5 Things Your Clients Should Know

Do you ever feel like you are endlessly repeating the same day? I do, every time I attend a kickoff meeting with a new client. Each time I find myself covering the same old issues from explaining the client’s role, to encouraging investment in content. I find it incredibly frustrating and this is what ultimately led me to write the Website Owners Manual.

This is not a criticism of clients, however. There is so little information that clearly defines their role. Sure, there is no shortage of material on usability, accessibility, online marketing and copywriting, but who has the time to read all of it?

The problem is that the client does need to have a very broad understanding (certainly more than can be communicated in a single article), however I have found that understanding certain key issues can make an enormous difference to the efficiency of a client.

What follows is a list of the 5 things that I believe will have the biggest impact on a client’s site. At least they should, if the client understands them and chooses to implement them.

 

1. The client is the secret to a successful website

I have worked on hundreds of websites over the past 15 years and each site’s success or failure has always been attributed to the quality of the client.

As web designers we, of course, like to emphasis our role in the process. This is what justifies our fee, however we can ultimately only point our clients in the right direction. It is their decisions that shape the site and their commitment that defines its long term future.

As web designers, I believe we need to clearly communicate to the client the importance of their role and dispel the misconception that they can hire a web designer and walk away.

Not only do we need to emphasis the importance of their role, we also need to define the extent of it.

 

2. Clients have a diverse and challenging role

I believe that the role of the client is by far the most complex and challenging in web design. Sure, dealing with IE6 is a pain, but that pales in comparison to the shear extent of issues that most clients need to handle.

A client has to be a:

  • Visionary – capable of establishing the long term direction of their site
  • Evangelist – able to promote the site both internally and externally
  • Content guardian – responsible for ensuring the quality and relevancy of content
  • Project coordinator – overseeing all aspects of the site as well as dealing with suppliers
  • Referee – making final decisions between conflicting priorities

What is even more is that the client is supposed to know enough about a broad range of disciplines (from marketing to interface design), in order to make informed decisions. It is hardly surprising that, as web designers, we sometimes feel our clients “just don’t get it!” They are simply expected to understand too much.

Unfortunately their role is also often massively under resourced. Most of those responsible for websites are not dedicated website managers. Instead, they run their websites alongside other responsibilities in IT or marketing.

It is our responsibility to explain the role of the client and ensure that they understand how much work is involved. We cannot assume that they instinctively know this.

The danger is that if you do not clearly define the clients’ role, they will end up trying to define yours instead.

 

3. Clients identify problems, designers provide solutions

One of the biggest problems in most web projects is that the client starts making the decisions that are best left to the web designer. Not only does this lead to bad decisions, but also inevitably leaves the web designer feeling undervalued and frustrated.

This problem can manifest in a variety of ways, however ultimately it comes down to a single issue – the client is trying to find solutions to their problems instead of relying on the web designer.

Let me give you two examples. The most obvious occurs at the design stage. After seeing your design the client comes back with comments such as ‘make the logo bigger’. This is their solution to a problem that they have with the prominence of the branding. If they had expressed the problem instead of the solution, it would have enabled you to suggest alternate approaches. Instead of making the logo bigger, you could have possibly added more whitespace or changed its position.

Another less obvious, but more significant example, is in a client’s invitation to tender. These documents are inevitably a wish list of ideas that they have for the site. They are the client’s attempt to solve an underlying issue. For example, their problem might be a failure to engage with customers, therefore in their invitation to tender, they suggest adding a forum. Of course, in reality there are many other ways to engage with customers, however unless they express the problem to you, you will never have the opportunity to suggest a solution.

At the beginning of every project, encourage your client to focus on problems and not solutions. Whenever the client suggests a solution ask why. This will enable you to understand the underlying issues.

Unfortunately by the time we have been engaged as web designers, the scope of a project has already been set and it is hard to contribute ideas. This is because the way clients commission websites is fundamentally broken.

 

4. Sites should evolve

A typical website goes through a constant cycle of redesign. After its initial launch, it is left to slowly decay. The content becomes out of date, the design begins to look old fashioned and the technology becomes obsolete. Eventually staff stop referring customers to the site and it is perceived as a liability rather than an asset. In the end, senior management intervenes and assigns somebody to ‘sort out the website’. This inevitably leads to the site being replaced by a new version, and the cycle repeats itself.

