The Web 1.0 Gig Economy was Sally's Nephew

by Michael Szul on

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Bear with me, I'm going to take a trip down memory lane before getting to the point. It gets a little ranty too. Grab yourself a cup of coffee.

Earlier in my career—after I left the first consulting company I worked for—I did a little freelance work in web site design and web site building at a time just far enough past the Dot-Com bubble bursting to have a market flooded with freelancers. If you thought web application development was a hard sell, try selling web sites. This was pre-SquareSpace, etc.

The problem at the time was that everyone wanted a web presence, but nobody wanted to pay for it. Small businesses couldn't afford a common rate that was necessary to keep food on freelancers' tables, while corporations were always trying to squeeze additional hours out of the independent worker.

This always came down to one question: How much will it cost?

Web designers and developers the world over cringe when this question is asked. Why? Most often the person asking the question doesn't understand the nuance necessary to do such work, while actually providing value. We live in a world where people are advertising full web site packages on Craigslist for $199.00, yet potential clients don't understand the difference between those low-end cookie-cutter templates with a little flair and a professionally built web site that actually provides the aforementioned business value. When I worked for Barbella Digital, Inc., we abandoned the idea of building web sites (what we called brochure-ware) a long time ago because too often buyers had us in competition with what Johnny (Sally from Human Resources' nephew) is willing to charge them. You see, Johnny has a really cool design for his Twitter and Facebook cover photos. He knows Photoshop, and Mr. CFO from the company has chatted with him a few times when he was at the local coffee house (Johnny's full time job) buying his morning coffee. (Johnny only moonlights as a web designer). Usually, if this scenario doesn't end with a horribly designed web site (a lot of times it does), it ends with a nice looking design that doesn't compliment the business needs of the company and eventually needs to be redesigned six months down the road.

In the case of small businesses that go with Johnny in order to save costs, it ends up being a poor investment that doesn't give the small business a proper ROI and and can damage their online presence.

Web design is much more than a pretty web site. A pretty web site accomplishes nothing if it doesn't speak to your client base, enhance your business, and produce a satisfactory user experience. A functional web site is more important than a pretty one, and as we all know today, entire disciplines of usability and user experience analysis and design have been established in the years since the Web 2.0 "revolution" that have focused solely on the best way to design and organize a site or application to enhance the user experience.

Evaluating the client base is essentially a user experience evaluation. User experience design is different than user interface design and mostly overlooked by the Johnny's of the world. In fact, it's often overlooked by many full time web designers, especially those from a marketing design background, or those that push out quick web sites as their business model. The bottom line is that user experience is essential. Failure of the experience will collapse the whole project. It doesn't matter how pretty the web site looks.

Web design needs to provide several components, all of which stem out of a research and evaluation phase. Once this research phase is over, it's time for wire-frames. If your web designer doesn't supply you with wire-frames prior to high fidelity mock-ups, it's a missed step and a missed opportunity. Wireframes are extremely important for implementing the proper user experience that was just researched. It allows you to visualize the general layout, page components, and overall flow of the web site. Agreement on wire-frames makes the design phase vastly smoother and simpler without any surprises.

With success in researching the business and client base, and success in wire-framing a proper user experience, a successful web design is in the making, and we haven't even gotten to the design portion of the process yet. This shows you how important these first several steps are—steps that are often left out by most of the Johnny's out there as they reach for their Photoshop pens.

With the wire-frames complete, the next step is to open up a design tool (Photoshop is acceptable, but not necessary) and start designing high-fidelity mock-ups based on the wire-frames. The layout has already been completed, as has page component determination, and you hopefully have iterated over the wire-frames a few times for feedback. All that's left is to determine the colors, styles and what graphical elements should be used. Since the business has already agreed on the wire-frames, once they receive these mock-ups there is already a familiarity with the design. This makes future iterations, suggestions, and approvals all the easier to come by.

After the mock-ups of the design have been approved, web development can begin. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (much to the chagrin of programmers) are often provided by designers in the final product. The difference in the code between a professional and Johnny might not be visible in the end product, but when it comes to maintenance and future changes, it makes a huge difference. Johnny's design will often need significant integration, and he likely included every jQuery plugin known to humanity.

One of the last components included in any web design deliverable should be a style guide. This is another area not only neglected by Johnny, but sometimes even the average design agency. Style guides come in many different forms. I prefer an HTML code-based style guide that rests on a single page with working components and code snippets.

Now we're not trying to pick on poor Johnny. He does the best with what he can. But he's not a professional web designer, and he's not going to give you a professional web site that accomplishes your business goals. Many times, neither are these web site mills that pop up churning out web site after web site in a predetermined format for a couple hundred bucks. A truly professional design is done by people who understand web design is more than just a couple of pretty pages. It's an extension of your business. If you can't afford to consult with a professional, get a WordPress site with a Shopify plugin, buy a theme, and call it day. Johnny is probably implementing your site in these technologies anyway.


