S03E01: Introducing client centric web design | Boagworld - Web & Digital Advice

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S03E01: Introducing client centric web design

This is a transcription of episode 1, season 3 of the boagworld podcast: Introducing Client Centric Web Design.

Paul Boag: Hello and welcome to Boagworld.com, the podcast for those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis! And I’m back, with my marvelous colleague, Marcus Lillington. Hello, Marcus.

Marcus Lillington: We’re back! Hello, hello.

Paul: It’s exciting, isn’t it?

Marcus: I know! It has been quite a while.

Paul: It’s been a very long while! But we—

Marcus: I can’t remember when we were last in this room.

Paul: Umm—

Marcus: Forgot it even existed!

Paul: It must have been—it was before Christmas.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: Which—I think we finished releasing as Christmas came along, as I remember. But then, what do I know?

Marcus: Yep. I was relying on you, there, Paul. What was I thinking?

Paul: No, no. Yes. Absurdity. Absurdity in the extreme. But, while you’ve been sitting around on your ass doing nothing, I have been writing a new ebook and a new series for the show!

Marcus: Yes, I’ve been doing nothing at all.

Paul: Nothing!

Marcus: That’s why I’ve been so bored and it seems like such a long time. Because I’ve just been sat there, waiting for the call. Because I do nothing else.

Paul: You do nothing else! But finally—

Marcus: Other than correct all of your spelling and grammar in the new book that you’ve writen.

Paul: Yeah, oh, oh, editing. That’s such a hard job. No original thinking whatsoever! But there you go! It must be done!

Marcus: We all have our different skills, Paul.

Paul: Exactly! Yes. And some of us have more skills than others, is all I’m saying! That’s it!

So, anyway, we’re back! And we have an exciting, new, six-part series that I’m going to be sharing over the next few weeks. And I have to say that I think it’s probably the most significant thing that I’ve released in my six years of blogging. I’m going to go that far. And I’ve released some quite incredible stuff in the past, so.

Marcus: Wow.

Paul: I’m really raising the bar high, here.

Marcus: You are really, really, really doing that, Paul.

Paul: Yes.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: I’m going to go further. I think it’s possibly the culmination of 18 years of my experience as a web designer.

Marcus: That doesn’t necessarily make it good, though.

Paul: No, actually. Culmination of eighteen crap years! So, I’m quite excited about this series. Hopefully other people are. We’re going to be talking about stuff that we’ve never talked about on the podcast before.

Marcus: That—we must—that’s impossible!

Paul: No, it is. Whenever we’ve been talking on the podcast before, we’ve focused very much on website owners and meeting needs of those people that are actually running websites. Well, this season is aimed at those that work for clients. I’m talking about web designers and the web community generally.

So it’s going to be a bit of a radical departure, this season, from what we also—what we normally do. And we’re going to be tackling what I think is a bit of a disturbing trend that’s emerging within the web design community. And really kind of laying out my personal manifesto. Really laying out, kind of, how we work at Headscape and our approach, really, to designing websites.

And I think the decision to tackle this subject has been born out of—

Marcus: I do need to interrupt you, Paul

Paul: Go on.

Marcus: ‘Cause you’re sounding so poorly.

Paul: Do I actually sound poorly?

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: I’m Paul Boag. Hello! And I try really hard to be upbeat and chipper.

Marcus: Oh, you’re sounding that. You’re just sounding poorly.

Paul: I am. I feel, I feel crap, to be frank.

Marcus: If it gets worse, then people will understand why.

Paul: Right.

Marcus: The quality of the podcast.

Paul: If I lose enthusiasm as the show goes on. Which isn’t unusual for me to do that anyway. I haven’t the attention span of a small kid, so I do. Ooh, look, something shiny!

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: So, there we go. So, yeah, basically, what we’re going to be looking at this season is something that I have called a client-centric design, and is born out of a disturbing trend amongst web designers to berate their clients and client work in general. And that is what we’re going to be tackling this season.

There is, as always, a book to accompany this season—I say, as always. We didn’t do a book for the last season. So that’s a lie, then.

Marcus: You started the whole thing with a lie. Are you basing this series on a lie, Paul?

Paul: Yes. I am. And I’m proudly doing that.

So, yes, there is a book associated with this season. If you want to know about what’s going to be covered in the season as it goes on, if you want to get access to the book to buy and download, then you can find out all you need to know at Boagworld.com/season/3

So. Where to begin? I think probably the best place to begin is this attitude that has evolved. I’m constantly surprised at how much resentment exists between web designers and their clients. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to web designers ranting uncontrollably about their clients from hell. If you’ve ever been to Clients From Hell, the website, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been, then check it out, because actually it’s really funny.

Marcus: It’s bloody funny.

Paul: It is very funny. But I think, although it is funny, I think it does represent probably a slightly disturbing trend that is emerging. In the last few years, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of web designers basically abandoning client work to develop their own web applications. There are many more, as well, that would like to do so, but fear losing the income associated with client work.

Marcus: That’s, eh, I know what you mean. Keep talking, because I’m going to blow my nose.

