What Web Developers do (and don’t do). 12 tips from a Copywriter on things not to expect.

There’s a gap. A yawning one.

It’s right in the space between the understanding that most people have of what planning and building a website actually involves, and the realistic skillset of most web developers.

Not appreciating which skills web developers are likely to have (and therefore which they are unlikely to have), means that business owners very often end up leaving a whole lot of important decisions to people who aren’t qualified to take them and, generally, don’t want to be asked to take them or even think about them.

Later on, when the consequences of this become apparent, tidying up the mess can be both costly and time consuming.

What you get if you take your job to a ‘large’ web development firm.

If you are in a position to take your web development project to a ‘larger’ web development company, they will usually cover almost all of the tasks that you need completed, using the collective skills of their team.

This is because that team will include project managers; information architects; graphic designers; front end and back end developers; copywriters, photographers and film makers (their own or freelance); and all the tech expertise to sort out any issues related to management of your hosting.

What you get when you take your job to a ‘small’ web developer.

It’s virtually impossible for a solo developer, or even a small team, to be skilled in every area of bringing a site from ‘zero’ to ‘live’, let alone in addressing business-related questions that may need resolving.

So… you should reasonably be able to expect that a web developer will know their way around the functionalisation and formatting coding required to build a website.

Other than that, however, what your developer will or won’t be able to do, and what you should even think of asking him or her to do, is fairly random.

12 skills you’d be smart not to assume your web developer just happens to have.

1. The commercial aptitude of a Management Consultant.

Web developers are not management consultants.

If you have issues about the underlying business processes connected to your website, it’s plain foolish to invite a developer to advise on these as though he or she had consulting expertise.

Explore and resolve the issues before you go anywhere near a developer, so that you can brief the developer to build a site, the specification for which has been written in full light of those issues and your planned resolution of them.

Chance of a random web developer being able to help in this area – 0/10
Likelihood that the web developer is expecting to do this – 0/10

2. The insight of a Business Analyst.

Web developers are not business analysts.

If you find one who possesses true business insight and understanding, you are fortunate. But it’s not a skill they should be expected to have, and it’s certainly not one you would be wise to count on the quality of, should they claim to have it.

You should not begin building a site without being clear about what jobs it needs to do. It’s only by knowing this that you can work out what you actually need to build.

Deducing this is a business function, generally best carried out by a business or marketing analyst who can look at your goals, marketing plan and operational requirements, and define the site’s objectives in terms of its role within the business.

Chance of a random web developer being able to help in this area – 0/10
Likelihood that the web developer is expecting to do this – 0/10

3. The planning skills of an information architect.

Web developers are not information architects.

Though, again, you may find a developer who has some reasonable skill in this area, it would be a mistake to expect it.

In planning a site, it’s necessary to break down the information that needs to be included, and decide on navigation groupings, sets of pages within navigation groupings, and the deployment of individual items of information helpfully and sensibly within those pages.

To do this an information architect needs a very reasonable understanding of the business, as well as of its potential site users and their needs.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 5/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 7/10

4. The commercial or design understanding of a Branding Consultant.

Web developers are not branding consultants.

There are branding firms that build websites, but they do it by employing brand strategists, branding designers and a variety of web development skills.

Your web developer will not be a brand consultant. Even if he or she happens to have the graphic skills to design a logo, that does not mean they have the experience or insight to look at your brand, or to create a new brand, taking into account your sector, markets, competition and perhaps existing brand portfolio.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 0/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 2/10

5. The visual judgement of a Graphic Designer.

Web developers are not graphic designers.

Think of it like houses. Architects design them. Builders build them. Painters and decorators add the finishing touches.

It’s far from impossible to find a web developer (especially what’s known as a front-end developer) with graphic design skills. But it’s far from a given, and the technical skillsets required to build a site are a world away from the aesthetic sensibilities required to decide on the fine points of its look and feel.

Some outstanding developers do not have the faintest idea about graphic design. So it’s best not to ask them to style the site, design a logo, create graphics or any of the other tasks that rightly belong to a trained designer.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 3/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 3/10

6. The visual narrative or technical skills of a Photographer/Illustrator/Film Director/Picture Researcher.

Web developers are neither photographers nor picture researchers.

A great deal of the impact and feel of a website comes from the way it looks, and photography or illustration very often play a big part in this.

If your site is an e-commerce site, or a property site, for example, then you will need to provide your catalogue/inventory images to the developer as a library or possibly feed from your management software.

But if you’re not an e-commerce site, or even if you are, your site look and feel may well require photographic or illustrated images to set its visual character.

These have to be taken, or drawn or, possibly, sourced from an image library.

In any case, it’s the job of a photographer, illustrator, picture researcher or possibly a designer, and while any individual web developer may have some skill in these areas, there’s no reason at all why they should have.

