October 6, 2015

Who Are You Building Websites For?

Keeping real people in mind when you design a website.

I’ve been to conferences before. Swells of people you don’t know, crowding around coffee stations and sponsor booths, handing out business cards to strangers to fulfill your networking obligations, avoiding that one fellow been who’s enjoying the open bar a little too much.

Occasionally you get a glimpse of someone and wonder if they were the lone person to favourite your passive aggressive tweet about comic sans on hospital signs, though in general you have no real connection to these people other than the fact that you’re all on the same mission to avoid eye contact in the convention hotel elevator.

When the conference coordinator found me crying in the rain because I was lost in downtown Vancouver, I knew Design & Content was going to be different. It wasn’t just because Steve Fisher gave me a hug while I cried, or that he waited with me until I was recomposed, or even that he lead me to my pre-conference workshop in person. It’s because once he got me where I was, there was another woman who was mistakenly at the wrong session and he immediately volunteered to personally walk her to the right one.

It might just seem like simple kindness, but to me it set the tone of Design & Content. I wasn’t a number, I wasn’t even just a name on a badge, I was a person. And so was everyone else around me. Fisher didn’t help me because I knew his wife back in the day, or because he felt sorry for me; he offered me the same level of kindness and care he intended to offer each and every individual at the conference.


After the workshops came the official conference and it started with a welcome message from Fisher, and co-coordinator Brian Marchand, which immediately launched into the conference Code of Conduct.

It wasn’t an addendum or a tack on, it actually was the welcome message. Welcome to Design & Content 2015! We are so glad you are here, and we want you to feel that you are welcome and wanted at all times. We have a code of conduct because you are safe here and we want to make sure it stays that way.1

This code of conduct was completely foreign. Not as a concept of course, but for a conference, or anyone really, to stand up and say first and foremost this is the foundation of this gathering. We care about each other, and that’s more important than anything else that’s going to happen here today.


The conference began, and it started with conflict. How do you deal with conflict, how does conflict drive our stories, our actions, our design. It moved into a story of vulnerability, strongly emotional moments, both funny and heart wrenching, brought on by content that wasn’t thought through. Later, when you do something you love, you’ll connect with others who love the same thing. My keen intellectual senses2 were detecting a theme, from the workshops, to the code of conduct, to the speakers; we were being humanized.

When people ask me what I do for a living I say, “I build websites for the internet.” For the internet. Why do I say that? I’m not making something for the internet, none of us in this industry are. The virtual intangible world of servers and networks doesn’t care if we make buttons round or square. It doesn’t care if we develop with responsive or adaptive web design, what colour palette we use, or what font we choose. We build websites for people. We build websites for the guy next door who’s only in town three months out of the year. We build websites for my friend who’s slowly going blind. We build websites for my mother, who only recent discovered the internet has pictures of cats.3 We build websites for real people, in real world situations.

The people we build websites for aren’t account numbers or profile IDs, they’re human beings who have human reactions to design and content.

In this industry we allow ourselves to become so consumed with how something is going to function that we don’t take the time to stop to ask who will be using it. Why will they be using it. What they’re going to do with it. How it will impact their world. The people we build websites for aren’t account numbers or profile IDs, they’re human beings who have human reactions to design and content.

My brain melted. I suddenly felt wholly unqualified to work in a field I’ve been in for nearly five years. It’s so easy to focus on the client, so easy to get lost in the details of how something will function, will it swipe, will it rotate, will it randomize. How on earth do I design for actual people? I can’t do this! Thankfully this revelation was followed up with a talk from Denise Jacobs about Banishing Your Inner Critic and I regained enough mental equilibrium to realize that’s what the entire conference was about, bringing design and content into real human stories.

I learned a lot of really awesome things from Design & Content, things I’m excited to implement in both my professional and personal life, things that inspired me, and things that challenged me. I met some really great people that might actually retweet my passive aggressive twitter commentary, even if we still avoided eye contact in the elevator. But what I’m most excited about as our company moves forward is building websites for people instead of the internet.

1 One of my hobbies is paraphrasing people. For the actual welcome message, head here.
2 This is a joke.
3 This is not a joke.