Introducing Client Centric Design

In the first episode of season 3 we introduce client centric design. This methodology addresses the negative attitude that exists towards client work and has the potential to transform your business.

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This series of posts, accompanying podcast and ebook feel like the most significant I have released in my 6 years of blogging. They are the culmination of 18 years as a web designer and tackle a disturbing trend that has emerged within the web design community. They also represent my personal ‘manifesto’ (yes I know that sounds pretentious) for working as a web designer.

The decision to tackle this subject was born from the disturbing trend among web designers to berate clients and client work.

When did clients become the enemy?

I’m surprised how much resentment exists between web designers and their clients. There are entire websites dedicated to web designers ranting uncontrollably about clients from hell.

Clients from Hell website

In the last few years I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of web designers abandoning client work to develop their own web applications. There are many more who would like to make this move, but fear losing the income of client work.

This tells me a lot about the current state of web design. Although some are developing web applications to create an ongoing revenue stream, many simply cannot stand working with clients.

What has gone wrong? Are clients really all idiots, intent on nothing more than undermining our work? Or does the problem lie with us as a community? Have we lost sight of what our job really is?

Tweet from web designer complaining about a client

I passionately believe the problem lies in our own attitude. It is time for us to realign our thinking, reassess our job and become client centric.

Client centric web design

I am sure you have heard the term ‘user centric web design’. For years we have been encouraged as web designers to think about the needs of our users. Now, I want you to adopt a new perspective on your work. I want you to become ‘client centric web designers’.

Client centric web design allows web designers to redefine the relationship they have with their clients. It endeavours to break the preconception that clients are the enemy and instead create a harmonious working relationship.

Many web designers try to exclude the client or produce a great website despite their supposed interference. Client centric web design rejects this approach instead placing the client at the heart of the web design process.

There are two principles that underly this approach that many web designers seem to reject.

First, it accepts that being a web designer is about providing a service to our customers as well as a website. This means a fundamental part of our job is ensuring clients go away happy.

Waitress

Waitress image via Shutterstock

Second, client centric web design works on the premise that the client is essential to producing a successful website. It argues that it is impossible to create a truly effective website without the client being engaged with the process.

Am I rejecting user centric design?

You may feel this emphasis on the client is unhealthy. Instead, you may argue, users should be our focus and not the whims of the client. After all if you alienate the user, you undermine the effectiveness of the business. I agree, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

The customer is not always right

Client centric web design is not about pandering to whatever the client says they want. This approach does not presume that the “customer is always right."

Client centric design is about engaging with the client to meet their business needs. Sometimes the client will suggest things that ultimately undermine their own business goals and it is your job as a web designer to educate them about the consequences of their ideas.

Child wearing dunce cap

Notice that I refer to educating the client. I do not believe in stubbornly refusing to implement ideas you disagree with. It is the clients website and they need to believe in it. If they do not, they will not invest in it long term and it will fail. It is important that you convince the client, rather than just block them.

However (and here is the controversial bit), ultimately I believe client centric supersedes user centric.

Client centric supersedes user centric

I believe that although user centric design and client centric design are not mutually exclusive, the latter trumps the former. This may sound like heresy but please bear with me while I explain.

When we talk about user centric design we do so because treating users well will give business benefits. Our wish to be user centric is ultimately a desire to help the business.

Client centric web design is about fulfilling the client’s ultimate aim, which is to create a website that provides business benefits.

Therefore user centric design is a subset of client centric. In other words, meeting the needs of users is a way to meet the client’s ultimate objective. That is why they are not mutually exclusive.

However, these two viewpoints sometimes come into conflict. This happens when the client wants to do something that provides business benefits at the cost of alienating users. It is when these conflicts arise that it is important to understand that the business (and the client) should come first.

Venn diagram where business needs and user needs fail to completely intersect.
Venn diagram where business needs and user needs fail to completely intersect.

Many web designers argue that user needs come first because ignoring them will damage the business. However, think twice before taking the user side over that of your client. Often the client has a good reason that provides business benefits.

Business led design in action

Let me give you an example that illustrates my point. We once worked with a law firm made up of high-profile attorneys. Our analytics analysis, stakeholder interviews and user testing told us that the number one thing users wanted was quick access to attorney information.

