A partnership of cooperation

At this years FoWD I shared how the relationship between web design agency and client is fundamentally broken. Where there should be mutual respect and cooperation, there is negativity and mistrust.

I am horrified by some of the stories I hear from clients and web designers about failed web projects. In most cases the problem has been not with the project itself, but with the relationship between client and supplier.

Although we are learning at Headscape, we have discovered three principles that will help both designers and clients work better together. To run a successful web project you need:

  • Mutual respect
  • A defined relationship
  • A positive attitude

By building these characteristics into your relationships there is a much greater chance of success. Let us look at how.

Learn mutual respect

It is disturbing to hear how some web designers refer to their clients. There is an underlying feeling that clients are stupid and just hamper the development process.

In reality clients are normally a key component and extremely knowledgeable. The client usually has a better understanding of their business objectives and target audience. They know what they want to achieve through the website and will have to work with it over the long term.

The client is the sites advocate, evangelist, defender, content provider and more. He is the driving force behind the site and deserves the designers respect.

However respect is a two way street, and clients often undervalue web designers. This is especially true in in-house teams although it also occurs when hiring external agencies.

Clients often reduce the role of the web designer to a pixel pusher. They micro manage designers effectively ignoring the extensive experience the vast majority bring to the table. Everybody has an opinion about design, but good design is not about personal opinion. It is about fundamental rules of layout, typography, colour theory and more. It is the designer who has expertise in these areas, and the client needs to respect this.

This lack of respect is often because both parties misunderstand their respective roles.

Define the boundaries of the relationship

Both designer and client have expectations of their role and that of their opposite. However, these expectations often differ. For example, if a client has not worked on a web project before they are unlikely to be aware of their role. This can lead to the client straying onto the designers territory or failing to fulfil their own obligations in the eyes of the designer.

At the outset of a project define the boundaries of the relationship. The client’s role in particular needs to be clearly defined.

Clients should be focusing on three things:

  • The business objectives – The client understands the business objectives associated with the website. Therefore, they should be constantly asking whether the design fulfils these objectives and if not explaining to the designer where they believe it falls down.
  • The needs of users – A good client should have an insight into the behaviour and character of their target audience. The client should assess designs not based on personal opinion, but within the context of the target audience. They should ask how users will react to a design, not what you think of it personally.
  • Problems and not solutions – Many clients endeavour to find solutions to perceived problems rather than communicating the problem to the designer. For example, a client should not suggest that a design is changed to a specific colour. Instead they should express concern that the target audience may not respond well to a particular colour. The designer can then decide on the best way to resolve the problem. If the client does not communicate the underlying problem, but merely suggests a solution, he is straying onto the designers territory. This prevents the designer from doing his job properly.

Of course, it is not just what you say but the way you say thing.

Build a positive attitude

Interestingly that both designers and clients perceive the other as a barrier. Designers believe that projects would run smoother without the objections of clients. Client perceive designers as negative and constantly undermining their ideas and suggestions.

Personally I rarely say ‘no’ to a client. Saying ‘no’ ends the discussion and leads to confrontation. It also fails to communicate the problem or identify a way forward.

Does this mean I do everything my clients ask? Not at all. Instead I provide them with enough information to realise that their suggestion may not be the wisest decision. In short I say ‘yes we could do that’, but then go on to explain the consequences of their suggestion.

However, you should not stop there. Also ask the question ‘why’. The other party may make a suggestion that seems ridiculous, but they will have had their reasons. You need to know what those reasons are. By understanding them you maybe able to provide an alternative that keeps everybody happy.

Maintaining a good working relationship between client and designer is not an exact science. However these approaches have gone a long way to improving the way we work with clients. Hopefully they can do the same for you.

  • Tim

    Basically I think it all comes down to trust, they have to trust that you are doing the best for them and you have to trust that they are not trying to get more work out of you for no extra dough.

  • I totally agree with the principles of your article and I am all for maintaining a good (ideally great!) client relationship.
    However I find with some clients, particularly ones that are used to working on print-based projects and don’t know about the limitations of the web as a medium, the end-user needs are often being pushed aside to make room for the clients wants.
    I would like to put rates up slightly, allowing more time to explain the processes & thus providing a better service but fear this would scare off existing clients. While clients should be coming to you as an expert I often find that (with mine) it’s more about money – in itself this is de-valuing your skill-set.
    I guess the question really is how do you attain ‘better’ clients?

  • “The client usually has a better understanding of their business objectives and target audience.”
    Don’t rule out those cases in which the client has a better understanding of design and technical issues, too! I’m working for a company that outsources a lot of work, mainly due to low headcount. But I see an awful lot of cowboys out there who just don’t know what they’re doing. The web team here is TINY and no-one else here really understands how the web works; that leads to agencies taking libertie$.
    I believe the real problem was caused by violating this rule: don’t outsource something you couldn’t do yourself.

  • Robert

    I totally agree, although the matter of distrust is not limited to web agencies and its clients alone. Aside from having worked (mostly as a CTO and development manager, both at my own agency with 12 employees and at one of the large international portal companies) in the Internet industry since the mid 90’s, I also do quite a bit of work as an ordinary software development consultant for Mac and OS X (one of the very few in Europe, it appears), and also there clients have a tendency to micro manage and try to minimise the role of the consultant to that of a “bit pusher”; e.g. a code monkey. Rather than making an investment in quality and experience, too many clients tend to see it purely as a purchase of time. For that they should probably rather get a temporary employee on their payroll.

  • Question:
    Under the subheading “Define the boundaries of the relationship” should the sentence:
    “For example, if a client has not worked on a web project before they are likely to be aware of their role.”
    “For example, if a client has not worked on a web project before they are NOT likely to be aware of their role.”
    Or am I just misunderstanding what you are trying to say?

  • @Justin… you are right. My apologises. I have now corrected this.