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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 Link

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 credit)

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 Link

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 credit1)

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 Link

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 credit2)

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 Link

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 credit)

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 Link

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 credit3)

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 Link

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 credit4)

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 Link

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.


Footnotes Link

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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

    You should upload these articles in PDF! Nice post for reading in the bus to a client!

    • 2


      I think this would be a great idea too. But you could always send your client a link to the posting. On top of that image how much bandwidth would be used for everyone downloading PDF postings. May be expensive to do and not worth it in the long run.

    • 3

      Sorry to put it in that way, but I think you missed the point of that article: It is not the client, but your poor communication. So, why would you give this story to a client. Rather, distribute it among your fellow designers and help them avoid misunderstandings.

      Very good article.

      • 4

        I agree. I wouldn’t show this to a client, but pass around to fellow designers. The Designer needs to reference this article and remember to include their clients throughout the process, and that communication is key. It also reminds of a talk that some Web Designers, should partner up with a good Project Manager, that can serve as the client liaison who communicates back and forth with the client to get their feed back, update them on the project’s progress, and gather the client’s requirements. Free lance designers often kill their client retention because they are not designed for client interaction, so they should buddy up if they fall in this category. Otherwise they are going to lose out.

  2. 5

    Maybe also tell John that life is more than money, websites & design…?

    • 6

      good one ! :) yes life is more than money , websites and design…wait what is it about ….oh yes, its about our glorious existence on this planet…and everyday, we need to thank the almighty for it….we should be happy….like robots….for our eyes, ears, hair (your choice of purple, red, blonde, dirty blonde, whatever you want to dye), thankful for the fact that you dont yet have a tail or two pointed horns on your head….

      what a great existence of a great species….wow !

  3. 9

    richard hughes

    February 19, 2010 5:44 am

    thanks for sharing – some common sense stuff here, but make you think of the other sides point of view.

    reminds me of the client Vs graphic designer video –

  4. 10

    All of a sudden I have heard about this web site. This is the first post I have read on. A organized and structured way to manage a prospective client I must say. As though my job responsibility is to manage projects and clients, I will surly apply such methodology.

    Keep it up…

    • 11

      This site is a fantastic resource for all kinds of topics related to our craft.

      • 12

        Yes. Its a site of fun although contain so much useful resources. Any one can mumble jumble with the given techniques. :)

  5. 13

    web design would be fun if it wasn’t for the clients.

    • 14

      No kidding, all of design would be fun if clients weren’t involved :)
      Of course then we wouldn’t get paid either… that’d be a bummer.

    • 16

      Sounds like you missed the point.

    • 17

      Cosmo Raoul K.

      February 25, 2010 5:49 am

      Designing stuff with no clients involved? It’s all there, man. They call it “being an artist”. Hard way to put food on the table, though. It’s our job to make our clients happy even if they’re completely bananas. That being said, clients are the worst people to walk the face of the earth.

  6. 18

    This is one of my absolute favorite non-technical articles I have read on Smashing Magazine. It was entertaining and at the same time tough some very good lessons. I would love to see more business oriented articles like this. Well done!

  7. 19

    This is what I like about Smashing Magazine: Instead of writing articles like “10 ways to do this and that… ” you present an example of how things can go wrong and how to avoid these mistakes in the process. ‘Boagworld’ is fantastic as well.

  8. 20

    Nice post!!! Every web design firm must read this. Good work!!

  9. 21

    Very interesting take on the whole subject. I think it’s important that we, as designers, remember that we are no better than our clients. Just because we understand something better than they do, doesn’t give us the right to just treat them poorly. This simply results in angry clients and lost relationships and income.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. 22

    Best piece I’ve read on here in a while, cheers Paul.

  11. 23

    Wow. I’ve yet to build an actual client website (well, for pay), but I think this applies to a lot of design areas. It was a very good read, and I could see things going awry–I’ve even used the same rationalizations sometimes, like “Why would he be interested in the code? I’ll just tell him when it works.”

    A very well thought out article, thank you!

  12. 24

    I feel that a more appropriate name for John would be Wayne… :)
    great post!

  13. 25

    Great article, Paul! You just won one more RSS-subscriber on Boagworld ;-)

  14. 26

    Would love to know how you would answer the client when talking to him about his budget:

    “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?”

