Is John The Client Dense or Are You Failing Him?


Meet John the client. John runs a reasonably large website. He is a marketer who considers himself smart, articulate and professional. That said, he doesn’t know much about Web design, and so he needs your help. John comes to you with a clear set of business objectives and asks for a quote. But what happens next leaves John confused, frustrated and extremely unhappy.

Explain Why You Are Asking About Money

Before giving John his quote, you ask a little more about the project. After chatting for a few minutes, you ask him about his budget. A fair question, you think. After all, you could approach the project in so many ways. Without knowing the budget, knowing where to begin is impossible. In your mind, building a website is like building a house. Without knowing the budget, you can’t possibly know how many rooms the client can afford or what materials you should use to build.

John, on the other hand, is instantly suspicious. Why would you want to know about his budget? The only reason he can think of is that you want to make sure you don’t charge him less than what he is willing to give. Besides, he doesn’t really know his budget. How the heck is he supposed to know how much a website costs?

Money Grabber
Don’t come across as money-grubbing. (Image credit1)

John leaves, determined to find a Web designer who doesn’t want to take advantage of him. Fortunately for you, all of the other designers he speaks with also neglect to explain why they need to know about his budget, and so you manage to win the project after all.

Justify Your Recommendations In Language John Can Understand

Once you have won the job, you arrange a kick-off meeting to nail down the specifications. However, John instantly regrets his decision to hire you because his worse fears have been confirmed. In his eyes, you are all of a sudden trying to squeeze more money out of him as you waffle about the importance of usability and accessibility. John doesn’t care about disabled users. He doesn’t expect disabled users to visit his website anyway.

And as for usability, surely the job of the Web designer is to make the website usable. Why do we need expensive usability testing? He is pretty certain that usability testing involves expensive things like cameras, labs and two-way mirrors. You thought you had explained these issues clearly. You spoke of WCAG 2, and you mentioned Jakob Neilsen. You are beginning to wonder if John is a bit thick.

People looking confused
Avoid techno-babble if you expect clients to understand what you’re talking about. (Image credit2)

Perhaps if you had talked about accessibility in terms of assessing search engine rankings and testing usability as a way to increase conversion, then John might have listened. As it is, John puts his foot down and refuses to pay for any of these “unnecessary extras.”

Include John In The Process

You walk away from the kick-off meeting pleased to have a signed contract. But that feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that this might be another one of those projects. Regardless, you try to be optimistic, and you dive into the design process. Almost immediately, you get a phone call from John asking if there is anything for him to see. You explain that it is still early in the process and that you are not ready to present anything. John sounds disappointed but resigned.

A short while later, you are ready to present the design to John. You are pleased with the result. It took you a lot more time than you had budgeted for, but it was worth it. The final design is extremely easy to use and will make for a great portfolio piece.

Person hiding
Stop hiding from your clients. Show them your work early on, and include them in the process. (Image credit3)

When John sees the design, he is horrified. From his perspective, you have entirely missed the point. The design clashes with his offline marketing materials and doesn’t hit the right selling points. Also, he is convinced that his suppliers will hate it and, although they are not his end users, their opinion matters.

After a tense conference call, you feel demoralized but have struck a compromise that hopefully will make John happy. You wonder in hindsight whether showing John some of your initial ideas and sketches would have been better. Perhaps you should have presented a wireframe first.

Educate John About Design

After much agonizing and compromise, you are once again ready to present to John. John is much happier with the new design and feels it is heading in the right direction. However, he does have some concerns. For starters, he has to scroll to see most of the content, and yet white space takes up either side of the design. He tells you to move key content into this wasted space. Also, as he thinks about his young male target audience, he realizes that the color scheme is too effeminate, so he tells you to change it to blue.

While John feels somewhat happier, you feel crushed. You feel as though he is trying to do the job for you. The instructions to move this there and change this color to that makes you feel like you have been reduced to pushing pixels.

