I am old now. Computers have been in and out of my life. A long time ago, in the early 1970's, I fell into a job as an assembly language programmer for a large firm. The machine I wrote programs for, a handsome IBM System/360 mainframe with a sexy Tape Operating System, was housed in a large air-conditioned facility guarded by IT specialists. We lowly programmers, working in non-air-conditioned cubicles, could only look at it through the great glass doors. My programs, all nicely entered on pastel-coloured IBM cards by our highly skilled keypunch operator, were carried down to the Computer Centre to be fed to the machine. I was in awe of that great machine. (Fast-forward to today: my tiny $12 MP3 player has more computing power than the IBM/360!)
When I left that job to raise children, teach, and do volunteer work in bicycle advocacy, computers exited my life. There were no home computers. Eventually my son started playing with computers at school. He decided that computers were a Good Thing. Not long after, a Vic20 came into our house. It was cute, but I did not have time to play with it. Years later, I finally graduated to having my own PC, and I was totally at a loss: it did not do anything the way I remembered computers doing things. Where were the programs? The core dumps for debugging? How could I tell it what to do?
After a nearly thirty-year absence, I was a stranger in computer-land, but not for long. A Graphical User Interface with all its bells and whistles really did turn out to be a joy, and a big improvement over boxes of punch-cards.
I started getting comments from people about how easy it was to use, how fast it loaded, how many special things it did. The integral Content Management System was drooled over by some who understood what it was. I was also told by several professional web designers that I ought to have used Dreamweaver or one of the other great website-generating software packages, that it is stupid to write all your own code: it is simply not done, and the site would crash and burn, later if not sooner!
I suppose if one is trained as a graphic designer, writing one's own code does seem crazy. For me, it seemed the obvious thing to do. It would be too frustrating for me to even attempt to force a cookie-cutter website maker like Dreamweaver or scripting language like ASP to produce the kind of site that I envisioned. I was also exploring the structures of other websites (for inspiration) and discovering just how few handbuilt sites there are. As I learned more, I found other reasons for writing my own code: not being dependent on a proprietary piece of software makes the code simpler as well as transportable from one platform to another. The whole site turned out compact and fast, even though it had an enormous number of features. Its modular design makes it easy for any skilled PHP programmer to maintain and extend. A computer security geek was unable to find any security holes. When the site went 'live', it needed only minimal code tweaks to make it run perfectly. This is as it should be.
It is my belief that website design needs a paradigm shift. We must answer the folowing questions: Who are the users for this site? What is the site to be used for? These answers, and only these, are what should guide our design. This is a very different approach from what I see all around me: websites that scream "Look at what I can do! Isn't this a COOL website?". The new paradigm should emphasize usability, simplicity, speed and robustness.
I have been getting requests from others (some of whom have paid a high price for user-unfriendly/nonfunctional websites) to design websites for them or help them design their own site. This seems like a perfect opportunity to finally return to the career I had to leave so long ago!
Halifax, Nova Scotia