Web design: managing a client’s expectations

Posted on 16th Feb 2014 07:03 pm by admin

Starting a site’s design before the content for that site is fully developed can be a costly mistake. It often leads to designs that are sub par or that don’t fit with the final content. Knowing that is only half of the battle. The other battle is helping clients understand that, which is where this post comes into play. I often refer to my approach to design as ‘content driven design‘. Louis Sullivan would have said, “form follows function”. No matter how you express it, using language in the beginning that defines the design as dependent upon the function/content of the site helps establish a precedence. But, simply saying you subscribe to the ‘content driven design’ school of thought isn’t enough to prevent a client from saying, “Can’t we just make a design and then put the copy and pictures in when it’s done?” The logical approach Your first line of defense should be one of reasoning because it demonstrates that your respect your client’s intelligence. For some clients, a simple statement is enough to convince them. The statement I use is, “My job as a web designer is to arrange content on a page so that it is both functional and compelling. I can’t make good decisions about either unless I know what I’m supposed to arrange.” Good design reveals more about the content that the design is treating. Emphasis, for example, can be represented by scale, color, and/or font weight. In order to know how to present the messages on the page, you need to be able to read the message. The illustrated approach Sharp clients that don’t want to or can’t get their content together in the timeframe they want the site designed by can have a response to the logical approach. They usually come in the form of a few variations: “I know what I basically want, isn’t that enough to at least get you started?” “I can already tell you what pages I want and what will be on them.” “I pretty much have all of my content. Let’s just start with that.” Here’s a list of examples to help explain in more detail the importance of the specific content. Complexity thresholds If you have one good photo, it’s pretty straightforward how to place it on the page. If you have twelve photos, then you might need to arrange them in a matrix as thumbnails that can be clicked to view them larger. If you have two hundred photos, you would need to break them up onto multiple pages. If you’ve got twenty thousand, then you would need categories and search options to make them digestible, which means there are now form elements that have to be included in the layout. This example reveals how the volume of content not only impacts the way that content is laid out, but also the number of pages and additional supporting elements that might need to be on the page. Square peg, round hole Let’s say your design uses a horizontal nav bar that has five items and each is a single word. Then let’s say your real content comes back and you need eight items in the nav bar and they are all 2-3 words each. Now your horizontal nav bar doesn’t hold the real navigation and needs to be made vertical. That could break the whole design and require starting over on the layout. This example shows that designing in a vacuum can produce a layout that won’t accommodate the final content. And, it can happen in the reverse too where a design allows for a lot of space for content that turns out to be small making the site feel awkward and empty. A chef is only as good as his/her ingredients Let’s say the client is only missing the photo of their office and one of their staff that they want on their about page. So, you use placeholders you found using Google’s image search. Then the final photo of the office the client provides was taken on their cell phone and most of the staff objected to having their pictures taken. Now you can’t run the office photo very big and you have holes where the staff photos were supposed to go forcing you to redesign the about page. This example illustrates two points: the quality of content impacts how you use it; and planning to have certain content doesn’t mean you’ll get it. It’s as easy as 1-2-3 Let’s say you have a page that describes your client’s service. Because the client doesn’t have the final content, you design it with Lorem Ipsum. When the final content comes you see that signing up for the service is a three step process that would have been a great opportunity for an infographic. Now the service page is a page of boring grey text. This example is about missed opportunities. Here the client doesn’t incur additional expense from breaking the design with the final content, but they miss out on what could have been a great visual description of their money making service. The result is that they lose profits from a less effective website. Your job as a web designer is both as a designer and a client counselor. You can and should advise your client according to the experience and knowledge that you have, but you are under no obligation to deliver a difficult client the best website in the world. In other words, if the logical approach and a couple of good examples isn’t enough to convince your client then you can take one of two courses of action: Tell them you appreciate the opportunity to work with them, but you’ll have to pass on this project. Obviously you can only take this approach if you have the luxury to do so. There are many successful designers that will wisely advise you to avoid projects that will cause you pain and not end up in your portfolio. Sometimes throwing down the gauntlet can spark a stubborn client into action, which means pulling their content together. You might still be weary of that situation because conflict is usually not a great way to start a project. Tell them they need to sign a waiver stating that you advised them not to go this route and that it could lead to extra rounds of revisions for which they will be responsible for paying. While it reads pretty harsh, there are polite and diplomatic ways of approaching this option. You could say something like, “I can appreciate that your timeline is tight. We can get started without the final content, but it could lead to additional rounds of design when we start plugging in the real content. If your priority is your timeline, then let’s just update our agreement to make sure you get those extra rounds of design if need be. I’ve got this handy form right here.” Content driven design for a CMS Most clients seeking web design today would like some level of admin control via a CMS. In those situations the client won’t have all of the content by definition of the project. In the case of a CMS design, what you will need up front is not the future content, but rather a clear description of the system. I could write a whole post about how to define a content system, but I’ll save it for later. For now, my recommendation to you is to ask some basic questions about what they need to manage, like is it a gallery, a blog, a calendar, etc. Select a free CMS that seems like it will fit and have the client start using it before you make a custom design. Having the client use a CMS before creating a design will help you in two ways: It will reveal if it meets their functional needs before investing in an interface design. It will give you a starting base of content to analyze for design direction. Even the most prepared client ends up producing content that is different from what they thought they would create in the beginning, so it’s good to have something real to provide you with design direction.

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