Teacher teaching maths
Educate your clients so they make more informed decisions. (Image credit4)

By this point, you are sure the client is dim, and now you just want him to sign off on a design. At no stage do you think to ask John why he is requesting these changes. Perhaps if you had appreciated his thinking, you could have explained concepts such as screen resolution and suggested an alternative to corporate blue, which is so over-used on the Web.

Instead, you wash your hands of the design and just give John what he wants.

Communicate With John Regularly

Now that the design is complete, you turn your attention to building it. John certainly won’t care about your code. Now you can finally do things right.

It’s a big job and takes a lot of time. Even though you put too much time into the design and washed your hands of it, you still have your pride. You are not about to cut corners with the code. After all, other designers might look at it and judge you! You work really hard, putting in more work than you probably should have. John even manages to slip in some extra functionality at the scoping phase, which turns out to be a pain in the butt.

For his part, John is wondering what’s going on. He hasn’t heard from you in weeks. Surely the website must be ready now? He decides to email you to ask how things are progressing. You reply with a short email telling him that everything is progressing smoothly. You never did like project management, and you are sure John would prefer that you spend time building his website instead of writing him detailed reports.

John receives your email and is becoming increasingly frustrated. What does “progressing smoothly” mean? He writes back asking for an expected date of completion, and you reply with a rough estimate.

The date comes and goes without a word from you. After all, it was merely an estimate, and several complications have delayed completion by a few days. John finally loses his temper and calls you. He tells you that he has arranged a marketing campaign to coincide with the launch date, and because he hadn’t heard from you, he presumed everything was on schedule.

Phone with the receiver taped up
Communicate with your client regularly. (Image credit5)

You defend yourself, citing “scope creep” and unanticipated delays. But responding is difficult when John says, “All I needed was a weekly email keeping me up to date on progress.”

Explain John’s Ongoing Role

By this stage, the relationship has broken down entirely. You finish your work, and the website finally launches. Begrudgingly, John pays the invoice after delaying it for as long as possible. What amazes you most is John’s pronouncement that he is bitterly disappointed with the result. How can that be when you gave him exactly what he asked for? This guy isn’t just thick: he’s a jerk!

Of course, John sees things differently. He came to you with a list of his business objectives, and the website has failed to meet any of them. He had hoped to launch the website, watch it achieve his objectives and then move on to the next project. Instead, after an initial spike in interest, the number of users and inquiries dropped over time, and the website stagnated.

Seedling being cared for
Ensure that your client understands what kind of ongoing care their website will need. (Image credit6)

What John does not realize is that websites need continued love and support. You cannot build a website and then abandon it. John has to nurture it by adding new content, engaging with visitors and planning for ongoing development.

If only someone had told him.

The Moral Of The Story

It’s amazing how quick we are to judge our clients.

As Web designers, we communicate and empathize for a living. Our job is to communicate messages to our clients’ users. We create usable websites by putting ourselves in the position of our users, which allows us to design around their needs.

Why, then, do we so often seem to be incapable of empathizing or communicating with our clients? Perhaps it is time for us to apply the skills we have cultivated as Web designers to our own customers.



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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Nice article with some great points on communicating with the client and not making assumptions. But every time I read an article such as this one I can help but think it’s missing a larger point. What is being asked of each designer is for them to continually reinvent the wheel with each client….For every designer to educate each client individually. This is a time consuming process that even the best designer may not be fully capable of or adequately trained to do. So my point is…why doesn’t someone like the AIGA run a mass media campaign to educate people of the value of design a la “Got Milk”? I realize you may have to narrow the focus to certain segments of the business community due to costs but dropping it to each individual designer and shop seems like poor design. Design is an important component of web design on many levels and quite frankly Design/Usability is a huge component of our society. So in closing, If client issues regarding the design process are prevalent enough as to necessitate the numerous articles on the subject, why not a collective effort to address it?

    Note: I’m not a designer but a marketing consultant with a great appreciation for great design.

  2. 52

    Quality post. Good stuff.

