U.S. contest gives Toronto Web firm tight design deadline

A leading Canadian Web design firm is squeezing its usual six to eight week development time into just five and a half hours for one customer.

Toronto-based Devlin eBusiness Architects doesn’t even know who that customer is yet.

The company will find out on Sept. 10, when some of its staff compete in the Iron Chef Web design challenge at the Seybold San Francisco 2003 conference.

The design challenge is loosely modelled on the Iron Chef TV show in which participants are given a time limit in which to prepare a meal from scratch. The five competing teams will learn of the Web site’s subject matter (all they know so far is it’s a non-profit organization) on the day, after which they will be given five and a half hours to build an appropriate site using whatever tools and technology they bring with them.

Devlin is one of five teams competing in the event and the only one from outside the United States. The company counts among its clients Pizza Hut, Lexus and FedEx. Its founder and president Catharine Devlin is sending three employees to California to represent her team.

“”Inside our industry, we’re well known for our ability to build cool and useable interfaces. One of the fellows who’s organizing it saw some of our work last year and asked us if we would be interested,”” she said.

The event is being organized by the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW), a group dedicated to educating and promoting the profession. “”Good design skills incorporate things like usability and accessibility, designing for the client. The contest lends itself the multiple skills that are required by top flight professionals today,”” said WOW executive director Bill Cullifer.

Given the time constraints, the sites will probably be a back to basics approach to Web development — core elements, clear design and navigation simplicity. For example, contest rules specify no Flash components.

Devlin said the limitations needn’t stifle creativity, but the onus will likely be on function over form. Team Devlin comprises HwaYoung Oh, design director; Diana Wang, senior developer; and Emily Rothwell, team leader and strategist.

Rothwell’s role in the contest will probably mirror her day-to-day duties at the company, she said. She’ll be responsible for coming up with the initial design and working with her teammates.

“”I very much get involved in the initial phases when you’re trying to get requirements for the client — dissect them and figure out the various goals and objectives the client has, then putting the plan together, then the design team goes crazy with your plan,”” she said.

There won’t be any need to practice beforehand, she added, since the team has been working together on a professional basis for several years now. “”We know each others work pretty well. We know where we’re strong and where we’re weak. I think we can pull something fairly good off the first go-round.””

Cullifer said he expects to see a high level of sophistication in the sites the contestants develop. But the contest is as much about promoting the skills of Web developers as it is an exercise in coding. One of the judging criteria is audience participation.

One of the contest’s goals, said Cullifer, is to “”really elevate what it means to be a Web professional today, and at the same time the side benefits are that we demonstrate to the audience in a live format the value of having a good professional Web designer.””

Cullifer has put together Iron Chef competitions for Web services and information security at other IT conferences like Comdex Fall and Networld+Interop. This is the first one for Web design, but probably won’t be the last, he said. He’s looking at other aspects of the profession for future contests. “”Our possibilities are endless because Webmasters represent a broad range of skillsets.””

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