    I’ve come across this a few times with ‘suspicious’ clients, and generally I tell them that I need to know a range so I know which bells & whistles to propose for his site, or how to create his site in a more cost-effective manner. How do you handle it?

    • 27

      This was an article of web design but has many isomorphisms to software engineering.

      I did Software Engineering (SE) in University and we learned about requirements analysis. To be honest a lot of it seemed like academic gibberish and learning of superfluous notation, but one of the ideas that stuck with me was “managing customer expectations”. The client usually doesn’t understand how software is built. Some might thing that it is as simple as lego, snapping blocks together, when the reality is exponentially increasing complexity for every feature he/she wants to add. You have to make them understand the complex implications of their requests. It gets very dangerous when feature creep begins and the project’s scope spirals out of control.

      Often the only way to force the client back into reality is to charge more for every extra feature that was not in the original requirements specification. You, after all, run a business too. One client can’t take up all your time.

  15. 28

    Amazing article Paul.

  16. 29

    sydney web design

    February 19, 2010 6:34 am

    ha ha ha

    sad but true

  17. 30

    Thanks Paul. Great article. My key takeaways from this were:
    1. Asking the client for the budget needs to be explained in the context of what dollars can buy. Using comparisons and familiar analogs helps the client figure out why we need those numbers and what the value of those dollars will be. We often say “when shopping for a house you look at comparative homes. Let’s look at some comparison web sites to see what your money will buy”.
    2. Describe everything through the eyes of the client. For example, when you talk about methodology or usability explain that it’s about “using a step by step process that reduces risk of project failure” or “maximizing conversions from visitors to customers”.
    3. Be inclusive. Over communicate at the beginning and make sure the client feels like they are not just being pushed to sign and then abandoned. There is no such thing as too many emails or phone calls. It reduces stress and churn.
    4. Educate the client. The welcome packets we send out and double-kick-off meetings we do with our clients build comfort and confidence which can only lead to good things. We can all improve this by having frequent workshops for our clients about design and process in general.
    5. Give the client things to do. Almost all our clients want to be part of the process and like having responsibility in getting the work done. Explaining what their roles are and how they can make the project successful is key to them being part of the solution.

    • 31

      Richard, not sure I agree with point #3.
      Over communicating in the beginning, John might think you don’t know what you are doing and may regret signing with you.
      And why just in the beginning? Communication is key throughout the project. If parts of the project take more time…aka are more meticulous and slow showing results… communicating that with the client as well. All milestones of our design and development should be forwarded with the client, whether he likes it or not. If John comes back and says “what is this?” … take a deep breath and communicate more… he is paying you remember.

      Great article SM
      Richard, cheers~ let’s go to the bar and have a drink on John!

  18. 32

    Great post. Dont forget the time wasted waiting for media such as text/logo’s/photo’s and site structure infomation, and that it extends the deadline. Plus having to copy the written material and optimise the images, which is easy I suppose.

  19. 33

    Reminds me of the “How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell’ from The Oatmeal.

  20. 34

    excellent post. really enjoyed it.

  21. 35

    You been the invisible man, following me around?!

    Think I’ve made every mistake you mention.

    It all got a bit much for me on the self-employed treadmill, so I’m now working for a company where I just do the techy stuff… much happier. :-)

    • 36

      I know how you feel. The idea of having clients sounds like a nightmare. The different departments where I work are baffling and frustrating enough.

    • 37

      Word. The company I work for is awesome because we’ve got dedicated project managers and account managers who deal with all this stuff for us – I just get on with building sites and they deal with the clients. It also helps that our project managers are pretty sharp with coding issues so if something goes wrong you can give them a fairly technical explanation and they can translate it effectively to clients – if I need to describe these things to somebody then it’s hard for me to switch out of tech mode and into normal person mode, so it’s great to have somebody else to take that responsibility off my hands.

      Most of the articles on Smashing Mag (and other sites) seem to be geared towards freelancers, but I’m not sure I’ll ever want to go back to doing that instead of working with a team of people with dedicated functions :)

  22. 38

    I think i’m going to try to make sure I only pick clients who’ll put in the appropriate amount of work for what they expect. Actually, play would be a better word for it – and I strive to convey that point to clients: that something of this complexity and depth is hard to “nail” on the first try and may take tweaking or optimizing over time, in addition to regular updating. The worst are those clients who can’t be bothered, yet somehow still attempt to micromanage. ::cringe::

  23. 39

    This rings so true. What I noticed is that fellow students became very condescending towards non designers. We learn to see the things that work and we forget that we didn’t know them before and that the others still don’t know them. Then we get angry and they don’t know why and it all gets very frustrating for everyone.
    While working in a non designer environement I realized that and I try to educate the people around me and they are very grateful and see how valuable I am.

