This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Saturday, May 31, 2008

What is a Web Professional?

In the title field of pages on my website, you might have noticed me pitching myself with the vaguest of job titles: "web professional." If you had nothing better to do, you might even have wondered what that means. And given the number of friends and family who don't seem to have the foggiest notion of what I do, and my many colleagues at the University who can't figure out the difference between "the web guy" and "the IT guy," it seems to be a fair question.

So what exactly do I mean by a "web professional? Quite simply, it's someone who makes their living building and/or managing websites. Back in the bad old days there was really only one necessary skill set for people who worked on the web (coding HTML) and one job title ("webmaster," or if they wanted to be fancy, "web designer"). But as websites and the technology that drives them have become more and more complex, the number of skills that one needs to have just to keep one's ahead above water has ballooned.

As with any growing field, some practitioners become specialists in one area while others take a jack-of-all-trades generalist approach. But there are certain areas that I think every web professional must occasionally dip their toes into, whether they like it or not. The best web professionals will have skills in some or all of these diverse fields:

User Experience Design. The core goal of every website is to allow communication between the website visitor (or user) and the organization or individual behind the website. It is essential that everyone involved in websites have an understanding of how their users (or intended users) interact with websites, and how they can help those users find the information they are looking for (and thereby increase the chance that they will perform the actions that you hope they will take). Improving the user's experience should be the core of every decision made in the creation and evolution of a website.

At the core of user experience design is information architecture -- figuring out how the information you are presenting to the world fits together. This includes things like being able to create intuitive navigational categories and making sure that a user will have all the information needed to complete a given task.

Closely related to information architecture is interface design; this is the "look-and-feel" of the site. A perfectly planned-out information architecture isn't much use if you can't provide the user with visual cues about how that architecture works. Interface design should also include a solid grasp of semantic markup and CSS, so that the content can be accessed and understood even by those who can't see the visual design of the page due to disability or the size of their screen.

Content Production. Skills in writing and copy-editing are extraordinarily important for web professionals. Almost everyone who works on the web will find themselves responsible for writing content at some point, and without quality content even the most well-designed website is essentially useless. Ideally, content should be written in a style suitable for the web; short paragraphs and the appropriate use of lists to make text easily scannable are key.

Programming & Development. Code geeks are what most people tend to think of when they think about web professionals. Developers are the ones that make the web work, inventing new technologies and exploring the limits of existing ones to create exciting web applications. Even if they are not developers, most web professionals wind up having to learn at least a little PHP or some other programming language, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to be able to communicate with their techies and be able to know what is possible and what is not.

Multimedia Production. Audio and video are no longer fun extras; they are expected forms of content delivery for most types of website. Web professionals are increasingly having to learn how to create, edit, and deploy this content.

Octopus Wrangling. Increasingly, organizations' web presences are no longer confined to their own website. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other outlets for user-generated content have created the opportunity to have multiple web presences, sending your content slithering out to find interested users without them having to find you (some have called this the "social media starfish," but I prefer the octopus metaphor -- it's creepier). Today's web professionals not only have to figure out the best ways to adapt a particular tentacle's technology to their organization's marketing strategies, but they also have to keep tabs on a rapidly exploding field and recognize which new social media have staying power and are worth the investment of time and work hours.

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