Mistakes I’ve Made (And Lessons Learned Along The Way)

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We all make mistakes. Whether in our design and development work or just in life in general, we all do it. Thankfully, even the biggest mistakes carry valuable lessons.

As a contrast to the many Web design articles that focus on successes and what we can learn from those triumphs, this article looks to the other end of the spectrum to explore what failures teach us.

Along the way, I will share stories of some of the missteps I have made in the course of my career and the lessons I’ve learned in the process — being ever mindful of composer John Powel’s words:

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Mistake #1: Putting Process Over Projects (And People)

Anyone who has been designing and developing websites for any amount of time has come up with a process for working. Having a process is good, but be careful that it does not overshadow the project itself or the people involved.

I was reminded of this a few years ago in a project that was going badly. The simple reality was that I was not getting along with the project manager who was appointed by the client. Our personalities clashed almost from the start, as I found her feedback and requests to be misguided and her personality abrasive. At the same time, I am sure she found me unhelpful and combative because I was unwilling to honor all of her requests.

As frustration grew, I tried to fall back on our process as a way of adding structure to the relationship and trying to get it back on track. If she made a request that took us outside of our normal process, I explained how we could not do it without setting the project back in both time and budget. The worse the project got, the more I deferred to our process, until the client, exasperated to the limit, told me that I seemed to care more about our process than the project.

My plan had backfired. I had tried to lean on our process in order to fix the problems, instead of having a difficult confrontation and dealing with the real issue — the fact that personality clashes were becoming strained to the point that nothing was being accomplished.

Eventually, we reset the project by calling for a meeting to clear the air and address the problems honestly so that we could move forward. While I continued as the project lead on our side, I brought in another team member, someone who did not have a rocky history with the client’s project manager, to handle the day-to-day communications. Even though she acted as little more than an interpreter for me in many cases, the fresh voice and personality from our side did wonders for the relationship, and the project manager responded to our new team member much better than she had to me.

Additionally, we looked at the client’s requests a little more deeply and, rather than dismissing them outright because they deviated from our normal process, tried to identify the reasoning behind each request so that we could honor them in the spirit in which they were made (which we normally do anyway). We realized that those requests didn’t really affect our normal process in a big way. Any deviation was minor, and the relationship and the project were much better off with the flexibility in our process.

People > Project > Process1
People are more important than the project, which is more important than the process.

Of course, you need to strike a balance. A process exists for a reason, and if you abandon it whenever anyone shows resistance, then there is little point in having a process at all. That being said, any good process has some flexibility to accommodate the different needs of clients and projects.

Lesson learned: Followed blindly, no process will save you from having to deal with difficult personalities or bumps in the road. A process is meant to help a project along, not to be hidden behind when the going gets tough. For additional reading on client communications, see my previous articles, “Keys to Better Communication With Clients2” and “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service3.”

Mistake #2: Telling Instead Of Showing

I frequently speak with clients about their website needs. I listen to their concerns and the issues they’re having with their current website, and I tell them how we can meet their needs. Note that I said I “tell” them how we can help, when I should usually be showing what we can do for them.

This might not seem like a big difference, but it could mean the difference between winning a new project or losing it to someone else — which is exactly what happened to me recently.

A few weeks ago, I was informed by a prospective client that they had decided to work with another provider. Whenever this happens, I am gracious and thank the client for considering us in the first place. I also ask them what the deciding factor was. In this case, they loved our proposal and solutions, but another company had given a detailed demonstration of their preferred CMS and showed how they would use it to keep the website up to date. That company showed them instead of told them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kick myself upon hearing this feedback. I would have been happy to give this client a CMS demonstration, but they didn’t ask, so I didn’t offer. Instead, I answered their questions — all the while thinking I was giving them what they wanted.

Certain things are more effective when shown instead of told. Image credit: flickr4
Certain things are more effective when shown instead of told. (Image: Joe Penniston5)

The other provider’s CMS is not necessarily easier to use than the one I was offering, but I never even made that case because I told the client how easy our solution was to use, instead of showing them.

Lesson learned: Talk is cheap. Regardless of whether the client specifically asks for a demonstration in your proposal, showing them goes a long way by backing up your words.

Mistake #3: Not Informing Clients Of Staffing Changes

Staffing changes are a reality in this industry. Team members move onto other positions and opportunities, but business must go on. Projects need to be finished, and websites and clients need to be supported. As one team member departs and another joins, you will establish a plan for existing projects and clients, assigning responsibilities and tasks as needed. Still, however solid and measured your plans may be, don’t neglect to inform your clients of these staffing changes.

