One of the most challenging and interesting parts of what I do is bridging the gap between potentially confusing technology and people who are far removed from how it works. I think people intentionally avoid this massive gray area because of lack of patience, lack of interest, or inability (or no desire) to communicate properly. It can difficult to explain concepts like table-free design, search engine optimization, and digitizing art for print to people without the necessary experience. Despite that, it’s necessary for people who are promoting themselves or their business to understand these concepts on a basic level and realize how they can expand their work into new, expanding markets.
I’ve taught billing systems and wireless networking to customer service representatives, math and science to family members and classmates, and blogs and social networking to colleagues and clients. What I’ve found to be the hardest concept to get across to people is the proper way to design and implement a website. I’m not exaggerating; explaining standards-based, table-free, search-optimized design to people without any experience can be a painful process to all parties involved. Clients want to understand what they are paying for – explicitly – and the only way to make this happen is to explain why I do what I do and why they want me to keep doing it that way.
I’m new to all of this… how can this article help me?
Clients (those who need the design)
This post explains the very basic ins and outs of website design and why it can be such a pain in the butt. Are you confused why you were charged for three hours of time just to change a few words? Have you asked for what seemed like a simple change only to be met with a sizable estimate? In adding my two cents to the conversation, I hope to clear up issues like these for people who might be looking to understand the process a bit better.
Designers (those who provide the design)
While I’m relatively new to the discipline, I’ve been teaching people and promiting understanding since I first strapped on that inbound call center headset. Let me help you find the words to use so you and your client are on the same page. Use your knowledge, skill, and people skills together to show your clients exactly what you do and why you do it that way. The worst that could happen is you lose 15 minutes and gain some personal clarity.
Understand: Web design is it’s own discipline with it’s own subsets.
I have always known this but it took an article at A List Apart, one of the most reputable voices in web design, standards, and usability, to really solidify this in my head. To quote the article (to avoid unnecessary paraphrasing):
Web design is not book design, it is not poster design, it is not illustration, and the highest achievements of those disciplines are not what web design aims for. Although websites can be delivery systems for games and videos, and although those delivery systems can be lovely to look at, such sites are exemplars of game design and video storytelling, not of web design. So what is web design?
Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.
At the risk of flinging this topic from comprehensible to hopelessly high-concept, it is important to address the implicit abilities and obstacles of this very interesting medium.
Taking an idea for a website and moving it from concept to execution has an interesting middle step. This middle step, the one where you weight the benefits of making precisely what was visualized against the negatives of spending an inordinate amount of time building it, is something that designers are painfully familiar with but clients may not entirely grasp. It is quite simple to sketch an idea out on paper, somewhat difficult to translate this idea digitally, and very hard to build the exact product you had in mind to begin with. Maybe the technology does not exist, maybe you’re not sure how to build it, or maybe the idea was too complicated to begin with but, in the end, what is created never seems to exactly match what was conceptualized. Please keep in mind that there is nothing inherently wrong with this frequent occurrence.
There is another force at play here as well. In the end, even if you’ve created exactly what was on that bar napkin to being with, there is a chance (a good chance) that it just won’t look exactly how you thought or it simply functions poorly. It could be that all the artwork required to make the page look amazing makes the whole page load slowly. It could also be that the revolutionary way to navigate that you devised is not at all as intuitive as what you thought. Regardless of the reason, a perfectly executed concept does nothing to correct the errors that existed in the concept to begin with. While the “it just doesn’t look right” factor occurs in all segments of art and design, the “it doesn’t function properly” can only occur where interaction is happening.
Both of these factors work together to add unique facets to web design that threaten to destabilize the relationship between client and designer.
You don’t have to fully understand the internet and navigation and usability and optimization to understand why your designer tries to dissuade you from certain things. What you do need to understand is that your expertise in other fields does not translate directly to the web. Because something “looks” easy or “seems” easy does not actually make it easy to complete. Something as simple as content change or color change could require a lot of back-end work.
- If you don’t understand, do yourself and your designer a favor and just ask. If something seems easy but you are being told that it isn’t, ask her explicitly. Anyone able to make the changes should also be able to explain what they are doing.
- Get an estimate, even if it’s just a verbal agreement. Knowing up front that your image update is going to cost $200 might persuade you to approach the problem differently.
- Good web design takes time and, unless you can do it yourself, costs money. Making everything look right and function properly is an act of art, science, and patience. If you trust your designer, let him do what needs to be done and keep in mind that you’ll be glad you spent the money now rather than deal with fallout later.
You know what you’re doing and you’re as honest as they come so it can be downright insulting when someone questions your judgement. Still, what would you think if a contracting firm kept coming back for more money and more time on a remodelling job? Would you keep handing over money, no questions asked, or would you try to understand what is going on so maybe you can make an executive decision? It’s your job to patiently and effectively explain where the time and money is going so your client can budget effectively and potentially cease problems that get out of hand.
- Communicate well and often. If you think you might go over budget, say so. If problems are occurring, explain them. You might be used to guiding a project and making decisions but, when you’re on someone else’s time and money, it’s up to them. Give them all the information they need to make the right choice.
- You’ve heard of Always Be Selling (ABS), right? Well, for this post, it’s ABT, Always Be Teaching. You can never go wrong if you spend a little extra time sharing some of the knowledge you have. Don’t just say “the code was screwed so I fixed it,” explain what was wrong and what you did to fix it. This helps you by honing your knowledge and keeping you honest; this helps your clients to better understand what you do and showing them that you’re willing to give a little extra.
- While you might know the best way to do something, maybe the client has a different idea in mind. It can be painful to leave behind ugly code, deliver an unfinished product, or stop working on something that clearly needs more attention but it’s even more painful to fight against it. Explain the situation (#1), share the knowledge (#2), and leave your ego at the door.
Did I miss anything? What can clients do better to help designers understand the goal? What can designers do better to make the customer know the value their getting?
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Sep 09, 2008
Sometimes there is an easy way, sometimes there’s just an easIER way, and sometimes there’s just hard ways.
Aug 23, 2008
I meant to use this blog as a place to update information about my business and maybe some relevant personal stuff but I’m so boring that all I write about is work and coding!