From a user centric perspective the logical thing was to make it as easy as possible for the user to get access to this information. However, the client wanted the user to have to navigate via pages that outlined the broader capabilities of the organisation.

The reason the client wanted this was because attorneys regularly move between companies. The client wanted to make sure the prospective customers were hiring the company and not just an attorney who may leave.

In this situation client centric superseded user centric. The business needs outweighed the needs of the user.

Amazon homepage

I also believe that this business led, client centric approach leads to better websites.

Creating better websites

As web designers we can be arrogant about our abilities. We believe ourselves capable of producing high-quality websites entirely in isolation. This is a delusion. We can design and code a great website, but a truly effective site requires knowledge only the client has.

Your client knows his business

For example, no matter how thorough our research is we are never going to have the same level of understanding the client has about their business. They will have years of experience working within the organisation giving them a unique perspective we cannot hope to match. Although our outside perspective is incredibly valuable, that does not mean their internal perspective is invalid.

Your client knows his customers

The client’s knowledge is also superior when it comes to their users. Too often as web designers we set ourselves up as the user’s champion, but we need to understand that we have limited knowledge of those users. Admittedly we have a good understanding of how users interact with websites, but we do not understand their specific motivations in the way the client does. Clients simply have more contact with their users than we will ever have.

It also strikes me as absurd that many web designers do not tap into the knowledge their clients have in other areas.

Your client has valuable advice

Not only will the client’s knowledge of the business and customers improve your website, many also have other skills to bring to the table.
Many clients are experienced marketeers, entrepreneurs or business strategists. Although we like to think of ourselves as having some knowledge in these areas, our knowledge probably is not as deep as theirs.

Most clients can make valuable contributions that improves the website. The problem is not every suggestion will be practical and many of us have had bad experiences dealing with impractical suggestions. This has made us hesitant about allowing the client too much control over the process. Unfortunately, this means we have missed out on many of the good contributions they can make.

As web designers we need to work with clients in such a way that we can take the good and leave the bad. This is what we will be exploring in the later in this series. If we can do this then the client’s contribution is certain to improve the websites we produce.

New Actions

Working closely with clients can be beneficial for everyone. However, you probably still have doubts. You may be concerned that the client will abuse the relationship or that they won’t respect you. These are things we will tackle in the rest of this series. For now I would ask you to take the following steps.

Check your negativism

Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the clients’ shortcomings, but instead focus on what they have to offer. A client will sense if you are unhappy with them and it will sour the relationship.

Adopt a service based business mentality

Start thinking of yourself as offering a service to your clients. How does that change what you do? For example, does it change how you communicate? When shopping or in a restaurant look at the service you receive and ask yourself what you can learn from that.

Examine existing clients

Look through your current client list. Ask yourself what makes each relationship a success or a failure. If you feel the client has damaged the relationship ask yourself why and whether you could have prevented it.

So far I have focused on your role in this new approach to web design. However, the client plays their part too. Unfortunately you cannot control what the client thinks, feels or says. What you can do is take steps to redefine the relationship.

A complete transcript of this episode is also available

  • CyndyMcC

    Paul and
    Marcus – fantastic maiden podcast, thank you! Speaking from the client side, I
    couldn’t agree more with the comment about the design agency needing to be an
    educator as well as a designer. I won’t take all  my designers’
    advice at face value. I will ask “why” and seek
    specific examples. If I am wrong, I WANT my designer to push back and share
    their insight and years of experience to show me why I am wrong.  Unless I truly
    get the argument you are making for/against a certain design
    recommendation, how am I going to turn around and sell it to my superiors? It is
    this kind of respectful back and forth that makes for a great partnership
    between designer and client.

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      That is good to hear as we will be working together again soon. I would be stuffed if you just wanted somebody to agree with you :)

  • josef2525

    The resentment comes from clients micromanaging and interfering in the design. Clients may be experienced in marketing and business strategy, but they are generally not qualified to make specific decisions about look and feel, interaction or site architecture. That should be left to specialists. Second guessing the designer on something they are an expert on will quickly lead to a breakdown in trust, and this is entirely the clients responsibility.

    Obsequiousness is not the answer. The only way to do good work is to be extremely selective about who you work with. Bad clients can do a lot of damage, not just to themselves but to everyone they work with.

