A partnership of experts

Paul Boag

For the client/designer relationship to work both parties need to respect the other. In this post we explore how to move the clients perception of you as a pixel pusher to that of an expert.

In my last post in this series I outlined a happy, smiley world where the client and web designer work in perfect harmony to produce super successful websites that transform the world. I suggested this utopia could be achieved if only you recognised the abilities of your client and started working with them.

I know what you’re thinking. Recognising the client’s abilities and including them in the process is all well and good, but what if the client fails to recognise your experience?

This feeling of not being taken seriously lies at the heart of the tension between client and web designer. As web designers we are experts in our field and yet we are not always treated as such.

To be taken more seriously we must change the dynamics of the relationship. We need to set up a partnership of experts.

How then do we persuade our clients to see us as experts, rather than mere implementors?

Unfortunately, there are many experts that will never be recognised as such. There are physicists with more experience than Stephen Hawking and web designers with more talent than Paul Boag (shocking though that sounds)!

Me on stage at Future of Web Design Conference

Becoming perceived as an expert is about more than ability. You must presenting yourself in the right way. Begin by associating yourself with expert opinion.

Expertise by association

When a client has no idea whether your opinion is credible, it is pointless relying on your own experience to justify your position. Instead you need to use sources that the client respects.

One option is to use statistics and research. There is a great deal of research on user behaviour and user interface design. For example I often refer to ClickTales research on scrolling or studies by usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

Research from ClickTales

There are several benefits to using stats and studies:

  • They prove you are well read and knowledgable.
  • They support your arguments by providing empirical evidence.
  • They add to your credibility through association.

This approach only works if the client acknowledges the ability of the person you are quoting. If the client is not aware of the expert it falls to you to enlighten them.

It may be that talking about your own ability could be construed as arrogance. However, it is perfectly acceptable to talk about the accomplishments of others. In other words you can go on endlessly about how great Steve Krug is but you cannot do the same about yourself.

That said, once you have established the expert’s credibility, they are a useful tool in justifying your suggestions and may gain you some reflected glory in the eyes of your client.

Fortunately there are ways of directly establishing your own credibility without coming across as arrogant.

Angry tweet from a web designer, criticising a client

Speak with confidence

A client wants to know that you can deliver. They want to believe in your abilities. You must give them that confidence.

A big part of that is how we speak. If we speak with authority it will build a client’s confidence in our abilities. However, speaking with confidence is harder than you think. It is easy for confidence to turn into arrogance.

Being an expert is not just about confidence in your opinions. It is also being willing to say you don’t know or admit when you are wrong. True experts rarely feel the need to prove themselves and are willing to admit their weaknesses.

In my experience a willingness to show weakness can go along way with clients. I often tell clients if their ideas are better than mine or if I need a second opinion on an issue I am not confident about. I don’t believe this undermines me as an expert. Instead it shows that I am confident in my own abilities and I know my limitations. It shows I have nothing to prove. Sometimes we try too hard to show our expertise. A quiet confidence is often more effective.

However, an expert is confident enough to make suggestions and propose alternative approaches. He views the relationship as peer-to-peer, rather than supplier and client. He will challenge a client, but does so with gentleness and tact. He doesn’t need to force his point of view, allowing his experience to speak for itself.

A nervous client worrying about the web designers capabilities

Letting your experience speak for itself

We have already established that it is damaging to blow one’s own trumpet. How then do you let a jittery client at the beginning of a project know you can solve their problems? How do you show experience instead of talk about it?

You have three tools.

  • Processes.
  • Project history.
  • Presentation.

Let’s look at each in turn.


Having a rock solid, clearly explained and proven process is one of the best ways of demonstrating your experience. This will instil confidence in your clients.

A process implies a well-considered approach used many times. Talking the client through your process from initial sketches to final website, makes it clear you have done this before and are confident you can apply your process to their project. Where they have no clue where to begin, you have experience.

Project history

It is always good to mention other projects when working with a new client. For example when they express a concern over some aspect of the project, refer to earlier work where you solved a similar problem.
Referring to past projects reinforces your experience and makes it clear the challenges of this project are nothing new. This will give confidence in your ability to deliver despite it appearing daunting to them.


The way you present solutions to client problems is crucial. Whether it is discussing the best approach to a specific call to action or presenting an initial design idea, the way you do this will influence how confident the client will be in your abilities.

Presenting design is something we will look at later in the series. For now it is enough to say that confident presentation gives the client an insight into the depth and breadth of your experience.

Confidence, experience and ability goes a long way to establishing you as an expert. However, what if the relationship has already been damaged? What do you do if you are dealing with an existing client who sees you in a negative light?

Dealing with a damaged partnership

Whether your client is a boss or a long-term client who treats you as a pixel pusher, it is often not possible to start a relationship from scratch. Even with new clients, things can get off on the wrong foot despite our best intentions.

Fortunately, it is possible to salvage a bad relationship with some determination and humility.

Humility wins the war

When things go wrong with a client, we rarely blame ourselves. We normally consider that it is the client who has been unreasonable and caused the relationship to collapse.

Occasionally this is true. However, in most cases there are two sides to the conflict. At the very least you need to remember that it is you who is the supplier and you that should go the extra mile.

Even if you are the wronged party, you cannot allow your emotions to colour the situation. Often our pride and a desire for ‘justice’ clouds our thinking, leading us into confrontations that damage the relationship, the website and our business.

To repair the relationship the client must win some arguments. We must stop digging our heels in because of pride. Not all disagreements are equal. Some issues you will feel passionate about, others less so. Allow the client to win over less important issues to prove that you consider them an equal partner.

However, humility is not enough. We also need to be positive.

Positivity heals all wounds

Nothing will go further in restoring a good working relationship than a transformation in your attitude. Being positive inevitably encourages others to respond in kind if applied with enough conviction and consistency.

Go the extra mile for your clients. Get excited about their ideas. Praise them for their contribution. Show you appreciate them.

Not only will the client think twice about their behaviour, it will also transform your attitude. To begin with you may have to force yourself to be positive. However, over time your actions will transform your thinking. Where once you struggled to be positive about the client, eventually you’ll begin to truly appreciate their contribution to the project.

Changing attitude and behaviour is by far the most important step to take. However, a frank and honest conversation may help too.

Having a frank and honest conversation

When there is a damaged relationship it may be worthwhile discussing the problem with the client. Notice that I say it may be worthwhile. Depending on the client and your temperament, a change in behaviour may be more beneficial than a tense discussion.

That said, allowing the client to express their frustration is a good thing if you resist responding in kind.

For your part, the key is to acknowledge the clients feelings and if appropriate your own failings. Then put the past behind you and agree to start again.

Done right this kind of conversation can clear the air and allow a new beginning. However, do so with caution.

Next actions

Establishing a good working relationship with clients is not always easy. Finding the middle way between an arrogant expert and sulky pixel pusher can be difficult. Begin by:

Changing your own attitude

Become positive, keen to help and empathetic of the clients needs. Encourage your clients to contribute and wherever possible accommodate their ideas.

Changing how your client perceives you

Use stats, expert opinion and processes to prove that you are a safe pair of hands who is an expert web designer.

Establishing some ground rules

This may involve redefining existing relationships or kicking off new ones in the right way. Make it clear who is responsible for what, with the client focused on business goals, user needs and identifying problems.

With the right ground rules and attitude, projects will start on the right foot, with a solid working relationship. However, maintaining that relationship throughout the project can be tricky. For that you need some principles both parties work within. These are the principles of client centric web design that we will look at in the next post in the series.

A transcript of this episode is available here thanks to the guys at Pods In Print