This problem primarily occurs because there is no real ownership of the website within the organization. Often the client you deal with is only assigned to it for the duration of the project. Afterwards, the site is left to stagnate.

This cycle of redesign is wasteful for three reasons:

  • It wastes money because the old site is replaced, and the investment put into it is lost.
  • It is bad for cash flow, generating large expenditure every few years.
  • For the majority of its life, the site is out of date and not being used to its full potential.

We need to start encouraging our clients to invest regularly in their websites. They need a permanent website manager and an ongoing relationship with their web design agency. Together they need to keep content up-to-date, improve the user interface and ensure that the technology keeps pace with change. Ultimately this is more cost effective than replacing the site every few years.

The ongoing management of content is an area that needs particular attention. Unfortunately it is often massively under resourced and generally neglected.

 

5. Content is king – Act like it!

I am constantly amazed at the difference between what clients says and what they do. Take, for example, content; most clients fully accept that content is king, yet few are willing to spend money on ensuring its quality. This is all the more absurd considering the amount they spend on implementing complex content management systems.

Most clients that I encounter feel that hiring a copywriter to ensure the quality and style of their content is unnecessary. Perhaps this is because they feel they are capable of writing copy themselves, however writing for the web is not like writing for any other medium. It presents some unique challenges that cannot be under estimated.

It is strange because clients are perfectly happy (well… maybe not quite ‘happy’) to pay for design. They realize that they cannot do the design without a professional designer, so why then do they believe that they can write good copy themselves?

Often when clients do write copy, it ends up being verbose and inaccessible. Stuffed with sales copy and jargon, which is largely ignored by most visitors to the site.

However, in many cases the reality is even worse than poorly written copy. In my experience, clients under estimate the time involved in producing copy for the web and resort to copying and pasting from a wide variety of offline printed material. This leads to Frankenstein copy, using a mix of styles that are often entirely inappropriate for the web.

It is our role as web designers to educate our clients about the importance of copywriting and explain the size of the task, if they choose to take it on themselves. Without previous experience most clients will significantly underestimate this task.

 

Conclusions

This is far from a comprehensive list. I have not mentioned success criteria, usability, accessibility, online marketing or subjective design. In fact I have hardly begun to touch on any of the things a website owner should know, however I do believe that if our clients were only to adopt the 5 points above, it would make a profound difference to the success of their website. Now it falls on you to persuade them.

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  • http://www.malvernwebdesigners.co.uk Antony Bridge

    Some good points there, thanks.

  • http://andrewwilkinson.co.nz/ Andrew Wilkinson

    Fantastic article – I’ve bookmarked this to refer to the next time I start new projects. Articles which focus on process and client communications are great, I’d love to see more like this one!

  • http://www.goodusability.co.uk David Hamill

    Good post. It’s refreshing to hear point 4 from someone who runs a design agency. I as well as others have been saying this for a while:
    http://www.goodusability.co.uk/2008/11/do-you-really-need-to-do-that-redesign/

  • http://www.myinkblog.com Andrew Houle

    Wow, fantastic article, I love the advice here! I really like the part about how a site should evolve and not be redesigned every couple of years. Unfortunately that does happen all too often.

  • Raphael

    Great post. Every single day, my client do one (at least) of this mistakes.

    They still think that a website don’t need investment on content. I m amazed how stupid they act – I still have to hear “put some flash there with flashy colors to! that will work fine” omg… Somedays I wanna kill myself (or my client!!!!)

  • http://beingastarvingartistsucks.com Jeremy Tuber

    Great ideas Paul,
    Whether it’s graphic or web design, I’ve found that establishing expectations at the beginning of the project is essential.

    You’re right – clients often feel like, “Well I hired you so you should be doing all of the work, right!?!?”

    Again, this is all about expectations…

    You mentioned, “The danger is that if you do not clearly define the clients’ role, they will end up trying to define yours instead”, terrific point.

    The deal is that as the graphic or web designer, YOU are the expert, and much like a parent, you have to train your clients. If you don’t train your clients and set the expectations from the very beginning you can’t complain when they act out later…and they will.

    Nice work Paul, you hit this right on the head.
    Cheers.

    jeremy
    beingastarvingartistsucks.com

  • http://nyugtalanver.hu/egohalmaz/ pestaa

    Really informative, thank you very much.

