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The Lost Files – Interviews: Expert Tips From Renowned Designers (part 1 of 4)


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Throughout this book you’ve read chapters on a variety of topics, written by a number of talented individuals. In this chapter, we would like to open up this book to a greater variety of points of view. Here you’ll find insights from our panel of 22 designers and developers.

Please note, the responses given by our panel of designers and developers represent their own opinions and experiences, not those of their employers.

The Participants

Part 1: The Business of Web Design

Question: How do you handle difficult clients, and how do you make sure that the quality of the final product is not negatively affected by poor decisions by the client? How do you protect and advocate for the user’s best interests?

Trent Walton: From the get-go, I try to accept jobs in which Paravel’s input would be considered and appreciated. If that collaborative relationship is in place from the beginning, debates and differences of opinion become a natural part of the creative process. Whenever possible, we support our opinions with raw data. For example, providing user stats that show how too many navigation elements would distract users from a call to action is much more effective than saying, “The navigation will be confusing.”

Elliot Jay Stocks: I try to avoid bad client situations by firing any clients who show “warning signs” early on, like being rude in introductory emails or making unreasonable demands. I think maintaining that level of quality control is important, because you’re much more likely to have a positive experience down the line. But if there are client requests that run that risk, there are ways of dealing with them. The best method I’ve found?and this applies to problematic clients and perfect clients alike?is to keep them focused on what the user wants or needs, rather than their own personal opinion. We are not designing for our clients; we are designing for their users.

Question: Have you ever fired one of your clients, and if so, under what circumstances? What are your personal “red flags,” indicators that you should avoid working with a client?

Paul Boag: Only once have we ever fired a client, and to this day I consider it a personal defeat. I don’t believe in firing clients. I think it is a failing on our part if the relationship becomes so damaged that there is no way forward.

Web design is not just about the ability to design and code websites. It is also a service we provide to our clients. We should be able to guide our clients through a process so that they end up with a website that all can be proud of. That takes a lot of patience, education and communication. Sometimes it is particularly difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

That doesn’t mean I am a doormat either. Anybody who has worked with me would know that. However, I don’t believe in throwing my toys out of the pram and running away when things get tough.

Jen Germann: I have “fired” clients in the past. I have gotten to the point where I just had to set a deadline and say that if the project wasn’t complete by that date, that I would charge for the work completed to that point and then my involvement would end. These were clients who just couldn’t meet reasonable deadlines, constantly took days or weeks to respond to emails or requests for content or were not technically inclined but insisted on being involved in every technical detail. Fortunately, this situation happens pretty rarely, and I’m fortunate to have really good relationships with most of my clients.

Nick La: I don’t do much client work (I focus mainly on personal projects). But if I accepted a client project, I wouldn’t fire them. No matter what the circumstance, I would always try to complete the project.

Chris Wallace: We haven’t fired a client… yet. However, we have mutually agreed not to work with a few clients, which is the way we prefer to end unfruitful client engagements. The circumstances tend to vary, but usually the decision comes down to whether the client values our work and relationship and is willing to follow our creative process even if they don’t understand it very well. They need to trust us to do our jobs the way we’ve done successfully in the past, otherwise it just won’t work for either party. Our key point of focus is to define the expectations, scopes and roles of everyone involved in the project, cost and timeline very early in the process. We want to make sure there are no gaps in communication or lack of understanding with what we are being hired to do. That helps avoid most issues with even the neediest (or craziest) client.

Question: What is your process for becoming familiar with new clients and learning everything you need to know about their business?

Jonathan Longnecker: We always try to start with a phone call. Sending emails back and forth is easy, but to really work through issues, you need to do it in real time. I typically ask the client to tell me about what they do, then we talk about competitors and the landscape of their industry in general. We also do some research on our own. I think it’s important to understand the client’s point of view, but also to question it. Being a neutral third party, we can help weed out things that are there just for someone’s ego and focus on what’s best for the user.

Jesse Bennett Chamberlain: I don’t really have a formal process. I just ask questions. A lot of questions. If my company was bigger, I’d probably need to come up with a formal method to keep everyone on the same page. But because it’s just me, I have the luxury of just asking questions until their business makes sense to me.

Darren Hoyt: I usually hold one to two formal meetings in which we discuss their business, competition and audience. I also do a content audit, in which we gather every bit of marketing and assets they’ve ever used. Then we organize it all and begin thinking of how to factor it in the website. Throughout these meetings, you get a solid education on the client’s industry.

