brain surgery made easy

"Yes! You too can be a brain surgeon, with the new Brain-O-Rama surgeon’s helper, a revolutionary new tool from the makers of the incredible Gung-Ho knife!! For just $49.45, you get the Brain-O-Rama scalpel, a rubberized dummy to learn your way around the skull, and complete instructions with helpful anatomical diagrams. You’ll be taking care of tumors in 30-days or less, or your money back!!!!!"

it seems like i’m being ridiculous. i am. and so are half the people trying to sell the latest [insert noun here] made easy products or books or tools or 12-day-tutorial-magic-or-your-money-back courses.

just because i know where your prefrontal cortex is, or because i’ve heard of broca’s area, you wouldn’t want me cutting into your brain with the best scalpel in the world. it wouldn’t make any difference, even if i had read the Dummies book and had seen "Extreme Autopsies" on FOX last week.

and yet people keep talking about making hard things easy, and others keep falling for it. books keep selling that demystify the mystical and show how, gosh, well, it turns out that brain surgery is easy after all, and we were just foolin’ ya so we could keep the money for ourselves (ha!).

i could make jokes all day long, but i believe this kind of behavior, and the thinking behind it, has consequences. it devalues the effort required to create things of value or utility, or to provide important services. in turn, it reduces the perceived value of the fruits of these labors. it cheapens the world and destroys our appreciation of people and the beauty they often create.

web application development made easy!

i saw a Web site this morning advertising a software product with the tagline, "Web application development made easy" (company and product name withheld, since i’m sure it’s a fine product made by nice people). the use of the word "easy" implies that anyone could do it, even my Grandma. if they had used the term "easier," this would have implied that it might actually be hard in the first place, and their tool was here to help, by gum.

even though it was probably just a marketing decision to position their product as they did, it struck me that people often think that things should be easy, could be easy. well, sometimes they are and can be, and we make them harder than we should. sometimes, however, they aren’t (easy) and we can’t (make them easy), regardless of how we might try.

some people really need to face the music – a lot of things in life are hard and require effort. there are no shortcuts. the people who do these hard things have usually arrived at their skill after taking a long, bumpy road full of toll booths that don’t make change. architects, craftspeople, engineers, doctors, teachers – they’re all professionals who worked to get where they are (maybe even struggled). society benefits from their skills, and they in turn reap the rewards. they shouldn’t give it away for free, because it’s worth something.

on the flip side, there shouldn’t be an expectation that anybody can pick up a book and suddenly wield the equivalent of a scalpel – it insults the craftspeople or engineers or doctors who do it for a living, and puts the scalpel–wielder in a pretty awkward position.

no one would claim, of course, that "Surgery for Dummies" would ever be a best-seller, and yet the thinking seems to be different when it comes to the digital world. somehow, because it’s not tangible or because it’s new or because your kids seem pretty good at it, it’s something that anyone could just pick up and learn and Presto!, instant Web designer.

i keep working for clients who are under the mistaken impression that building Web sites is easy. while it’s my job to disabuse them of this notion, to help them understand the bits and bytes, as it were, there are times when the process becomes frustrating. through it all, the "idea of ease" seems implicit in the hearts of many businesspeople — it’s really quite straightforward and will just sort of "work out" in the end. 50-page web site in one week with two developers, one of whom is actually a technical writer in the marketing department? no problem!!!

it is a problem.

and yet companies do this, over and over and over. anyone in marketing who has ever surfed Google is suddenly an expert in online advertising strategy. ever heard of Dreamweaver? hellooooo, Web developer! ever cropped a picture in Photoshop? good – you’re our graphic designer. budgets are stretched, and people are forced to "step up," which is just a corporate euphemism for doing a job for which you aren’t qualified or trained.

i’m exaggerating slightly, but the scenario i’ve painted above isn’t far from the truth in much of corporate America. people seem to think the Web is different, that it’s easy, that no rules apply. wrong – Web design and development are crafts and skills like any other.

the problem is driving away much of the talent from the Web, maybe in the same way that the craftsmen of old were driven away by mass production of (lower quality) goods. based on discussions with friends in the business, the business-view of Web design and development is gradually crushing people under its profit-driven wheels. many people got into the business because they felt the excitement and the potential, because they loved designing and creating new things they believed were useful or cool or interesting. some people were in it for the money, too, but that doesn’t negate other motives.

these days it seems that building web sites, in most cases, has very little to do with creativity. it has everything to do with cold, hard business reality, and the incomprehensible short-sightedness that often goes with it.

fine — it’s a job. get over it, you say.

you’re right, of course. it is just a job. as my friend Gene says, we’re not saving lives here.

what we are doing, in my opinion, by falling for the "ideas of ease" described above, is thoroughly commoditizing the process of Web design and development, along with a lot of other things. people are squandering much of the Web’s potential and reducing its ultimate value, instead aiming for what’s perceived as good enough (the 40% solution, in most cases).

good design (in all of its forms) will hopefully never go away, as long as there are people passionate about practicing it. the stage on which good design plays, however, seems to be getting much, much smaller, on the Web and elsewhere.

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