I learned this lesson when a longtime colleague recently left for another position. We had a plan in place for the transition, a plan that involved him working with us part time to continue handling certain clients and services. The impact on our clients would be minimal, and I decided that we didn’t need to inform them of the changes because the services we provided would not suffer and the change in our staff would likely go unfelt. I was wrong.

It didn’t take long for one of our clients to reach out to my departing colleague. My colleague’s work emails were now being forwarded to me, so I received the client’s request. We made the changes requested, and when I emailed the client to notify them that the work was done, I also explained the change in staffing to account for why the response was coming from me. As you can probably guess, they were surprised by this news, and what should have been a non-issue suddenly became an issue, simply because the client hadn’t learned of this sooner and was taken by surprise.

While some staffing changes are certainly not appropriate to discuss with clients, others really do affect clients in a pretty big way. A person may be the client of a company as a whole, but if their day-to-day interaction is with a particular team member, then that team member “becomes” the company in their eyes. If that team member ever decides to leave, the client could feel as though they are switching providers, even though the company is still more or less the same.

So, be proactive in informing clients of staffing changes. By explaining your plan for the transition of responsibilities with their account and reassuring them of your continued support of their company, you show them that, despite the change in staffing, you are still thinking about them and their needs.

Mistake #4: Focusing On Money At A Time Of Transition

Speaking of transitions, another reality in this industry is that clients sometimes decide to move onto another provider. When this happens, there is a period of transition away from your services, and you will likely need to be involved in that transition. This can be a strange and uncomfortable time, in part because you’re concerned about money.

Ongoing clients have an incentive to pay their invoices because they want to continue working with you. Clients who switch providers are worrying because of the possibility that they won’t honor any outstanding invoices — including time spent helping them transition away from your services.

This situation is delicate and needs to be handled case by case. Their reason for leaving, their overall payment history, how much they currently owe you (if anything), and how involved you will need to be during the transition are all factors that will determine how you handle the situation. The big lesson I have learned, however, is that dwelling on exactly when you will get paid during this time of transition, which is often a time of uncertainty and even fear for the client, is rarely wise.

When I’ve focused on payment and gotten aggressive in making sure the client understands their financial obligation to us, those clients have actually turned out to be less likely to settle their accounts in good time than clients whom I approach more softly.

Providing outstanding service to a client during a time of transition is the best way to end a relationship. If the relationship ends on a positive note, then the client will be more likely to pay what they owe and to say nice things about your company, because the last impression you’ve left them with was helpful and positive.

Again, how you handle such situations will vary. If the breakup is messy, or you are owed a substantial amount of money or lawyers have to get involved, then you would handle that transition differently than if you had a good client who was leaving simply because you were no longer a good fit.

For more tips on handling client payment issues, see “Dealing With Clients Who Refuse to Pay6.”

Mistake #5: Looking To The Past, Instead Of The Future

When we make decisions on a project, we often look for relevant data to justify our decisions. Referring to website analytics and usage data can help us make informed decisions, but remember that all of this data refers to the past, not the future.

The Web industry is constantly moving forward, and if we make our decisions based solely on data gleaned from past usage, then the solutions we develop will be perfectly suited to those past situations, not necessarily future ones. This happened to me about a year ago when we were working with a client to come up with a mobile strategy for their website. While we absolutely wanted to make the website responsive, the scope of the project and the budget simply did not allow it. Plans were made and a budget allocated to redesign the website the following year, and a fully responsive design would certainly be part of that project, but for now, a separate mobile-only website would be our short-term solution.

As with many mobile websites, our plan was to include only a small, targeted subset of the enormous content archive found on the current website. Looking back now, it was a mistake. Unfortunately, content parity7 wasn’t an option, so to determine what content to include, we looked to the analytics to see which pages mobile users were accessing. Office locations and directions, leadership team biographies, and contact details were the most popular pages being requested by mobile users, so that was what we included on the mobile website. There was, however, a problem with this logic of including only currently popular content on the mobile website: It did not account for future needs.

As we were working on the mobile website, the client began to focus on their blog. They formed a team of authors among the subject matter experts in their organization and began publishing a lot of quality content — content that quickly became popular with their audience. This new blog content was often promoted and shared via social media, and many visitors accessed those links via mobile devices.

You can probably see where this is heading. Because we had no data to show that the blog would be popular on mobile devices, we left the blog off of the mobile website. When the blog picked up steam and attracted interest from users on social networks and mobile devices, the website we had developed became a major problem. The experience would be as follows:

  1. A mobile user would see a comment about or link to an article in social media and, being curious about the article, click the link.
  2. The mobile device would navigate to the blog article on the full website, but then quickly redirect to the mobile website’s home page.
  3. Because the blog was not accessible from the mobile website’s menu, the visitor had to tap the “View full website” link and, on their small phone, try to find the blog on the full website. If that’s not frustrating, what is?