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      I appreciate the comment but have to say I disagree. I am not suggesting for one minute that you need to obsequious. I am suggesting that you and the client should work together. Yes you are the design expert but that doesn’t mean the client has nothing to contribute.
      Sure you can pick and choose your clients, but I feel that is a short sighted attitude. It is basically saying that you won’t work with clients that “don’t get it”. How are those clients ever going to “get it” if nobody ever takes the time to work with them and improve their understanding of web design best practice.

      • http://twitter.com/_gianpi_ gianpi

        In theory I agree with you: it’s quite immature and unprofessional to say you won’t work with people that “don’t get it”. However I think you and josef are talking about slightly different situations.

        In your case you’re assuming to work with reasonable individuals that have their ideas and can contribute with vital feedback and information (and that’s where I totally agree with you and your client-centric design).

        But I had to deal more than once with clients who would make decisions about small details, and with no real rationale. I got this once: “Here I want a slider instead of a button, because I don’t like buttons”, and while we tried to explain why in that specific case it wasn’t a good user experience, he didn’t move from that, and the only reason he had was this “because I don’t like it”. This repeated all along the project, in similar situation, and please keep in mind we were hired specifically for our UCD approach, to make the best product for this guy’s customers, and not for his personal taste.
        So are you really giving this person a good service if you lead the project by being client centric?

        Ultimately he’s paying for it, so of course we do our best to explain our suggestions, but we end up doing it or walk away, but I don’t think picking and choosing the clients is always wrong either.

        • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

          There comes a point in my opinion where if a client insists on an approach despite you having explained it will be detrimental, then you have to just give them what they want. However, I have to say if you have the patience this rarely occurs.

    • CyndyMcC

       I don’t think anyone is suggesting obsequiousness. To the contrary, I want a design firm that knows its stuff well enough to tell me why something isn’t a good idea. Just because a client asks a question or seeks justification for a design choice doesn’t make them “bad”. Unless the designer can’t answer the question, or lacks justification for decisions, I suppose; then that would get in the way of what a designer would consider a productive days work.

      The more a client works with an agency, the more they will trust the work enough to stop asking so many questions. I don’t think designers should expect full trust the first job out with a new client.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183223584 Luke Schumann

      Maybe “bad” clients are the way they are because they’ve never had someone teach them how to be “good” clients.  To help them understand why they’re being “bad” and how you as the “expert” can help them be “good.”

      It is our job as “experts” to respectfully articulate, gently teach, shape and mold, build and contstruct the web design industry into a solid, reputable industry that clients will grow to learn and understand how it works.  If a client enters into a contract with you and all they’ve ever known is a salty taste from previous bad experiences, then you’re already behind the 8 ball and IMHO that “breakdown in trust” is entirely your responsibility as the “expert”. 

  • http://thenextlab.com/ Steven

    This sentence is the best ”
    Client centric design is about engaging with the client to meet their business needs.”. 

    It’s not about what you like or what clients wants/likes it’s about how you can work together to get the best possible outcome for both parties. 

  • Robert Francom

    I started reading this article and I became glued to it because I’ve had many instances where the client and end user goals conflict. I was never sure what direction to take in those circumstances. Thanks for the good advice. 

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      I am really glad it helped. Not that I am suggesting we just do whatever the client suggests. Often what the client asks for will damage their ultimate objective of a successful site.

      • http://twitter.com/SubsurfNL Janko Bosch

        That’s in interesting point. Can you expect a client to know as much about interfaces and the shifts that are happening continuously? 

        In my experience clients simply choose solutions that they already know. Because they’re familiar with it. It’s part of our job to introduce new ways to navigate  that are emerging. Simply because they will be the norm within a year.I believe there’s a tension in that area. The old methods of using interfaces might not hurt business but it doesn’t help either. Can you tell us more how you deal with clients who lack internet knowledge to judge solutions correctly? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183223584 Luke Schumann

    Great start to the 3rd season.  Paul, you and your team working on these projects are doing great work!  Love it!