Paul: Okay. Turn away. Ugh. Yeah. This idea that because we’ve got techie skills, then we can do web aps and sell them. But, actually, we’ve tried this—

Marcus: —And we were shit at it.

Paul: Yeah. I mean, for various reasons, it didn’t work out. But the point I was going to make is selling web applications is hassle. It’s just a different type of hassle.

Marcus: Yeah! Yes.

Paul: You know?

Marcus: I know the argument of it being, kind of, I want to be master of my own destiny. Fair enough. I get that. But it’s just this assumption that it’s going to be easier.

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: Which I don’t necessarily agree with. I mean—there are many clients from hell out there. We’ve had quite a few over the years. But this—yeah, I don’t necessarily agree with this, we need to go and sell things because it will be easier.

Paul: No.

Marcus: I think that’s, well, if you think that, you’re going to struggle.

Paul: Absolutely. And in some regards, what you’re doing is you’re just replacing, you know, a small number of clients with a large number of clients.

Marcus: Yes. Exactly.

Paul: Because that’s what customers are.

Marcus: They’re going to harass you about why have you done this? Mine doesn’t work on my weird machine.

Paul: But I think what this does show—this kind of desire that the grass is greener on the other side—this, we want to go away and produce web apps, tells you something about the current state of web design. And although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating web apps. If that’s what you want to do, great. I mean, the great thing—there are a lot of advantages to creating web apps. Not—you know, in terms of an ongoing revenue stream and not being limited by the number of hours you can put in, etcetera, etcetera.

So there are benefits. But I think if you’re looking at going into developing web apps to escape clients, I think A, you’re delusional, and I think B, that isn’t ever going to work. You know, I think that you’re missing something. I think there’s something wrong. That’s an unhealthy way to do it. You know, fine! Develop web apps if that’s what you want to do, if that’s what your passion is. But as a way to escape client work, I think it’s a big mistake.

So what’s gone wrong? Why is it that so many web designers just see clients as all idiots, basically, intent on nothing more than undermining our work? You know, where is the problem here?

Is that true? Are clients just out there to undermine our work? And are they all idiots?

Marcus: Absolutely, Paul.

Paul: Yeah. There we go, that’s the conclusion of the season.

In reality, of course, there’s a bigger underlying problem, and I think that problem lies with us as a web community. I think we’ve lost sight of what our job really is, and I passionately believe that there is a problem in our own attitude and we need to realign our thinking and kind of reassess what our job is so it becomes more client-centric. And that is what I’m tackling in the book, and that’s what I’m tackling in this season of the podcast.

Marcus: It’s about working together, man. Yeah.

Paul: Well, it is, though!

Marcus: I think a lot of designers like to lock themselves away in the cupboard. There’s always been that kind of joke about, where, you don’t see the light of day, kind of thing. But that’s actually true. And it’s this lack of communication—I won’t completely summarize the book in one sentence, but, it’s–

Paul: You just have.

Marcus: That’s what’s missing.

Paul: Absolutely.

Marcus: Really.

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: And we’re going to cover—Paul’s going to waffle on about all sorts of different things—

Paul: But that’s what it comes down to. It’s—communicate more.

So, so, this is a conversation that I’ve been having a lot recently, as I’ve been formulating my thinking over this and putting together the book. And one great person I had a really good conversations with about it is Mark Boulton, after he kicked off on Twitter about exactly this subject—had a little rant about those people that were berating client work.

So I thought, let’s get him on the show. Let’s actually talk to him about client work and about his experiences. And it was such a good conversation I had with him, I thought, let’s include it right now, at the very first episode, as we kick off the show. So here’s a little interview I did with Mark.

Paul: So, joining me is Mark Boulton. Good morning, Mark! How are you?

Mark: Good morning! I’m very well, thank you.

Paul: Although it’s actually afternoon, isn’t it? I don’t know why I said good morning.

Mark: It is a sunny, lovely afternoon, for once.

Paul: I like the way you didn’t embarrass me by pointing out my shortcomings of—

Mark: Oh, I thought that was some kind strange, you know, dealing for your U.S. audience.

Paul: Ah, okay. No, it was just me being thick.

Mark: I don’t like to assume.

Paul: So, Mark, I’ve got you on really because of a tweet that you sent out a while ago. Now, I tried to find the exact wording of your tweet, but I couldn’t find it. But it was something along the lines of, I’m really fed up with people being critical about client work. Can you remember what it was you said?

Mark: Yep, it was something like that. I don’t remember the exact words. It may not have even been that polite.

Paul: Ah, right. It’s possible.

Mark: It’s possible—it’s very probable. Yeah, but I—that’s the gist of it, I think.

Paul: So what brought about this? Why did you suddenly come forth with this opinion?

Mark: Well, it was a combination of a few things. I think there was—at the time, Jim Coudal did a creative kind of mornings thing, I think it was in Chicago. And I watched that. It was very good. Jim’s great. Wonderful guy to listen to. But it was, you know, very focused on, we got tired of doing client work so we did our own thing. And then, there was something—you know, 37signals’s always banging on about the same thing. And then, there was a few things.