  24. 40

    remembered this situation happened when i was doing my final term project for my institution…got it done on time…bt then lesson learnt.. Communication is one of the most important thing in dealing with clients..

    btw, its an awesome post !

  25. 41

    It’s not just website design that needs to be “usability tested” – a lot of the time you have
    technical people who can’t explain what they’re trying to achieve to a layman.

    This is where analogies come in very handy – putting techy language into laymans terms.

    Very interesting article Paul – as usual!

    • 42

      you know what? somebody needs to make a list of those things, analogies, that us web designers can use. I heard of the auto-mechanic one, but don’t really get it. They could be applied to all sorts of situations…

      I have a good one for domains and hosting, domains:hosting::storefront signage:inside the store.

      I always said web design would be great if it wasn’t for the clients. I’m going underground for a while and working on making sites I like. Maybe I’ll start on the web designers analogy look-up tool.

  26. 43

    I normally just work out what they want, work out how many hours it will take, multiply it by 2 and there’s your quote. Take ot or leave it. Most times it will come in under budget and compensate for those pesky last minute client requests.

  27. 44

    Great post. As a designer, it is so hard to put yourself in the client’s shoes and this really explains things from their perspective.

  28. 45

    Kelley Thompson

    February 19, 2010 7:10 am

    Terrific article. I must admit, I suck at communicating in that way; your article gives some great tips on how to do it better!

  29. 46

    Do some web designers really work like this? That is scary. It’s really not that hard to keep everyone on the same page (for the most part).

    1. Tell the client the average range of what projects can cost and explain what types of things cost what. Explain why you charge what you do. Break it all down. And make sure they are familiar with your previous work so they aren’t shocked by the designs you present.

    2. Ask about goals, audience and competitors and design & develop appropriately. Make a creative brief!

    3. Ask about their ongoing plans for the site. Do they plan to update it themselves? Do they need a CMS? FInd out about who is providing what content. Suggest the benefits of a copywriter familiar with writing for the web at this point if they say that they will write it all themselves.

    4. Set technology guidelines based on feedback and needs set above – hosting, target browsers and platforms, use of Flash, Javascript, etc.

    5. Set a schedule and stick to it. Make sure they understand that they have to hold up their end or there will be delays. Be clear about how many revisions you will create and that extras cost more. Also explain that you will not be showing designs of every page and that the designs will not function.

    6. Create and revise as many wireframes and site maps with the client as needed before even thinking about doing visual design. Go over best practices and explain why certain things work better than others and back it up with research, articles, whatever – if you need to.

    7. Get any brand collateral that exists, review them with the client and make sure you are on the same page about colors, type, imagery and anything else before visual design.

    8. Put all of this in a contract! Make sure your contract covers contingencies so that if anything happens at any stage, it clearly states what happens as a result. Your contract should cover payment schedule, credits, rights, maintenance, warranty, additional expenses, cancellation, etc.

    Try to think of as many “what if” scenarios as possible for every project. If you cover all your bases from the start, you’ll be in pretty good shape.

    • 47

      Skip the post, the real article is down here in the comments…

    • 48

      Couldn’t agree more about the necessity of providing the client with a Creative Brief. Any time we are going through the revision process for a mock-up, it gives us something to point back to: “I see that you have some reservations about our first attempt. Tell us how this mock-up fails to achieve the design goals we agreed on in the Creative Brief.” It helps focus the revision process and prevent the designer from becoming a “pixel pusher.”

      We also write up a Scope Document as well, which acts like a contract that is written in plain English and can be interpreted clearly by both sides. The Scope Doc is particularly helpful in that it details everything about the project: the assumptions of scope behind the pricing, deliverables and responsibilities for both client and designer, a timeline, a list of things that the client could potentially do to extend that timeline, a list of things that could happen to increase the cost of the project, etc…

    • 49

      Excellent comment, Sean Tubridy. I think it’s essential to furnish a potential client with a questionnaire in order to learn needs and expectations. Mine is three pages with plenty of space for answers. The work requirements you agree on go into the creative brief. The business terms go into the contract.