    Here’s my takeaway and comment for the first episode of this season and I guess just a sumamry of what I think the podcast show is about in general: 

    As a freelancer working with clients and as someone who is coming from a financial services industry and client service/sales perspective, the idea of “client centric” to me is somewhat obvious but nonetheless is a pre-requisite to being a business professional.  Basically, we’re not just widget workers pumping out sites and code; we’re not just there to meet every demand of clients and business partners.  We’re all LEADERS and PROFESSIONALS in the field and we need to behave as such.  We must be good at the basics – not just coding or design.  This approach will not only allow us to charge more as freelancers and agencies but also the good relationships we’ve built will bring in more revenue over time. 

    And for those who are not working with external clients, you still have clients…whether they are partners in the office or outside vendors…they are still your clients…treat them with respect and courtesy, endeavoring to improve the working relationship and you will become a standout.

    It’s about making the web design/development community the best it can be for everyone’s benefit.

  • Andrew_Sharman

    Really enjoyed listening to the podcast and the interview with Mark Boulton was particularly enlightening. I would agree that the key to a successful client relationship is having face-to-face meetings and telephone discussions as much as possible. Email is good for enabling a constant conversation with a client during a job, but the nuances of speech do not come across very well in type  – and that’s an essential part of persuasion and negotiation. Looking forward to the next episode!

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidhickox David Cameron Hickox

      Yes yes.  I have learned to basically never email clients.  What you want is a dialogue that carries you throughout the development process.  Email is a place for dictation, not dialogue. 

  • http://twitter.com/pdueck Petra Dueck

    I bought your book and am ready for this podcast season.

    My husband snorted in agreement when I told him I thought I might really need this sort of podcast right now. 16 years of ‘bad dates’ with clients have built up enough neuroticism that I think I just need some good therapy so I can love client work again. I love clients but I have a hard time loving working for them any more. Looks like this is just the program to help me with this. Looking forward to the next show.

    Miss your weekly podcasts.

  • http://twitter.com/TwoLittleFishes Nick Bramwell

    Great first episode to the new series.

    Already thinking about how I can develop better long term relationships with clients. Probably by having monthly Skype/telephone chats to discuss how the Web site is working and how we can improve it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61304129 Andrew Ingram

    There seems to be some confusion within this article as to what argument it’s making. It starts out wondering why people are abandoning client work for in-house stuff, and goes on to describe how to build a better relationship with clients.

    A lot of what you’re saying is about how clients know their customers best (which is often, but not always, true), but as web designers (and developers and UX people) we have to engage in a LOT of discussion/meetings with clients to build up the relationship and learn what we can about the customers. For some web designers, this relationship itself is a large component of what makes their job so fulfilling.

    For others, however, we just want to spend all our time building stuff – good stuff. So we look to build in-house. We choose to either scratch our own itch, in which case we know what our customers want because were ARE our customers. Or we join an organisation with customers we can strongly empathise with (my first job working in-house on the Forbidden Planet e-commerce site was an example of this). The idea being to cut down the number of discussions required to know our customers and spend more time building good products. Because at the end of the day, I get my kicks out of building things that I *know* people enjoy using.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that choosing to go in-house isn’t in conflict with your values. Everyone has their preferences. I would go so far as to say that many people start out doing agency work because (let’s be honest) it’s probably the easiest way into the industry, so it’s unsurprising that the tide is from agency towards in-house. But I would expect to see this a a stable thing, there’ll always be a steady proportion of people who are happy doing client work, and there’ll be a steady proportion of people who realise they’ll be happier doing in-house, so make the switch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidhickox David Cameron Hickox

    I’m excited for this new series and I do think it combats a growing problem in our industry.  What I’ve found is that a lot of times client feedback does dramatic improve your results.  When we’re done with an idea or design, we naturally want someone to sign off on it entirely so that we can be proud of ourselves and move on.  But often we get so deep in design decisions that we don’t see to total picture from afar and can’t recognize when we’ve wandered off base from the initial concept and goals.  However inarticulate client comments can be at times, I find that the designs I end up with after 2 or 3 rounds of client revisions are much better than my original concept.  What starts as “GD why do I have to be concerned with this foolish pursuit” often ends up with “dammit, they were totally right” by the end of the process.  

  • Sandy Knight

    So what do you do when your client insists on using stupid fonts:
    http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Finger+Paint

    …for ALL the content despite your advice on usability?

    • http://boagworld.com/ Paul Boag

      Run some A/B tests with something like verifyapp.com or usertesting.com. Its cheap and it is provides some compelling evidence.

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