  3. 103

    Awesome article…. It’s true that educating and communicating with the client is as important as the design itself when working on commercial projects, true creative freedom only comes when working on personal projects!

  4. 154

    A wonderful article. The closing statement is a great wake-up call.

  5. 205

    Nice little article.

    Experience really helps with this sort of tihng. At the beginning of my business I would find it hard to explain the ‘techy’ terms. But over the years you learn the little analgoies you can use, that the majority seem to understand.

    But if you are a designer/developer who works at an agency, and has never had to deal with any of the clients. I would urge you to get involved. The experience can be invaluable.

    Communication is key.

  6. 256

    I really enjoyed reading this! Excellent writing Mr Boag. I’ve been following your podcasts for a while, now I’m looking forward reading more of your literature :)

    Thanks for shedding some light on the client — freelancer relationship. Communicate!

  7. 307

    Amazing article. So clearly articulates what I’ve gone through with countless clients. Thanks so much for allowing me to know that I’m not the only one out there that has experienced this!

  8. 358

    Fantastic article, dealing with that exact client now, and this has made me see it differently. Ill not sit around the office mumbling about him being a clueless prick anymore!

  9. 409

    Kelowna Web Design

    February 19, 2010 12:43 pm

    Great tips! I find that I already do this in freelancing.

  10. 460

    Brilliant. I almost felt you were spying on several of my projects from 2008. I’ve gotten better about managing clients, but this a great reminder of how to avoid the easy to fall into pitfalls of client interaction and expectation.

  11. 511

    Congrats, this is a very well written, simple to understand article that shows a big truth!
    And a very nice refreshement from all the “29 most horrible types of client you will meet and why they are so horrible”-type-of-posts that lie around on the web.

  12. 562

    Nice post i get more clients like John than I want.

  13. 613

    Wonderful Article! There are so many articles around about how to deal with “THAT client” and not one of them considers that maybe we are the problem, not them. Thanks!

  14. 664

    Do you guys really get to do web projects for pay? It seems to me there’s a lot of talk on “how to handle clients”. Well, if you have them you already know.

    And if you’re starting up, hey, check out any “customer provider” guidelines and apply it to web design.

    Web design is just any business. I don’t think this article added -anything- new that you can’t find in various business management literature/articles/howtos.

    • 715

      i agree. i feel that many of the commenters (and even some of the writers) on this blog are designers/devs just starting out. they seem to get way too excited about things they should already know.

  15. 766

    Thanks for sharing!!!! Is John The Client Dense or Am I Failing Him? I always think that , Now I know I´m not alone, thanks again!!!

  16. 817

    I have come upon a few client-designer relations blog posts of late and by far this is the best one. In fact it made me feel good and enlightened when oftentimes the other posts increase your resentment towards a client.

    It is extremely important to try to see things from your clients’ point of view. This isn’t something I feel like I am perfect at yet, but it is an integral part of the process.

    Personally if they were giving me specific notes of pushing pixels around I’m fine with it if they’re not particularly drastic, and they feel more accomplished with the project. It may not be the most shining example of my work and the design principles I go by, but hopefully the money is good and at best they consider you a hardworking and accomodating worker, which may give you more leverage in the future on instilling proper design.

  17. 868

    It’s usually that John the client is dense =)

  18. 919

    I have to admit, it’s not often I read every word in a single article in one sitting — but I did that with this one.

    Great job, Paul. Very unique and refreshing style, and a very important topic for designers who deal regularly with clients.

  19. 970

    Actually, I never ask my clients about their “budget” because I know from experience that they will (A) lie about what they will spend (they will tell you a lower figure), and (B) I personally only work with clients to whom price is not the primary consideration. I’m looking to work for people who value professionalism (business acumen) and professional work first and foremost and who understand the advantages and benefits that come with working with someone who knows what they’re doing (and is not a whore churning out $500.00 websites). If this sounds a little “harsh” or counter intuitive, you’d be surprised at just how successful being “matter of fact” about pricing can be. If you do it right (and if you really are good), people will understand that you are worth what you say you are…and pay it…because you have sold yourself and your professionalism (both in business and your product) in a way that has value to them.

