The Hows and Whys of Educating a Client

I used to teach with a nice lady we’ll call Cathy. Cathy coaches soccer and teaches gym, and excels at both; if I want to learn about the layoff pass or the back defense, she’ll be the first person I ask. But, computers are not her friends.

One evening I get a phone call from Cathy. She’s in a state of panic about a form she has to fill out in a gradebook program. The form is fairly standard stuff, and has some optional fields that she could leave blank if she chose. But Cathy doesn’t know that, and can’t grasp the concept. “What should I do with this one?” she asks. “Just leave it blank, Cathy,” I respond. “But it needs [whatever piece of irrelevant information]!” she shouts. “Just leave it blank, Cathy,” I say again.

Then she gets to the next field and we repeat the performance. My wife and a friend of the family are within earshot, and hear me say “Just leave it blank” over and over again. They have no idea what the conversation was about, but by the end of the call, they’re both in stitches.

The Hows and Whys of Educating a Client
Image credit: tinaylin

Educating a Client

That phone call was seven or eight years ago, and I can still sidle up behind one of them and say, “Just leave it blank, James!” and get a laugh. Some things stick with you.

So besides having some unwarranted amusement at poor Cathy’s expense, what is the point of this little tale? It’s simple. Cathy lacked a proper education on how to use a document form, and specifically lacked the understanding that she could leave some fields blank without making either her computer or her head explode.

The more you can educate your client, translate computer/Internet jargon into plain everyday speech, and empower your client to learn more about good Web practices and the benefits of regular updates (news, product updates, blogging, social media, etc.), the more you will be seen as a vital business partner. — Jared White

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of this story while dealing with different type of clients. “Just leave it blank, John!” I’ll snap while answering an email. (Of course, “John” never hears me say it.) Whatever the issue is usually has nothing to do with leaving form fields blank, but I know what I mean. I’m dealing with a client that lacks education about some aspect of Web design or site functionality.

Whose job is it to educate clients about what they should and shouldn’t expect from your designs for them? Why, yours, of course. So many issues between clients and designers arise when one side expects something as a matter of course that the other side either never considered, or never had any intention of providing or asking for. It’s on you, not the client, to set the parameters, anticipate needs, provide solutions, and identify lines that you won’t cross in your design and development of a contracted-for site.

We believe it is our job to make sure you are educated about the opportunities and risks involved in your project, and to put you in a position to make the best decisions for the health and success of your business. — Station Four Web Design and Application Development

Putting the Client’s Needs before Yours

I have worked on hundreds of websites over the past 15 years and each site’s success or failure has always been attributed to the quality of the client. — Paul Boag

It should be a given that the client’s needs should drive the website, not yours, but that isn’t always the case. The best “bad example” of this I can recall doesn’t come from Web design, but from interior design, in this instance a design show on television. The show’s concept hinged on the idea that a pair of neighbors would, with the assistance of a professional designer, redo a room in the other’s home.

One neighbor couldn’t resist transforming his neighbor’s rather staid bedroom into what appeared to be a bordello; the pièce de résistance was a headboard for the bed that was crafted to look like a set of giant flame-red lips. The neighbor kept wondering aloud if his neighbor, apparently a bit of a stodge, would appreciate the Moonlight Bunny Ranch design theme, but finished the design and proudly presented it to the horrified homeowner. The point of the story: the neighbor designed something he himself wanted, all the time ignoring the needs and wants of his “client.”

Image credit: krstlchik

The site stands or falls, not on your design ideas, but on the success of the site’s serving of the client’s needs and desires. It’s your job to elicit what your client needs (which isn’t always what your client may think he needs), and show him the most efficient and elegant solution to fulfilling those needs. Web designers and developers have to have a certain element of the visionary about them, not just for their field, but for their clients’ — how should a site design best reflect the needs of Dominic’s plumbing business, or the needs of the local American Legion post, or whoever your client may be?

Whatever your client’s business, or organization, or personal needs, your job is to nail down those needs and serve them to the best of your ability. If your client doesn’t have a clear idea of what his site will do or how it should appear, neither do you. You can always go off on your own vision quest and produce the site you think will suit his needs, but chances are it won’t suit him — while clients often don’t know what they like or what they want, they usually know what they don’t like.

One method I’ve found useful, as have many other designers, is the use of a questionnaire for the client. Freelance designer Martha Retallick has provided us with a nifty example. I’ve used a version of Retallick’s questionnaire with my clients ever since I stumbled across it. It helps you codify where your client is, what he wants, what he likes, and most importantly, what he needs (or at least what he thinks he needs).

Question:: How do you find out what your client wants, and what he needs, for his site? Are you bringing preconceptions or judgments to the site that might clash with your client’s needs? How can you best serve his needs given the limitations of your skills and abilities?

