The benefit of multi-class characters in web design

Andy Budd wrote a great post on Web Design Disciplines Explained Through the Medium of Dungeons & Dragons. Go read the article: I’ll wait.

If you have never played an RPG, his post or mine are probably not for you. If, however, you fondly remember days of tabletop gaming, read on, as I have a few more thoughts on this great analogy.

In particular, he takes a look at where UX Designers fit into a metaphor where programmers are Fighters, front-end developers are Thieves and Illusionists are designers. In his analogy, UX Designers are something along the line of Rangers, Bards or Druids. Great analogy, I love it.

As part of that discussion, Andy highlights the difference between single-class characters, who can become experts in their field, and multi-class characters, who are more versatile, but never reach the same level of expertise.

This touched a nerve, as I have been wanting to write a post on this for a while now.

More often than not, I have been on my own in my design work, as either an in-house webmaster or when I do some independent design work for a few clients in my copious spare time. Webmasters and freelancers sometimes get a bad rap, and I think this analogy is a good excuse to take a deeper look at that.

In his post, Andy says:

“In D&D it’s possible for characters to follow multiple classes. However if you do this you have to split your experience across the different classes making progress much slower. In new or mid level teams, this isn’t so much of a problem. So a 2nd level Thief-Ilusionist can hold their own with a 4th level fighter. But a 6th level Theif-Illusionist would probably be outclassed by a 12th level Ranger.

“This is also true in the real world. It’s totally possible to do both design and development, and in the early stages one will actually aid the other. But as you undertake one project after another you’ll find that it’ll take you longer to become an expert in either. So it’s great if you’re an all rounder in a team of all rounders, but becomes difficult to carve out a meaningful niche amongst a group of experts.

I think Andy is spot on. A single-class character, so to speak, can become an expert in one particular area, and that’s fantastic.

I will say, however, that one advantage that multi-class characters have is that they are better able to handle solo adventures. A fighter in a well-balanced group is essential. But put a fighter up against a magic user, and there will be issues, without having a bunch of epic magical items.

On the other hand, a fighter-mage, or a fighter-cleric, may be much better equipped to handle an adventure in a dungeon without a large party.

Similarly, while the expert web folk get a lot of the fanfare in our industry, a lot of web work done in medium-sized organizations is carried out by in-house designers, or with small organizations, through independent freelance designers. While these solo adventures may not be experts in any one thing, they need to be knowledgeable enough to tackle nearly any task. Even if the solution is not as elegant or masterfully done as an expert might be able to do so, the budgets of small- to medium-sized organizations lead to the use of solo adventurers.

And for those organizations, having a multi-class character is essential. Particularly once that multi-class character levels up and gets a broad range of experience and skills, they are capable of crafting innovative solutions that make use of the materials at hand, for a much lower cost than bringing in a lot of high-level single-class characters as consultants.

While multi-class web workers may not specialize in programming, they need to be able to do some. While they may not be the most amazing designers in the world, they can create an interface that is inviting and usable. They keep projects on task. And yes, they integrate UX into their work as well.

So while the single-class characters and rangers of the world might get the fanfare, let’s raise a mug of ale to the multi-class characters out there working to make the web great.