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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Kenya’s Web Design Problem

"The African Scifi factory is a highend production facility located in Thika-Kenya, dedicated to re-establishing popular African science and fiction narrative using animation ..."

The African Scifi Factory in Thika, Kenya sounds like a great place. It looks like one too, their site looks pretty good. However, no one will ever hear of them or find them online through a search engine. That text above, it’s their meta name=”Description” tag, and it’s about the only thing that Google or any other search engine can see about them. They’re virtually invisible to the web.

It’s 2010 and we still have people designing websites in pure images (as above) or Flash. It doesn’t make sense. Why the need to hamstring yourself, your business and your clients by not designing an XHTML site?

The African Scifi Factory isn’t the only one, I’m just using their site as an example. We actually have designers being trained today who only learn how to use Flash. We have others who still don’t know how to handcode HTML and CSS. I still see CVs and resumes from “serious” designers who use Dreamweaver to create websites.

There are no borders on the web

We all need to realize that we live in a global ecosystem, especially online. There are no borders in this space.

If you’re a web designer who does crappy XHTML and CSS, then know that you’re becoming less relevant with every day that you don’t learn your trade better and update your skills. Kids in the Ukraine, Indonesia and elsewhere are eating your lunch. I can Google a PSD to HTML business in 5 seconds, take the top result, and have my designs put into excellent XHTML/CSS for as little as $45. Why should I use your services? What do you offer that’s so much better?

You’re not a quality web designer if you can only put together a fancy looking Photoshop file, that makes you a designer. A web designer needs to know how the HTML and CSS work, understand user-interaction and usability of the functions in the design and be able to create bulletproof markup.

Design and Coding

Interestingly enough, the programming community in Africa seems to be better off than the web design community. There seems to be a lot more quality programmers per capita than there are quality web designers per capita.

Why?

What will it take for us to take our web design skills as seriously as our programming skills?

[Update: African Scifi Site fixed by local Kenyan web designer]

A young designer by the name of Martin Kariuki decided to take the specific example of African SciFi Factory into his own hands after this blog post, and re-created the whole site in HTML. See his blog post and work on this here.

Great job by Martin for doing this! Impressive initiative and a nod to the goodwill in this community.

39 Comments

  1. I have no idea when it will happen, but I have just recently entered the local(Kenyan) industry as a programmer & designer, and the design work I’ve come into contact with is horrible. People are still developing table based designs!! TABLES!!! most of the work I’ve been handed by my boss is to transition these sites over to modern technologies such as CSS.
    The knowledge isn’t there, people don’t seem interested in investing time into learning a relatively basic language, and appear content to let dreamweaver churn out ugly, inefficient html and tabular structures that take longer to load and render in modern browsers, aren’t modular, are difficult to upgrade or modify, and then feel free to charge the customer hundreds of thousands of shillings! Argh! I’ve shibad! Okay, rant over…

    Even Safaricom sites are bloody tables…=(

  2. Oups !! Indeed, not a single line of content in page source !
    That’s sad !!!

    Another bad things about Kenyan web developpers is the lack of web-ethic, they often leave without giving passwords and full details (Host, Registrar).

    “why not designing an XHTML site” – Hmmm… Would prefer HTML ? XHTML vs HTML has been a long debate.

    HTML 5.0 & CSS 3.0 !!!

  3. I would see it as “Africa’s Web Design Problem”. Hash, do you think that this could be seen as an opportunity to teach basic html/css courses preferably online backed up by good books?

  4. I’d love for some senior web design people to do some classes to teach others the skills. We’ll only all get better if that happens. Happy to open the iHub up for that too.

  5. Sensitisation and exposure. The web design and development in community in Kenya also needs to open up and share knowledge, this has been lacking in the field and starts with the top design agencies which all work in silos leading to a ‘zero sum game’.

  6. I consider myself a “web designer” but I am not trained in code. I think there’s still a place for some one who approaches this from a “fancy photoshop mockup” to a fully functional code compliant, SEO web site. I think I can liken it to my high school coach who designed my work outs and coached me to championships, but couldn’t do it himself (even if he was younger and fit).

