Clients who want to design the site themselves?

I’m a regular over at LinkedIn. It is a great site for keeping in touch with colleagues and clients, and I find the ‘Answers’ section a great place to participate in some interesting debate.  One particular question posed to linkedin users was “What to do with clients who want to design the site themselves“.  This is a question close to the heart – and bank account – of every web designer and developer.  When exactly do we draw the line between offering professional expertise and practising the age old adage that the customer is always right?  It is clear from the answers given to the question that this is a common issue amongst web designers, and one on which there is a broad spectrum of opinion.

Here is my take.

As with most things in life, finding the correct balance for each individual project is important.  Some clients wish to be involved in everything all the time, whilst others are happy to be completely hands-off and leave you to your own devices.  In truth, neither of these extremes is ideal for any client or web design company.  The perfect client is someone who knows enough to ask questions, who is confident enough to stamp some individuality onto a web site, but who is also willing to listen to a considered and professional opinion from a person who makes their living from building web sites.

I remember the first passionate debate I had about a web site. It wasn’t wasn’t even with the client of the site, but with the person leading the project team at that time.  This was a man who I had a great respect for.  He had always been really positive and reasonable in the past, which made it all the more difficult for me to have the debate with him.

The debate wasn’t so much about the design of the site, but was about the keywords I had suggested for the site.  The client used a language for their products that might not immediately come to the mind of the ordinary consumer.  The client liked to say they were involved with “holiday homes”, whereas most people would have used the term “caravans”.

After spending some time researching keywords I’d come up with a shortlist that included “caravan” and “static caravan”, as well as “holiday home” and other variations on the theme.  For some reason, the client did not want to associate with the word “caravan” even though that would be the exact word that people would use to find their products.  After a lengthy debate, I backed down and the final list sent to the client had no mention of the dreaded word “caravan”.  It was a hard lesson to learn. My professional ego had been wounded – I knew I had a point, but I had been told in no uncertain terms that the client in question was too big for us to risk upsetting, and perhaps losing.  But what was best for us as a design company might not be what was best for the client.  But that, as they say, was that.

I lost that particular battle, but about a decade later I see I eventually won the war. That organisation now uses the word “caravan” in its keywords – perhaps my original list should have been used, but perhaps the client had a learning curve to go up first before they were ready for internet marketing.  The people who best know how a business works are those people who live it and breath it day in and day out.  More often than not they will have a better instinct about the brand and its values.  Sometimes, sticking too steadfastly to a given design principle can be detrimental – after all, how would design ever evolve if we never changed the rules?

Breaking the rules in experimentation could lead to unexpected results (both positive and negative) and so it is the role of the web professional to guide clients towards best practice, but to accept that in the end clients may have good reasons for wanting to become deeply involved in the design process, often, it is the result of bad design project experiences in the past.

I’d still today passionately argue my case – be it on design aesthetics or keywords – but I’m more pragmatic than others who think that you shouldn’t even take on a client who has an opinion on design(!).  I’ll offer my opinion and make sure it is backed up with solid facts, what the client chooses to do from that point on is their choice, not mine.  If the client disagrees with me and chooses another option, then it would be my hope that a client will at least have a good reason to do so, even if I do not understand it, and that perhaps the client will gain a better understanding of my thought process so that next time it comes to changing the web site they know that I’ll give the best advice I can and leave the rest to them.

Each web design project is a learning process.  A designer and client must build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.  Web designers must surely generally accept that this is not an industry where prima donnas who are not interested in building long term trust are not likely to succeed in the long term.

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