Janessa McKell Interview
Janessa McKell has been wrangling code and building the web since teaching herself HTML back in 1998. She operates a one-woman shop in Trinidad, the Caribbean, dedicated to making WordPress sites and helping business owners build their brand. She loves to paint faces in her spare time.
How did you get started in web design?
In 1998, my last year of high school, I was selected for a Canadian exchange program. There, I learned how to create pages in HTML and about FTP, and various social platforms (yes, we had social platforms even then), like ICQ and IRC. We played games like Doom. (Who remembers that!?) I’d been doing Computer Science at school, learning the Basic programming language. I began to love coding, so I just continued to wrestle with the web and programming languages as time progressed. I started off building sites by hand in HTML, then XHTML, then HTML/CSS, and then I graduated to content management systems around 2004. Around mid-2005, whilst working at an advertising agency as a graphic designer, I began seeing the value of the internet to local businesses.
At that time in Trinidad, there was still only a handful of business websites. There was a lot of experimentation from web and tech enthusiasts, but mostly on a hobbyist level. Back then, websites were mostly HTML or ASP. CMS sites weren’t even in use yet. I decided to leave my job and start doing websites. I got acquainted with Joomla and used it for about two years, but found that the biggest issue was explaining to clients how to use the backend. I continued to search for a solution that was flexible enough to be used for any kind of site, yet easy for the client to add and update their content. WordPress was that solution. I started to dig very deep into WP around 2008 and by 2009, I was saying things like, “WordPress, you’ve got me by my plugins,” and “WP, I love the way you code,” ha!
Your focus has changed from building websites to helping businesses build their brand—tell us a bit about that.
Since I don’t position my company as a web development or graphic design outfit, I’m able to divert the client’s focus toward the big picture. I’ve found that approaching my web work with an integrative outlook helps my clients to unify their branding. I never look at a website as just a website but as an extension of the brand, persona or service that the client is offering. I devote myself to figuring out how to push that brand as far as possible with each project. Also, because I aim to educate clients about their brand and how they can maximize it, they often return with a follow-up project, and I can use the brand palette and language that I’ve already begun to develop. Although I work alone day-to-day in the business, there are key people that form part of the extended family. They have knowledge and experience in areas such as web and domain hosting, copywriting, social media, photography, web design, and web and mobile programming. That enables me to give clients a range of options and perspectives in their projects.
Do you find it challenging to communicate technical and data-based information to your clients? How do you approach this?
I definitely find that it’s difficult to talk with clients about the technical aspects of their projects. I wobble between over-simplifying and talking in jargon. It’s a rocky road, but I continue to try to develop a vocabulary that’s inclusive and that accommodates my clients. WordPress’ backend make it easy for clients not to feel overwhelmed, though. One of the biggest hurdles to get over has been “expectation management.” As web professionals, it’s easy to take for granted how we interact with the internet and how we understand it. Many people have an image of the internet that’s very different from our own. Sitting and having at least one long conversation in front of the client’s website design and talking about how things on the site should or will function is a good way to get misunderstandings out of the way. Being patient with clients and letting them ask even “stupid” questions (according to them) helps them relax and express their needs for the website. Oftentimes, because the internet grows at such an alarming rate, my understanding of a simple term like “banner” could be totally different from how the client understands the term. I find it best to not assume anything, and ask every possible question to figure out the workings of the entire site before proceeding toward completion.
Visuals also help greatly. For instance, I normally do a site map, so that clients can see the links on the site and what links where. I put notes on the design to explain functionality, and I sometimes create a style guide which outlines in detail the sites they liked and which parts of those designs I would use. If in the early stages of a project, I spend a lot of time getting into a client’s head, it removes doubt and saves lots of time in the long run. I’d like to say I’m super savvy and use tools to do those things, but some of these tools hold me back more than they help me work faster—but that’s just me. I find that Adobe Muse is good for wireframes, but other than that I use Illustrator for my site maps, and a text editor to do up the style guide. That WP101 plugin looks very handy, by the way.
Tell us about a recent project you liked or big win you’ve had.
Recently, I created a discography that’s backend friendly and works on the frontend using jQuery and HTML5. I used a plugin that creates custom fields and set it up to allow the user to upload their album’s name, image, artist’s name, and the songs within a post (as a custom post type). Then I made templates to display the discography. I created php calls to load the album information using jQuery. So credit goes to the plugin creator: Elliot Condon and the jQuery Discography All I did was create a bridge to combine great pieces. I’m not finished with it yet, but the site is 95% complete. I’m so content with myself on this project, because I’m sure I’ve created something that can be re-used not just by me, but by others, so when the solution is complete, I’ll put it on my blog for sharing.
How has shifting from short-term to long-term projects changed your business?
It hasn’t drastically altered my business yet, in terms of the projects that I get to work on, etcetera. It has however drastically altered my approach to projects. I used to be intimidated by acting on and talking with clients about my branding ideas, because I hadn’t learned it at school and hence there was no reason for clients to see me as a branding aficionado. I realized that I do have an eye and knack for it, so I do my own reading and self-study to grow. I also just completed a Diploma in Marketing and Sales Management and it opened my eyes immensely to the possibilities and developments within the field of “brand strategy” as an offshoot of marketing.
Based on your experience attending college in the US and working in Trinidad, are there challenges that Caribbean designers/developers face that those in other parts of the world may not?
One of the challenges that Caribbean developers face is access to hands-on programming training. There are information technology and software courses both independent and as part of a degree program, however, there are no ways to go sit in a classroom and learn a programming language. It isn’t given much weight in information technology courses either. With all the fuss web technology gets on the user end, from a developer’s perspective, you’re on your own in the Caribbean—you just have to teach yourself.
As for Caribbean designers, there is very little appreciation for the best practices in design. I think this has to do largely with misinformation on the client’s end, and practitioners who shirk the responsibility of telling their clients what to expect, given what they themselves know. With all the claims of “graphic/web designer” very few people in the Caribbean actually practice these trades professionally and stay current. Add all this to the fact that the Caribbean is about two pulses behind the US and Europe when it comes to digital and new media, and by extension design and development for those mediums.
What are your favorite plugins?
I like All-in-One SEO Pack and Better WP Security, but I honestly don’t have favorites because I like trying new and different ways to do things with each project. This also helps you learn different plugin authors and the pros and cons of their style of plugin creation/development.
What are your go-to resources for staying informed and continuing the education process?
I do online courses or read/participate in forums at a number of sites such as sitepoint.com, learnable.com, lynda.com, wordpress.org, codepoet.com, webdesigner depot, and CSS Tricks. I sometimes browse Twitter for great articles and am part of an amazing Facebook group for Digital and Social Media practitioners.
Five years from now, what goals would you like to have accomplished?
Because jmtmack.com facilitates just one of my many interests, within the next five years, I want to become a MUCH better musician and singer, have a functioning tee-shirt company, produce at least two more books and cds, and be recognized as a brand strategy consultant, a coder, and a seriously talented face painter.