What’s more, it’s very unlikely that they will be expecting to spend time on this as a part of the fee they have agreed with you for development.

By the same rule, developers are not video directors. Owning a camera and editing software does not impart the skills to design a film that will tell a story clearly, succinctly and effectively.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 2/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 1/10

7. The psychological understanding of an Interface Designer.

Web developers are not interface designers. (Or at least, they’re not guaranteed to be.)

Designing a user interface is a particular skill that falls within the domain of web development. This is not principally aesthetic design. This is the design of your site’s usability: arranging and coding the elements of the site in such a way as to ensure a navigable and engaging experience for users.

Now some web developers are strong on this, either through formal training or, more often than not, through experience.

But do not take it for granted, especially if working with a solo developer, that he or she can do this.

Ask to see and play around with some of their previously completed sites if you’re in doubt.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 6/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 7/10

8. The server admin understanding of a Server Administrator.

Web developers are not server administrators.

A critical part of developing and optimising web sites is being able to configure and make adjustments to the web server hosting the site, which may be yours or may be rented in whole or part from a hosting company.

Your web developer may be an absolute whizz at doing anything and everything that could be required on the server.

Or he or she may have no idea at all about this.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 4/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 6/10

9. The marketing knowledge or sales skills of a Copywriter.

Web developers are not copywriters.

Working out the content of your website, and writing the copy to present your information in an organised, accessible and engaging way, or in a way that will persuade people to buy, is a complex and skilled job done by a copywriter or, in some cases, the less skilled ‘content writer’.

While many developers can knock in a line or two of copy here or there to help users get around a site, yours will have neither the ability, nor the time, to write your content. (Keep in mind that writing a 20 page site can easily take an experienced copywriter 2 full working weeks.)

One other thing to watch out for.

Be careful of developers offering to “get a copywriter” to write your site for you. It’s unlikely that the individual in question will be an experienced working copywriter. They are very likely to be a friend of the developer who feels they “can write”, and there’s a very high chance that you will be disappointed with the outcome.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 1/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 0/10

10. The specific, empiric knowledge of an SEO Specialist.

Web developers are not SEO engineers.

Building a website, and optimising a website to give it its best chance of ranking well in search results are entirely different areas of expertise.

They are certainly not unconnected, but because a developer has the skills required to build a site does not in itself imply that he or she knows the first thing about SEO.

An averagely bright developer should build any site along basic principles conducive to good search performance. But that simply means they give the site the capability of performing well. Making it do so calls for painstaking and ongoing work.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 3/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 2/10

11. The ‘different knowledge entirely’ know how of an IT Consultant.

Web developers are not IT consultants.

If there are issues to resolve relating to your web hosting server, some developers will be able and willing to deal with these and others will not.

But it is no way a part of either your developer’s skillset or responsibility to resolve issues relating to your email servers or back office systems, except where he or she has agreed to integrate these to the new site.

Expect grumpiness and short shrift if you try to extend your developer’s task with matters of this kind.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 2/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 1/10

12. The coding skills of an expert PHP (or other web functionalisation language) Programmer.

A web developer may have, but will not necessarily have, any actual programming skills.

Designing and building websites, especially in an age of WordPress themes, libraries of customisable site templates and complete sitebuild platforms can actually be done with little or no real programming ability.

It’s a bit like taking three items of food out of the freezer, heating them up and presenting the result as a meal. In many situations the ability to do that will get you through.

But in almost every site (even one being built using one of the approaches I’ve mentioned), there will be bits of customisation here or there that require a little programming. It may not even be very complex programming. But a developer still needs to know how to do it.

The problem is that not all developers do know how to do this. Though very many have at least some programming skills, there is no shortage of people working as solo web developers who have absolutely none.

Chance of a random web developer being able to do this – 7/10
Likelihood of web developer expecting to do this – 8/10

Where does that leave you, then?

Well… just needing to be realistic.

If you have business issues that need resolving, sort them out yourself or get properly qualified help before you start to build your site.

When you’re planning your site structure, by all means consult your developer, but work with him or her to make certain that the shape of the site being planned adds up to you.

If you need branding work done, or need graphics or photography originated, again it’s fine to discuss these with the developer, but be ready to pay for someone else to do that work for you – even if that’s through the developer.

As for everything else (content writing, SEO etc), recognise that these are all additional tasks, requiring the time of individual specialists, and be ready to pay for that.

In the end, if you find there are a large number of skills needed yet you really want a one-stop shop development, then you should probably go and talk to a larger development company. They don’t have to be huge, and they don’t have to cost a fortune.

Even a four-person team is likely to possess, collectively, more of the skills you require than any one person alone.