Is ‘John the client’ stupid or are you failing him?

Meet John the client. John runs a reasonably large website. He is a marketeer who considers himself smart, articulate and professional. That said, he doesn’t know much about web design and so needs your help.

John comes to you with a clear set of business objectives and asks for a quote. What happens next leaves John confused, frustrated and extremely unhappy.

Explain why you are asking about money.

Before giving John his quote you ask a little more about the project. After chatting for a few minutes you ask him about his budget. A fair enough question you think. After all there are so many ways you could approach the project. Without knowing the budget it is impossible to know where to begin.

In your mind, building a website is like building a house. Without knowing the budget you can’t possibly know how many rooms the client can afford or what materials you should use to build.

John on the other hand is instantly suspicious. Why would you want to know his budget? The only reason he can think of is that you want to make sure you don’t under charge when there is more money available. Anyway, he doesn’t really know his budget. How the hell is he supposed to know how much a website costs?

Money Grabber

Image credit : Be careful not to come across as money grabbing.

John goes away determined to find a web designer who isn’t trying to screw him over. Fortunately for you all of the other designers he asks also fail to explain why they need to know about his budget and so you manage to win the project anyway.

Justify recommendations in language John can understand.

Once you have won the job you arrange a kickoff meeting to nail down the final specification. However, John is instantly regretting his decison to hire you as his worse fears are confirmed.

In his eyes you are immediately trying to squeeze more money out of him as you waffle on about the importance of usability and accessibility.

John doesn’t care about disabled users. No disabled users use his website anyway!

As for usability, surely it is the job of the web designer to make the website usable. Why do we need expensive usability testing? He is pretty sure usability testing involves expensive things like cameras, usability labs and two way mirrors.

Unfortunately you believe you have explained the issues clearly. You talked about WCAG 2 and mentioned Jacob Neilsen. You are beginning to wonder if John is stupid.

People looking confused

Image credit : Avoid technobabble if you want your clients to understand what you are talking about.

Maybe if you had talked about accessibility in terms of search engine rankings and usability testing as a way to increase conversion then John might have listened. As it is John puts his foot down and refuses to pay for any of these ‘ unnecessary extras’.

Include John in the process.

You go away from the kickoff meeting pleased to have a signed contract. However you have the feeling in the pit of your stomach that this is going to be another one of ‘those’ projects. Nevertheless you pick yourself up and dive into the design process.

Almost immediately you get a phone call from John asking if there is anything for him to see. You explain that it is still early days and that that you are not ready to present. John sounds disappointed but resigned.

A short while later you are ready to present the design to John. You are really pleased with the result. It has taken a lot more time than you budgeted for but it was worth it. The final design is extremely easy to use and will make a great portfolio piece.

Person hiding

Image credit : Stop hiding from your clients. Show them work early and include them in the process.

When John sees the design he is horrified. From his perspective you have entirely missed the point. The design clashes with his offline marketing material and fails to focus on the right selling points. Also he is convinced his suppliers will hate it and although they are not the end user, their opinions matter.

After a tense conference call you go away demoralised but with a compromise that will hopefully make John happy. You wonder in hindsight whether it would have been better to show John some of your initial ideas and sketches. Perhaps you should have produced a wireframe first.

Educate John about design.

After much agonising and compromise you are once again ready to present to John.

John is much happier with the new design and feels it is heading in the right direction. However, he does have some concern. For a start he has to scroll to get to most of the content and yet there is empty whitespace on either side of the design. He tells you to move key content into this wasted space.

Also as he thinks about his young male target audience he realises that the colour scheme is probably too effeminate, so he tells you to change it to blue.

While John is feeling somewhat happier you are feeling crushed. It feels like he is doing your job for you. The string of feedback about moving this and changing the colour of that, feels like it has reduced you to pushing pixels.

By this stage you are sure the client is stupid, and just want the design signed off. At no stage do you stop to ask John why he is requesting these changes. Perhaps if you had understood his thinking then you could have explained concepts like screen resolution or suggested an alternative to corporate blue which is so massively overused on the web.

Teacher teaching maths

Image credit : Educate your clients so they make more informed decisions.

Instead you wash your hands of the design and just give John what he wants.

Communicate with John regularly.

Now that the design is complete you turn your attention to the site build. At least John won’t care about your code. Now you can finally do things right.

Its a big job and it takes a lot of time. Even though you put too much time into the design and then washed your hands of it, you have your pride. You are not about to cut corners with the code. After all other web designers might look at it and judge you!

You work damn hard, putting in more work than you probably should do. John even managed to slip some extra functionality in at the scoping phase, which turns out to be a pain in the ass.

John on the other hand is wondering what is going on. He hasn’t heard from you in weeks. Surely the site must be read now? He decides to drop you an email asking how things are progressing. You reply with a short email saying everything is progressing nicely. After all, you never did like project management and you are sure John would prefer you building his site rather than writing him detailed emails.

John receives your email and finds himself becoming increasingly frustrated. What does ‘progressing nicely’ mean? He writes back asking for an expected completion date and you reply with a rough estimate.

The date comes and goes without a word from you. After all it was only an estimate and several complications have delayed things by a few days.

John finally looses his temper and calls you. He has arranged a marketing campaign to coincide with the launch date you and because he hadn’t heard from you he presumed everything was on schedule.

Phone with the receiver taped up

Image credit : Make sure you are communicating with your client regularly.

You try to defend yourself against John by citing the scope creep and unexpected difficulties. However, it is hard to respond when John said ‘all I needed was a weekly email keeping me up-to-date on progress’.

Explain John’s ongoing role.

By this stage the relationship has broken down entirely. You finish the work and the site finally launches. Begrudgingly John pays the invoice after delaying it for as long as possible.

