Relationship Advice for Clients & Designers
In my experience, almost all design frustrations boil down to the same issue - the relationship between the client and the designer.
Oftentimes, this tension arises from the relationship going sour sometime between the initial sale and the launch. At best, this makes for a site neither party is happy with. At worst, well, it can get ugly. The problem with either of these outcomes is that the success of the project is directly connected to the equal investment of talent and knowledge by both parties. If the designer's expertise is not trusted, the final product will inevitably suffer. The same goes if the client's knowledge of their business objectives/users is undermined by the designer. Sounds like a tightrope walk, doesn't it? Well, here's some tips for navigating the relationship:
If content is king online, communication is king offline. I recently listened to Paul Boag discussing the client-designer relationship, and he suggested something that rang very true to me: Clearly communicate roles in the very beginning. Even from within the actual contract, outline both the role of the client and the role of the designer. Discuss it with the client in the earliest stages of the design process. Most clients I come across both as a freelancer and at an agency are actually looking to the design team for guidance as to what exactly they should do throughout the process. If they aren't given parameters at the outset, they typically try to involve themselves in the most instinctual way, which is to give creative feedback or worse, direction. The advantage of defining roles for designers is obviously that it can save them from the headache of becoming mere pixel-pushers. But, the fact of the matter is that defining the nature of each role puts the client at ease as well.
However, this assumes both parties are giving the other their respective due. The client has a depth of knowledge of their business/user-base that the designer will never have as a 3rd party consultant. This means designers have to trust that knowledge and listen closely to it. This knowledge is crucial to the success of the design, which is why this is the role of the client. The client is the expert on their business - all communication from them should be seen through that lens. Let them know this in the beginning, requesting that they clearly communicate from this role. This means that if they have design tweaks, they should explain why it will benefit their business. The advantage of this for the designer is obviously that most client design changes come down to personal taste, which is frustrating for designers because personal taste does not value their expertise and education. However, if the client can justify these suggestions based on their business needs, they are then clearly communicating from their role and the designer can listen and act respectfully.
I have to admit, I've failed at this one. (Actually, I've failed at all of these at one time or another, which is partly why I'm writing about them!) One of the most difficult things to remember in dealing with clients is that while you have multiple projects, they only have one. Of course, you can't possibly take every working minute and spend it on them, but you can maintain brief contact with regularity throughout the project. Respond quickly, and treat them to quick, proactive emails - updates you would want to receive if you were them, especially if the project spans weeks/months. As with so many things in life, the Golden Rule applies - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you contract out any of your work, how do you wish your contractors would communicate with you? The answer to this question is probably a good rule of thumb for how to communicate with your clients.
Maybe the most frustrating of all experiences as a consumer is when the level of sales doesn't match the level of support. I say if the tone of the relationship completely changes after the transaction occurs, buyer beware. When an organization matches their level of support with their level of sales, they build trust in the consumer. If the designer builds this kind of trust with a client, it can make for a great relationship and amazing results. And why wouldn't you want to build this trust? After all, web design is an industry where clients change every few years just because they want something new. Designers need to give clients a reason to keep working with them, and repeat customers means consistent business, good word-of-mouth, etc (you get the picture). Obviously, I don't want to suggest designers should undervalue their product, so I want to take the focus off of the "underpromising" part. The key is to ensure the quality of communication and the end product remain strong even after the initial sale.
Now, I haven't even begun to touch on the nuances of a healthy client-designer relationship, but I hope I have laid a bit of groundwork from which to build. The clear message is good, old-fashioned communication. And speaking of old-fashioned, if you sense a tension building in the relationship, make a quick phone call or get together face-to-face. Obviously, web designers as a whole fancy online communication, but it is all too easy for text on a page to miscommunicate. I'm amazed how many fires get doused by just giving face or at least phone time to the other party.
If you'd like to read more on this subject, I've linked to some articles below that provide more info: