A gardener's perspective on web design and development

My brother is a gardener and tree surgeon. We recently had a conversation about our respective works over a beer (or two). Our conclusion was that there were a lot of similarities between his job and mine.

Gardening as a service, not gardens as products

My brother told me that people tend to see a garden as a product and think along the lines of: I will pay that guy and he will make me a nice garden.

A gardener, however, does not see his work as creating a product: the garden. He sees his work as a service. The garden is merely a byproduct of that service. He will ask you how much time you spend in your garden, what you using your garden for, what kind of money you are prepared to spend over the course of a year, what you want your garden to look like in winter, etc. What a gardener sells is not a garden, it is his ability to transform your ideas, needs and objectives into one.

This closely matches my experience working on the web. Most people think of us as “website builders”, as people simply executing a mission that’s given to them. However, I look at it in a completely different way. I see my work as understanding my client’s business and objectives, the users of the website and their needs, and how digital channels can help achieve these business objectives while catering for those users’ needs. What I sell is my ability to transform a set of constraints, objectives and needs into a website.

Gardens evolve and change over time

Gardens change over time, the simplest example being seasons. You want your garden to look as good in the middle of autumn as it does in the spring.

When the trees you have planted are small, they do not produce much shade and the plants at their feet can get a lot of sun. A couple of years down the line, there is a lot more of that shade and you need to change the plants to adapt to that new environment. If you now have a very young child running around, that open water puddle might not be such a good idea anymore, or you might need barriers around it to prevent any accident.

When we launch a website, even if we ran some good user testing, adjustments are bound to be needed after the first three months. The priorities of the business will change over time and the website has to reflect those changes.

Yet, more often than not when I talk to clients, they seem to think that, once the website is built and launched, they are done with it.

Gardens need constant care

Gardens and trees are living things. They need constant care. If you don’t work in your garden regularly, it is going to turn into a jungle or into a wasteland where nothing grows. Maybe it doesn’t need a professional gardener more than twice a year, but your garden certainly needs someone spending a good amount of time working on it pretty often.

Again, very analogous to websites. Online properties need a good publication plan, a regular influx of good content, and someone to publish it. You also need that CMS to be updated from time to time, that server infrastructure and analytics to be monitored, and tweaks to happen here and there.

Everybody has a garden but few people need a gardener

A lot of people have gardens and take care of them (mostly) on their own. They make an annual trip to the garden centre to pick up the flowers and plants they need, they mow their lawn every two weeks, blow the leaves in Autumns and even deal with the moles. The only times when they might need a professional is to trim that old tree every couple of years.

Everybody has a garden, but people needing the services of a gardener regularly are few and far between. People or companies with a big domain to take care of create an internal team of gardeners or hire a gardening company.

That pretty much reflects the state of the web today. Everybody needs a web presence but you can take care of it yourself in a lot of cases. Plenty of solutions are available out there: from a simple Facebook page or a Wordpress and a 5 dollars theme to something like SquareSpace, Wix, Etsy or Shopify. These are the equivalent of the local garden centre. They will do the job for most people needing a simple website, and that trend is only going to get bigger.

The number of people needing the services web professionals provide is quite small in comparison. In the web world too, people or companies with higher needs are building their internal web teams or hiring agencies.

Our conclusion was that, as a freelance gardener or web designer, you have two main options: do many small jobs for a lot of clients or find a handful of clients that need a professional for one or two days a week.

Also, I might start using that garden analogy more and more in client meetings.