What ever happened to professional ethics?

(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net)

Freelance writer

May 2, 2003

Column icon Peter gets cranky on Web designers, software engineers, and even customer service reps; all of whom, he says, could use a refresher course in professional ethics.

Loosely defined, a professional is anyone who gets a paycheck for doing something. By a more stringent definition, however, the word professional carries the implication not only that you are paid for something, but that both you and your work should be up to professional standards. In addition to the basic assumption that a professional takes pride in his work (and so does it well), there is the idea that he will maintain some kind of professional behavior -- which is judged both in terms of what he does and how he does it. For example, I expect that a professional won't engage in wholesale fraud. But I also expect that he won't deride me for what I don't know about his specialized field of knowledge.

By any standard information technology is a professional field: IT workers are usually highly educated and well paid for what they do. And yet many people in the IT industry -- whether they be Web designers, application developers, system administrators, or customer service representatives -- seem to believe that the basic standards of professional conduct do not apply to them. While this syndrome is widespread, impacting every layer of the consuming public, it is most evident in the private sector. It is the little guy who suffers most from lack of professionalism in the IT industry.

Professionalism 101

Most professionally designed Web sites are not up to the standards any other industry would consider professional. The same is true of the way many companies deal with their smaller customers. While it is understandable that a major corporate entity might get preferential treatment, it's not understandable that small businesses and individual consumers are routinely subjected to unprofessional behavior and poorly made products.

When I visit a professional Web site to purchase a product, use a service, or read an article, my experience should be as easy and pleasant as possible. If it's not, I should be able to make a complaint, and that process also should be fairly painless. Too often, however, standards of honesty and integrity are tossed out the window when the customer isn't spending a million dollars per year. Web sites that target the average user (which means not business-to-business portals) are poorly made and incredibly frustrating to use. Likewise, technical customer service agents, unlike agents in most other sectors, are often rude and derisive of user complaints.

I would like a log-on process that actually works with my browser, pages that load swiftly, an information architecture that is both useful and easy to navigate, and ready access to a customer service agent should I need one. What I get is usually to the contrary. To me, the proliferation of poorly designed and managed Web sites is just one indicator of the overall lack of professionalism in the IT sector. In fact, I would argue that the real problem is one of professional ethics; many people working in information technology would appear to have none.

The user perspective

The idea of paying for professional work is that the end result will be better than anything you could have done or made yourself. If I sell you a paint scraper it should scrape paint; if it doesn't you should complain. When it comes to computer software or professional Web sites, however, this standard does not always, or even regularly, apply.

For example, I've had endless trouble trying to read articles on the Washington Post Web site. Before every article a form page pops up requesting demographic information. While I don't mind passing on my demographics in exchange for reading good articles for free, I do mind the fact that I can't get past this step. Every time I fill out the form and hit Continue, it pops up again. I don't know why: maybe Mozilla's JavaScript isn't quite compatible with the Post's. Maybe the server is buggy. Maybe something else is wrong. Whatever the reason, the end result is that I can't read articles on the Post -- and that would seem to go against the whole purpose of building the site in the first place.

In some cases, the business objective needs to be clarified, in others, the design objective makes no sense. Often, unfortunately, it is both.

All the usual suspects

One of the most glaring examples of poor Web design is single-browser compatibility. It used to be that most Web sites were designed to work best (or only) with Netscape; these days it's Internet Explorer. In addition to making their sites browser-dependent, Web designers seemingly delight in making them totally reliant on new browser features -- often just barely out of beta. I guess it's the fascination with a new toy, but the result is a nightmare for the end user.

Unlike geeks, many end users run browsers that are slightly out of date and like them that way. Other users customize their browser settings to afford more security than a cheese grater. Whatever the cause, the point is that not all browsers run alike, and a professionally designed site should account for the differences.

Web designers would do well to remember the term graceful degradation, which goes hand-in-hand with Jon Postel's excellent summary of engineering: "Be liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you send." This doesn't mean you should never use new features; it merely suggests that you should not rely on them.

Professional responsibility

In an early Cranky User [http://www-106.ibm.com/developerworks/web/library/us-cranky1.html] column I joked that it almost seemed as though Web pages were being designed to exclude blind people. Well, I wrote that back in 2001 and it still hasn't changed. Most corporate pages are still completely unusable by anyone who can't see GIFs. If the price of allowing blind folks to use the Web was the loss of the 30 little GIF images I have to download for every single page -- just so some guy in a suit can force me to see things in his favorite font -- I'd be glad to pay that price. (Heck, I'm easy; I'd pay the price anyway.)

But this brings us to an interesting point, which is site specification. Most Web sites are designed to meet some kind of business agenda, which means they're the result of a collective process involving a number of individuals -- most of them not the least bit technically astute.

"Let's require demographic information from every reader who visits our site," says Jean in the Marketing Department, and so it is done: A team of engineers carefully recodes the Washington Post site so that it's impossible for me to read the articles I want to without first providing my demographics (or even after having done so). Someone insists that every page on the site bear the corporate trademark, not a text-based version, and so it takes 60 seconds more for every page to load. Someone else wants lots of pop-up windows -- "Keep the site moving, don't let users get bored!" -- and so my browser crashes repeatedly from the strain of running all that code.

Everyone knows that Web engineers don't make the decisions when it comes to site design, but that's no excuse for doing shoddy work. If someone commands an architect to fulfill an impossible design, he doesn't build something almost like it, then look on sadly as it falls apart and kills dozens of people -- he says it can't be done and explains why. Consultation should be part of every Web design and development cycle. If someone provides an impossible design (which I understand as any design that is dysfunctional or will exclude users) it is the professional responsibility of a Web designer to call attention to it. If she's any good -- and if the design is anywhere within the realm of possibility -- she will also suggest an alternative implementation that actually works.

It's called customer service

Basic courtesy is an aspect of professionalism that is widely ignored in the computer industry. Whether one is a software engineer, a Web designer, or a customer-service agent, the ability to convey information and handle conflict in a polite and respectful manner is an essential part of the job.

For Web designers and software engineers, feedback is a crucial part of the development cycle. If you tell a professional that his product doesn't work as advertised, you expect him to be interested in finding out what went wrong, you don't expect him to make derogatory remarks about your intelligence. Unfortunately, many Web designers respond with open hostility to user complaints, often blaming a product's dysfunctionality on the user rather than examining possible solutions. After all, clearly anyone who isn't running Windows XP and the most recent version of IE is some sort of idiot!

Rather than have users interface directly with the people who actually make products (since many of them apparently don't want feedback), most companies employ some type of customer service department. But in our industry, even the customer service agents are often rude and unhelpful. Now, no one would argue that customer service is easy. Even I have told the occasional "any key" joke (in response to the apocryphal user who calls in because he cannot locate the "Any key" on his keyboard). Dealing with the average user's basic ignorance of all things IT is one thing. Remaining civil in the face of the angry, incoherent (and unfortunately an all too common experience) user is another. In fact, it's a job for a professional. And that's the point: Most technical customer service agents are professionals, and paid very well for it. Now, if only more of them would behave accordingly.

In conclusion

All of this is common sense; it really shouldn't even have to be said. Web designers should value user input and consider it seriously. Customer service agents should behave in the calm and professional manner for which they were hired. Companies should attend to the needs of smaller clients with the same care they apply to the larger ones. It's frustrating to have to state the obvious -- but also necessary. If you want end users to take you seriously, you have to start taking them seriously.


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, someday, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.