Your website is not an art project. It's a machine for doing things.

An internet meme from The Simpsons. A sign on a bus says: Your website is not an art project. It's a machine for doing things. The bus driver says don't make me tap the sign!

Think of a public art project, say, for a new sculpture. Consider how it progresses.

First a tender is advertised and an artist is chosen. After agreeing a brief, the work begins. A year or so later the new art work is announced to the world.

And then what happens? Absolutely nothing.

Web as 'art project'

A red-velvet rope is hung around the sculpture so people can admire it from a respectful distance. Apart from the occasional dusting by a contract cleaner, it never changes. In any case, all the budget has been used up so nothing can change anyway.

(Read my article: Why "have budget ... must spend!" leads to bad websites.)

That's why 'art project' is such a good analogy for many public and government websites.

These websites are not expected to do anything. They are aesthetic objects. They are valued primarily for their 'look-and-feel' based on corporate-approved imagery and colours. Little else.

Web as 'machine'

In contrast, consider a machine.

Unlike an art project - which people step away from - people step towards a machine. They need to, so they can use it to do things.

A good machine earns its living. It hums with activity as skilled machinists endlessly tweak, tune and refine it. It even looks nice because the same professionals know how to craft elegant form from function.

That's why most public and government websites cannot be thought of as useful 'machines'.

Even if they work at first, they typically seize-up after a short time because they lack the fulltime specialists needed to keep them going, e.g. user researchers, content designers, UX designers, analytics specialists, developers, etc.

Don't make me tap the sign!

It's very clear that most public and government websites (at least in Ireland where I live) are still in the 'art project' phase of digital maturity. They are stuck in endless loops of 'redesign!' in the misplaced hope that just-one-more will fix their problems.

Nope. Don't make me tap the sign! It'll never happen.

Instead a change of mindset is needed. These organisations need to understand what a website really is. It's not an art project. It's a machine for doing things.

When the penny finally drops, this new approach to web will seem so obvious that they'll wonder why they ever did it any other way.

(Read my article on Why digital government is failing - and how to fix it.)