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The Smashing Book #5

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The Lost Files – Plagues in Web Design Business & How To Deal With Them (part 1 of 9)

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Digital design and development advance almost hourly, and technology comes at us at lightning speed. Even though new and evolving technology gives us greater control and functions, lay people and clients fall farther behind in understanding how all of this is built from the ground up. Any meeting you walk into will be filled with people who have no idea how it all works. So, you have to start by listening. And then you need to control the project with an iron fist, or else you will end up with a product that has sparkles and random visual noise all over the place.

Start with the understanding that non-digital people are completely ignorant of what makes a website — or the entire Web for that matter — work. They sit down, type something in their favorite browser’s address bar and watch the magic of Web technologies come together to display the website. The truth is that they have no idea how it works, but they are confident that they want it for their website. Ever tried to explain code to them?

With all my experience with corporate identities such as Warner Brothers, Disney/Pixar, Harley-Davidson, FOX, LucasFilm, Nickelodeon and other monsters, I have learned you must bring down the language of an explanation to a level that non-creatives can grasp. You will essentially be speaking a foreign language to them, so the key is to control each step, otherwise the mushroom management, scope creep and revisions will become a nightmare and ultimately make it difficult for you to get paid.

Use a lot of imagery. People are used to clicking and seeing something… and then clicking and seeing something else. Wireframes won’t do much. Give them pictures. Pretty pictures that they can touch.

Plague of Nervousness

You will meet with the client or a committee first. What do you have to show them? They will not sit still for more than three minutes if you just verbalize your plan. They are used to the instant visual gratification of the Web. A handy way to communicate plans and ideas is to show examples… or better yet, let them show you their ideas.

Although everyone claims to be creative because they won second place in a finger-painting contest in school, when it comes to being truly creative, most don’t understand creative thought and usability, so don’t expect them to “visualize” or understand anything as you describe visions in your head. Find out what is in their heads. I have found people have their own definitions for what they see in their head.

After a dozen attempts to create “something sophisticated” for the president of a major comic book company, I finally asked her to show me an example of something close to what she wanted. Naturally, it was a logo with comic characters mobbed around it. She meant “whimsical” or “playful.” Simple verbal communication doesn’t work with visual concepts.

Clients are nervous because they don’t know you. Try to get into their heads and repeat back to them their own ideas. This will calm them down and make them receptive to the best way to make it happen.

Here are simple tips for a successful first meeting:

  • Don’t overestimate people’s utter lack of awareness of the elements necessary to create a website or any digital project. Most people can’t program their own voicemail.
  • Speak to people in clear and unambiguous terms, but don’t be patronizing. Use examples to make abstract concepts clear and easy to understand. Explain abbreviations, use real-life metaphors, and avoid technical slang. Our grasp of technical issues is much better than that of our clients, but that doesn’t mean we know more than they do about what’s best for them.
  • The more you speak over their heads, spouting terms so dear to you but never heard by them, the more frightened they will be. You have pulled them into an unfamiliar world. Don’t expect a rousing discussion of CSS3 versus JavaScript. If they even mention such terms, it is because they Googled them beforehand to impress you.
  • Ideally, the first meeting should consist of finding out what the client wants to happen with the website or project.

  • Is it meant to advertise something and drive retail or e-sales? Does the company sell baby toys? Or oil-drilling equipment? The nature of the product will determine how it is presented to the end user.
  • Is the website purely promotional? Is it a “Hey, look at us!” website? If it’s just a basic “About us” page, then the solutions will be easier and cheaper.
  • What are the demographics? Who do they want to sell or advertise their product or brand to? Is it their current demographic, or do they want to expand or switch demographics?
  • What exactly does the client want it to achieve? The only way to please the client is to know what they expect.

“Achieve” is the keyword. You are being given a project that must have measurable results for the client. You must give the client what they want but also temper it with what they need.

When the first meeting is done, draw together the information and submit a creative brief and estimate. Even if you’re on staff, you might still need to submit a budget and plan so that the company can allot its resources. Pad it, too, because the client will shave it down. Welcome to the corporate world.

I fondly remember one project that the president of the firm ordered to be “on the street” by a certain day. Running through the project backwards, past milestones that had to be met by third parties, we discovered that the design and content were already two months late. This called for an extra budget for overtime and freelance help.

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Footnotes

  1. 1 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-lost-files
  2. 2 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-lost-files/plagues-in-web-design-business-how-to-deal-with-them-part-2-of-9
  3. 3 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-lost-files
  4. 4 https://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-lost-files/plagues-in-web-design-business-how-to-deal-with-them-part-2-of-9
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