What amazes you the most is that John says he is bitterly disappointed with the final result. How can that be when you gave him exactly what he asked for? This guy isn’t just stupid, he is also a jerk!

Of course John sees things differently. He came to you with a list of business objectives he wanted to achieve and the site failed to meet any of them.

He hoped that he could launch the website, see it meet its objective, and move on to the next project. Instead, after an initial spike in interest the number of users and enquiries fell overtime and the site stagnated.

Seedling being cared for

Image credit : Ensure your client understands the ongoing care his website will need.

What John did not realise is that sites need continue love and support. You cannot build it and then abandon it. John needed to nurture his website by adding new content, engaging with his visitors and having an ongoing plan for development.

If only somebody had told him.

The moral of the story.

It is amazing me how quick we are to judge our clients.

As web designers we communicate and empathise for a living. Our job is to communicate a message to our client’s users. We create usable sites by putting yourselves in the position of the site visitor. This allows us to design around their needs.

Why then do we so often seem incapable of either empathising or communicating with our clients?

Perhaps it is time for us to use the skills we have grown as web designers and apply them to our own customers.

  • http://www.carolinamantis.com Tony Miller

    Excellent article, customers and designers need to be shown this story to help bridge the gap. Minor quibble, though, it’s “Moral”, not “Morale”.

  • http://www.lifeinpixels.co.uk Mark

    Really good post; very true.

  • http://www.thatdeadpixel.com Mike

    What if John is a marketing person who is hired by a company and is using a 11″ laptop to view and critique web comps? What if they completely talk over you when you try to explain resolution and monitor sizes? Now what if John says we need to make ridiculous size changes to elements of the site and John isn’t going to show the company until we do. Then John is “probably going to present the comps on his 11″ laptop to the company”.

    I just wanted to rant about what I had to deal with yesterday. Sometimes there is no empathizing!

    • Paul in NY

      @Mike: ?? God, what a jerky comment. Thanks for reminding me how glad I am we didn’t hire you.

      @Paul: you, sir, are a genius. And a damned good writer. Cheers

    • http://www.thatdeadpixel.com Mike

      Paul, not sure what was “Jerky” about my comment…? I thought Paul’s article was great and I agree with everything he said. My point was that sometimes clients fail themselves no matter how much you educate them…

  • http://www.javierios.com Javier Rios

    I just learned this on my last project. I was not communicating as much as the client would have liked. They kept adding to the project and I would sometimes would tell them no this is not the best thing. Mostly I was a pixel pusher instead of being more vocal about what would be best.

    I also could have included them more into the process so they did not feel as nothing was going on and they thought the site was launching sooner or they thought they could show their partners and friends. Then when it was not ready they would get upset.

    It got to the point where they said they would take greater matters and that’s when we hashed it out and had a good talk. We then at that point learned each others point of view, knowing that sooner would have been better.

    I will be sharing this post with friends. In the past I had clients but they were all other design/development firms that either needed an extra hand. This was my first single client, I learned a lot.

  • http://www.definitionfour.com Alex Magill

    Great article – especially the first, ‘explain why you are asking about money’ point. In fact I think it goes wider than that to, potentially, cover practically any question asked at the project outset.

    It is all too easy to get caught up in asking the client useful (but generally, to them, quite searching) questions without thinking about exactly what the experience is making the client think or assume.

    Starting out right in this way definitely means a happier client and a better chance at a good working relationship.

  • http://www.goldchoiceuk.co.uk Sarah

    I will have to read this :) Looks fun. Just with the mini headings I think it will be a worthwile bit of advice!! :) Hope everyone in the forum is keeping well and I congratulate you on your 200th podcast!!!

    Till I post again,
    Sarah
    x

  • http://www.renaudmerle.fr Renaud

    For me, client’s budget reflect the importance he put into his communication on the Web. Maybe for a local pizzeria, a Web strategy imply a low ROI ; so his budget for a Web presence is going to be low.
    So the budget may be the barometer of the originality and the quality (amount of research, thinking, testing, …).

    How do you explain to your clients your need for a budget estimation? I’m curious.

    Thanks for this article.

  • http://philhersh.com Phil Hershkowitz

    Marilyn August at wealthyu.com makes a great point about “budget”. She says the word itself is very threatening to many people. Instead of asking if the client has a budget for the project, phrase the question this way: “Do you money set aside for this project?” Or, “How much money have you set aside for this project?”

  • Will

    Good article! It made me think of the Clients from Hell blog which initially amused me but has started to grate a bit now with all it’s “My client is so dumb, he though an e-commerce site would take 2 weeks!” or “My stupid client doesn’t understand why I need a deposit!”-type posts that just expose how poorly the designer has explained the design process.
    As you point out, it’s wrong to call clients stupid because they don’t understand the website creation process. After all, that’s why they have hired a professional!

  • http://www.petradueck.com Petra

    It’s interesting to me how the ratio of ‘bad clients’ seems to have increased over the 13 years I’ve been working in this field. This article has given me a little wake up call that I may not be putting enough time into client relation efforts.

    I think of myself as reasonably empathetic but this article has pushed me to reevaluate my methods. I’ve definitely had challenges such as clients expecting a quote when I ask for their budget. I’ve been more apt to resent them for wasting my time or trying to low-ball me than consider communicating with them why working with their budget works better for both parties.

    As mentioned in the story, I also have considered moving away from client work and into more self-directed projects to avoid client headaches. Now I think that, along with this, investing in more client communication time would be a great investment; win me more clients and make my job/life dealing with clients a lot more pleasant.

    Also, I loved the way this article was told like a story. It was engaging. I love it when people tell me stories! :)

  • Nathan

    Yes, Tony, not just morale, but loosing and a couple of others – however fully forgiven for such a witty write. Maybe it is only funny because it’s true…

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