Obviously, this experience was exceedingly poor, and very few visitors went through the entire process just to read the article. Most just left when presented with the mobile home page, instead of the article they were hoping to see. Even though we knew from the start that this mobile-only website was temporary, had we more effectively planned ahead and not based our decisions solely on analytics from the past, we may have been able to avoid this problem and develop a better solution.

In this case, the answer was to kick off the responsive redesign project sooner and do away with this separate mobile-only website and its subset of content. The lesson we learned is that we have to look to both the past and the future when making decisions on a project.

Always make new mistakes8
Making new mistakes helps you learn new lessons. (Image: Elyce Feliz9)

This is why clients hire us in the first place — not only for our execution, but for our expertise. This expertise includes knowing where the industry is headed, what principles have to become an integral part of the experience (content parity) and what new technologies or approaches we can bring to a website today to ensure that it works well tomorrow.

The Value Of Mistakes

All of the blunders covered in this article are ones I’ve made that either took a project off track or strained a relationship or made a product far less successful than it could have been. As soon as I realized each mistake, I wished I could jump back in time and have a do-over.

Well, I’ve yet to find that elusive time machine, but I do get do-overs of sorts. Every time I encounter a similar situation, I am able to make a better decision as a result of having learned the lesson from the previous mistake. That is my do-over, and that is the value of learning from one’s mistakes.

10
We all make mistakes. (Image: opensource.com11)

What about you?

What mistakes have you made, and what lessons have you learned from them? Not many folks like to talk about their mistakes, disappointments and things that just didn’t work out, but quite often they’re just as useful as all those amazing success stories you can read about in hundreds of books and articles. What tools worked for you and which didn’t, and why? Please share your stories and your thoughts with us by using the hashtag #smworkflow12!

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/people-project-process.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/07/16/keys-better-client-communication/
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/01/25/how-to-deliver-exceptional-client-service/
  4. 4 http://www.flickr.com/photos/23322134@N02/4665323296/
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/23322134@N02/4665323296/
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/09/dealing-with-clients-who-refuse-to-pay/
  7. 7 http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/mobile/content-parity/
  8. 8 http://www.flickr.com/photos/99175982@N00/4448688868/
  9. 9 http://www.flickr.com/photos/99175982@N00/4448688868/
  10. 10 http://www.flickr.com/photos/47691521@N07/5496629643/
  11. 11 http://www.flickr.com/photos/47691521@N07/5496629643/
  12. 12 https://twitter.com/search?q=%23smworkflow&src=typd&mode=realtime

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Jeremy was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Web Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors and teaches website design at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

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  1. 1

    Mistake = Learn! Not all the time. But yes, of course, we all learn from our mistakes!

  2. 2

    Wow some solid points, made here Jeremy, love the play on processes vs people. On the first point we make sure we have a living document in the cloud that one can edit on both side. We then put a phase 2 section and encourage clients to add extra ideas in that section, which helps the focus of the work. There are however times when their suggests do alter the initial agreement, either because there is a better way or their approach has changed.

    So yeah, flexibility is the key :)

    • 3

      That’s a great solution. Allowing your clients’ needs and suggestions to drive aspects of the project or process that are flexible is a wonderful way to show those clients that their input is an important part of that project’s success.

    • 4

      As long as the client is flexible with their budget as well hey!

      • 5

        That is a fair point. You certainly need to be mindful that a forum for suggestions doesn’t become a forum for scope creep. That is why I specifically commented on this being a good solution for aspects of the project “that are flexible”, by which I meant aspects that, when changed, wouldn’t dramatically affect the overall scope of work or budget allocated for that work.

  3. 6

    In a recent web project my superior made some really stupid mistakes concering process. It all went wrong right from the start:
    The first meeting with the client, which was supposed to be a briefing to define the structure of the website, ended in chaotic notes and no real result. Instead of creating a wireframe, had to create a screendesign right off the bat. It was based on the clients super simple black and white logo. So the screendesign ended up just as simple – which I actually liked. The client didn’t.
    From that point on it took us three more meetings to define what the site should actually look like and what content had to be provided! Note that each of these meetings lastet at least one hour each. You can imagine, that the planning part ate most of the budget, so I had to to be extremely quick in development.

    This entire project was a mistake itself, so I learned a lot about the planning process: First comes a detailed briefing and the structure of the site, after that come wireframes for site layouts, then come one or two screendesigns.