I think it was around about the time as well, Coy wrote a post about essentially—I may be kind of paraphrasing here—in fact, I may be completely quoting him incorrectly, but—I think the gist of his post was, he sees the most worthwhile design being done—in digitally—not for clients.

Paul: Right.

Mark: So either for products or for in-house. Either the most significant digital design or the most rewarding, I can’t remember exactly. But it was kind of the culmination of—it was the perfect storm, a few comments from a few different places.

Paul: Hmm. So why do you think this is? Why do you think there is such negativity surrounding client work?

Mark: Well, I think that—I mean, I’m fortunate in that I do both, and I have done both in the past, so I can see both sides of the story, really. I can see the fact that not working in the service industry, actually working on something yourself that you’re in full control of being able to guide, and being able to make decisions, pretty much in isolation from any stakeholders or fee-paying customers, then I think that that is very liberating. And, you know, what designer would not welcome that? You know. To be able to have, I don’t know, kind of, you know, fairly free reign in doing what they’re doing.

And I think the negativity is just focused on clients and this whole thing of clients being a pain to work for, and why would you want to work for clients? We’ve, you know, we’ve ditched client work to do our own thing, and it’s the best thing ever. It gets a little—it doesn’t feel like, to me, that it represents the whole experience of working with clients.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: Because it’s certainly not all negative. So at least, that’s my experience.

Paul: Do you think it’s because people are not kind of grasping what they’re getting into? I mean, it’s interesting you said, a minute ago, about the client work is being part—is a service. It’s part of the service industry.

Mark: Yeah.

Paul: Do you think that it’s because people perceive, you know, my job is a web designer, I build websites. Rather than, my job is a web designer, I provide a service. You know? Do you—is it that people are kind of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick?

Mark: Yeah. I think so. And I think that, perhaps people haven’t necessarily worked in the broader service industry, either, before becoming a web designer.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: So, having appreciation of having customers, essentially, and servicing those customers. And then providing a service. There’s a lot more that comes with providing a service than just building a website.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

Mark: And I think that that’s where—and that stuff’s harder, and I find it harder, day in, day out, running a small design studio. That’s the stuff that I’d—you know, there’s days when I’d just rather be designing and not having to explain my work, or not having to run a project, or back some disgruntled customers from five simple steps, or whatever it may be. But the fact is that that is your work.

If you’re a designer working commercially, dealing with situations, whatever they may be, around your project—so, not necessarily, what size type am I using, or what colour am I using, or anything, you know, that’s only a really small part of your job. The broader part of your work is dealing with people, however, and people are difficult.

Paul: You’re sounding like you actually agree with these people that are saying client work is horrible.

Mark: Well, I’m saying that it’s not easy. And it’s not! I don’t think it is an easy thing to do. But difficult things are—you know, ask any parent. I’m sure you’ll agree. Is that raising a child is very difficult. But it is the most rewarding thing there is.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: And being a designer, a commercial designer, is difficult. But it is very rewarding. And part of the difficulty comes with dealing with people, as is dealing with people in any walk of life.

Paul: Yeah. So why is it that you, you know, keep going with client work? Because, as you said, you do do a mixture of different stuff. You know, you could reach the point where you step away from the client work and just do purely your own thing. What is it that keeps you coming back to the client work? Or is it just the money?

Mark: No, no, it’s the money! It’s the variety, I think, for one. It’s the opportunity to solve a new problem or a different problem in a different market, and I love the process of learning about different businesses, whatever that may be.

So at the moment—I’m working on three big projects at the moment. We’re working with a very large news organization, we’re working with CERN, and we’re working with a very large sports network. And those are three very, very different businesses! The sports network and the news network are similar in the kind of content, but very, very different markets, very, very different users, and very, very—three very different organizations. So there’s a lot there to wrap your head around, and I really enjoy that process of learning, building a relationship with the client. You know?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I feel the same.

Mark: I think that that’s a really great part of my job. And I love the process of—yeah, of meeting new people, of questioning and trying to mold a solution out of this, what starts off to be very kind of disparate, you know, confusing, complicated, business. No matter what it is. And then, over time, you mold it into something that you can get your head around, and you can start to solve the problem. And it’s that process, is, is great. And I—yeah—that’s one thing that I’ve found very fulfilling.

Paul: So why do you think it is that some people struggle so much with client work? Are they approaching it wrong? You know, are they—Where’s things going wrong, and what can they do to kind of make things better for themselves?

Mark: Yeah. I mean, I make mistakes with client projects, you know, all the time. And a really great client will work with you through those mistakes. And in fact, they’ll make mistakes all the time. Clients do. And I think one of the hardest things, and one of the most challenging things, is picking the right clients. And, you know, over the years we’ve had some average clients and we’ve had some brilliant clients. And what it comes down to, for me, is really that gut feel of, can I work with these people?

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: And listening to that gut feel, however hard that may be sometimes. You know, sometimes you may think, oh, god, we’ve just—we’ve got to land this project, because the cash flow, or whatever. We’ve got to—because it’s a difficult environment out there. It’s a difficult industry.

