What's in a Name | April 18, 2005

Most mature industries have pretty fixed job titles and roles. Take the construction industry for instance. You’ve got Architects, Engineers and Draftsmen. You’ve got Electricians and Carpenters, Bricklayers and Plumbers, Foremen and Site Inspectors. Each one has a defined role and if you met one down the pub, you’d have a pretty good idea what their job entailed.

The movie industry is the same. Every film will have a Director and a Cinematographer. There will be Producers, Actors, Special Effects people and Stuntmen. Each person knows roughly what the other does and how all the roles fit together to produce a great – or not so great – movie.

Because the web design industry is pretty new – practically it’s about 10 years old – we are still in the process of defining our roles. There is also a size issue at play here. To work efficiently, large organisations need to be able to define roles. However in smaller companies, roles are often blurred as people are forced to wear multiple hats. While there are a few large web design companies, over 70% of web companies in the UK employ ten or less people. The smaller companies make up the bulk of the industry and it’s these people who are shaping the industry.

Until recently I wasn’t particularly bothered about having a title. I worked full time for a small web design agency and never really needed to succinctly describe what I did to another person. When people asked what I did for a living I’d usually tell them with an embarrassed shrug that I was a web designer.

I say “embarrassed shrug” for a couple of reasons. Firstly where I live, everybody is either a “web designer”, a “musician” or a “DJ”, and usually all three. Secondly, the term web designer has developed a bit of a stigma of late. In the late 90’s, being a web designer carried some social currency. It meant you were young, smart and professional. Now everybody “does” web design from the 14 year old next door to my hairdresser. Web design has been devalued from a professional endeavour to a trade at best and a hobby at worst. This may sound a little elitist. It’s not meant to be. I love the fact that web design is so accessible. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be here today.

If you work for yourself or a small company, the title web designer is probably sufficient. However when you want to move to your next job or market your skills to a wider audience you need to do two things. Firstly you need to be able to explain to potential employers and clients what you do as succinctly as possible. Secondly you need to be able to differentiate yourself from potential competition, and the hordes of hobbyists out there.

Before going freelance, I thought long and hard about exactly what it is I do. The obvious choice was visual design and front end development. Obvious because it’s such a nice, distinct and easily marketable package. I come up with visual designs and then translate them into XHTML and CSS layouts.

However, that’s only a fraction of what I do on a daily basis. One of my big interests is usability. At client and internal meetings I’m the person thinking about how the system is going to be used. I’ll work with the client and my team to make sure the goals are set and the system is actually doing what the client wants it to do, in the simplest possible way. I’ll work up use-cases, user flows, wireframes and navigational schema. I’ll write user survey questions , plan and implement usability tests.

Related to this is Information Architecture. I’ve always thought of Information architects as creating taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. Yet a large part of what I do is pure IA. Planning site hierarchies and naming conventions, running card sorts and contextual surveys.

I know many people in the web design industry who do similar work to me, but no two people seem to share the same job title. Some people would call this role a Producer, although others would say that a Producer is more like a Project Manager. Some people would call this role an Information Architect, although I personally think that Information Architect doesn’t necessarily convey the scope of the work done. Some people have started using the terms “Big IA” and “Little IA” to make the distinction, however I feel that belittles the more academic side of IA somewhat.

Currently there seem to be so many job titles floating around. Some of the ones I’ve toyed with in the past include:

The term I currently favour is User Experience Designer. It’s a term that focuses squarely on the user and is closely related to User-centred Design. The User Experience Designers role is to manage the strategic vision of the project. It’s their job to work with the client and design/development team to define the project and then make sure that definition is met. They write the specs, create use-cases and wireframes. They act as the first port of call when clients want to discuss technical or strategic issues and are ultimately responsible for the success of the project.

What does your role entail and what’s your current job title? Do you feel this accurately describes what you do, and if not, what title would you choose?

Posted at April 18, 2005 8:51 AM

Comments

Stuart Colville said on April 18, 2005 8:13 AM

My current job title is PHP web developer, but I gues this says little of the design work I do. I feel that there is a tendency to put everyone in a box e.g. you are either a designer or a coder.

I enjoy both the backend work as much as the front-end stuff, so it’s up to me to demonstrate capabilities in both or else I’d just get stuck with coding 5 days a week!

Stuart Langridge said on April 18, 2005 8:36 AM

Job title: information architect.

This sort of conveys what I do, if you actually think about the words rather than other people who call themselves an IA; I take information from disparate places and apply some order to it. The bit that I do but it doesn’t convey is “and make that ordered information available to users in a way they understand”, but then I’d have to be an information and user experience architect, and my business card isn’t big enough for that.

Les said on April 18, 2005 8:51 AM

My current title is ‘Interaction Designer’ - although to me it describes what I do, I’m used to getting a lot of blank looks when I get asked what my job is. I usually have to give up and say I’m a web designer (which in London is as common as it is in Brighton Andy!)

