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

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Jeremy Girard 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 … More about Jeremy ↬

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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. In this article, Jeremy Girard will share stories of some of the missteps he had made in the course of his career and the lessons he’d learned in the process.

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 > Process
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 Clients” and “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.”

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: flickr
Certain things are more effective when shown instead of told. (Image: Joe Penniston)

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 Pay.”

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 parity 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 mistakes
Making new mistakes helps you learn new lessons. (Image: Elyce Feliz)

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.

We all make mistakes. (Image: opensource.com)

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 <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23smworkflow&src=typd&mode=realtime">#smworkflow</a>!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, mrn)