And even if you think the prospective client is a complete nut job, the pressure may be on just to put food on the table. And those, those are really hard decisions to make, because sometimes you just think, look, this project is really not feeling right. I’m not sure about this client at all. It feels wrong. Yet, you’re under commercial pressure to say yes, and accept the project and work on it.

I mean, those are the really hard decisions to make. If you think the client is going to be difficult, chances are they are going to be difficult. If they conduct themselves in a very, kind of—it’s how they conduct themselves in that, in that, getting to know you before you sign the contract period.

And if you get a gut feel at that point, then it’s been my experience over—certainly over the past couple of years—is that we’ve walked away from more projects than we’ve accepted on that basis, and in that—and that’s actually just down to, you know, do you get a gut feel? How are these people conducting themselves, and do you think you’ll be a good fit?

Paul: And I guess the danger is, is if you don’t do that and the project does turn out to be a nightmare, you’re undermining your profit margins anyway and making you a less profitable business. So you’re better off making that decision up front than, you know, three quarters of the way through the project, where it’s too late.

Mark: Yeah. And it’ll be making you very miserable.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: That’s—you know, even though we’re designers to put food on the table and run a business and to be profitable, and all the rest of it, if you’re not having a good time doing it, then why’re you doing it? And I think that a large proportion of projects that go wrong could be resolved really early on through that kind of getting to know you period of a project.

And if that relationship really early on feels strained, feels wrong, feels very different—because sometimes you get a real mismatch of cultures. You get a real mismatch of a culture of the client—if it’s very suit-y kind of organization, say banking or insurance, they wouldn’t necessarily be a great fit for us here. And when you get that mismatch, then it’s really clear early on if it’s not meant to be, you know?

Paul: I think that’s an interesting point you make there, as well, it’s that, it’s not that the client is a bad client necessarily, just they’re not the right fit for your culture and your organization, so—

Mark: Exactly! And vice versa.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely.

Mark: Generally, yeah, if you’re feeling uncomfortable, the prospective client is probably feeling that, as well.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: Because it’s like—you know, sometimes it’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: And sometimes it’s just not the right fit. Especially with, you know, large, process-driven organizations. Sometimes when they work with a freelancer or a very small outfit who don’t have that massive process that is aligned with their process, so they find it a struggle to go through a big, protracted request for information and—and a lot of these very long-winded time-consuming processes that large organizations have to protect themselves, really, against bad vendors.

Then that’s a source of pain. And would probably continue to be a source of pain for both parties. You know?

Paul: And, yeah, you get a situation where, for example, in Headscape, we are kind of more experienced—that is more of the kind of thing that we do: these longer-winded, more complex, you know, projects. And we’re kind of fine with that, and that fits with our kind of culture, but maybe doesn’t so much with yours, or vice versa. So it’s as much with the client picking the right agency to go with their culture as vice versa.

Mark: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, we do in general, we do a lot—we do some of those. And even for the larger organizations that have those processes in place. So, you know, some of them will—there’re always loopholes.

Paul: Yeah. They’ll bend the rules if they—

Mark: They’ll bend the rules if they really want to work with you. And they’ll make it happen. But, yeah, I think sometimes it is just the—clearly the wrong fit. And that is—that’s always been a source of times in my career where I’ve thought, aw, I just want to go and be a farmer. Something. You know. When all you’re doing all day is not designing.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: And then you’re thinking, what am I doing? But it’s at that point where you really have to accept that your job or your role has changed. And your norm, your normal state, whatever it was before, is not going to be that any more. It’s going to be this, now.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: And the sooner you kind of accept that, then—the sooner that I’ve accepted that, that my role is different than it was five years ago, the more accepting of some of those challenges with working with clients and working with other people I’ve been able to deal with.

Paul: I mean, I guess a big part of this, as well, is taking the client on that journey. You know, I actually find that quite satisfying, of taking the client and taking them through this process and explaining to them why we’ve taken the design approach, why we’ve made the decisions that we’ve had. But that’s quite an art to that, isn’t there? It’s not a matter of going away, producing a piece of design and saying, look, this is what we’re going to do. You’ve got to kind of get the client on board with you in that process, and I’m interested in how you go about achieving that. How do you go about, kind of, bringing the client with you in the development of that design and that site?

Mark: Yeah. I mean, it helps, I think, with our—I mean, I love that kind of stuff, as well. I think that it also comes down to personality type, I think. If you’re naturally—if you naturally like people, you’re naturally quite social and you like being around people, then I think those types of people find that process easier. If you’re a type of person who’d rather lock yourself in a room on your own all day, and use Twitter and IRC to converse with people, then you may struggle during that process!

What we do here is that we work, really—we work—I think we’ve spoken about this before—we work quite iteratively and we work in kind of blocks of time. So a two-week block of time on a project. Which aren’t necessarily—we have deadlines for in that two-week block. But those deadlines might not be so finalized and big and documentation-heavy, like a whole bunch of wireframes for a site, or something like that. And throughout that two-week bit of time, we have really regular project sort of structure with the client. So we speak to them a lot. And that’s all it really boils down to.

