In Search of Quality, and Why it Matters

Simon Meek argues that, when it comes to building a successful website (and design business), quality and attention to detail are king.

In Search of Quality, and Why it Matters

Lately I've been in the unusual position of having to justify the idea that when one releases a website, it should be done to the best of one's ability. It seems obvious doesn't it? It just… should. Right? Right. And yet, why is it important to spend extra time giving a site extra polish for those browsers which support it? Why does it matter so much that the final builds are pixel-perfect to the original designs? Why should we care if the client hasn't noticed an issue?

I found myself struggling to answer some of these questions. It's been a long time since I've had to have these discussions at a theoretical level, with someone pointing out to me that they simply don't have the time to fix every minor styling bug or implement a nice webfont for the 3 percent of visitors who'll see it. Faced with those souls who simply don't care that much one way or the other, and don't see the point in being really on top of this stuff, it's quite hard to come up with convincing arguments on the spot.

This article then, is my way of answering those questions after a period of quiet reflection and lots of shouting at anyone who'd listen.

What do we mean by "quality" anyway?

Now this is tricky. It seems obvious, but "quality" in the digital realm is hard to define. Essentially I believe it amounts to a decent amount of inspiration, and a very, very large dose of attention to detail. In many ways it's quite easy to produce some design work which meets the client's needs and looks the part—that's the inspiration.

The rest of the equation, though, has to match that initial concept work. Navigational structures need to be logical and well-thought-through. Photoshop files need to be pixel-perfect to the desired dimensions of the final build. The underlying markup, CSS and JavaScript should be efficient and observe best practice. Functionality should work perfectly and the final result should look as close as possible to the original designs. Copy on the site should be well-edited and spellchecked, and clients should be kept happy and involved. Finally, the site should be delivered as per client expectations, if not exceeding them.

Screenshot of website layout in Photoshop
Yes, it does matter that the edge of that dark grey rectangle is a pixel outside the guides! Photoshop designs should be pixel-perfect before they're built as a web page. Use Guides and a grid system like to help.
Screenshot of a website's source markup
To ensure best practice, keep your markup clean, well structured, and easy to follow.

In other words, quality is not just about the design work, it's about the whole picture and the experience of the client too.

So why, in the end, does all this detail matter?

Everything's an advert

Web designers and agencies tend not to advertise much. Most jobs we get come to us because someone liked something we did for another client. That means that each and every site we put live is an advertisement for our services. If we put live something that's not up to scratch, I believe it creates a feeling among users (read "potential clients") that we're slightly shabby and unprofessional. Or at least, that we're nothing special.

The last 5 percent of every job is the hardest

There are plenty of people out there doing amazing work. Work that screams of commitment, passion and quality. How do they do that? By putting in the effort to dot every "i" and cross every "t". It's not just having a great idea, it's about how you implement that idea to create the perfect whole. The last 5 percent of every job is the hardest, and it's what separates the proverbial men from the boys.

When you're up against people who can do that, the bar is set very high, and with sub-par output, you're not going to win. If you can compete at that level though, you'll also end up with great clients who value great work.

Basically, great work begets great clients and more money.

Doing things right saves time

Going backwards and forwards makes for a time-consuming process. If work isn't up to standard, and people—either internal or external—start sending it back, the time spent on a project starts really stacking up.

In reality I believe it's far faster to get it right first time. If that means taking a little extra time at that stage, so be it.

Great work makes for fitter, happier, more productive workers

People like to do great work, and like to feel they're encouraged to do so. When a team is allowed to run full bore, producing work they're really proud of, their morale will be sky high. In turn that team will be massively valuable to your business and will be able to compete with the very best around.

When a team is allowed to run full bore, their morale will be sky high

Of course, to get to that point, the team needs to be trusted, and encouraged to be great. They need to know what the standard should be, and know that if needs be, they'll be listened to if they need help to reach that standard.

This applies equally even if you're a sole freelancer. There's nothing more dispiriting than doing work that you know to be of a low-to-average quality. But if you know you're doing great work? What a feeling.

People who do notice REALLY notice

It is of course possible to stumble through quite a of of jobs doing less-than-perfect work, especially if you tend to work in traditionally non-design- and non-technology-aware sectors. That means that clients might not notice a lack of attention to detail for quite a while. Eventually though, you'll come up against someone who does notice those issues, and at that point you're going to come unstuck.

People who are sensitive to quality issues tend to be really sensitive, and if that's the person signing the cheques, you're out. You might not even notice this happening because the truth is, you'll never make it into their office. Maybe you've had an inexplicable client defection lately? Look at the quality of your recent work for them. Is it up to scratch? In this economy, it had better be.