  20. 1021

    I’m certainly far from perfect and have made my fair share of mistakes. Most of these things are really common sense though. How would you like to be treated if you were on the client side?

    Another thing to remember is that often clients are investing a large amount of money in something they don’t understand. That takes a big leap of faith. A little empathy and reassurance goes a long way towards helping them feel confident about it.

    I try very hard not to go into a project unless I feel like the client also feels good about it too.

    • 1072

      A co-worker once said “we are selling blank pieces of paper…and the confidence that when we are done with it, it will be great”.

      Takes a lot of faith on the part of the client, and a lot of guts on the part of the designer.

  21. 1123

    This article helps me reminded me of. But the exception is that sometimes a real stubborn clients do exist! Making their business fail over time eventhough how many times they were told kindly or by any means not to do this and that.. too bad :(

    Probably they were bombarded with bad marketing strategies, can’t decide on their own.

  22. 1174

    You nailed it. Love this article :).

  23. 1225

    As a client like John (a web savy marketer w/o any design skills and only moderate coding skills), I can say, this article is spot on.

    From a designer, I need: constant communication, a willingness to include me in the early phases of the design process and a solid committment to deadlines.

    Even more importantly, I need the designer to educate me as to why they made the design decisions they did and to talk about them IN TERMS OF DOLLAR VALUE, ie. how does this decision here turn into sales and leads. Honestly, as a client, that’s all I care about (unfortunately, I couldn’t care less about your portfolio), so if you want to convince me that you’re correct, you need to talk to me in these terms.

    Pitch your work to me, qualify it and educate me about why your choices are good ones and how they’ll help me achieve my business goals. I hired you to help me meet those goals.

    Good article.

  24. 1276

    I could relate to every line written in this article.

  25. 1327

    Nice article, came across several of these problems in the past. Now I’m using a process plan for the development of a website which works really great. It includes some steps with an indication of duration. The client always knows what to expect and keeps the plan with him.

    Keeping contact over phone is really important to me, and also, just do it :-)

  26. 1378

    “Stop hiding from your clients. Show them your work early on, and include them in the process.”

    As with everything, it’s a question of *balance*. I believe that someone who follows the above advice too literally is in for a world of hurt. To use an analogy, if Apple had have heavily involved consumers in the iPhone design process, they would have ended up with something that resembled an abomination.

    The key is to involve them just enough, but not too much.

  27. 1429

    I work for fun, even for my clients, if they dont want, then change clients! world is big place!

  28. 1480

    Great article! I’ve been guilty of some of these points before, but always striving to get better. It helps when someone puts it in plain language from the client’s perspective. Thanks!

  29. 1531

    great one, all those things are really important thanks for it

  30. 1582

    Website Design Northampton

    February 20, 2010 9:30 am

    As supplier consultants it is our obligation to make sure our clients understand what we intend to do. Some clients have the experience and don’t need much explaining others need a fair bit. This is just how things go, but it evens its self out at the end of the day.

  31. 1633

    As I’ve always said “Clients aren’t dumb, but they sure as hell are clueless.”

    Roll with that, and you’ll have every one of your clients madly in love with you.

  32. 1684

    I thought this article was a bit patronising. After-all, if you don’t know this stuff, you’re really quite inexperienced, probably lacking in common sense too, and should stick to a job where someone else handles clients.

  33. 1735

    Just a nod needed to contract law. If you are proficient at articulating scope and contingencies, you will avoid 90% of the problems displayed in this example. Well,…maybe 50%.. :)

  34. 1786

    This is really a very good article.

  35. 1837

    I like this objective point of view. I’m often asking myself why so many clients are such a-holes. This reminds me of a funny comic from the oatmeal that is pretty funny and worth a read for a good laugh, any designer will appreciate:

  36. 1888

    Having been through this process for more than a decade with first-time web clients, this article is excellent. It’s also the reason why I now pre-qualify my clients. If they don’t understand the value of the work we provide, then it’s very likely we will have to spend time to educate and hand hold them through the project. That extra time doesn’t cultivate clients, it eats into your bottom line.

