A partnership of cooperation

Paul Boag

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.