Paul: Yeah. Absolutely.

Mark: Is talking to them a lot. And also doing it in person, or over Skype—is actually hearing somebody’s voice.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: So whilst it’s very useful using tools like Basecamp and things like that to have a record of things, there’s nothing beats getting in a room or getting on a Skype call.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Mark: We do that a lot. We just—and that’s—and no matter what, the breakdown in any projects has always been due to a lack of that.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: You know, at least, it’s a major contributing factor. So we just try to speak a lot.

Paul: Yeah. And you are right, I mean, nothing beats that face to face or phone call, because as soon as you start moving things through email or Basecamp or whatever else, you’re losing that—that—those kind of non-verbal cues, aren’t you? Those, you know, the kind of emotion and feeling behind it. Because often a client—it’s only when you hear their kind of sigh or tut or the long pause that you know something’s not quite right. You know?

Mark: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. I mean, I’m not against working—you know, we work remotely, and we have done in the past, and a lot of our clients are overseas. So you have to conduct a lot of our business through Basecamp, and email, and that kind of thing. But we also speak very regularly on Skype.

That can be a challenge because of time differences and all that shenanigans. But it—I’ve just found, personally, that I can’t do without that.

Paul: Yeah.

Mark: I think a lot of the people, freelancers, and other people manage just fine using Campfire and using other tools to help a distributed team, or distributed team with clients, work well together. But I can’t do it.

Paul: No. No, I’m the same. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Mark: Yeah. Yeah, I just can’t do it for the life of me. I’ve tried, but it always goes wrong.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely.

Mark: You know.

Paul: Thank you so much, Mark. That’s a brilliant kick-off to this season that we’re running on the podcast, where we’re talking about all these kinds of issues, about how to be a client-centric organization and to provide that service that you were talking about. So it was great to have you on. Thanks.

Mark: Thank you very much.

Paul: So! Mark is a great guy, and very experienced in dealing with clients and working with clients, and I think that shows through in his attitude. If only more people shared Mark’s attitude when it comes to client work.

And hopefully—

Marcus: He’s quite a tough character. Which is why I can’t—I can imagine clients going, Yes, Mark. No, Mark.

Paul: Really?

Marcus: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: He always strikes me as very gentle.

Marcus: No, I always thought he knows his stuff—

Paul: He really does.

Marcus: —And that’s part of—you know, he’s just kind of got that aura about him, the few times I’ve met him.

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: You know what you’re talking about, so I’ll just let you get on with it.

Paul: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And that’s really interesting you raise that, because I think that’s a key component in those that are successful in client work. We actually come on to that, how to be perceived as that expert that, you know, people just listen to and respect. So!

Marcus: I’ve read every word, Paul.

Paul: Of course. Yes. Yes. You’ve edited the book. I forget this.

Marcus: Yes, written new sections that you haven’t even bothered to check.

Paul: Oh. Shit.

Right! So! Client-centric design. What is it? What is it all about? And what are we going to be covering over the next few weeks?

Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about the term user-centric web design. For years, we’ve been encouraged as web designers to think about the needs of our users. Now, I want you to adopt a new perspective to your work, and that is what we’re going to be tackling.

If you want to have a more successful relationship with your clients, if you want to be more profitable as a web design business, if you want to have a more pleasurable working life, and it’s considerably less happy—less happy? Less hassled!

Less happy? Then work with clients!

Marcus: Yes. Listen to our podcast.

Paul: We’ll make you miserable!

You know, if you want all of those things, then you need to become a client-centric web designer. Client-centric web design allows web designers to essentially redefine their relationship with their clients. That’s what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to be changing your relationship with your clients over the coming weeks.

Client-centric web design will endeavor to break the preconceptions that the client is the enemy, and we’re here to encourage a harmonious working relationship. This is my kind of way of thinking about things, my approach to web design, that seems to be so different to so many. That it is a positive relationship that exists between the client and yourselves and it’s one that can be harmonious and productive.

Marcus: Yeah! Makes you keen to go to work, get up in the morning.

Paul: Absolutely. Yeah! Many web designers try to exclude the client from the web design process and produce great websites kind of despite the client, if that makes sense.

Marcus: Sometimes it hits, and most of the time it doesn’t.

Paul: Yeah! Exactly. Client-centric web design rejects this approach, instead placing the client at the heart of the web design process. And there are kind of two underlying principles to client-centric web design that I want to share with you in this very first episode, principles I think many web designers reject.

First, accept that being a web designer is about providing a service to our customers as well as a website. And this means a fundamental part of our job is to ensure clients go away happy. Right? So that’s principle number one.

Principle number two of client-centric web design is that it works on the premise that the client is essential to producing a successful website. Client-centric web design argues that it is impossible to create a truly effective website without the client being engaged with the process.

