How To Think Like A Client

Clients are evil… at least it can feel that way sometimes. They seem to hinder more than help and so often they “just don’t get it”. We can talk enthusiastically about accessibility, standards and best practice but so often we are met with the blank stare of indifference from clients. They interfere in our designs and won’t pay for proper testing. Next to Internet Explorer they are probably the biggest frustration we face!

A Clash Of Culture

There is a very real divide between clients and web designers that seriously undermines many web projects. Moreover, the frustration is felt on both sides of the fence with many clients perceiving the web design community as “not living in the real world” and obsessed with technology for technology’s sake. They might also believe that they are being asked to pay for things that they don’t need.

At the heart of the problem lies a failure to communicate effectively. It is almost as if the two sides are speaking completely different languages. The aim of this article is to help you learn the language of clients and to be able to bridge that cultural divide, meaning a healthier working relationship and the business benefits that brings.

The Language Barrier

I am British and we Brits have a terrible reputation abroad. When we meet somebody who doesn’t speak English we tend to think they are stupid. We speak slower and louder in the hope they will understand us, when the reality is that they probably speak multiple languages and are far more intelligent than us.

We are often like this as web designers. Just because clients don’t know their XML from their CSS we presume they are stupid and start speaking slower and louder. The truth is they are often very savvy business people who have expertise of their own (just in very different areas).

The reason we find ourselves in conflict with our clients is because we make little or no effort to either understand their “culture” or “speak their language”. If we wish to convince them of the value of accessibility, standards or any other best practice technique, we need to learn to present it in a language they can relate to.

Return On Investment

Every culture has its defining characteristics. Understanding those characteristics and tapping into them is what allows you to really be accepted. Clients are no exception. At the core of their world view is return on investment (ROI). If we speak the language of ROI we will quickly find clients much more amenable.

Saying that the culture of clients is built on ROI does not mean they are solely concerned with making money. After all we know that not every website is directly about generating income. However, all clients desire to see some form of return on investment for splashing out the cash on their site. That return could come in many different forms depending on the type of site. While an ecommerce site is going to look for increased sales, a service-based company may focus on more enquiries. A charity website might want more volunteers while a government site might desire to educate or inform. Whatever the case the client will be constantly asking how any decision related to the site helps increase that return.

Let me give an example of where things can go wrong. If you read this website the chances are you are passionate about web standards. As web designers we are often put in the position of justifying our desire to implement web standards and it can be frustrating when clients fail to grasp the benefits. After all they seem so obvious to us:

  • Separation of design from content makes a site easier to manage
  • Semantic code makes it easier to read and interpret
  • Standards make it easier to comply with accessibility guidelines.

The list could go on. However, unless properly presented, none of those reasons will resonate with a client. They are about making your life easier as a developer not about increasing ROI.

With a little “translation” the same arguments outlined above can be made more client friendly by focusing on their return for investment:

  • Standards-based design will significantly reduce the ongoing development costs associated with your site.
  • Web standards will make your site more search engine friendly so driving more potential customers to your site.
  • A standards-based approach will ensure that as many people as possible have access to the products and services you offer.

When you are pitching to a prospective client, or even working with past customers, it will pay dividends to do as much homework about the client’s objectives, their target market and their business model. Then you can deliver the right solutions, framed in the right language that will really resonate with them. It also means of course, that the solution you put together is the best it can be, which will pay for itself when happy customers recommend you to their friends and associates.

Margin Of Return

Just because a technology or technique can provide a return on investment doesn’t mean it is justifiable from a client’s perspective. A client isn’t just concerned with whether it provides a return; they are also concerned with the margin of return.

A good example of the “margin mentality” is AJAX. The whole web design community is excited about AJAX at the moment. It can provide improved usability, a richer user experience and is basically damn sexy! From a client’s perspective AJAX offers return on investment in the form of increased customer satisfaction and repeat traffic. However, AJAX isn’t always quick to implement and that can damage the margins of return.

I was recently working on an ecommerce website aimed at an elderly audience. Although the site was generally very successful we were suffering from a significant dropout rate when registering address details. Usability testing revealed that users where confused by the address fields which required them to enter information onto multiple lines. Unfortunately we were unable to simplify the form and so decided to solve the problem using an AJAX postcode lookup. We then carried out a second round of testing and found that the new approach worked extremely well. Users found it much more intuitive and it successfully helped them complete the registration form. However, one user commented that an even easier approach would have been to simply add an example address next to each field showing what the user was expected to enter. Such an approach would have achieved the same aim as the AJAX solution but could have been implemented in a matter of minutes.

