Do bad web designers know they are bad?
That question posted on Quora recently caught my eye. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it takes for people at various stages of competency to develop the skills needed to design professional WordPress sites. That question struck me because I’d started to wonder the same thing myself since I’d been offering website critiques at WordCamps around the country and many of the sites I’d come across left something to be desired.
One of my favorite presentations is called, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rapid Fire Website Critiques, and it tends to draw a standing room crowd. In the first ten minutes I teach everyone some basic usability research on effective home page design, and then volunteers eagerly submit their websites for feedback, from me and the audience.
Some brave souls already know that their sites have issues and are desperate for help to make them better. Others are surprised to hear that their home page doesn’t even communicate what business they are in, or that the multiple moving parts on their site are in danger of bringing on seizures.
If you want to see this in action, sign up to get access The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Rapid Fire Website Critiques. It’s a lot of fun.
It is hard for the audience to understand how the website owner can be oblivious to things that seem obvious to someone trying to use their websites. This is not unusual so what can we learn from the gaps between skills and reality when it comes to web design?
Reality check Research
Research in social psychology shows that you must have a certain level of skill level in whatever you are learning before you can discern bad work from good. The Dunning and Kruger Effect describes a cognitive bias called illusory superiority, where unskilled people tend not to recognize their own ineptitude and overestimate their abilities.
I can remember one of the first websites I did was a site for a music producer. I was so proud of it and wanted to submit it to the WordPress Showcase. Yep, illusory superiority at work! The thing is, the company had great photography to work with which made the site look pretty good. But I quickly realized my beginner’s naiveté when I really looked into what went into creating the sites featured in the Showcase. I knew then, I had a lot to learn.
On the other end of the spectrum, when studying highly skilled individuals, researchers found that these individuals often underestimate their competence relative to others, and tend to assume (wrongly) that tasks that are easy for them are or should be easy for others.
In web design or any skill, there are various stages that people go through on the path from ground zero to competence. I created the conscious competence model of web design mastery based on a learning theory originally created in 1970 by Noel Burch, called The Four Stages of Learning.
1.) Unconscious incompetence – We are not very good at doing some skill and don’t see it as a problem. This could be someone who is a terrible cook and doesn’t seem to notice or care. People who create a website for their kid’s school, their church or a club are doing someone a service and may feel just fine about it. They may be indifferent to the quality of the site because it gets the job done and they aren’t comparing it to a standard of excellence. Or, they may suffer from illusory superiority since they don’t have a way to accurately judge what it could be and how far they are from this.
I had someone apply for a job with me who had just graduated with a master’s degree in digital something or other. She told me she was experienced in WordPress web design. I was stunned at the website she showed me. She had no idea of the gap in quality between what she had done and the sites we produce. But the stage of unconscious incompetence perfectly explains her ignorance.
2.) Conscious incompetence – This is when we know we don’t know how to do something but we have a desire to learn to do it well. We are committed to getting the knowledge and experience needed to experience progress and improvement. This stage can be awkward and uncomfortable since we have to deal with the anxiety that we are not as good as we want to be. In order to move to the next level, we need a to know what we need to learn and get feedback from experts to progress.
3.) Conscious competence – When we get to this stage we have some level of competence in our skill but we have to work hard to execute it since it is not second nature. Web designers who reach this level are becoming proficient, but they aren’t working with the speed or confidence of a seasoned professional and that can be stressful. This stage takes a lot of late nights learning what we need to do to get something done.
4.) Unconscious competence – Finally, we get to the point where our knowledge and skill is integrated and doing the work becomes second nature. In this stage, we are confident in the quality of our work and we know we will be successful. When we get here we are positioned well to teach the skill to others. The web designer on this level is working fluidly and knows how to communicate concepts and techniques to his or her clients and less experienced peers.
Once you are able to identify your competency level, you have the opportunity to get to work learning what you need to know to close the gap to becoming a WordPress pro. Since WordCamp last March, I’ve been developing a systematic way to teach WordPress design that includes training and mentoring and will give people a solid foundation to continue on their path. I’ve been working with a great group of budding WordPress designers at various stages on rounding out their WordPress skills and setting them on the path to being confident WordPress Design Pros.
Since WordCamp last March, I’ve been developing a systematic way to teach WordPress design that includes training and mentoring and will give people a solid foundation to continue on their path. I’ve been working with a great group of budding WordPress designers at various stages on rounding out their WordPress skills and setting them on the path to being confident WordPress Design Pros. The course is closed now but you can sign up and get on the waiting list to get information on it when it is open again.
The Web Designer Mastery Course is closed now, but you can sign up and get on the waiting list to get information on it when it is open again.