I work hard every day to become better at what I do. I sit in my office reading blogs, books, tutorials, and anything else I can get my hands on and work on experiments and projects to hone my programming and design skills. I do this to avoid facing the trunk monkey in my car that attacks me when I go out… or possibly I do this so that I can produce really great websites. However, it is apparent to me that no matter how much I learn it will not be enough if what I build is not useful to people. So the real question is not just how do we build things well, but how do we build useful things?
Good Code, Good Design, a Good Start
It is necessary before we get into this to be clear about one point — good programming and design skills are just the foundation of a useful website. It is assumed that programmers can produce modular, reusable, object oriented code. Valid HTML and CSS are not something to brag about, they are a minimum for not being wrong. Layouts that make sense, appropriate color palettes, and proper application of Gestalt Principles are simply a beginning.
Doing Something Useful
Web sites should do something useful (caveat: some sites are not useful in the traditional sense, they may be amusing, sad, self-indulgent, experimental, or poorly designed. I refer here primarily to commercial, governmental, or academic sites). Here are a few simple steps to doing something useful:
- Find out what some people want or, better yet, need
- Make something that does what the people need or gets them a thing they need
- Tell everyone about the thing you made
- Optional: Charge money and become filthy, stinking rich
Are All Those Steps Necessary?
Yes, except for Step 4, which is clearly labeled as Optional. Please pay attention.
Okay, we’ll explain further. In order to do something useful you will need to find a need or desire and fulfill it. This often requires you paying attention to the people around you and recognizing such complicated emotions as frustration, anger, and desperation. People experiencing these emotions often have a need that is unfulfilled. Sometimes that need can be filled using a web site or software that you make.
Will This Always Work?
No, some needs cannot be filled using a web site. It is important not to suffer from “Hammer Syndrome”. This occurs when you start to see the same solution to every problem because you can only conceive of a single tool for any situation. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
Some examples of problems that can be solved with a web site are:
- Need to provide customers with directions to and contact information for a company
- Need to make research results available to other scientists worldwide
- Need to look up the weather in a travel destination
Some needs are not filled easily using software or a website:
- Need to eat food each day
- Need to treat a head wound
- Need to move a heavy object a long distance
What About a Website That Delivers Food via Doctors in Cargo Jets?
That’s just ridiculous.
Do I Really Have To Make Something?
If I Make It Won’t People Just Find Me?
No. This is not Field of Dreams. If you build it and don’t bother to tell anyone your brilliant solution will not get used. Solutions to problems are only useful if they are known to those with the problem. So you will need to invest time and money into telling people about your solution. Tell them what it is, why it is great, and how they can get it.
It’s odd, but as simple as the 4 Steps sound we regularly see examples of bright people who fail to complete one or more of them. They recognize a need and do nothing about it, they build a great piece of software that sits unused, or they fail to notice a problem and consequent opportunity that is right in front of their face. Don’t be that guy. Complete all 4 Steps and retire to Boca Raton when you’re 40.