’s your favourite feature/function you’ve ever built?
The short answer is, the project I have just finished.
The long answer…
My favourite features are the little quirks that make people smile. It could be as simple as a fun hover effect on a logo, a fun 404 page or anything hidden in plain view. I think they are the difference between a well designed website and a great website.
Functionality evolves with your knowledge, every time we learn something new, our know how and skills grow. I find I look back at my work and think, “That’s great, but I could have done this!” or “Why didn’t I know about that when I was building this?!”. It’s a fairly constant state of change. Ask me the same question again in a month or two, it will be the project I just finished. I’m pretty sure if you asked any developer, they will tell you that they once wrote something that was several hundred lines of code, that they could now do in 10.
How long does a usual web project last from start to finish?
Hardest question ever! I’ve been a developer for 12 years, this means I’ve worked on sites that have been done and dusted inside an intense 16 hour day, all the way up to larger scale projects that have taken a whole year of my working life.
If there is a “normal”, it is probably a few weeks on the first round of building, then maybe another week of revisions. It rarely happens in a consistent block of time, you’ve constantly got to juggle your projects based on client timelines, project deadlines, content strategies…it’s pretty variable.
When I watched this TED talk about slow motion multi-tasking, I honestly shouted, “THIS IS MY LIFE!” at several points. It’s worth 15 minutes of your time to watch.
As design seems to become more digital, do you think more designers should learn code?
I trained and started my creative career as a designer and transitioned to being a developer. Having that knowledge in my back pocket is invaluable. I’m constantly blown away by the standard of design work from the team and I know my design skills can’t compete with theirs anymore, but having some knowledge is enormously valuable. It means I can make a design change in the development process and feel confident doing so.
Should designers learn to code? Yes and no. If you, as a designer reading this, if you can get a reasonable understanding of HTML and CSS, then you could be in a better position to know what you are designing…BUT, it might also impede your ideas, because you might stop doing things because you think it might not be possible.
My old university lecturer used the analogy of travelling to another country. If you don’t speak the language, that’s OK, but if you learn a few basics, it sure will help and the locals will appreciate it.
How do you overcome technical challenges that sometimes happen between dev and design?
Conversation and compromise.
The process from flat visual to interactive website should always be a back and forth process between both teams. To come back to the previous question, if a designer has some knowledge of coding, they can check before they create an element that could be insanely complicated to code and isn’t critical.
The process has been made considerably smoother as prototyping tools like Xd and Sketch have improved. There is less confusion over user journey, interactive elements, that sort of thing and it can reduce the friction between designers and developers.
What was the most interesting website you have worked on?
As I said, I’ve been in this game for 12 years and counting, in that time frame I’ve worked on sites for multinational companies to an actual one man band and everything in between.
The best way to explain this is using my mother as a benchmark. My mother understands me building an important government website is good, she doesn’t care that there was very little interesting coding going on behind the scenes.
When you sit two developers down and they start comparing notes, it’s most likely not the large important client. They are comparing some weird thing they wrote for a totally different project because they had to really think outside the box to solve the problem.
8 years ago, I had to retro-fit an existing site to make it mobile friendly. That was a massive challenge at the time, and it was a support service for kids. It will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was some hair brained thinking that really helped improve the lives of young people.
What is the easiest e-commerce platform/ integration that you have worked on with WordPress?
Short answer, woocommerce.
Woocommerce is excellent when it comes to a “ground up” build, because you can integrate a super versatile platform into a site and everything just works smoothly together. Now comes the but… I’ve worked with embedding external systems (shopify, etsy, spreadshirt…this list can go on FOREVER) into sites and that has been super quick and simple for me, as a developer, but not so easy for the client.
Woocomerce can take longer to build into a site, but your client deals with almost everything under one roof and can keep external fees down. If you embed an external e-commerce site, then it can save time, but cost more in fees OR the e-commerce platform might be good enough on its own!
Sorry, this was one of those situations I mentioned at the beginning where I couldn’t give a straight answer. The answer to this is really, it depends on your situation.
What books can you recommend for beginners to get a better understanding of using WordPress terminology?
I can’t tell a lie here, I’ve never read an actual physical book on WordPress. Everything I know about WordPress has come from https://wordpress.org/support/ or forums.
As I mentioned before, I started learning about code on myspace, then concrete5, Joomla, and Magento, before coming to WordPress. I’ve had to work on Shopify and Oracle to name a few others. Once you get used to one platform, there are a lot of similarities.
I’ve gathered a few handy recommendations for you though!
- https://www.wpmadesimple.org/ – looks like a lot of useful info for a client using WordPress
- https://www.wpbeginner.com/ – This site is so massive, it is a little daunting, but there is help here for new starters, all the way up to ideas for people like me.
- https://webdesign.tutsplus.com/courses/a-beginners-guide-to-using-wordpress – This is a nice video tutorial series, but if you don’t like his voice, search WordPress for beginners on YouTube and just find someone who has a voice you like!
Are there any specialist areas of development that you would like to go into?
The key thing I’ve tried to be throughout my professional life is adaptable. When I started university in 2002, flash websites were the norm and most common mobile phones were the Nokia 5110 and the Motorola Razr. I don’t think we could have predicted how different everything would be inside 10 years! It doesn’t hurt to just ride the wave and let circumstances guide you.
However, if I had a few months to do nothing, I would love to look into machine learning/AI, the Unreal Engine. I’m not really sure either are particularly practical to making websites, but there just seems to be some really interesting stuff happening.
Machine learning/AI feels like the beginning of a crazy future, it would be amazing to just understand it a little better. Similarly, the Unreal Engine started life as a game platform and they have been using it for VFX TV and movies recently! It feels like such an interesting platform right now. Check out this awesome behind the scenes video from The Mandolorian!
Thank you for all the questions, it’s been fun answering them. Hopefully we can do it again in the future!
Last week, our Junior Designer, Chelsie answered the internet’s most asked questions on Graphic Design – check it out here!