Many web designers view the client as almost an inconvenience in the web development process but in reality they are absolutely fundamental to a websites success. However unlike the role of designer or developer, the part web site owners play is much harder to define.
In fact I would argue that the role of web site owner is one of the most multi-facitated jobs within web development and we as designers and developers need to recognise and encourage that role.
Of course to a large extent it is our responsibility as web agencies to lift some of the responsibility from the shoulders of website owners. However I would still suggest that there are a number of areas where the client has to take the lead.
A good web design agency should be able to help their clients shape a vision for their organisations website, however it is down to the website owner to “own” that vision and develop it over the long term. The person responsible for a website needs to have a clear picture of what role the site plays within their business and how that role could be expanded over time.
In my mind vision falls into two categories. There is the core vision for the site. In other words, what is the unshakable objective of the site, which doesn’t really change over time. However there is also the site roadmap. This is a vision of how the site is going to develop over the coming months and even in some cases, years. What kind of new functionality maybe added and how is the user base expected to change. Without the website owner having a good handle on these two areas, a site can easily wander off track and loose its sense of purpose and focus.
As well as having a clear vision for a site the website owner also needs to be the sites advocate. By that I mean he needs to defend the site against others within the organisation that would seek to undermine its focus. This is especially a problem within larger organisations where people think more on a departmental rather than corporate level. This typically leads to individual departments pushing their agendas on the website and the site becoming the victim of internal politics. It is not unusual to find departments fighting over home page real estate or top level sections in the information architecture.
It is the role of the website owner to make sure the integrity of his or her site is defended and that it does not sink under the weight of internal dispute.
But the job of the website owner is not just defensive. A good website owner should be offensive too, actively promoting the website within his or her organisation. They should enthuse about the potential of the web and actively engage with departments and people within the company, looking for ways that the website can better serve their needs. A website owner needs to be passionate about their site and encouraging others to share that passion.
Probably the most time consuming and demanding of the responsibilities held by the website owner is to oversee the content of the site. Not only is it his or her responsibility to dictate what content appears on the site, but that the content added communicates a consistent message and tone. The website owner needs to encourage and nurture content contributors ensuring that they keep their content up to date and relevant. However the largest workload is in the initial development of a site, when it is down to the client to plan what needs to be communicated on the site and draw together that content from various contributors across the organisation. Time and again I see clients significantly underestimate the amount of work involved here and it is vital that the agency and client agree on content delivery milestones upfront in order to avoid slippage.
Developing a website involves a lot of people. Designers, developers, usability experts, content contributors, hosting companies… the list goes on. Although in many cases a website owner turns to a web design agency to handle the management of many of these roles it is still inevitable that some management will be required by the client. Website owners often have to get internal sign off on designs, content, budget and many other aspects of the project. As I have already said they also have to manage content contributors and in some cases may have to manage multiple suppliers (design agency, development house, hosting company). In short, even if they outsource the project to an agency it is still going to require some management by the client.
The unfortunate truth is that the final role a website owner often has to fulfill is unofficial referee. Web development projects are a series of compromises. Accessibility needs to be traded off against design, design against marketing, marketing against usability and so on. The different contributors to a website have very different perspectives on what is important, so it is down to the website owner to break stalemates and find a middle ground. Ultimately they have to be the decision maker.
The web agencies role
So there you have it, the role of the client. The trouble is that as web designers we often fail to communicate to the client our expectations of what it is we believe they should do. Instead we assume the client will just fulfill their obligations. Because we have worked on so many web design projects we assume the division of responsibilities is obvious. The reality is that they are not and it is down to us to educate the client.