    As long as you partner with an equally competent coder (like the ones I use at Intrepid Data Systems), you have a place in the design space in East Africa. I would be the first to say that there’s a massive divide between good code and usability. That chasm is where I stand and I think we need more of me. Hybrid designers. I understand code, but I don’t write code.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

  7. I should also mention the irony of what I just said in light of the fact that a site management error on my part brought down http://projectdiaspora.org. But I will state that it is still down by choice as we were already almost done with the new design launching this week.

    Le sigh

  8. Hahahaha, oh the coincidence. Just last week, my co-teacher began teaching our ICT students HTML, and his example included not only a marquee tag, but inline html HTML styling for the text. I politely pulled him aside and asked him if I could teach it and explained my reasoning. He immediately agreed, and the students’ example was replaced by an XHTML/CSS example.

    Talking to the teacher, it’s not that he has anything against correct, modern HTML; he’s just never been taught it. I am hoping to begin teaching him next term, but it may still all be all for naught because our syllabus is KASNEB-dictated and nationally examined, and their examinations test for HTML practices that are a minimum of 15 years old.

    It’s not that people aren’t willing to use it or learn it, but it seems the education authorities are the ones not willing to modernize, and as long as they dictate the certification process, the whole country suffers.

  9. Dude. I think the sci-fi guys are graphic designers not web-designers. And I saw traces of flash on your post… “no comment” 🙂

  10. Part of the problem is the pay. Just yesterday someone was asking to have a “Dynamic” recruitment website with SMS integrated into it. I told him the website will cost between 200,000/= ~ 400,ooo/= . I could see his face becoming white. He told me that on the local newspapers, “Dynamic” websites cost between 5,000/= and 10,000/=. I’m still looking for the advertisements…and in that situation I think the guy will go to the cheaper option where designs are done in a day or two, at most a week….why not use tables?

  11. Jaffar Mohamed

    July 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Finally someone had the courage to talk about this. There are numerous problems: already mentioned, i guess the other problem is with young “tech graduates” who want to make a quick buck by preying on the uninformed. You may have noticed this silly advert about web design at 3,000 Kshs, visit their website and all u see is crap, their portfolio more crap, yet they have the guts to put a Google advert on “Web design”! I have worked with a few design houses and i think they are in the right side of web technology: Dotsavy, KenyanLogic among few others.

  12. Like Wilf, I wouldn’t limit this problem to Kenya. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, designers are creating terribly coded websites that look very nice, but don’t actually take into consideration a) searchability and b) end users’ bandwidth and browser limitations.

    These are the same designers that refuse to give up domain names when their clients go elsewhere, who refuse to train clients, who refuse to take client calls after delivering unsatisfactory deliverables, who refuse to give clients their passwords, who refuse to deal fairly, period. They’re also often those speaking at government sponsored conferences and raking in big money from clueless ministries.

    Come to think of it, we make a fair amount of money poaching clients from these web …. webmasters? What would you call them anyway? Clients need to be involved in the process of creation and they need to understand why a developer is making the choice s/he’s making. Client education comes slowly and it’s expensive. It’s worth every penny, but it’s a long term investment, not short term.

    So what do we do about it?

    1) Client education. Client education. Client education. When you’re selling your product, take the time to explain WHY it’s important to create clean semantic code. Explain how SEO works (or if you think that’s an evil word, explain the basic mechanics of search engine indexing).

    2) Take on interns and teach them how to do it right. Don’t think of it as training your competitors. Think of it as training future collaborators.

    3) Expect more out of your employees and your freelancers.

    4) Client education.

    5) Poach the hell out of the unethical players’ clients. You know who they are.

    6) Client education.

    I don’t take designers’ resumes anymore because their education and previous work history are poor indicators of work quality. I take code samples and ask them to convert a PSD into (X)HTML. You’d be surprised at how many people never email us back.

    Just like elsewhere in the world, the market will solve the problem. There are still European sites designed in all images. I wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t do it. No serious web shop would do it. Yet, someone paid for that site because s/he didn’t know any better. The designers that are hungry and see the money in doing excellent work are already reaping the rewards.