Talking about Expectations

I didn’t mow lawns for spending money as a kid, though many in my neighborhood did. It probably had something to do with my mom’s lack of trust in the males in the family when it came to power tools and yard equipment; my mom never found it amusing when my dad ran our riding lawnmower over the flower bed or flipped it into the ditch. But I imagine one of my entrepreneurial buddies had pretty clear expectations of what they were and weren’t to do when they offered to mow someone’s lawn for a few bucks.

Lawn mowing meant just that: mowing Mr. Smith’s lawn, and no more. My friend would have been surprised when, after a long hot day’s work mowing down foot-high grass and weeds, Mr. Smith didn’t pay up, but instead offered him the hedge clippers and said, “Fine job on the lawn, Joey! Now knock out those hedges and then we’ll talk about cleaning out the gutters.” Joey expected to do the lawn, and just the lawn; Mr. Smith’s expectations were quite different.

Image credit: hannahdear

I think most of us reading this article have gotten past the stage where we need to mow lawns to make ends meet, but the principle is the same whether we’re contracting with Old Man Smith to wrangle his yard or contracting with his son-in-law to design a Web site for his local business. We know what we expect to do as it states in the contract, and we know what we won’t do.

Before you put pencil to paper or pixel to screen, talk to your client, whether it’s over Skype, the telephone, or a cup of coffee in the local cappuccino bar, and nail down exactly what they want, and what you’re contracting to do. The more personal interaction, the better, I find; email is not only impersonal, it’s tough to get a handle on your client’s wants, needs, and expectations. The more personal the interaction, the better, tone of voice, body language, eye contact, all of this is important. I know of one instance where a designer claims to have completed an entire contract process through email and Twitter. More power to her, but I can’t imagine doing it, or at least doing it right.

As freelancer Jeff Boshers writes, engage with your client. Emphathize. Ask questions. Be humble in how you present yourself; remember, you’re offering a service just like Joey the lawnmowing whiz or Dominic the plumber. Communicate, the more the better. If you think you know enough about what your client wants and needs in a design, chances are you’re wrong. Make sure you know what they want, and make sure they know what you’re going to do for them. If this isn’t clear in the beginning, expect problems down the road.

Question: What does your client say he wants? What, in your professional judgment, does he need? How can you bridge the gap between these two positions, given your limitations as a designer and developer?

Clobbering the Client with Research

One of my favorite tales from former major league pitcher Jim Bouton’s wonderfully irreverent memoir Ball Four is one featuring former New York Yankee Roger Maris. Maris was a strong hitter who, despite his considerable skills, was seen by Yankee fans and baseball fans in general as having no business breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, which he did anyway. According to Bouton, Maris, when heckled by fans for daring to beat the Bambino’s record, would inevitably retort, “Yeah? And how much do you make?” prompting his teammates to yell in support, “Get ’em, Roger! Hit ’em with your wallet!”

Image credit: fishbel

So what does a talented but disrespected former baseball player’s verbal jousting with unappreciative fans have to do with our own jousting with clients? Aside from your perhaps-understandable desire to clout some clients upside the head with a baseball bat, the only thing this has to do with our discussion is Maris’s failure to use proper research in his retorts to the fans (not that they would have listened anyway). Maris never informed the fans that for years, he was the team’s best home-run producer behind the legendary Mickey Mantle. He never told them that he was an integral part of the Yankees’ 1960s version of “Murderer’s Row.” He never reminded them that he was a four-time All-Star, or a terrific defensive player.

Instead, he just sparred with the fans, in exchanges he was doomed to lose. At some point during difficult client negotiations, imagine some boozy ballplayer lolling on the bench and yelling, “Hit ’em with your wallet!” Then try something different — especially if you’re contemplating a snappy rejoinder such as, “I made $200 grand last year making Web sites, what the hell do you know about it?”

Aurimas Adomavicius, a developer and designer, writes the following hypothetical rejoinder from a designer whose client apparently wants a logo the size of Sputnik: “I understand why your brand is important to you. I have research here based on the top 500 retailers on the Internet and their logo sizes.

The research indicates that the logo should take up less space than or be similar in size to the call-to-action element, or be one-fourth of the website’s width at most. In our case, that ‘View products’ link should be the focal point of the website.” Nice rejoinder! The client should respect that response. Just be prepared to actually show the client the research, or be ready to discuss why your explanation of “I read it on the Internet” should hold water. Expert designer and design firm owner Paul Boag told an audience in 2008, “By referring to other experts, you become expert by association.”

Think about what the most unrealistic, ill-informed, and pigheaded client you can imagine might ask for. Are you prepared to answer those requests? At some point, you’ll need those responses.

Question: Are you prepared with the proper market, branding, and browser research to field questions your client might ask? How about requests you might consider unreasonable or unrealistic?