  • http://www.rubiocommunications.com Janet Hancock

    Great article – funny how so many of us have the same issues!

  • Hrvoje

    A client asked to build his site so that the content does not scroll. Every page should have all the content above the “fold”. I tried to point out that people don’t mind to scroll as long as they are interested in the content. But the client insisted in this becouse hi does’nt like to scroll. So I’m waiting to see if he has changed his mind on that or not.

  • http://emigniter.com Andy Smith

    Websites are like children. Designer is the mother and client is the father. Mother will always try to make her kid look and act the best she can, but if father’s genes are bad, there is not much she can do. So fathers, plant good quality seeds and be good to your future kids, take responsibility and plan ahead. Great post, Paul.

  • http://venmarkmedia.com claudio alegre

    Very cool article! But more than cool, very necessary…

    later

  • mikesh

    nice… BUT like always Paul, you post (speak referring to your podcast) like you life in a fairytale world where all companies/clients are huge organisations with flat hierarchies a lot of money and dynamic constantly developing marketing strategy… most of my clients not even got time for their kids understandable that they don’t want to spent time for the website. then hire a copywriter? naha! no budget for a copywriter. They don’t even know that the word “strategy” can be used in a non warlike context ^^ …and last but not least they hate to get instructions by a 25 year old.

    Anyways i love your posts and podcast. Its like the left social parties in a western democracy; naive unrealistic and blue eyed but totally right in their conviction…

    Here something for your minion slave markus:

    A chicken farmer went to a local bar… sat next to a woman and
    ordered a glass of champagne.

    The woman perks up and says, “How about that? I just ordered a
    glass of champagne, too!”

    “What a coincidence,” the farmer says, “This is a special day for me,
    I’m celebrating.”
    “This is a special day for me too, I’m also celebrating!” says the woman.

    What a coincidence,” says the man. As they clinked glasses the farmer asked, “What are you celebrating?”
    “My husband and I have been trying to have a child, and today my gynaecologist told me that I’m pregnant!”
    “What a coincidence,” says the man .. “I’m a chicken farmer,
    and for years all my hens were infertile, but today they’re finally laying fertilized eggs.”

    “That’s great!” says the woman, “How did your chickens become fertile?”
    “I used a different cock,” he replied.
    The woman smiled and said,

    “What a coincidence…”

  • http://twitter.com/SilverFirefly Silver Firefly

    Very useful article. Thank you.

    But I have a little bone to pick. You have your web designer, your copywriter, your web developer, and your jack-of-all-trades. Why is it down to the web designer to explain to the client about copy writing? Surely it should be down to a copywriter to explain stuff related to writing copy?

    In my opinion it would make more sense for the client to either have written the copy or to have hired a professional copywriter to write the copy, and then come to me to design the front-end. Because copy should be taken care of before any HTML or CSS is written.

    So from that point of view, the article is slightly misleading, many clients would probably take it to mean that the web designer is responsible for writing the copy or something like that.

  • http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/nursing/sonet/ Fred R

    Absolutely spot on. Educating the client has always been an important part of technical development, going back to pre-web days, but it’s probably more important than ever these days. Clients just assume they can throw money at someone and say ‘build a website’, and that’s their role done with. They often get a rude shock when we tell them, as you’ve outlined above, that they need to pull their fingers out and be actively involved during and after site development. I love the idea of the Website Owners Manual :)

    Fred

  • http://www.truenorthe.com Courtney

    Very good points, especially the last. I’m always on my clients about content, and how important it is that they get it to me as soon as they can so I can tweak it and edit it for the web. Good article!

  • http://www.bggadvertising.com Steve Morin

    Really good points in this article. A site is only as good as the client wants it to be. Just like anything, if a client really is committed to making their site work, it will be a success. In my industry, sometimes I feel like our clients look at their websites more like a printed piece than a dynamic animal. So, maybe another point you could add to this list would be:

    Clients need to know what the developer/designer’s role is.
    The designer/developer is not just making pretty pictures, but we are strategic. A site needs to have laser focus on it’s mission and the client needs to work with the designer/developer to make that focus a priority.

    This is a big difference in your client looking at you as a vendor or a strategic partner.

  • http://boagworld.com Paul Boag

    @mikesh – Look at the title of the article ‘5 things your clients SHOULD know’. I entirely accept that they do not always know this stuff. Its our job as designers to educate them. Its not a naive aim but neither do I always succeed. However, I have learnt that it is worth trying. Nothing will change if we just sit back on our arses and except whatever rubbish the client throws at us.

