The Thankless Job that is Web Architecture

I've been creating websites for well over ten years now, and although some things have changed over that time there still remains a bit of a divide between web design and web development that won't go away. I've always been in both camps really, but traditionally you're supposed to pick a side, so to speak. Web design is all about the look of the thing, and web development is about how it's programmed, with how it's actually structured falling somewhere between the two I guess, often picked up by a combination of both. I guess I've always felt this is where I belong when it comes to web work, a skill/profession probably best referred to as Web Architecture.

Web design is the more glamorous side of things, if you can call it that, but I've always considered web development, and for that matter web architecture, something of an underrated profession. I think the problem is people seem to think complexity in websites is somehow something to do with the computer, and not the people who made it. We seem to have this weird blind spot when it comes to computers - and also complex web sites - where we treat them as black boxes of mysterious techy amazingness, rather than what they really are - simply a collection of digitally encoded thinking.

It's not a website - it's people's thoughts

What a clever, dynamically driven website really is, is the sum of all the developers thoughts that have gone into it. The way it functions is a direct result of those persons ability to think out problems and processes, and the way that you experience it is completely down to the way they have thought it out for you. I'm not talking about the content here, the text on the page or the images, etc. that you see, but the architecture that makes up the site as a whole, the nooks and crannies, the way you can click here but not there, move one way on one page, and in another way somewhere else. The experience of being in the space, as opposed to reading the content.

It's actually the same throughout all the digital world. Unlike the real world, where we already have space that comes pre-filled with various things (trees, light, ground, gravity, etc.), everything in the digital world has to be created from nothing. There really is nothing there at all, until some designer and or developer comes along and starts to code, and suddenly you get virtual space that you can move about it - everything you experience in that space has been dreamt up by one or more individuals somewhere.

But then comes the down side - from the developers and architects perspective in particular their contribution is invisible to the average user. People who use the site will generally have no idea of the complexity that underlies experience. Most other things that we experience in our day to day lives have been around for so long that we tend to appreciate the differences - we may not understand everything about how our cars work, for example, but we do appreciate that a Ferrari is a more advanced form of craftmanship than, say, a Rover, and that is then reflected in our experience of the product. Hell, for just about everything else we can at least see the thing we're supposed to appreciate, but the lines of code that create a virtual space? That's far too abstract for most people.

The end result of all this in my experience is that those who strive to create quality spaces in this way are too often overlooked when it comes to tokens of appreciation. Most organisations have systems in place to honour those who work hard for their companies, but few I think have the capability to allow the contributions of developers and architects to be equally measured against their colleagues who work in the real world. It's basically much easier to appreciate someone's work when you can actually see it, after all, so their contribution is obvious. The architect of the virtual space you experience is always hidden from view though, there is no signature at the bottom to indicate its provenance, no smiling face of the creator showing you who's responsible for the experience.

I hope that as our use of the web matures that this will change, and perhaps one day there will be more widespread appreciation of the skills of the architects of virtual space, just as there is for architects of real space, but in the meantime we'll just have to keep plugging ourselves I guess.

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