Browser Wars

Yes, we’re talking Internet Explorer here, in all its infinite varieties of obsolescence and aggravation. The other major browsers don’t present this level of difficulty either for designers or clients.

I know Web designers who won’t design for anything earlier than IE 7. (I know one who won’t design for anything earlier than IE 8, but that seems a bit overly snobbish to me.) And I know designers who routinely design for IE 5. (Okay, I know one.) The default seems to be something like, “I’ll design a lovely site for you that will display well in Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and IE 7 and above. The site will function in IE 6, but all the bells and whistles might not display correctly, or appear at all. Don’t expect functionality in IE 5.5 or below, or Netscape 4, or any other antique browser used by .01% of the surfing population.”


Do you expect your client to have that same expectation? Some clients have no idea other browsers even exist; to them, Internet Explorer is the Internet. Before you chortle over their ignorance, ask yourself if you understand a tenth of what your last client produces in their business.

Dominic the plumber may be an ignorant clod when it comes to understanding how browsers work, but he’s the guy you call when your sink explodes, because he understands plumbing a hell of a lot better than you do. Respect your client’s grasp of their product or service, and don’t expect them to have the same level of knowledge that you have about your product and service.

On the other side of the question, do they have a need for their site to support obsolete browsers? Maybe their clientèle has a large number of corporate users whose firms have consistently refused to upgrade from IE 6. Maybe many of their users surf from public computer terminals such as provided in libraries and community centers; believe it or not, some of those users are still surfing the net with a green screen and a browser older than their car. Maybe their clientèle relies heavily on mobile devices, which presents an entirely different challenge.

Question: Are you prepared to support obsolete browsers in your design? How about mobile browsers? Does your client hold any of those expectations? Do they know what they need? How can you help them ascertain their needs? What are you willing to provide in the way of browser support? Is there a way to resolve these potential differences?

Graphic Content

Many Web designers and developers either have some serious skills in graphic design, or have folks in their design firm who have those skills. These guys won’t blanch when their client asks for a logo, or a set of graphics to spiff up their site’s design. But some designers, especially freelancers, lack sophisticated graphics skills. If you’re not particularly handy with a graphics creation program such as Photoshop or Illustrator (I’m not), and you don’t have access to a talented graphics designer, you’re limited in what you can offer your client.

Image credit: alexandros gavrilakis

Obviously it’s to your benefit to either learn those skills or hook up with someone who already has them and can provide them for your work. If you can’t do that at the moment, you’re stuck using stock photos, freely available images, and the like. Whatever your situation, make sure your client understands this. Don’t just insert it into the contract; often as not, you’re the only one who closely reads the thing.

Tell the client up front what you can and can’t do as far as graphics are concerned, and tell them plainly. Then prepare to repeat it when the client comes up with “a great idea” that you’re either unwilling or unable to handle, or that would require an additional fee.

Question: What level of graphic designs are you able to offer? Are you prepared to explain this in plain English to your client? Is this stated clearly in your contract? What are you doing to expand your ability to offer graphic designs?

Content Management Systems

The level of information a client may have as it pertains to a content management system (CMS) is as widely variant as any other aspect of site development. Some won’t know what a CMS is, and assume that enormous Web sites manage their information through the use of magic faeries.

Image credit: Vin Crosbie

Others will not only know that such software exists, but will expect you to use one, say Expression Engine or WordPress, in their design. Some will even expect you to create (or at least modify) a custom CMS entirely for their needs. You should be prepared ahead of time to wrangle this concept out before you create a single line of code or a single design element.

Question: Do you expect the client to ask you to create a CMS for his site, or incorporate an existing one in his product? Does he expect such? Does he even know that such entities exist? Can you educate your client as to his need for a CMS to handle the information presented by his site (or his lack of need)? Can you educate him as to what you will and won’t provide in the way of a CMS?

You are a Professional, You Have Some Authority

Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling! — from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

You can’t find a more knowledgeable designer and developer than Paul Boag. He reminds us that “clients identify problems, designers provide solutions,” and goes on to write: “One of the biggest problems in most web projects is that the client starts making the decisions that are best left to the web designer. Not only does this lead to bad decisions, but also inevitably leaves the web designer feeling undervalued and frustrated. This problem can manifest in a variety of ways, however ultimately it comes down to a single issue — the client is trying to find solutions to their problems instead of relying on the web designer.”

Image credit: DoubleLG

Like Adomavicius, Boag uses the idea of a client’s desire for a huge logo as an example. In Boag’s presentation, the client may not be aware that the problem is with his site’s branding, not necessarily with an unacceptably small logo. You, the designer, can “fix” the problem by a creative use of whitespace, or positioning, or contrasting with other design elements, not just by pumping up the size of the logo to gargantuan proportions because “that’s what the client wants.”