Lea Alcantara: I send every new client a project/client survey in which they detail what the project entails, and that reveals a lot about their business. Actually, a lot can be gleaned from their initial inquiries. Are they thorough? Do they ask questions that were already answered on your website? Are they vague? Do they demand quotes outright? Because I have various clients locally and abroad, each approach is different. While everyone gets the survey, if they are local, I make sure to have at least one in-person meeting. It builds trust.

Part 2: Designing Mobile User Experiences

Question: What are some of the most important characteristics of a website that is user-friendly on mobile devices?

Chris Wallace: I would definitely say fast loading times, navigation, readability and large tap zones for buttons and links. On a mobile device, your UI doesn’t have to be the prettiest; it just has to be easy to navigate and read. People are generally pretty forgiving of somewhat hideous mobile UIs, as long as they can find the information they are looking for.

One important aspect of mobile UI design is determining the use cases for someone visiting your website on a mobile device. Imagine you are a dentist. If a potential patient visits your regular website, odds are they are looking for information on accepted insurance, the dentist’s name and credentials and a location or phone number. If they visit your website on a mobile device, the odds that they’re looking for a map, address or phone number skyrocket. Make sure to have that information readily available (preferably as a link to Google Maps or as a link to a phone number that allows them to immediately call you).

Brad Colbow: Three things immediately come to mind: text size, clickable area and volume of content. Because you’re dealing with more compact screens, the font size should be increased to improve readability, and buttons should be larger (Apple recommends 44-pixel hit areas).

It’s become common on mobile websites to strip down the content to what’s most important for customers. GoDaddy’s mobile website is a good experience because it takes away a lot of the things that make their normal website so hard to use. A lot of designers of large websites could learn a lesson from their mobile teams.

Bruce Lawson: The mobile website doesn’t need to duplicate the functionality of the corresponding desktop website (and should not duplicate the layout but rather make use of adaptive methods such as CSS media queries).

However, there should always be a link to the desktop version. Some users are more familiar with and prefer the layout of desktop websites, even if they require more horizontal scrolling.

Question: What role does a mobile version of a website play for your clients? Is it often required, and do clients want their website to be optimized only for iOS devices or for mobile devices in general?

Matthew Smith: Mobile designs and solutions are being requested more and more by our clients. The additional expense is not insignificant, and so we try to create structures of customization. At the very least, the code should be enhanced with a mobile style sheet; at best, it would be optimized for specific devices like the iPad or iPhone.

Paul Annett: I’ve found that the constraints of working on a website specifically for the iPhone can inform and improve the design of the main website if they’re being worked on in parallel. Personally, I’ve never worked with a client that placed anywhere near as much importance on their mobile website… until the advent of the iPhone. Now some clients do because it’s the “in” thing, rather than for a practical reason.

Question: What challenges arise in designing mobile applications as opposed to websites? What paradigm shift have you observed in switching from desktop user experiences to mobile user experiences?

Matthew Smith: Most of the websites we’ve done don’t have a captive audience. A mobile Web application has a level of investment that is new in our work. Engaging users with interaction, animation and moments of joy inside of applications that we can spend more time designing carefully?without the threat of Internet Explorer crapping up the works?has been really fun.

The touch experience is a vastly different engagement, and truth be told, we’re just now starting to get into the design, deployment and testing phases. There’s still so much left to be learned in this area.

Bruce Lawson: You have to be far more ruthless with what goes in and what goes out. This is a discipline in which desktop developers can learn from those who’ve been developing for mobile devices.

For example, a mobile website for a restaurant might focus on providing visitors with an address (and directions, generated from the user’s geo-location) and hours of operation. The corresponding desktop website might combine a downloadable PDF of the menu, some ambient music, a movie of the dining room and a photograph of the smiling chef, all in a full, immersive branding experience. But what do visitors to the desktop website want? They too want to eat, rather than hunt and peck on links, so give them the address and hours of operation, too! And why not give directions on the desktop website? The visitor might be in a hotel room in an unfamiliar city, using a netbook.

Brad Colbow: From the perspective of a front-end designer, I’ve found it easier to develop mobile websites and apps because you are building only for WebKit-based browsers. Creating drop-shadows and rounded corners in CSS is a lot faster than slicing up images. I never imagined that we would be using so many CSS3 properties so soon. I thought it would be years before browsers caught up. I think the mobile space is really pushing the adoption of these new standards a lot faster than we would otherwise see.

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