The problem is that, as developers, we are often drawn to complexity. We love technology and enjoy developing complex technical solutions. The downside of this is that complexity can be expensive. A client wants to achieve his aims for the smallest investment possible and so maximise his return. In the registration example above it was much more cost effective to implement the example text than it is to develop a sophisticated AJAX lookup system. So not only do we need to be considering return on investment when proposing a development solution, we also need to be looking for an approach that maximises the return.

Success Criteria

Even if we are thinking in terms of return on investment, that doesn’t automatically mean the client will see things the same way we do. As I said earlier it is important to understand what forms of return are important to an individual client. For some the cost of development might not be as important as speed of delivery. Others might be more interested in seeing increases in traffic even if conversion is low. That is why it is important to discuss what the client’s expectations are up front. The most common way of achieving this is to agree on success criteria for the project before work commences.

Clearly documenting a project’s success criteria right at the start not only improves communication between designer and client it also helps manage expectation and focuses the client’s mind on exactly what they want their site to do. Too many projects suffer from scope creep partly because the client doesn’t have a clear vision of what they are ultimately trying to achieve. Without that clear objective clients can often move the goalposts on a project as they gain a greater understanding of what is achievable.

The process of deciding on success criteria should be a joint venture between designer and client. This ensures that all parties are committed to the objectives and that they are realistic. Too often clients set unrealistic expectations on a project because they have no frame of reference as to what is possible. It is your job as the designer to provide that frame of reference to help them strike the right balance. Of course as with everything they will want to maximise their return and so you will need to clearly explaining the constraints you face in a language they can understand.

Not only should the success criteria be realistic, they should also be specific and where possible measurable. A desire to improve usability or increase sales does not constitute success criteria, rather these are broad objectives. The problem is that the designer’s perception of improved usability may well be different from that of the clients. Instead, try setting specific objectives such as a percentage increase in users reaching a certain call to action or key page. This will gives the client something tangible against which to judge the various development decisions being made. For example, if five hours of development work will be required to implement an approach that satisfies one of the success criteria, then the client can judge whether the return on investment is worthwhile.

It’s The Thought That Counts

Of course the reality of working on projects isn’t as black and white as I have outlined above. Sometimes it can be hard to quantify the return of a particular approach and even the best predictions can be wrong. However, it is the mindset that is important not the specifics of the implementation. We as designers and developers have to stop seeing our clients as the bane of our existence and start trying to understand what motivates them. We pride ourselves on being user centric designers however I would dare to argue that first and foremost we should be business centric designers. I believe that our primary role is to meet the needs of the businesses that commission us and that in order to achieve this we need to understand their aims and objectives.

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Paul Boag

Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the digital agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the econsultancy.com. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning web design podcast boagworld.

Comments

0 comments on “How To Think Like A Client

  1. Recently found this article after watching the FoWD video!Really loving all Paul's stuff on helping deal with clients. I really struggle to drop the geeky facade when meeting new clients!I'm not sure though how justifying web standards is speaking their language. I would argue that a client NEVER needs to even know about web standards the same way they do not need to know about HTML or CSS. They should be fundamental to all websites and incorporated from the start without the need for justification.Regards,Andy

  2. Recently found this article after watching the FoWD video!

    Really loving all Paul's stuff on helping deal with clients. I really struggle to drop the geeky facade when meeting new clients!

    I'm not sure though how justifying web standards is speaking their language. I would argue that a client NEVER needs to even know about web standards the same way they do not need to know about HTML or CSS. They should be fundamental to all websites and incorporated from the start without the need for justification.

    Regards,
    Andy

  3. I really agree with the whole “language barrier” aspect of this article. It's so easy to assume clients are dumb just because they don't really know how to articulate what they want (or even what they want in the first place). This article is a great reminder to be patient with people and see things from the client's perspective.

  4. I really agree with the whole “language barrier” aspect of this article. It's so easy to assume clients are dumb just because they don't really know how to articulate what they want (or even what they want in the first place). This article is a great reminder to be patient with people and see things from the client's perspective.

  5. Love the article. This is just what I needed to read, because earlier today I had an issue communicating with my mentor about working on a project that is planned to be created and lunch by next week.

    Thanks.