    Pre-qualification is key to your success. We do it very simply. Communicate in advance and define everything. Provide a statement of work, breaking down costs and expectations. Provide a simple 1-page contract. Get 50% in advance, 25% when a client gains access to add content, and 25% before delivery.

  37. 1939

    Paul you always write excellent material. Cheers!

  38. 1990

    hiya, a really captivating story, and some home truths are brough to justice, well written.

  39. 2041

    Very boring article, not something I would expect from Smashing magazine!
    What happened to all those nice show cases and coding articles?

  40. 2092

    Nice work, Paul. This article was perfectly written for your audience. As a web designer, I appreciated it because it was concise, thoughtful and well-written. I think all of us are guilty of damning the client. It becomes easy lose perspective of the client’s point of view. Thanks for the insightful reminder.

  41. 2143

    These are basics what every web designer should follow… It’s always good to remind once in a while… :D

  42. 2194

    Or, instead of asking John about his budget, you just talk to him intensely about his project for an hour or two, figure out all the requirements, and then send him an accurate quote based on your regular prices. If he thinks its too much, eff him.

  43. 2245

    Very nice article .. i realy enjoy reading thanks

  44. 2296

    Good one, as alwyas

  45. 2347

    C O M M U N I C A T I O N is an art in itself.

    In the words of Paul Arden, What do you do when a client won’t buy?
    Do it his way. Then do it your way. WIN / WIN

    Great article. 5*

  46. 2398

    PS Great article 5 stars for me.

  47. 2449

    Nice story, Paul. I started my Web Design business less than a month ago and haven’t meet any client yet. But I’m sure this article will help me dealing with my first client next time.
    Keep writing some articles like this, I like how you educate us with non educational language. :)

  48. 2500

    Ok i think is a really cool article!!, this article arrives just in the precise moment!!! i have a “heavy duty jhon”, and i will just say that the problems is not only communication….

    Im sure that many designers, forgot the “customer service” and they just are interested on make the design, and forget the important part, as the customer….

    BUT there are situations, like mine, where i communicate, i teach to my customer, even i encourage via a brochure, where they have the obligation to ask questions about any doubt that they can get, and unfortunately this doesn´t work!!, because the problem is not only communication is also a “social-cultural” problem, that conveys in a close or wide up vision….

    So i think that is important that we as designers, design a tool that help us to identify the “diferent “TYPE” of customer that we have in front of us to avoid or find a strategy that permits that we can work together…


  49. 2551

    I agree with many of the points this article makes. It is indeed necessary to handhold clients and reassure them. They want to be kept in the loop.

    However, I’ve stopped all client work because there are way too many scam clients out there now. They don’t want to do down-payments or milestone payments. They just say,”I’ll pay you when the site is live.”

    I had one client for whom I did marketing work for 1 1/2 years, and he recently defaulted on an invoice. I had held back on a second invoice until he paid the previous one because I knew that he was having money troubles.

    Well, finally, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I submitted the second invoice, which he ignored.Too make a long story short, he sent me an email with a whole psychological attack directed against me. He said that he was my only client (not true) and that he had put a roof over my head and kept me from starving (not true). Then he said I didn’t have the “testicular fortitude” to get clients and have a working business (not true). There were numerous other attacks in his email. Then he made a really bad mistake and accused me of padding the bills that I sent him. He was basically trying to get out of paying me by accusing me of being a thief.

    Needless to say, I’ve had it with client work. It’s not worth it. There are too many maniacs out there now. Why? Because bad economies bring out the nuts.

  50. 2602

    Great Article. It was scary how much I related to “the designer” and how many situations I have been in with clients like the ones mentioned. I cannot wait to apply a few of your tips and suggestions. Cheers and good writing!


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