5 Things Your Clients Should Know

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March 19, 2009
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 clients role, to encouraging investment in content.
clientsDo 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.

Paul Boag

Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation. He is a leader in digital and user experience strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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