Marcus: That’s kind of like stating the obvious, but—

Paul: You’d think so! Marcus, I really think—as I’ve kind of been thinking about this and I’m preparing about this, I’m not sure it is! I’m not sure—

Marcus: Goes back to the being locked in the room and going, taa daa!

Paul: Yeah. Yeah.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: You know, I think there is—it’s blindingly obvious to us at Headscape, because that’s the kind of culture that we’ve built. But I think for a lot of people, clients are basically seen as a damaging influence for the website. You know, they’re seen as somebody that creates problems rather than solves them. So that’s what needs to change.

So you might feel that all this emphasis on the client is unhealthy. Instead you may argue that users should be our focus and not the whims of the client. After all, if you alienate a user, you undermine the effectiveness of the business. Right?

Marcus: Sure.

Paul: And I agree that the two are not mutually—but I believe that the two are not mutually exclusive. Client-centric web design is not about pandering to whatever the client says that they want. This approach kind of presumes that the client is always right, and I’m not suggesting that. Clients aren’t always right, and they do get stuff wrong. But then, so do you. I’m sorry to break it to you! I obviously don’t. But, you know, there’s always the exception that proves the rule.

Marcus: It’s about involving the client in the right way.

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: That’s what it’s about. Because I think a lot of designers go—see clients as people that criticize their work.

Paul: Yes. That’s it.

Marcus: That’s their only part of the process.

Paul: Yes!

Marcus: So, take that away and involve them in other ways, is what you’re going to cover.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely! And the—you know, a client should be a lot more than just signing off stuff.

Marcus: Yeah. Going, I don’t like the blue.

Paul: Yeah. Which, undermines everything, obviously. And, you know—and it’s about—it’s all about so many things, from kind of knowing whose role is what, and—there’s all kinds of cool stuff we’re going to cover. Client-centric design is about engaging with the client to meet their business needs. Sometimes a client will suggest things that ultimately will undermine their own business goals, and if they do that, then it’s your job as a web designer to educate them about the consequences of their ideas.

Now! Notice that I say educating the client. Because I think that’s, kind of, I think that’s really fundamental to the relationship between web designer and client. I don’t believe in kind of stubbornly refusing to implement an idea that I disagree with. You know, it’s the client’s website, and they need to believe it. And I think this is really important to grasp. I think it’s very easy to kind of bounce the client into accepting something, wear them down, until eventually they approve the design and whatever else.

But if they don’t believe in the website, if they’re not passionate about the website, they’re not going to invest in it over the long term, so ultimately it’s going to fail. So it’s really important that as web designers we convince the client rather than just block them or bounce them or cajole them or nudge them in the right direction.

Marcus: They have to believe in it.

Paul: Sorry?

Marcus: They have to believe in it.

Paul: Yeah, yeah, absolutely! However. And here’s the controversial bit. Although I believe that user-centric design is really important, I actually believe that client-centric web design supercedes user-centric web design. And this is where I’ve had arguments with people before.

Okay, so let me explain what I’m saying here. I believe that although user-centric design and client-centric design are not mutually exclusive, I do believe that the latter trumps the former. In other words, client-centric web design is more important than user-centric design. This, now, may sound like heresy, but please bear with me just a second.

When we talk about user-centric design, we do so because treating users well will give them—provide business benefits. Our wish to be user-centric is ultimately a desire to help the business succeed, help the website succeed. Client-centric web design is about fulfilling the client’s ultimate aim. Their ultimate aim is to produce a website that provides business benefits. Therefore, user-centric design is a subset of client-centric design. Right? Are you following this? Is this making sense?

Marcus: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: So, in other words, meeting the needs of users is a way of meeting the client’s ultimate objective.

Marcus: I think there are probably the odd case where it’s not—that it doesn’t apply, but generally speaking, I agree that the majority of websites are based on a business which has objectives, and they come first.

Paul: Yes, yes.

Marcus: Occasionally, something will come out of a kind of groundswell of opinion, or something, which would be the other way around. But generally speaking, certainly to business-based websites—

Paul: But even in that same way where a groundswell of opinion went in a certain direction, then what happens is that business has to realign its business objectives. So, you know, ultimately it’s still the business objectives, it’s just they’ve changed.

So, most of the time, this means that they’re not mutually exclusive. That you’ve got user needs being a subset of business needs. However, these two viewpoints can sometimes come into conflict. And this happens when the client wants to do something that provides a business benefit at the cost of potentially alienating users. It’s when these conflicts arrive that it’s important to understand that the business, and the client, should come first.

Let me give you an example of what I mean that came up quite recently. One of our clients is a big law firm. Okay? And this big law firm—

Marcus: We’re really nice to them, aren’t we?

Paul: We love them. They’re our favourite client.

Marcus: That’s not quite what I meant. We’re just really nice to them because they’re lawyers.

Paul: Oh, we’re scared of them. I’m scared to even speak about them on the podcast.

Marcus: You mustn’t mention their name—

Paul: No, I won’t.

Marcus: We will be sued!