      I also like your approach to laying out a price range and illustrating with real-world examples. If I were the client and somebody flatly asked me for my budget, I would think of the old scenario: “How much is it?” “How much you got?”

  30. 50

    Great post. I also think there are TWO SIDES to this coin. In my case, it’s a client who’s just not willing to listen, read, are take any requested advice into consideration. When asking for advice, it’s given, but the client becomes critical and argumentative about the advice as it sometimes does not agree with the clients’ opinions or assumptions. The client is in the legal field and appears to hold disdain for freelancers providing web services.

    In cases such as this, some of these clients need a wake up call, so that BOTH parties can appreciate that they work together for a common goal. The “wake up” call for this client (the one in the legal field)?

    “…If I came to you with a legal question or problem. I think you’d give me the best professional advice, appropriate to the issue.

    It is possible as with many legal issues that I may not like some of the advice. In spite of this, you would not expect me to argue points of law with you over the issue being dealt with, or on how to conduct and proceed with a legal case.”

    My point being, that sometimes you have to help clients by diplomatically helping them to empathize and garner an appreciation for your expertise, professionalism and training; in I might add, a field that the client probably has no training or experience!

  31. 51

    Agustin Amenabar

    February 19, 2010 7:22 am

    Of course it had to be Paul who wrote this, I can hear your voice giving this speech, by the way, congrats on the 200th episode, it rocked!

    One of the best articles I’ve read about the subject. You don’t teach. do you?

  32. 52

    rafael armstrong

    February 19, 2010 7:23 am

    I think the 2 take-aways here (for me) are “communication” and “never assume”. It’s unfortunate that a lot of folks out there (not just designers or freelancers) tend to forget that the person sitting across the table from them may just be unaware of “how the sausage gets made”, and worse yet, they don’t take the initiative to educate and inform their clients or customers so that, in the long run, they can avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned in the post and continue to have healthy and prosperous client relationships.

    Thanks for the post, Paul.

  33. 53

    Peter Hitchmough

    February 19, 2010 7:27 am

    This is a good read. Actually, even though I buy in to 99% of what is said here I still have to read and reflect on some of the deep-seated bad behaviour – it takes a while to recognise it. The truth is that the process is difficult for both designer and client and it pays 1) to know why you plan to do things the way you do, and 2) be skilled enough to discuss it without condescending. Also be prepared to discover that some personal principles are worth breaking if the client wants to work differently – don’t be so precious.

  34. 54

    Jeff Archibald

    February 19, 2010 7:37 am

    Great article. I know I can fall into this trap sometimes, of getting frustrated with a client instead of fully explaining everything. Thanks for the read.

  35. 55

    I also ask for a budget but it is purely to see how much time I can spend on it and to rule them out as a “I want a site exactly like amazon and have a 100 pound budget”.

    This was a great post and I can relate to a lot of it over the years.

    My latest client had a big’ish big budget and I did the initial work in half the time and charged him half his budget. Then the creeping scope kicked in and he ended up paying slightly more than his initial budget but I was up front from the start and told him this extra work would not be included. I did do 3 days extra work for free but that was my decision and I felt comfortable with it. The point is it was my choice and I much prefer working that way.

  36. 56


    February 19, 2010 7:47 am

    Great article. From the client perspective I do find it infuriating when a designer gives a timeframe then fails to respond as the days tick past the date you expected it completed. 6 weeks was the longest I recall and it was getting to the stage where I think he was ready to give up. Luckily, I managed to push him and we got the job done together. Cheeky git, then asked for a bonus because it had taken him so long lol.

  37. 58

    Another valuable article from SM! Thanks 8-*

  38. 59

    Awesome article. I am going to send this to everyone at our company!

    Thanks Smashing Magazine!

  39. 60

    Joshua Sortino

    February 19, 2010 8:11 am

    As a designer, the sooner you learn to communicate to clients — the better. This applies to everyone, from Freelancers to entry level designers in large firms.

  40. 61

    Jessica Thompson

    February 19, 2010 8:20 am

    Wow, it’s really funny for me that you named him “John.”


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