Applications like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal have created plug and play content management systems that can be visually modified with templates and extended with plugins. This means that Johnny from the coffee house has even upped his game as a script-kiddie, specializing in downloading, installing, and modifying WordPress. It might look good initially, and it might even solve some small business needs, but try to get great support when something goes wrong, or try to solve for the 20% that is specific to your business.

A good example of this was the Psychology and the Other web site back in 2011. Psychology and the Other was an institute for the study of the crossover between psychology, philosophy, and religion. Back in 2011, Dr. David Goodman launched the inaugural conference, and had a call for proposals on the American Psychological Association’s Division 24 email list (I gave a poster presentation at this conference). The web site itself was a poorly managed WordPress site, and Dr. Goodman was first to admit that he knew little of Internet technology for such things. Instead, he was paying a "web master" $100 a month to maintain the site. In addition, Dr. Goodman was using ConstantContact as his event registration and emailing service, only at the time, ConstantContact’s form builder had a max length limit on all text areas. This required Dr. Goodman to place 5 text areas on the same page for the same thing, and force people submitting presentations to break their proposals up into five different areas. Not ideal.

Maybe six or seven years ago, I was able to experience the troubles that a local brewery had with setting up a web store for their brewery membership. Membership purchases did not lead directly to accounts in a secondary web store. These had to be set up manually. Initial purchases of special edition beer had to be canceled because of a glitch in the system, and later rounds of purchases had to be canceled because the application mishandled inventory amounts. In discussing all of these issues with the brewery owner, he mentioned that he was trying to avoid paying $20,000 for a custom solution, but it looked like he might have to go that route. According to him, there weren’t any out-of-the-box eCommerce solutions that matched what needed to be done for limited release beer.

Taylor Ellwood mentions in his book on professional networking that people who have a problem (such as the eCommerce issue above) actually have two problems: the problem in itself, and managing the cost of solving the problem. Most individuals, and many companies, are willing to live with some (or a lot) of pain, in order to save, or avoid, spending money. They often only see the short term when it comes to cost and value, and this has become more and more common in today’s quarter-by-quarter business environment. Most decisions-makers would prefer to buy things out-of-the-box rather than innovate—even decisions-makers at high levels in a company. What they really need to do is understand the value that solving the problem provides, and understand the detrimental position that cookie-cutter solutions in design and programming often leave companies.

Now all of this was true as much as a decade ago, but the combination of content management systems, Fiverr, theme stores, etc. have solved this problem, right?

Well… only for the people and/or companies with the resources and knowledge to manage the implementation. "Every company is an IT company" so where are your IT resources?

We can debate the value of cookie-cutter solutions all day, but what I really wanted to explore is the history of Johnny vs. the gig economy today. Fiverr is a good example of a market that has been given an easy tool to organize and connect gig workers and freelancers, and in fact, Johnny is probably on Fiverr, so you'll have to comb through the portfolios and the ratings to see if he's still as good as Sally says he is. That's the issue right? The marketplace is there, but do you trust the ratings?

The reality is that Sally's nephew was the original gig economy, the marketplace has just expanded so that the nieces and nephews of everyone at the company can get noticed. In some ways this is good because it expands the pool of talent. The bad news is that I'm using "talent" loosely here, and you still need to ensure results.

Fiverr, Uber, GrubHub, and every other gig economy start-up promised to solve slack time: Earn money, if you want, when you want. But these were supposed to be gigs—not full-time employment. People driving for Uber or GrubHub have little or no benefits, are treated like contractors in most states, and compete on fees and reviews in order to obtain gigs, but at the cost of reducing their profits. Most of these people barely make ends meet, and the industry is starting to see the villainy in many of these so-called innovations.

The freelance market is no different. In fact, it might be even more of a wild west considering that Uber and GrubHub are geographically locked, whereas freelance technology work can travel across state and country borders. Now Johnny is no longer the cheapest solution, as companies try to pay a lower price by going with the 3-star rated graphic designer from Austria.

There are multiple things wrong with this picture. For one, we're not paying our gig workers adequately, taking advantage of offshore developers struggling in their own country. Do we need a fair trade organization that monitors knowledge work like it monitors coffee? For two, there are no checks and balances on actual received business value outside of some stars and a minor review. Lastly, there is zero accountability for making the wrong decision by outsourcing to Johnny. Most often, internal teams are left to clean up the bad decisions of leadership, and often with less resources than needed to do the job. Meanwhile, the decision-maker likely received a bonus for getting the task accomplished at a lower cost… It looked good on a spreadsheet.