Paul: I know. So I won’t do it. But what’s really interesting about that project—and I don’t know whether you noticed this when we were going through, Marcus—I can’t remember how heavily you were involved in it—but one of the problems they have, is the users coming to their site, the only thing users coming to their site want to do is get straight to the biographies of the attorneys, right? Because it’s all about these big superstar attorneys. They’re experts in their areas.

So, that’s what users want to do. The problem is, is from a business perspective, these superstar attorneys tend to move on from one organization to another. So when they move, you then lose the client.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: So, the business objective there is actually different to the user’s objective. Because from a business point of view, you want to show the users how great—I nearly said the company name there!—how great the company is, and what other services they offer, and the other people in the organization, not just the one individual they’re after.

So in that case, the business objective and the user objective have taken two different paths. So it’s in that kind of situation that it’s important that you are clear in your head that ultimately the business objective is more important here. So you’ve kind of got to nudge the user into viewing other, you know, other information about this company and other people that work there, rather than just the one individual they’re looking for.

Marcus: Because it could be detrimental to the business in the long run.

Paul: Exactly. So. You know, and I think there are many web designers that argue that user needs need to come first, because ignoring them will damage the business. And, yeah, that is always true. But think twice before taking the user’s side over that of the client, because often the client has got a good reason that provides real business benefits. So you just need to take the time to understand what that reason is.

So. There we go. I think part of the problem is that we’re very quick to jump to the conclusion that the client doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And I have to say, I think that’s because we as web designers are a little bit arrogant. And we’re arrogant about our own abilities, to be honest. We believe ourselves capable of producing high quality websites in entirely isolation. And that’s a delusion.

We can design and code great websites, but a truly effective website requires that I think only the client has. And I think that example of the law firm is a brilliant example of that. I would not have grasped that concept unless the client had explained it to me.

For example, no matter how thorough our research, you know, about an organization, it’s never going to be the same level of understanding that a client has about their own business. They will have been—had years of experience working in an organization that gives them a unique perspective that we can’t hope to match. So why do we think we can?

Marcus: That’s quite a tough lesson to learn, as well. Especially if their business needs are maybe different to their competitors that you’ve previously worked with.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Yes.

Marcus: You just don’t hear it.

Paul: No.

Marcus: It’s like, you have to kind of make yourself listen.

Paul: Yeah. You know, the thing is something that comes with—god, I’m going to sound older—but I do think it’s something that comes with age and doing it for a long time, that you—

Marcus: Experience.

Paul: The older you get, the more you realize you don’t know, basically.

Marcus: Yeah. It’s true.

Paul: When you’re a teenager, you think you know everything, don’t you, you know?

Marcus: No longer bulletproof.

Paul: Exactly. You know, we—yeah, we can code great sites, we can build great sites, but that doesn’t mean we understand what goes into making a site successful for a particular client in a particular sector. You know, and although having an outside perspective is incredibly valuable, that doesn’t make the internal perspective invalid, either.

You know, we often go on about how—Yes, it’s, the trouble is with clients is that they’re all tied up with their own jargon, and their own internal perspective, blah, blah, blah. And that’s true. And a lot of clients are in that place, and they do need that outside perspective, but that doesn’t make that inside perspective irrelevant.

Marcus: Correct.

Paul: The client’s also, has got superior knowledge, I think, when it comes to users, as well. And this, maybe, is a bit more of a controversial point. Too often as web designers, we set ourselves up as the users’ champion, but we need to understand that we really only have limited knowledge of the users. Admittedly, we’ve got a good understanding of how users interact with a website. But we don’t really understand their specific motivations in the way the client does, because the client has daily contact with their users—well, at least, in some companies. It does depend on the company.

For example, if you’re working with a really large company, you can be dealing with a project manager that never has spoken to one of the end users in his life. And that’s a bit of a different scenario. But in a lot of cases, the client has a much better understanding.

Marcus: We usually work with marketing teams. And I say we as in web designers tend to work with marketing teams, who it is their job to know what users want—

Paul: Yeah. Absolutely!

Marcus: –and whether they are likely to be persuaded by, etcetera, etcetera.

Paul: But that also hits on another point, which I’m going to come on to, which is this thing that—they’re marketers. And so they have really good marketing skills that we don’t have.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: You know. So that’s another absurdity, that we really don’t take advantage of the kind of job skills that our client has. You know, many clients are experienced marketers, or entrepreneurs, or business strategies. Not only will the client’s knowledge of the business and customer improve the website, but I think they’ve also got a lot to bring to the table in terms of the kind of business skills that they’ve got, and their analytical skills, and all of that kind of stuff. You know, I would kill for an experienced marketer to be contributing to the Boagworld website.

So, you know, I think that we like to think of ourselves as having the ultimate knowledge on everything web related, but I don’t think we have. I think there are other skills from other areas that can be brought into the mix. I mean, I remember talking to the client that we have which does personality reports and that kind of stuff. And I learned loads from them about understanding people better, which I could use on their own website.

Marcus: Definitely.