As Boag reminds us, the client’s job is to identify problems. Your job is to interpret the client’s statements about the problems in a way that best serves the client’s needs, and create solutions for those problems — even if those solutions aren’t immediately obvious to the client. If the client’s job is to advance solutions, then designers and developers are indeed nothing but pixel-pushing automatons.

If you do not clearly define the clients’ role, they will end up trying to define yours instead. — Paul Boag

Graphic and Web designer Preston Lee asks us, “If you are a complete pushover or you are unable to defend or justify your design decisions, what reason do your clients have to trust you? They don’t.” The client depends on us to know what solutions are possible and what’s best for their needs and desires.

Yes, they are paying your fees, and yes, they have the final say on what you do, so if they insist on screaming sparkles and dancing unicorns, when push comes to shove, that’s what they get. But it’s your job to do your level best to educate them as to why such design choices are not in their best interests.

Use research. Use competitors’ sites. Use whatever approach the client understands, whether it’s baseball metaphors or home design choices (“if I were your home designer, I’d argue against you putting screaming yellow shag carpet in your kitchen. Same here with this dancing unicorn in the header”). Lee calls himself not just a designer, but a design consultant. I like that term.

Question: Do you have the confidence in yourself and your design skills to stand up for your design and your craft? If not, what will it take to acquire that confidence? Do you know the difference between confidence and arrogance? Can you assert your viewpoints and your expertise without bullying or intimidating your client? Can you assert yourself without knuckling under to your client?

Collaboration, not Confrontation

In my experience it truly is possible to work in partnership with your client. Doing so allows you to explain your design decisions and to better understand your client’s business and user objectives. The ideal relationship is about collaboration rather than confrontation. — Paul Boag

I know one quite talented designer who seems to enjoy battling with his clients. If you talk to him without a client around, he can be quite candid about his lack of respect for his clients, and his only real goal seems to be to stuff his portfolio with more and more examples of his work. For him, it’s a beauty contest, and clients are just the annoying stepping stones towards “winning,” however he defines that concept. From my viewpoint, as talented and creative as he is, he’s a lousy Web designer.

Why? Because he doesn’t design for his clients. He stuffs his ideas down their throats, tries to force them to accept design and function elements simply because he wants to include them, and (if you believe what he says) walks away from clients when they stand up for themselves one time too many. His sites are lovely to behold, but I can’t imagine they truly meet the needs of the clients they purport to serve.

Image credit: KWG73

You and your client are collaborating on a project, not competing to see who can dominate the project. (It’s a no-win situation anyway; he doesn’t push pixels, and you don’t sign checks.) If you include the client in the initial phases of development, incorporate his ideas into the design, and keep him “in the loop” throughout the process, he won’t turn down the final design, because it will be partly his work, and he’ll know what’s coming before the final “reveal” (hopefully, he’ll be thrilled by how much better you’ve executed it than he had originally envisioned).

The more the client has invested in the design, structure, and functionality of the design, the less likely he will reject the final product, or make expensive and time-consuming demands for changes in the final phases of development and construction. (At the end of the process, he might boast about “the website he created, with the help of some design guy,” but do you really care? You shouldn’t. Instead, you should be negotiating a new contract with the people to whom he recommended you.)

Take an hour and listen to two presentations by Paul Boag: one on educating clients to say yes and another on why clients think your design sucks. His evocation of the “revolutionary … peer-to-peer relationship” between designers and clients is quite pertinent and even inspiring. He says much of what I’ve referred to in this article, and says it better.

One of the things I took from his presentation was this: it’s the client’s job to relate the site to his clientele or user base. It’s your job to design the site, and to assist him in making the best choices to get that job done properly. You have to help your client focus on the needs of his users: he doesn’t need to express his personal dislike for your chosen color scheme, he needs to talk about how he thinks your color scheme might not appeal to his customers or targeted demographic. You then collaborate with him to find a color scheme that works both from a design and a customer-appeal aspect.

Remember, if you’re not happy with a design, neither is your client, and vice versa.

Question: Are you prepared to share your expertise with your client, and include him in your conceptual design process, from first meeting through wireframing to mockups and final products? Are you ready to take the lead, but incorporate input and ultimately share the credit?


The whole idea is to make this a partnership between two peers: you and the client. You’re not a demigod coming down from Design Olympus to bestow a magic website on the grubby peasant; nor are you a sweaty employee dangling by a thread, waiting breathlessly for the Big Guy to favor you with a smile and a partial payment.

Come in to the process with a clear idea of what you can, and will, offer; make sure you learn as much as you can (and then some) about your client’s needs, wants, and desires; set the parameters and boundaries from the outset; and be flexible, as changes are to be expected. If you start off properly, chances are good that you’ll end properly: with a nice paycheck and a lovely site that gives your client more than he knew he wanted.

Educated clients equal happy clients, and when clients are happy your business is even happier. — Brian Hoff


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