The Next Wave – Small Web Designers Take Over

Whether you’re a Web designer, or have worked with Web design vendors, the business has changed greatly over the last few years. While there has been huge change in this marketplace, there are a few main streams which are developing, most of which represent positive trends for the independent Web consultant.

In-House IT Gets the Guernsey

Larger Fortune 500 firms now have handed most of the responsibility for Web work to their internal Information Technology (IT) departments. While marketing continues to have a say, IT will make most of the vendor decisions. This is a shift which could be problematic for Web design shops or individual consultants if they have traditionally dealt with marketing departments and maintained those relationships.

Marketing and IT departments have traditionally been at odds within most companies. Many Web design firms may not have the technical breadth and depth to be IT consultants; therefore they have never really built strong ties with IT. Because they haven’t established these ties, it may become more difficult for Web designers to gain business from companies’ internal IT departments. However, many independent consultants who moved into the Web space do have an IT background, and therefore they can easily make the transition to consulting to an IT department, rather than Marketing.

As these clients realise that the Web means more than brochureware, and they seek to provide users with more functionality, the site’s evolution becomes more dependent upon the business’s legacy systems. As they become more connected to the business systems, the standard bearer of business systems (IT) necessarily becomes more involved. And as IT becomes more involved, they’re likely to turn to the contractors they’ve used in the past. Usually these are independent IT consultants or larger consulting firms they may already have used to do other IT consulting work.

Medium or Application?

The Web is moving from medium to application. As it does so, the user experience becomes part of an application, whereas previously it was the application. For example, when the Web was young, it was more of a medium: similar to TV and radio, it was not that interactive, and while there was some interactivity, this functionality wasn’t usually interconnected with core business practices. The look and feel and interface were important; the creation of an optimal user experience was the goal. In a few cases, there was a defined task flow that the user could follow, but in the early days, users were expected to explore, rather than be guided.

Now, as the Web becomes more of an application, the look and feel has become less important that successfully assisting the user to complete their task, and in the online environment, this is a skill that requires more than adept graphic design (which, though it does help, is not the whole picture).

Ad-hoc interface standards have now emerged. It is no longer necessary to come up with new interfaces and task flows for every site: standard web paradigms have been developed, which can, and should, be reused in new designs. For example: a product company Website might use these standard navigation items: products, support, customers, about us, contact us.

Developers are a Dime A Dozen!

As budgets tighten, clients no longer see a vast difference between the larger Web design shops such as Scient and Razorfish, 2-5 person firms, or even independent consultants working from their homes. As long as the developer produces a quality product in good time at a reasonable price, they’ll be considered. Those who are able to provide similar services at lower cost will win the job.

Big Web firms have dissolved into breakaway smaller shops with the same personnel, and these shops have been able to take and complete business that the original firm was unable to produce profitably. In some cases, independent consultants can do the same work at a much lower cost by pulling together an ad-hoc team of developers to work on a project-by-project basis.

What we’re seeing is the commoditization of the Web design market. Large companies facing budget cuts, are no longer interested in dealing only with name brand firms: A Fortune 500 such as Cisco is just as happy to deal with Brand X Design as they are with Razorfish, because when they consider the final designs side-by-side, they can’t see enough of a difference to justify the extra cost of a big design firm. While there usually are small dissimilarities in quality and usability, to the layperson this difference does not present enough of a value-add to justify the increased cost.

Over to You…

Small firms and independent Web consultants are taking over the space the big boys used to play in — and they’re doing it profitably. The moral of this story is that small operators shouldn’t be afraid of going for the bigger clients: in this marketplace, even the bigger companies are looking to small firms and other "free agents". As long as you produce a professional design and have the right skills: you can compete with the big boys. You can (in this economy) win on price and still do great work, both for your clients and your portfolio.

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