  13. woooh! did a research on the sci-fi guy and turns out he’s really really good at 2D/3D animation. check this out : http://www.xyzshow.com/mmshowcase2007/majiqmud_showcase%20480.mp4
    I think he woke up one morning and figured he needed a website. So he approached a web design firm but the price was too costly. He then approached a freelancer but since he’s a creative himself, he thought the website was not exactly as he had envisioned it. So, he pulled up Adobe Photoshop and “designed” this gorgeous interface. But after submitting it to a front-end developer, his design and the developers output weren’t a perfect match. So he said “what the heck” pulled up adobe fireworks and exported his psd as HTML and uploaded it to the internet. A bad decision but that way his design image came out untarnished 🙂

  14. Once upon a time I was put in charge of getting a website upgrade for the organization I worked for. It was static and my resposnibility was to get it to “sexy” dynamic. I was given a budget. So I sent word out. Got a few proposals. Shortlisted, haggled and settled on a developer who charged quite a tide sum. Contracts were written, “t”s crossed, “i”s dotted. Developer walked away with brief and deposit. Starts web project and then gets a “proper” job. Project drags on. Finally it is ready. We pay new host and he uploads new site. Problem is we can’t see it online. He insists its up. Cut long story short months later we haven’t resolved the problem and he is too busy anyway. In frustration I throw together a site and put it up. I am an artist, I DO NOT and WILL NEVER CODE. I manage to keep my job. Fast forward to 2008. Meet new suave developers. Have new site within a month. That does everything its meant to do. And yap they trusted me to get the job right the second time round. Nice people.

  15. Been through the full spectrum of design and dev. The issue of partnership is key as locally it is hard to find that hybrid resource that is adept at both the front end and back end. Designers should partner with good developers on projects to build synergies that will leverage their skill sets. On another note, designers can master design for platforms such as WordPress whose backend is built for SEO making it easy for their non techie client to work it.

  16. Well I’m a designer and a web developer, I have been in this industry a long time and have seen it all. I initially started out as a web designer but was forced to get into programming simply because I couldn’t get a single good developer at that time. I think its unfair for Hash to call out only web-designers. I have seen developers who do very crappy code. I mean, look at the guys that developed the KDN butterfly.co.ke site, I inject sql onto their site like a joke! Security is a big thing to overlook particularly as a web developer, yet you find very few developers take their time to sanitise their code. Developers that don’t even know how to rationalise databases or even create ER models… the list is endless, I can go on and on. Am not defending bad web-designers, NO, not at all, there are tonnes of badly designed websites out there and these designers need to up their game. I’d like to disagree with hash when it comes to dreamweaver. Dreamweaver is a good tool, it should be only used by designers that have 100% knowledge of HTML and CSS who can hand code the same if need be. Dreamweaver makes the whole process slightly faster, it’s not a substitute. The problem you have with some designers is that they dont take time to understand HTML & CSS comprehensively, they learn kidogo code then jump onto dreamweaver expecting that dreamweaver will ‘magically’ design their sites for them. NO, THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN. So as a result, a so called ‘designer’ will quickly run into problems when he starts trouble shooting. A good example is what happens when cross checking browser compatibility when doing CSS. Internet explorer will interpret padding and margins differently from other browsers, the poor ‘web-designer’ will start mutating his site because he doesn’t understand his CSS and cannot develop a hack to go about the problem as he’s expecting dreamweaver to do it for him. I can equate this to a programmer using a cms like drupal or joomla yet he doesnt know how to code in PHP!! And just to quote Erik on something I agree with him totally, ‘You’re not a quality web designer if you can only put together a fancy looking Photoshop file, that makes you a designer. A web designer needs to know how the HTML and CSS work, understand user-interaction and usability of the functions in the design and be able to create bulletproof markup’

  17. I think the problem starts when one learns HTML and thinks ‘he/she is a web designer’. Learning some bit of flash worsens everything. May I suggest that for one to become a good web designer, he/she should learn to hand code most of the languages used. e.g PHP, CSS, and migrate from HTML to XHTML. For better learning, stay away from IDE’s and use text editors. Learn to build sites from scratch and you will soon realize how interesting coding is. Learn all the logic and functions in each language and you will appreciate the fun that comes with it. Minimize the use of images and always use CSS to style your markup.

  18. Interesting! Have been on the lookout for a website designer and have got quotes ranging from tens of thousands (Ksh) to hundres of thousands. One particularly cheap one tells me how great they are, but can’t provide a link to any work they’ve done. We need a directory (online and off) of web developers at the iHub.