Paul: I think most clients can make some valuable contributions to improve their website. And the problem—you know, admittedly, that not every suggestion they make is going to be practical. And I know that many of us have bad experiences dealing with those kind of impractical suggestions clients come up with. And that has made too many of us hesitant about allowing the client too much input into the process. But I think as a result of that many of us have missed out on good contributions that clients could have made for fear that they’ll suggest something stupid and you’ll have to dissuade them from it.

Marcus: Yep.

Paul: As web designers, we need to work with clients in such a way that we can use the good stuff and leave the bad. And, really, that is what we’re going to be exploring later in this series. For now, what I wanted to do in this episode of the podcast, just to enthuse you and excite you about the potential of bringing the client back into the fold, about really engaging with them with the process. You know, and getting them on board. And making use of that contribution that clients can give when it comes to building websites.

Marcus: And it’s also worth saying that what’s coming next is quite detailed advice.

Paul: Oh, yeah!

Marcus: It’s not just—we’re not going to talk around it, sort of you should do this, you should do this. It’s actual process—

Paul: Absolutely! Yeah.

Marcus: —we’re getting into in the rest of this series.

Paul: Yeah. I mean, it takes us a while to build up to that. You know. But we’re getting to stuff like, you know, how to get yourself perceived as an expert. How to detail with design sign-off. How to do collaborative wireframing sessions. All of this stuff is available in the book. A lot of it we also cover on the podcast. But for now, just get excited about the potential of working with clients again. And realize that working closely with clients can be beneficial with everybody.

No doubt, you’ve still got some doubts and concerns. Now, you may be concerned that the client will abuse the relationship and won’t respect you. These are things we’re going to tackle, and I’m not being naïve here, you know, I do recognize that working with clients can be tricky sometimes.

Marcus: Oh, yeah.

Paul: But. Just for now, I want to leave you with some steps to take, between now and the next episode. Right.

First of all, check your negativism. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on your clients shortcomings, but instead focus on what they have to offer. A client—I really believe clients sense when you’re unhappy with them and it will sour the relationship. You’ve got to be—check that negativism and be positive and upbeat.

Second thing I want you to do before—you know, even before we get any deeper into this—is start thinking of yourself as offering a service to your clients. Right? You know, how does that change what you do? If you look at other service industries, like waiters, or hotel receptionists, or all of the people you meet that are service-based and have that service-based mentality. If you took what you learned from them and applied it to web design, how does that change your thinking? For example, how does it change how you communicate with your clients?

So when you’re out and about, when you’re shopping, or you’re in a restaurant, look at the service you receive and ask yourself what you can learn from it. Right?

Marcus: I think people like that—say, if somebody’s—if you’re buying something from someone in a shop. Yesterday, it was my wife’s birthday yesterday. Fantastic salesman. And it was basically down to professionalism

Paul: Yeah.

Marcus: Obviously he was a nice guy, but you know, I don’t think he would have been a nice guy to me if I’d just met him in the street. It’s about doing a really good job, which comes down to professionalism. He was just bang on, good guy. And that’s what we’re talking about here. You can’t do just the bits you like.

Paul: Yes. Absolutely. It’s the whole package.

Marcus: Exactly.

Paul: Yeah. And then the final thing I wanted people to look at before next time is to look through your current client list. Ask yourself what makes each relationship in that list either a success or a failure. If you feel that the client has damaged the relationship, ask yourself why, whether you could have prevented it.

I know that so far I’ve focused on your role in this new approach to web designer, however the client has to play their part, too, and unfortunately, you can’t control the client. However much we’d like to, it doesn’t happen. You can’t control what they think, you can’t control what they feel, and you certainly can’t control what they say. But what you can do is take steps to redefine the relationship. And that is what we’re going to look at in the next episode.

For now, I’d encourage you to go to Boagworld.com/season/3 Check out what’s coming up in the upcoming episodes and also get your hands on the book. It’s a bargain price. It’s available as PDF, ebook format, and also on your Kindle. You can buy it from the Amazon store, as well.

So there you go! That is our first episode of what is going to be a very cool season.

Marcus: Yeah!

Paul: Yeah! But apparently it has to include a joke, to ruin the season.

Marcus: I’d stopped doing them.

Paul: You had! Had you?

Marcus: I don’t know, I might have done missed one or two, and the backlash was so large.

Paul: Oh, let me see. One email, from your mum.

Marcus: Yes, it was very—it wasn’t my mum. But this is a good joke.

I’ve just been diagnosed with sausage phobia.

Paul: Yeah?

Marcus: I feared the wurst.

Paul: I feared the wurst—oh, right! Oh, I see. Okay. Yeah. Sorry. Head full of snot. Not really thinking very straight.

Marcus: That’s fine. I thought it was rather good.

Paul: Yeah. There we go.

All right! Thank you very much, Marcus! That was a brilliant show. I was particularly good in it, I thought.

Marcus: I thought you were so good. It’s good to see that you are mellowing with age.

Paul: Yeah! I am.

Marcus: And becoming less bullet-proof.

Paul: More, more humble and that kind of thing.

All right! Thank you, everybody, and let’s do this again in a couple of weeks’ time. Bye-bye.

Marcus: Bye.

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