For years I have worked like most web designers. I would take a brief from a client and then retreat to my studio to crack on with the project. Sure, I would call the client, have the occasional meeting and provide regular updates via email. But, that was largely it. Once I started work on the project it was mine. I owned it. I drove it.
Then I started noticing that not all web designers worked in this way. I would see Andy Clarke tweet about spending a fortnight working on site with a client, or Mark Boulton making regular, prolonged trips to Geneva when he was working with CERN.
At first I was dismissive about this approach, suggesting it was overkill. However as I examined my thinking, I discovered that my problem with working on site was more personal than professional.
I didn’t like the idea of being away from my family for prolonged periods of time. With clients all over the world, I could see a future of constant travel and that didn’t appeal if it was without my family.
Despite that, I did try the approach occasionally. When working with a large law firm in the states it became obvious that to get any momentum on the project I would need to be on site. Equally, back here in the UK there was a University whose requirements included having me on site.
The advantages of working on site
The more I experimented with the approach, the more I discovered it had significant advantages. From a purely professional standpoint, working from the clients office with them on hand was just better.
Faster decision making
For a start decisions were made considerably faster. No more waiting for email replies or getting voicemail when you call. If I needed an answer or opinion about something, all I needed to do was turn to the client sitting next to me. Equally if the client needed to ask somebody else’s opinion, I could make that happen straight away and ensure the other person understood all the subtleties the client sometimes missed.
It avoids misunderstanding, especially when multiple stakeholders are involved. Because you are on site you can speak to all of the stakeholders directly rather than always going through a single point of contact. However, setting aside that advantage, being able to constantly show the client ideas and discuss directions provides a much clearer dialogue. This reduces misunderstandings or miscommunications.
Essentially it is encouraging closer collaboration, with the client and yourself working as a single team. Ideally while you work on design and build, the client should be working on content (at least on smaller projects where there is not a content specialist). This close collaboration gives the client a greater sense of ownership over the final deliverable and removes the client/supplier barrier.
Close collaboration leads to more flexibility on the project. Instead of the client writing a brief that the web designer delivers, a collaborative working relationship means that the partnership adapts the scope as required. Because you are working hand in hand, the client sees what you are doing and will recognise that if something is added to the scope then something else will need to be dropped. He or she will have a better understanding of how much work you can do and that you are working hard on the project.
Ultimately working side by side helps build trust between the client and the web designer. The client can see you are working hard on the project and so the relationship moves beyond fulfilling a contract. This is where the flexibility comes from. There will be give and take on both sides because both parties can see the other is not trying to take advantage. This level of relationship is hard to achieve through email, phone calls and the occasional meeting.
Finally, working on site together, both parties learn from one another. The client learns more about the web design process than would have ever been possible remotely. This helps them better run their website over the long term, as well as understand the constraints within which you work.
Working on site also educates you about the business. This helps you provide a better solution to the client and understand the challenges sometimes faced by the client internally.
There is no doubt that working on site with your clients can be hugely beneficial, but it is not without its challenges.
The challenges of on-site working
I have already mentioned the impact this can have on your personal life, but it can also effect work too. While on site with a client you can only realistically work on that one project. This can make supporting existing clients challenging if you do not have other staff.
There are also additional costs associated with this way of working including travel, subsistence and accommodation. Ideally these will be worked into the price of the project, but sometimes raising these as a cost can encourage clients to work with local suppliers instead.
Give it ago
In short, working on site with a client is not without its challenges, but does bring considerable benefits to a project. Whether you decide to pursue the approach long term is a personal decision, but I would encourage you to try it once or twice to see if it suits you.
But don’t stop at my experience of working alongside clients. Yes I have made it work, largely thanks to the fact that my son is home schooled now and so my family travel with me. But, what about you? If you have done this before please share your experiences in the comments. How did it fit in with your home life? What benefits did it bring and what problems did you encounter?
“Office worker with a travel backpack and two briefcases” image courtesy of Bigstock.com