Of course, it works the other way too. If you do push out consistently great work, these people will notice that too. That's why it's important to make sure that the low percentage of browsers which might support a certain CSS property are properly catered to. These efforts will reach the tastemakers, the ones who really care (because they use those browsers), and hopefully, occasionally, the ones with the chequebooks.

Screenshot of website layout showing aligned left edges
The left edges of all the text elements and horizontal rules here line up perfectly after the page is built. If they didn't, the whole thing would look shoddy. That's attention to detail.

In conclusion

We sometimes like to think that it doesn't matter too much if a few things go by the wayside, or if a website lacks the polish we might have liked. Whilst there are times when sheer pragmatism has to kick in, I think quality really does matter, for concrete business reasons. Hopefully in this article I've floated some sensible reasons as to why we should all care a great deal about the quality of work we release.

In the second article in this series, I look at some practical ways we can ensure that we and our teams deliver great products, and great quality too!

What are your thoughts on quality control in web design? Is it important? Or is it better simply to churn out sites as quickly as possible? Let's hear your feedback in the comments below!

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Responses to this article

7 responses (oldest first):

06-Oct-10 17:31
Yes - agreed. Very good post.
It actually made me think that I need to spend some time tweaking a few live sites that are gaining traffic. Need to book that in... oh extra time where art thou!?
08-Oct-10 06:43
Very interesting post and it couldn't have come at a better time for me! "Basically, great work begets great clients and more money", this has now become my most favourite quote. Thanks.
11-Oct-10 13:49
Artistically that sounds great, but remember to charge the client enough to cover that amount of detail. There are times when you have to let some things go for business reasons.

You can't sell someone a site worth 10 hours of time, then spend 20 hours refining it anyway because it just has to be perfect.
14-Oct-10 04:54
Fabulous article - very well argued and I very much agree - it's the attention to detail that can make a website really shine.

One problem that I come up against time and time again, is a topic you just covered in this month's newsletter - clients entering their own content: either full of typos or CMS-related CSS issues or poor images. Is it worth spending time getting the other stuff right when the content is not up to scratch?

I tend to check over a site post-launch to fix these initial problems, (must remember to build this into the budget!), but it doesn't prevent the same problems cropping up next time the content is changed. Maybe there's a need for more training here, rather than the fix it yourself approach?
21-Oct-10 08:08
Right! Sorry everyone. Tech gremlins meant I haven't had a single email reply to this, so I had no idea anyone had even read this post! Bear with me…

@unklellis Yes, I've been going over a few things too in the light of what I wrote!

@mauco - cheers for that - I was quite pleased with that quote too =)

@jn441 Interesting point. I think that if people are on board and picking up these gremlins at every stage then really it needn't take that much longer (if at all). Plus, if you know you only have ten hours then the initial designs/scope can be done so that you offer a great but simple product, rather than a sketchy more complex thing.

Also, occasionally (very occasionally), I think it's acceptable to take a time hit on a high-profile client since so many people will see it. Again: "great work begets great clients and more money". In the long run at least!

@Cat You know my thoughts on CMS WYSIWYG text editors! I hate the things for exactly the reasons you mention. This is my point really. Anyone updating a site needs to be a copywriter, a designer, know basic HTML, have an eye for detail, be able to produce great images etc. Poor things!

Training's great, but realistically, unless they're doing it all the time, they forget the lot very quickly. It's like anything else - you lose skills you rarely use.

Glad to see people are interested in this. I've written a followup article for publication next week centering around getting the best from a team. Watch this space!

25-Oct-10 14:52
Most of the problem is nobody really knows what they mean by a "quality" website.

To the designer: It means pixel perfection.

To the developer: It means perfectly laid out code that validates.

To the copywriter: It means a perfectly composed "story" that can get a reaction or an emotive response.

To the client: It simply means a website that fulfills their purpose.

It might not be pixel perfect, it might not be perfect code, it might not be perfectly worded, but it "speaks" to the client, their customers and converts well.

So shouldn't we be defining "quality" as "fit for purpose" rather than striving for what we each see as perfect?

[Edited by chrishirst on 25-Oct-10 14:52]
25-Oct-10 16:22
Hi Chris,

That's a very cogent thought, but I can't help feeling that it's not enough.

I think the aim should be for the designer, developer, copywriter and client (plus other stakeholders) to all be happy at every stage. That way, so long as someone's looking after big picture stuff the whole should also be good.

"For for purpose" seems to me to be another way of saying "good enough", which I never find very satisfactory.

I would add that I'm guilty of saying it - I'm not in the position to be able to make the final judgement calls on what goes out, so it's all a bit hypothetical. Maybe I'm setting the ground rules here for anything I do in later life!


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