Web Design Disciplines Explained Through the Medium of Dungeons & Dragons | January 27, 2012

First off let me apologise for the laboured metaphor I’m about to inflict on you, but I thought it could be entertaining to try and describe the web design industry using a medium I’m sure you’re all familiar with; Dungeons & Dragons. However I should point out that I’m no D&D expert, having played it last when I was 13. So please don’t leave comments to the line of “you got that all wrong as those character classes were changed in AD&D 2nd Edition, Unearthed Arcana.” or I’ll pull out my +2 broadsword and go Berserker on your ass.

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, characters could have a variety of professions such as Fighter, Thief or Magic-User. These professions were loosely related to a character’s natural abilities. So if you were intelligent you’d be well suited to becoming a magic-user, whereas if you were dexterous, becoming a thief was a good option.

In the real world, your natural interests and abilities will also dictate the career path you follow to some extent. It’s doubtful that you’ll have a natural ability in a particular discipline, but your innate attributes will make it easier for you to pursue certain careers than others. So if you’re a logical thinker, development is a natural avenue, while if you’re empathetic, people management is a good career. If you have both, you get to choose one or the other or maybe even combine those skills and become a scrum master.

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, Fighters were the bedrock of any quest. For a new party, you wouldn’t get very far without a fighter or two to guard your back, while a group of fighters could easily operate on their own, without the assistance of other classes. The same is true on the web. Programmers are the fighters of the web. It’s entirely possible to start an online business with a couple of programmers and you’d be successful for a while at least.

Thieves are sharp, agile and good with technology. The hackers of the fantasy world. In a modern campaign you’d want at least one thief along to pick locks, disable traps and run interference. With their penchant to form guilds (The Guild of Accessible Web Designers anyone), Thieves were front end developers of the D&D multiverse.

Thieves and Fighters could make pretty good headway on their own, but throw an illusionist into the mix and you’ve got a powerful combination. Illusionists are learned in the arcane sigils (typography to you and me) and had the power to dazzle people with their magical incantations. Relatively useless straight out of college, they only came into their own at higher experience levels, where they become formidable allies. Illusionists benefit from being around higher-level magic users as they can swap spells and learn faster. Similarly design is typically a learned profession but novice designers struggle on their own. So they need lots of support from senior practitioners. However when designers start to become seniors themselves, they are amazingly powerful, and a good creative director is worth their weight in sharpies (5,500 if you assume the average weight of a man is 62kg).

Clerics are the wise healers of the pack. Their job is to look after the spiritual and physical well being of the team. A little like a good project manager when you think about it.

Lastly you have the Rangers. Rangers require higher than average attribute scores across a range of different areas, so tend to be less common. Like Wizards and Thieves they are also a learned class, having to study things like tracking and animal lore. In fact, higher level Rangers even have the ability to cast certain spells or defuse traps. As such they are a bit of a hybrid. Rangers are great in open country and typically work alone. However they’re not much use in towns. So Rangers aren’t needed on every quest and are a bit of a specialism. To me, Rangers are the UX Designers of the D&D world. Highly trained specialists, of use in a subset of specific projects.

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons progress by gaining experience points which relate to the complexity of the quests they undertake and the level of the foes they defeat. If they do something themselves all that learning goes to them. However if they are part of a team the experience is typically distributed amongst everybody. So the more quests you undertake, and the bigger those quests are, the more you’ll progress in your careers. If you play infrequently and only accept easy challenges it can take you ages to move forward, while if you work with a small but experienced team on tricky adventures you’ll grow much faster.

The same is true with the web. Learning comes through experience and the more projects you undertake the better you’ll get. If you accept simple projects with little risk you’ll have an easy life but you won’t push yourself. It’s only by taking risks and working on projects that are slightly outside your comfort zone will you learn new skills and push your career forward apace.

With some character classes, new skills become available at higher levels. You could argue the same is true on the web. There are certain skills you would typically only pick up at higher experience levels and are unlikely to be present in junior practitioners. As such, your level of experience really does impact what you can and can’t contribute to a project.

Now here’s where things start to get interesting. In D&D it’s possible for characters to follow multiple classes. However if you do this you have to split your experience across the different classes making progress much slower. In new of mid level teams, this isn’t so much of a problem. So a 2nd level Thief-Illusionist can hold their own with a 4th level fighter. But a 6th level Thief-Illusionist would probably be outclassed by a 12th level Ranger.

This is also true in the real world. It’s totally possible to do both design and development, and in the early stages one will actually aid the other. But as you undertake one project after another you’ll find that it’ll take you longer to become an expert in either. So it’s great if you’re an all rounder in a team of all rounders, but becomes difficult to carve out a meaningful niche amongst a group of experts.

There is one caveat here and that’s that Bard character. Bards were a really weird class and therefore not something many people played. They had to have really high ability scores across a range of attributes. They also had to start out as a Fighter, then duel class as a Fighter-Thief and then finally duel class as a druid. It’s only after going through this long and laborious process that they could become a 1st level Druid and start all over again.

I think this is the position a lot of UX practitioners have found themselves in. Rather than going through the higher education track, they have worked their way through the design and development professions, never settling on either. Instead they will get to a medium level of mastery before getting bored or distracted by something else. As such, there is a subtle but important difference between a designer and developer who does a bit of UX (think multi-class character) and a self trained UX practitioner (think a multiclass character who took a specific set of steps in order to change class to a Druid).

And that’s it. My slightly laboured, incredibly nerdy description of the web design industry, as explained through the medium of D&D.

You have the initiative. What’s your next move going to be?

Posted at January 27, 2012 4:23 PM


Jim Purbrick said on January 27, 2012 4:45 PM

And then there’s the client who thinks they need a level 20 wizard to cast a Wish spell, when normally a mid level party with a selection of hammers reporting back regularly will do. If they get their way and the Wish is actually cast, the client often doesn’t like what they get and the wizard is aged several years in the process.

Marc Drummond said on January 27, 2012 4:57 PM

I miss playing RPGs, so this was a great analogy for me.

One other thing I would like to add is that one advantage that multi-class characters have is that they are better able to handle solo adventures. A fighter in a well-balanced group is essential. But put a fighter up against a magic user, and there will be issues, without having a bunch of epic magical items.

On the other hand, a fighter-mage, or a fighter-cleric, may be much better equipped to handle an adventure in a dungeon without a large party.

Similarly, while the expert web folk get a lot of the fanfare in our industry, a lot of web work done in medium-sized organizations is carried out by in-house designers, or with small organizations, through independent freelance designers. While these solo adventures may not be experts in any one thing, they need to be knowledgeable enough to tackle nearly any task. Even if the solution is not as elegant or masterfully done as an expert might be able to do so, the budgets of small- to medium-sized organizations lead to the use of solo adventurers.

And for those organizations, having a multi-class character is essential. Particularly once that multi-class character levels up and gets a broad range of experience and skills, they are capable of crafting innovative solutions that make use of the materials at hand.

While they may not specialize in programming, they need to be able to do some. While they may not be the most amazing designers in the world, they can create an interface that is inviting and usable. They keep projects on task. And yes, they integrate UX into their work as well.

So while the single-class characters and rangers of the world might get the fanfare, let’s raise a mug of ale to the multi-class characters out there working to make the web great.