It took a few goes to get to this title, but I’m kind of happy with it. It allows me the freedom to work in both design areas and IA areas, and then play with the front end code too.

Matthew Pennell said on April 18, 2005 9:49 AM

My title is “Senior Web Designer” (although the ‘Senior’ bit relates more to my payscale than any hierarchy, as there are no ‘Junior’ web designers in the company). It kind of relates to my job, but only if you understand that there are various diverse elements (as listed above) that go to make up ‘design’.

There are still some people who think I’m just here to make pretty pictures, though.

Jon Hicks said on April 18, 2005 9:54 AM

I always demand that clients refer to me ‘Big Chief NoFontTags”

Shaun O'Connell said on April 18, 2005 10:09 AM

I’m not involved in design, and that reflects in my two job titles:
“UI Developer” and… “Presentment Consultant”
le sigh

rob said on April 18, 2005 10:51 AM

In order …

1. UI Developer
2. Information Architect (what I do)

But then I’m biased, as, like some other people I know, I have a degree in Architecture — this term accurately describes the skills and activities of much that you undertake.

AND it SOUNDS GOOD, which may be scoffed at, but unless they’re going to pay for your pension and next month’s rent, who cares?

Cheers

Rob

Tom said on April 18, 2005 11:21 AM

I am jack of all trades at the moment, I’ve been updated old sites with XHTML/CSS, built a shopping cart and done a “normal” site design.

I hate the term “web designer”.

Mike Stenhouse said on April 18, 2005 11:41 AM

I’ve tried to sidestep the issue entirely! I refer to myself as a “web developer specialising in…” and then list what it is I think I do. I couldn’t think of an single title that I actually fitted.

I think that web agencies have the same problem from the other end when finding people - they all use titles that mean different things to different people. When I went freelance I asked mates who use contractors what they look for in a CV and they said they liked a clear list of skills because that’s something not open to interpretation.

Richard said on April 18, 2005 12:24 PM

I think the area that this may effect most (a part from status), is in CV writing, where as someone that has both applied for jobs and receives CV ‘s regularly I feel the IT recruitment market leaves a lot to be desired.

The level of understanding by these guys is often truly shocking. I once never made it to interview, and on asking the consultant why it was because my CV didn’t include HTML in the skill set (it did include ASP, CGI, XSLT, etc.), and this was for a programming role.

Julian said on April 18, 2005 1:01 PM

Job title: CEO

hehe…

Nathan said on April 18, 2005 2:07 PM

I have Project Director on my business cards. I too cannot decide what I want to be called. I think that information architect is going to be used next. I like to be able to say IA, and it sounds like I actually do more that draw pretty picture in photoshop then hit the magic make website button.

Jeff Adams said on April 18, 2005 3:10 PM

Senior Web Developer

Which is funny because I don’t really do any “development” backend work. I pretty much only do visual design and front-end coding.

Pid said on April 18, 2005 3:32 PM

Web Designer / Developer.

I also went through a period of musing about what my title ought to be, just after I went freelance.

I gave up after a while, when I realised it would take more effort to explain what <insert-cool-title-here> actually meant and why it was different from a web designer - than just call myself a web designer and differentiate myself through my actions.

Most clients will likely be less interested in your title, than a nifty explanation of some of the more tricky concepts to grasp, about why their business will perform better after your tender ministrations, than some fat-fingered fool’s.

Xian said on April 18, 2005 5:58 PM

Let’s see. I do IA, backend + database programming, visual design, xhtml/css, usability, + every thing else.

I’m going with Web Ninja. I’ll have to explain it just as much as any of the other non-‘Web Designer’ titles, but at least it doesn’t sound like buzz-ridden enterprise speak.

Jeni said on April 18, 2005 7:11 PM

Most of my professional strengths relate to application design and layout, so I try to come up with titles that relate to that. “Application Designer,” “Web Architect,” etc. In reality, I usually end up being a jack-of-all-trades (“a designer who can program”) and get vague job titles to match that. “Web Designer” is my current title; a misnomer at best, considering that I spend about 75% of my time doing things other than designing for the web.

There is one job title worse than “Web Designer” in my book: “Webmaster.” I had a job a few years back doing site administration, and I cringed everytime I was introduced as “the webmaster.” Thankfully, I picked my own title for my business cards, and ended up with “Web Administrator” instead.

goodwitch said on April 18, 2005 8:18 PM

web goddess is my preference! although i do like web woman as well. do you think i should go with the black or red cape???

Joseph Lindsay said on April 18, 2005 8:33 PM

My official title is ‘Website Co-ordinator’ which is probably reasonably accurate. Usually I’m referred to by collegues as ‘Joe that does the internet stuff’. Like most small organisations I’m the one that does it all from Project Management, Business Analysis, application design, interface design, programming, HTML/CSS coding, beating copywriters and content experts over the head for content etc.