    We once did speculative work on very project we tendered for. Then we stopped and explained to the client why it was a bad idea. Now we never do it and constantly with work because we were willing to challenge.

    The key is learning how to explain this stuff so the client can accept it.

  • http://www.myintervals.com John

    Your points on the copywriting are so dead on. We have had some projects stall out for several years (i’m not kidding) while waiting for copy. We’ve even had a few projects never launch at all due to copy never being delivered.

    • http://www.simoncreative.com Simon Dabkowski

      Good point. Why does it always feel like pulling-teeth when it comes to getting text copy from a client. “Content is king – Act like it!” ditto!

  • http://www.webdesigntipsonline.com/site_design.html Steve Hall – Web Design

    Great post.
    I think it is vital to sit down with the client at the start of the process and establish a clear set of expectations and responsibilities.
    What are you trying to achieve? Who is going to perform which tasks? And when and how is the progress reviewed.
    This also then gives you a chance to educate the client a little bit about what is required for you to do your job effectively and what are realistic expectations.

  • vmial

    Very interesting article. Nice points.

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  • http://snap-va.com/blog Karri Flatla

    “Frankenstein copy.” Love that.

    I ruefully agree with you that design trumps copy in the minds of too many business owners. Why is this? Well, despite our inherent inclination for language, we’re still visual creatures first. Design is sexy. You can impress your friends with it and impress yourself with it … for a while. And then pretty soon the only ones who see the design are the website owners because there is no relevance to the message wrapped in the sexy package.

    It’s the thorn in every copywriter’s side. Make my website hot even if ultimately it can only shout as much into darkness.

    Thanks for the great post. You obviously put a lot of thought into your content ;)

    Cheers.

  • http://snap-va.com/blog Karri Flatla

    PS: I agree with Steve Hall. And for goodness sake, get clients to commit their vision to paper before you tackle anything in relation to their website. e.g: as a copywriter, if we can’t agree on a target market profile, I ain’t touchin’ your copy.

  • http://www.usablewords.com/blog/ Angus Gordon

    Wonderful article Paul, and as a copywriter I obviously agree with point 5 especially!

    I’m fortunate to have a close relationship with a web designer/developer who believes in the importance of content, and will often simply include me in his proposals as a matter of course. In fact, it puzzles me that web designers and copywriters don’t build alliances like this more often.

  • abs

    when i make millions im going to donate to this site =)

  • http://internet-creatives.com Andrea

    The point that we need to encourage companies to appoint a stakeholder with specific ‘ownership’ of the website and ensuring it’s updated is so true. After 14 years in IT consultancy I’ve seen this so many times and I’m still amazed that so few organizations have caught on.

  • http://www.position-relative.com Debbie

    I completely agree with your comment about a big problem cropping up when the client starts making the decisions that are best left to the web designer. I’m definitely frustrated with a current client in part for that reason.

    Once that happens, how do you regain ‘control’ of the design?

    Nice article.

    • http://www.blueprintdesign.ie Paul

      If my client naievely suggested making a logo smaller, I might oblige and show them some alternative approaches also to the problem they tried to solve. As designer, if you convinced yourself that your way is best, it shouldn’t be impossible to bring the client around too. However if we were talking about something more time consuming, I obviously couldn’t oblige if I knew it was a bad decision. Best to avoid this and, as you say, ‘define roles’

      ‘encourage your client to focus on problems and not solutions’ – that’s a good principle and it’s good to forget too, occasionally, e.g. when the client has a better idea for a design solution, or when the designer identifies misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem, e.g. ‘I need to be high in Google, nothing else matters.’ The problem may not be that the client needs more visitors, but the client needs recurring, *relevant* traffic that converts, now and later. The problem is education.

      I like reading this type of ‘educate client’ articles because it shows me many pitfalls and advantages I was and would have been unaware of. E.g.

      http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/08/freelancing-and-the-power-of-partnering/

      http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/04/10-tips-for-surviving-the-economic-downturn/

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  • http://www.gravitaslondon.com George

    Good points Paul – I have linked to this article from my own site as well. Thanks!

  • jameydesigns

    Thanks for bringing the light to my world, I found this really interesting!