  19. We’ll definitely have a catalogue of good web designers at the ihub for sure. @Joseph, I couldn’t agree more. I find it appalling that designers are taught dreamweaver at entry level courses. Its ridiculous. I have noticed one thing in my twenty-something years of being around, you can always tell people who have a genuine interest in something …they learn it from scratch, never take shortcuts.

  20. Hello, WhiteAfrican, You are right! This problem is every where the same: in Burkina as well as in whole Africa! Using Fireworks or Photoshop images and styling directly in HTML pages! No CSS! No structured HTML!
    Most of those who use CMSes like Joomla or WordPress just download free template and change the logo! And they are ok!

  21. One thing is evident – the design skills are there. What is lacking however is the motivation. SEO as a trade only came into being as millions of websites flooded the web in the 90’s and early 00’s. In Africa, the motivation to optimise for function, speed or search engines is lacking because the mindset that the internet also has geographical boundaries persists. Many designers and developers tend to gauge themselves by the gold standard set within their specific geographical area.

    People need to wake up and realise that they are competing with the world and not Nairobi or Lagos. Some time back, someone said the web is the greatest equalizer for the developing world – many people seem not to have received that memo. What is most annoying is the fact that it doesn’t take much effort to compete with the best of the best in the world. The tools are free and it doesn’t need any cement, steel or glass.

  22. @ Hash, nice post @ David Kobia, I couldn’t agree more. Do we actually have any UI or IA guys in Kenya? Also more importantly I see everyone up in arms about CSS/XHTML but no one really is talking about HTML5!!!

    I think overall as browsers get more intelligent we will be having a totally different discussion here. Search is only relevant to markets that have an over budence of information to provide – so you need to beat the clutter. I am still trying to book my ticket from Nairobi to Machakos through Akamba online, find out where to stay or sleep book it, and ultimately figure out where I can eat or hang out without having to pick up the phone and ask anyone.

    This is good – we have to start from somewhere, we are always playing catch up to the US web/ I think its just part of the process – but until people get frustrated with poor design. Nothing will change. Atleast not yet.

    Coincidentally many of us spend more time reading US/Western based content than we do our own so its normal not to even notice that African Sci Fi existed. The only reason I did know is coz I follow Yebi and crew and I also had a Web 2.0 content platform to inform me

    http://www.africandigitalart.com/

    🙂

  23. agreed. there’s no more sapce for designers to entirely ignore a coding skill, basic HTML or CSS. knowing how to put together a web page structure will only help a designer and a developer to better understand each other’s processes, not forgeting what the client actually wants to achieve.

    this shows a recent poll’s consensus on designers and coding

    HTML5 + CSS3 + uber-light javascript libraries look like they’re pushing Flash to the fringes too ..except in video delivery

  24. ” There seems to be a lot more quality programmers per capita than there are quality web designers per capita.”

    I don’t think this is specific to Kenya. I experience this same issue throughout the world. Quality design is also a bit more objective than programming. Someone might think a particular design is great while another might think it is no better than the Nakumat logo. 🙂 Programming is a more straightforward. Either the application does what it is supposed to do or it doesn’t.

    $.02

  25. Eric, most web designers /developers in Kenya continue to be self taught and this shouldn’t be a reason for them not to be up to indexing (search) or SEO standards. I’m not even familiar with the uber-html / CSS etcetera of web-design but its tough to find web-designers / designers from the continent on web search. Doubt I have come across any without them in some press related article or on a social networking portfolio site like Behance,Coroflot or CPLUV. This isn’t just a Kenyan problem either. However the case of SCI-FI / YEBI being picked on – isn’t so much his fault. I think its so important for designers / companies in Africa who have a web presence to make sure they are visible in web searches. Even though established business don’t care to worry about this much, new designers and emerging business should or we will hardly get to know who they are.

  26. @Yamtaa SCI-FI / YEBI/Majiqmud is a Designer and 3D Animator. He did design the SCI-FI website code it and put it up himself. I can come to his defense because even if you poke his web design / coding buttons, he just missed an important element that would be quite a lot easier and less of a headache (to us) if he properly tagged his site with proper web descriptors etc (that lingo that I even as a designer / animator) am not familiar with. He isn’t a developer or anything of the sort even though he does design sites. I think its good to point this out though

  27. @Barb – let me be clear, the site is good looking it just doesn’t have good markup, so it made a good example to clearly call out the difference between design and web design/markup. There are a lot worse offenders out there, and they also look bad.