Where I am at the moment my title is OK, but were I to move on I think that a better title could carry more weight with future employers. I guess having ‘manager’ in my title could make it better.

Jessica said on April 18, 2005 8:45 PM

Job title: Web Developer
What I tell people: “I’m a Web Developer” or “Oh, I do web stuff” or “I’m a programmer” though I do like “Web Ninja”

I wonder about this same sort of stuff often. I am usually the one that says “Hey, let’s try this CSS stuff… Here I’ll code up a page so you can see how much better it is.” And I debug the XHTML/CSS but many copy/paste my code, including the “webmaster.” But mostly I do XHTML, CSS, ColdFusion, and Flash.

I like “web developer.” I develop stuff for the web. I’m not a master of it. I feel funny calling myself a designer since I have a BS in Computer Science and most of my time is developing, not designing.

Andrea said on April 18, 2005 9:00 PM

Yes, ‘webmaster’ is the worst title— I just wrote a post as to why yesterday. I run the web site for a University, and my official title is “Web Manager”. That’s fairly accurate, but doesn’t really cover all the intricacies. I could live with “Web Goddess”, but I really think I may try out “Big Chief NoFontTags” for a while.

Mike said on April 18, 2005 10:00 PM

Title: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer
Duties: Everything.

:)

kris said on April 19, 2005 12:23 AM

great thoughts andy. you’re on to something. this is a debate me and my buds kick around often. i reblogged the link and subscribed. thx. :) kk+

Robin Hastings said on April 19, 2005 2:39 AM

Well, at the library at which I work, my almost official title is Webgoddess. I have used it for insurance forms and whatnot, though on my job description it actually reads “Web Design and Training Coordinator”. I think that Webgoddess just has more flair, though.

Tanny O'Haley said on April 19, 2005 5:55 AM

My title is R&D Analyst IV. I think the IV refers to my pay scale. But my title doesn’t really reflect what I do or have done. I hold prior art on a patent Motorola has, I’ve invented a couple of programming languages, several scripting languages for email, written code generators (in the old days), done a lot of middle ware work, but I think the title I like best would be evangelist.

At the company I work for I’ve been pushing them to web applications since I started there, November 1998. I like to enable other programmers. Most of the time when I’m asked, I say that I’m a programmer. That’s something most people can get a handle on even though it’s a small part of what I do.

Neil said on April 19, 2005 1:30 PM

(ranting)

Honestly? I just say I’m a designer. I mean no offense here, but I find 99% of all job titles and labels in our industry to be pretty infuriating.

What exactly is “user experience”, or “information architecture”, or “interaction designer”, etc.? If you say your job title to someone who doesn’t work in our industry, will they understand what it is you do without a lengthy explanation?

My belief is that we need to strive to make our industry accessible to all. This includes making things like job titles and the way we speak about our work comprehensible to “outsiders” - none of this “converging paradigms to leverage just-in-time UI delivery” twaddle. Otherwise, it ends up just being a new kind of pretension.

Yes, the industry is very young, and with time many of these labels may gain enough traction that they may enter the vernacular at some level… but designers exist to communicate, and if our job titles are so esoteric that they are meaningless to “outsiders”, how good of a job communicating are we actually doing?

All of this rant aside, I think Jon Hicks is on to something.

Stuart Langridge said on April 19, 2005 4:34 PM

I did actually ask for “Minister of Algorithms”, but my boss said no…

Garrett said on April 20, 2005 3:14 PM

As you are already familiar Andy, over at Bright Corner we avoided this whole issue by using descriptions on our cards.

Being inspired by your post, I wrote about it over at GarrettDimon.com. It’s just a little insight into how we try to avoid the whole title issue. It still doesn’t help much with day to day conversation, but it’s a start.

Pawel said on April 20, 2005 7:18 PM

I’m a freelance web developer (that’s how I answer questions about my occupation), but the briefs I get from one agency are titled “documentation for webeditor” - I think it sounds nice, whatever it means. As a “webeditor” I convert .psd files into xhtml+css code and usually place the content.

Mathias said on April 21, 2005 4:25 PM

Title: Technology Manager. It basically means I manage the team of developers, be it front-end, back-end or Actionscript.

Old titles: Technical Architect, Interactive Developer, Designer, Screen Designer.

Requested title at all jobs I’ve applied for: McGyver. Never gotten it though. ;)

One thing though when it comes to titles: I have never quite understood how a 21-year old, who has newly graduated, can be called “Art Director” (unless it’s a VERY small company) or “Senior” anything…?? Yet, this is very common in our line of business.

Gone are the days when you had to hone your skills for years, from apprenticeship to becoming a master. Where will those 21-year olds go?? Are they at the peak of their career??

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they are less skilled (on the contrary at times), but I think there has been inflation in the titles of this industry.

Just my £0.02.