Friday 24 February 2012

Are web designers the new car mechanics?

Websites are easier to make than most people think. Bear this in mind when a website designer wants a hefty payment.

A joke, obviously. But does this sales pitch work in IT?

Advance warning: this post is another moan. Up to now, I’ve had two pet hates: people who sign up to wildly optimistic cheap/convenient IT projects that turn out to be unreliable and expensive; and at the other end, people who block trivially easy IT projects because of silly overblown cost estimates. I’d forgotten the third type. But we’ll get on to that later.

This story begins with my website – you know, the one in my shameless plug masquerading as a piece on Search Engine Optimisation. Well, my web traffic is still quite abysmal, in spite of pushing up the Google rankings. But from the few people who’ve looked at the site, I’m quite likely to set up a website for an arts organisation, which I’m happy to do as a freebie; and if all goes well I may get some paid work off the back of that. And in this scenario, the obvious question is: how much should I ask to be paid?

The thing is, there’s nothing special about my web design knowledge. What I created for myself was technically very basic (I was using a free web template and Kompozer if anyone's wondering). I’d rate my skills above those of a 13-year-old who has discovered FrontPage – I do at least understand the importance of Cascading Style Sheets, W3C compliance and not doing fancy animated backgrounds – but ask me to produce a site that handles user-uploaded content, streaming video or credit card payments and I wouldn’t have a clue. And yet paltry offerings to the interweb like mine seem to be regarded as the height of technical genius.

One organisation I know (I won’t give names – it’s not one I’m directly involved in) got its website from a company that advertises a “starter” package of four pages for £150. I’ve seen what they produced, and whilst there’s nothing particularly wrong with the pages, I don’t think I could bring myself to charge that. Even if I valued my services at £30 per hour, that would be five hours of work – five minutes would be a closer estimate. And even that figure was cheap compared to what some other businesses charge. All right, these are small businesses trying to make a living, and they have office overheads and after-sales issues to consider, so it’s unfair to pick on them too much. But it’s a problem endemic throughout IT services: if your customers don’t know any better, you can claim the simplest tasks are laborious and expensive and they’ll believe you.

Oh, and another reason why not to pick on small companies: if you’re serious about over-charging, why stop at £150? How about $18,000,000? Yes, that’s right: eighteen million US Dollars. Because that’s what luxury hotel chain Four Seasons paid for theirs. Some websites might be expensive to make – I’m testing a feature-rich website at the moment and I know first-hand how much work can be involved – but $18 million for this one? A secure banking site might cost that much, but this one has a hotel booking facility, smartphone compatibility, and some pretty panoramic pictures of their expensive rooms and beautiful locations: all standard features seen in websites made at fraction of the cost. They’ve not even done that good a job of it – it’s been criticised for shutting itself off search engines, poor accessibility for disabled users, and sloppy user friendliness amongst other things. One would have expected a project that expensive to dedicate at least a few million to proper testing to deal with those sorts of problems. I can’t help thinking someone is going round with $17,990,000 in his back pocket.

In a way, website designers can be likened to car mechanics. Just like the unscrupulous car mechanic can make wildly inflated estimates for easy repairs, it is far too easy for website designers to say the IT sales-speak equivalent of: “Right, let me see … that’ll be HTML, CSS, web server rental, domain name, SEO, setting up an FTP server … hmm, you’ll want a contact form so that’s PHP and SMTP as well … oh dear, we’re talking about a work here, ‘sgonnancostya”. The difference is that whilst most people know better than to hand over money to car mechanics until you’re satisfied you can trust them, the same is not happening for IT products. From small clubs and societies to the biggest boardroom, people sign cheques first and ask questions later.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: people – big organisations in particular – making the decisions on IT projects have to understand what they are hiring a contractor to do. You cannot rely on techno-waffle from sales representatives; you need people independent of the contractors who can tell you if it’s a bargain of a rip-off. Claiming IT consultants are too expensive is no excuse – in most cases, you can get what you need by identifying people in your organisation who understand computers and listening to what they think. I cannot imagine anyone would have paid a motor chain $18 thousand, let alone £18 million for a contract repairing company cars without at least getting an opinion from someone who knows about motor repairs.

So there you are, my new pet hate. Joining people who cook up silly overblown expenses as an excuse not to do IT projects are people who cook up silly overblown expenses and then actually pay it. It’s not just websites; it wasn’t that long ago that the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee highlighted government departments spending £3,500 per computer. Many schools are eager to equip every classroom with iPads when cheap netbooks would do the job equally well. And yes, software testing companies are not immune – I’ve read my fair share of sales pitches for test automation tools that I can tell are overcharged and not that useful, but someone must be buying them if they’re in business.

The Government's latest initiative to keep costs down is the GCloud programme - it's a good idea in principle, whether it works in practice is yet to be seen. Private companies too have the means to find out for themselves when they’re being overcharged. But individuals aren't so lucky. Many IT companies routinely promote unnecessarily expensive products in the domestic market, such as computer stores bundling expensive security suites into PC sales when a free package off the internet would suffice. Some laptop vendors promote special “school” laptops at twice the price of lower-spec machines, when most school children have no use for the higher specs. And not everybody has a tech-savvy friend to warn you if it’s a waste your money. But you don’t need a PhD in computer science to understand that “expensive” does not necessarily mean “better”, and a little more attention that that principle would go a long way.

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