Introducing Client Centric Design

Paul Boag

In the first episode of season 3 we introduce client centric design. This methodology addresses the negative attitude that exists towards client work and has the potential to transform your business.

This series of posts, accompanying podcast and ebook feel like the most significant I have released in my 6 years of blogging. They are the culmination of 18 years as a web designer and tackle a disturbing trend that has emerged within the web design community. They also represent my personal ‘manifesto’ (yes I know that sounds pretentious) for working as a web designer.

The decision to tackle this subject was born from the disturbing trend among web designers to berate clients and client work.

When did clients become the enemy?

I’m surprised how much resentment exists between web designers and their clients. There are entire websites dedicated to web designers ranting uncontrollably about clients from hell.

Clients from Hell website

In the last few years I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of web designers abandoning client work to develop their own web applications. There are many more who would like to make this move, but fear losing the income of client work.

This tells me a lot about the current state of web design. Although some are developing web applications to create an ongoing revenue stream, many simply cannot stand working with clients.

What has gone wrong? Are clients really all idiots, intent on nothing more than undermining our work? Or does the problem lie with us as a community? Have we lost sight of what our job really is?

Tweet from web designer complaining about a client

I passionately believe the problem lies in our own attitude. It is time for us to realign our thinking, reassess our job and become client centric.

Client centric web design

I am sure you have heard the term ‘user centric web design’. For years we have been encouraged as web designers to think about the needs of our users. Now, I want you to adopt a new perspective on your work. I want you to become ‘client centric web designers’.

Client centric web design allows web designers to redefine the relationship they have with their clients. It endeavours to break the preconception that clients are the enemy and instead create a harmonious working relationship.

Many web designers try to exclude the client or produce a great website despite their supposed interference. Client centric web design rejects this approach instead placing the client at the heart of the web design process.

There are two principles that underly this approach that many web designers seem to reject.

First, it accepts that being a web designer is about providing a service to our customers as well as a website. This means a fundamental part of our job is ensuring clients go away happy.


Waitress image via Shutterstock

Second, client centric web design works on the premise that the client is essential to producing a successful website. It argues that it is impossible to create a truly effective website without the client being engaged with the process.

Am I rejecting user centric design?

You may feel this emphasis on the client is unhealthy. Instead, you may argue, users should be our focus and not the whims of the client. After all if you alienate the user, you undermine the effectiveness of the business. I agree, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

The customer is not always right

Client centric web design is not about pandering to whatever the client says they want. This approach does not presume that the “customer is always right."

Client centric design is about engaging with the client to meet their business needs. Sometimes the client will suggest things that ultimately undermine their own business goals and it is your job as a web designer to educate them about the consequences of their ideas.

Child wearing dunce cap

Notice that I refer to educating the client. I do not believe in stubbornly refusing to implement ideas you disagree with. It is the clients website and they need to believe in it. If they do not, they will not invest in it long term and it will fail. It is important that you convince the client, rather than just block them.

However (and here is the controversial bit), ultimately I believe client centric supersedes user centric.

Client centric supersedes user centric

I believe that although user centric design and client centric design are not mutually exclusive, the latter trumps the former. This may sound like heresy but please bear with me while I explain.

When we talk about user centric design we do so because treating users well will give business benefits. Our wish to be user centric is ultimately a desire to help the business.

Client centric web design is about fulfilling the client’s ultimate aim, which is to create a website that provides business benefits.

Therefore user centric design is a subset of client centric. In other words, meeting the needs of users is a way to meet the client’s ultimate objective. That is why they are not mutually exclusive.

However, these two viewpoints sometimes come into conflict. This happens when the client wants to do something that provides business benefits at the cost of alienating users. It is when these conflicts arise that it is important to understand that the business (and the client) should come first.

Venn diagram where business needs and user needs fail to completely intersect.
Venn diagram where business needs and user needs fail to completely intersect.

Many web designers argue that user needs come first because ignoring them will damage the business. However, think twice before taking the user side over that of your client. Often the client has a good reason that provides business benefits.

Business led design in action

Let me give you an example that illustrates my point. We once worked with a law firm made up of high-profile attorneys. Our analytics analysis, stakeholder interviews and user testing told us that the number one thing users wanted was quick access to attorney information.

From a user centric perspective the logical thing was to make it as easy as possible for the user to get access to this information. However, the client wanted the user to have to navigate via pages that outlined the broader capabilities of the organisation.

The reason the client wanted this was because attorneys regularly move between companies. The client wanted to make sure the prospective customers were hiring the company and not just an attorney who may leave.

In this situation client centric superseded user centric. The business needs outweighed the needs of the user.

Amazon homepage

I also believe that this business led, client centric approach leads to better websites.

Creating better websites

As web designers we can be arrogant about our abilities. We believe ourselves capable of producing high-quality websites entirely in isolation. This is a delusion. We can design and code a great website, but a truly effective site requires knowledge only the client has.

Your client knows his business

For example, no matter how thorough our research is we are never going to have the same level of understanding the client has about their business. They will have years of experience working within the organisation giving them a unique perspective we cannot hope to match. Although our outside perspective is incredibly valuable, that does not mean their internal perspective is invalid.

Your client knows his customers

The client’s knowledge is also superior when it comes to their users. Too often as web designers we set ourselves up as the user’s champion, but we need to understand that we have limited knowledge of those users. Admittedly we have a good understanding of how users interact with websites, but we do not understand their specific motivations in the way the client does. Clients simply have more contact with their users than we will ever have.

It also strikes me as absurd that many web designers do not tap into the knowledge their clients have in other areas.

Your client has valuable advice

Not only will the client’s knowledge of the business and customers improve your website, many also have other skills to bring to the table.
Many clients are experienced marketeers, entrepreneurs or business strategists. Although we like to think of ourselves as having some knowledge in these areas, our knowledge probably is not as deep as theirs.

Most clients can make valuable contributions that improves the website. The problem is not every suggestion will be practical and many of us have had bad experiences dealing with impractical suggestions. This has made us hesitant about allowing the client too much control over the process. Unfortunately, this means we have missed out on many of the good contributions they can make.

As web designers we need to work with clients in such a way that we can take the good and leave the bad. This is what we will be exploring in the later in this series. If we can do this then the client’s contribution is certain to improve the websites we produce.

New Actions

Working closely with clients can be beneficial for everyone. However, you probably still have doubts. You may be concerned that the client will abuse the relationship or that they won’t respect you. These are things we will tackle in the rest of this series. For now I would ask you to take the following steps.

Check your negativism

Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the clients’ shortcomings, but instead focus on what they have to offer. A client will sense if you are unhappy with them and it will sour the relationship.

Adopt a service based business mentality

Start thinking of yourself as offering a service to your clients. How does that change what you do? For example, does it change how you communicate? When shopping or in a restaurant look at the service you receive and ask yourself what you can learn from that.

Examine existing clients

Look through your current client list. Ask yourself what makes each relationship a success or a failure. If you feel the client has damaged the relationship ask yourself why and whether you could have prevented it.

So far I have focused on your role in this new approach to web design. However, the client plays their part too. Unfortunately you cannot control what the client thinks, feels or says. What you can do is take steps to redefine the relationship.

A complete transcript of this episode is also available