    Yes, this is not just a Kenya thing either, we find this everywhere in Africa.

  28. I’m coming from the states and I find the initial comment interesting, since in all of my forays into the Kenyan technology realm, I have only run into web developers, no other software developers. Of course this may have to do with my lazy searching skills, but I have had no problem hearing about web developers, of course that doesn’t say anything about how good they are. And to be fare, I see plenty of bad web-design in the states, but they can hide behind fast download times 🙂

  29. Hash how do we organize a semi barcamp for local designers? Get a few top design firms, both print and web to come in and make some presentations and have some short impromptu sessions on design. Tips & Tricks and that sort of thing. Get a more detailed conversation going among professional designers and those that have some aspiration to get there?

    I won’t call myself a Web designer because I know I’m not. But I do know how to do a bit of markup/CSS and the rest. Would love to help organize and be involved in something like this.

  30. @rob I like that idea, was there for barcamp this year, something similar would be pretty helpful I think.

  31. A young designer by the name of Martin Kariuki decided to take the specific example of African SciFi Factory into his own hands after this blog post, and re-created the whole site in HTML. See his blog post and work on this here.

    Great job by Martin for doing this! Impressive initiative and a nod to the goodwill in this community.

  32. Good one yamtaa! thats what am talking about….

  33. I’m finding this topic very interesting.

    This is not a problem with the designers ONLY. This is a problem with Kenyan business practices.

    The kawaida kenyan businessman wants to be a jack of all trades. For the so called web designers in Kenya, they want to be the SEO expert, the social networking expert, the web designer, the graphics designer, a wordpress expert, a joomla expert, the site developer etc etc.

    The client wants a website for less than is beyond logic. The so called good coders want to add things to a site that have absolutely no relevance to the goals of the company. The client wants to add things to the site but is not willing to pay for them.

    The laws of demand and supply dictate that it will change naturally.

    So instead of complaining about other people who have done bad coding on their sites, which is the normal coders problem. Take the time to educate the clients on the difference between:

    1. A graphics designer,
    2. A web designer
    3. A web developer ( and consider expertise in a product)
    4. An internet marketer ( this will never be an IT guy, sorry)
    5. An SEO expert ( please please, just because you can fix a meta tag and get backlinks does not make you an SEO expert)

    You will be surprised at how happy your clients will be.

    Otherwise, this noise making which is common in Kenyan politics will continue to the detriment of the clients.

    Experience has shown that it is not beautiful coding that makes a sale for the client online. It is working with the client to achieve his goals.

    I know I will annoy the so called great coders out there, but there are hundreds of ugly sites that make money for their owners. There are hundreds of beautifully coded sites that will never make a cent for the client.

    So stop telling your clients you will make them a website. Build them an online business instead and all these shady companies charging 400,000 for a joomla website will disappear.

    Having said that….Whoever is teaching flash in Kenya should be hanged with a rope.

  34. Kimani Tiga Waana

    August 23, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Blame it on the schooling system i would say.I have met several 4th years about to graduate with a very cool project copied from else where on the web.I tried asking why one would wanna leave campus without wanting to pay attention to html or any scripting language;the answer;who care!

    I think the market deals with every html/css weirdo when it gets to the point of originality,there is no escaping the 5 minutes of hero to zero.

  35. Been snooping around source codes and I must say its disappointing.
    table based joomla allover etc. The other worrying trend is the use of cheap or free downloaded templates denying those of us who can hand code and develop our own themes the chance.
    a little snooping on *Ihub_ coincidentally favicon resembles css-tricks.com`s ( I like the logo though.. very usable can even be done via keyboard!)… tables on home page!.. free theme!.. come on *Ihub_ techies!.

  36. I see the http://www.africanscifi.com website continues to be all tables and graphics… so none of this discussion has had any effect on them?!

  37. PS – strange that time on this “African” website is 7 hours behind the rest of the continent?

  38. Ni comments every one but simply too many to read. What research @Yamtaa, it’s called googling buda. The African Scifi site was done by Majiqmud, a dude who si real good in 3D. He’s also real good in AS2. Stop beating down on his site, it’s annoying that it doesn’t have good SEO, but it looks good as compared to this site that still has errors

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