“You’re asking me to explain how a watch works”

…Is my stock answer when folks ask me how web-sites work!

The digital world shares much in common with the relatively ancient world of watch craft so it acts as a great metaphor when explaining how the digital world is designed and engineered.

The beauty that is the watch metaphor

The elegance of a good watch is that it makes simple something that is fantastically complex. And the engineering in a well-constructed timepiece shines through in world of disposable plastic LCD items with blank screens sitting unused in a drawer.

Making the complex look simple
Everyone can read the time, most can adjust the date, many can change a strap or battery, some can maintain and service a watch. A few understand how they work (I don’t), very few can create one from scratch – and of those, most are copying tried and tested methods.

The deeper you get into the engineering, as you peel back the layers, it becomes increasingly complex, requiring ever more skill and experience. Not unlike the web.

Making small changes on a web-site is usually pretty easy, bigger stuff is tougher, deeper stuff requires years of experience and creating an original web experience is the stuff of high-quality, low-volume craftsmen, designers and coders with decades of experience. It’s not a high-volume exercise, or at least it shouldn’t be if you care about your digital services.

Whole of life value
Whilst a £5 watch can tell the time, it won’t do so for as long, reliably, smartly, and robustly as a £2,000 watch. If recording time is your game, if you’re serious about watches then you are likely to invest in a time-piece rather than buying a five quid version from the petrol station.

An off the peg web site from a volume web builder will work just fine. Maybe not as well, or as long, or as reliably. It probably won’t cut the mustard after the initial excitement phase has worn off, but it will be cheap. Do you want cheap?

The same can be said of the relationship you build with your web agency – is it going to be transient or a long-term partnership. You’d be daft trying to build a long-term relationship with a disposable supplier, wouldn’t you?

Interestingly, a good watch is one of the very last consumer items that you can buy that is truly built to last, designed to outlast the disposable age we live in – most stuff you buy today seems designed to expire when it suits the manufacturer.

Disposable vs investment
A good watch naturally lasts years, in fact, decades, so whereas you might go through 10 or more cheapy watches. Each time spending more and more money on today’s fashion only to throw it away a year or two later when it breaks or goes out of fashion, or the battery dies.

Whilst the timeframes are a good deal shorter for the digital world, a well-crafted web framework built with reliable, solid engineering will last 5 years or more without the need to throw it away. Yes, it will need lots of upgrades and maintenance and you’ll likely add lots of new functionality but the initial investment in the underlining engineering is re-used time and time again.

Show vs Go
Even with a high level of external design, much of the craftsmanship of a good watch is hidden from view – enclosed in the stainless steel back of a quality watch is a triumph of micro-engineering developed over generations.

The digital engineering behind a well-constructed web site shares this ethos of quality over flashy and questionable fashions (Yes, “parallax scrolling”, I’m looking at you!). The web framework might not be on show, but you can be assured that a well constructed digital framework will shine for years to come.

But quartz watches keep better time, don’t they?
They certainly do until the battery goes flat, or the strap breaks and gets lost, or until the plastic face becomes so scratched you can’t read it anymore, or when bits start to fall off, or a button stops working, or the waterproofing fails.

They will degrade over time and very little can be done to return them to their former glory. It’s built-in obsolescence that comes as part of the value trade that exists in the lower echelons of any market.

The digital agency market is a fluid place, companies come and go as unsustainable growth turns into, erm, unsustainable growth. Just a handful of digital agencies around at the turn of the century are still around today, in fact, less than 10% of agencies make it to their 10th birthday.

The disposable culture that exists at the lower end of the agency marketplace applies not just to the “off the peg” output but to the producers themselves.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
The raw materials that go into building a watch are relatively cheap. A couple of ounces of stainless steel, a few semi-precious jewels as bearings, maybe a 10-inch length of leather.

The real cost is in the manufacture, the combination of automated and manual assembly, the finishing, the configuring and optimising. The loving care that goes into final production. Design, packaging, R&D and marketing are also costs and usually exceed the raw materials. Finding, training and retaining the artisans required to create timepieces is expensive and takes years, if not decades.

The digital world is constructed from virtual building blocks, these blocks are often open-source (let’s call that free for the moment), or low cost – but built with care and a craftsmen eye with decades of experience, the total cost far exceeds the cost of the component parts.

Besides, a box of components, watch or web, serves no useful purpose and has no value whatsoever – it’s how you design, engineer and assemble them that defines their use and hence real value.

Finally, a well-engineered website reflects well on your brand in much the same way as most folks appreciate a well-engineered watch with one major difference. A posh watch might not make your business any money but a well-made web site will do – and often those small differences is what sets your business apart from the cheaper and disposable competition.