    • 7

      Planning is critical, but it sounds like in this case, you would also have benefited from planning BEFORE the project was even signed off on to determine whether or not this was a suitable project for you to accept. To me, anytime someone says “the entire project was a mistake itself” means that more consideration needed to be done well before that ill-fated kick off meeting.

  4. 8

    Certainly, the most important lesson is the #1. As entrepeneurs, we´ll have never to lost the focus on people.
    Congrats for your post!

  5. 9

    In regards to #4, I enjoy redirecting people to the “F*ck You. Pay Me.” talk that Mike Monteiro did back in 2011. It’s a fantastic watch, and everyone new or old to the industry should take heed of at least some of what he has to say.

    http://vimeo.com/22053820

  6. 10

    Thank you for writing this, Jeremy. I’m a big believer that there is just as much value in learning what not to do. Great job on this.

  7. 11

    This is extremely good article with lot of similar experiences we have shared with the clients have evolved , lot of budding design teams can learn from this .

    Great work by the Jeremy Girard

  8. 12

    A great article and fun to read. My bigest mistake was NOT walking away from a project.
    A year ago. We had a great opportunity for a project and in order to meet our quarterly revenue goals decided to go for it. All the warning signs were written in the sky, but we decided to go for it. Now one year later, we lost 2 developers, one designer and a lot of stress withinh the agency. Lesson learned – walk away when you should walk away, no matter how good the budget.

    • 13

      Great advice. I always say that your success will be dictated by the projects you pass on as much as it will be by the projects you accept.

  9. 14

    My own take on the learn from mistakes idea:

    “Never waste a good mistake by blaming it on someone else” ~anonymous (me)

  10. 15

    Pretty fascinating article…. would love to read such mistake stories more often…. Lots of gratitude for sharing…

  11. 16

    Nikhil Malhotra

    July 31, 2013 9:23 pm

    Regarding point 2 – If the design proposed to the client gets rejected due to any reason then wont the extra hours spent on that task also get wasted apart from the time we spent on making proposal…

    Should we not first get the project finalized , get advance money and then present the design.

    Is this not the right way?

    • 17

      Let me clarify – I am in no way advocating for doing spec work and presenting a design before the proposal is agreed upon, deposit received, etc. My point with showing instead of telling was, as the example illustrated, something like a demo of a CMS solution. Instead of telling a prospective client it is easy and intuitive, show them how easy and intuitive it is!

      The second point in this article is all about the sales process, but I firmly believe that you must draw the line at doing spec work and showing a design before the project is agreed upon and kicked off properly.

  12. 18

    I think my biggest mistake was starting late in life…(comparatively) I have always dabbled in some HTML and CSS and pretended and talked big about being a programmer and developer, but I never too the time to actually learn the craft. Now I am 24 stuck in a dead end job with no end in sight and I am so passionate about design and beautiful code, and there is just so much to learn that I don’t know where to turn. No money or time for school I am trying to wade through the deep raging waters that is the ever changing web. I’d say the thing I learned most was don’t settle. If you want to learn something and go to college for it, don’t let people talk you out of it. No matter how much college costs or the certificates cost. Do it. Money should never be a determining thing in what you desire most and are most passionate about. Code. Design. And never settle that exactly what you want.

    • 19

      You saying that you are starting too late in life and then saying you are 24 makes me feel old. Really, really old.

      24 is not too old to learn to design and develop great websites. Nor is 34, or 44, or….well, you get the point. There are some great schools out there teaching web design – but if school isn’t in the picture for you, there are also many awesome online tutorials and resources. I learned CSS years ago by watching a few lessons on Lynda, reading a handful of books, and practicing A LOT.

      As both a professional designer/developer and as some that teaches web design at the university level, I cannot state emphatically enough that the most valuable tools you can have in this professional are a passion to learn and willingness to experiment.

  13. 20

    Wow, this is spot on! I can relate to the scenarios you’ve mentioned here, like a trip down memory lane. I guess, if I were to answer your question here, it would look like another blog post. Seriously. I believe what worked for me though is having an open mind.. that failure is just a bump on the road to success and you simply have to be smarter to avoid them in the future.

  14. 21

    What a great article, I had a few chuckles and some dark flashbacks while reading it. The comments are equally insightful, especially about the projects you turn away! I have had the express pleasure of firing clients who were more trouble than they were worth. In my experience, the most important part of a web business is the team and keeping the good people, you invest in your team in the form knowledge and time and for that reason you had me totally hooked on #1 :)

  15. 22

    Wow amazing! Well written article. You can only learn from mistakes after you admit you’ve made it. Whatever it’s about any single stage of life or be a part of your professional life system. Mistakes teach you a moral-able lesson.

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