How to Direct and Trust Your Web Developer

One of the challenges of web design is that when clients give direction, they really don’t know what they are saying, or why. They may like this or that other site, or a site you make for them more or less, but really don’t know why. They can’t put their finger on it, and expect you to know what they mean. Most of the time it’s the quality of the photos (that they will supply) or lack thereof (that they will not supply). Sometimes it’s the colors, or the font, or the shiny Flash video on the front page. But they don’t know that. All they know is their reaction to what is in front of them, and a vague reason why, usually wrong enough that when you do exactly what they want, they are not happy anyway and can only go back to saying it’s not like {enter site they like here}.

The Challenges

My job is to educate them, or barring that, make guesses what they want somewhere between what their gut will tell them is alright and still looking professional and not embarrassing. Or I have to make it clear what they want (exactly the way they are demanding it) is not in their best interest for a technical reason, or not in their budget, those two going hand in hand more than you’d think. Often it means having to steer them — again, if they are willing — toward something their CLIENTS will like and convince them they they and their family and friends (and sometimes even existing clients) are not their target audience.

The problem is, I care. I don’t see my job as a taxi driver being told what address to arrive at. O, if it were that simple! I am more like a mechanic being told to put the engine in the driver’s seat and the tires on the roof. So when I say something is a bad idea, I don’t mean I want to take them somewhere other than where they want to go — I’ve saving their hide, their brand, and trying to avoid unsatisfactory results I will be blamed for, as well as the potential embarrassment of a sub-par or inappropriately designed site with my name on it. That is why I charge quite a bit more than a basement code jockey, and rarely do business with clients who want to nickel and dime themselves (and me).

I’d rather have more input from them than little or none, and can even tolerate some micromanagement. But at some point there has to be trust, and I mean trusting that my judgment is based on years of professional experience that they simply do not have. I will always defer to a client’s intentions and needs. They must defer — at least in general — to doing the work as it makes sense as a professional hired to help them.

“But you’re a computer wizard. Other people don’t understand how to click things.”

I get this a lot. People wrongly assume I am not in touch with the marketplace, the real world. Actually, I’m not a computer wizard. I’m a marketing professional in the medium of the Internet. It’s my JOB to be in touch with human behavior on the web, more than the client. I don’t see things through the eyes of a programmer when it comes to front-end experience. I know how “real people” use the web. And I know that there’s only so much you can dumb down the usability of the site before it looks dumb or even insulting to the average user. When the client  and some of their friends or users giving them feedback are behind the curve, they are cutting off their own noses by demanding their assumptions about what others will like are the rule and not the exception.

Simple isn’t Simple: Content versus Design

Every site has it’s own purpose and amount of necessary content. It should be straightforward in presentation, and be clear is how to find whatever a target visitor (from one or more target audiences) might want to find. The CONTENT in its presentation and organization should be simple, but not necessarily the DESIGN. If someone says “the site is really simple and easy to use”, they are referring — whether they consciously know it or not — to the organization, not the design. So to keep it simple (in a positive way), that doesn’t mean the site should look by minimalist, or like a stick figure. A simple or complex design can be used with simple or complex content, and is dictated mostly by industry and expectation. A block club’s website shouldn’t look like the Smithsonian’s, and a bank shouldn’t look like a personal blog. In fact, some personal blogs look better than that of some institutions. And it’s embarrassing as hell, making people wonder if they are for real, or if they found the right site. When a company or organization — especially a large or prestigious one — does this, it says “we hired a relative to throw something together for us in exchange for a t-shirt.”

And I hate to bring it up, but there’s also the age issue. Some people old enough to have lived through the early stages of the web —  especially those who don’t use the web as much as the rest of us — actually find comfort in sites that look like they were designed in 1997, no matter how bad they are. Like an oblivious friend wearing bell-bottoms or a really wide tie, you can’t tell them what year it is. Yes, web sites and the expectations of the public have changed drastically over the last 15 years. It’s no different than what we’ve seen with cell phones and computers, except a web site is a lot more public than what’s in your pocket or on your desk. Think of your brand. Think of the children.

More specifically, think of future customers or members. When you cater to the non-native web users or DOSosaurs (old-time technology users not up to speed on the present), you alienate everyone else out there — new generations of consumers and participants. It’s like only advertising in the phone book because your current customers all use it, even though most people toss it in the recycle bin before it reaches the front door.

Avoiding the Circus

A site should be clean, but not naked. But the other extreme is more design than content. If there’s hardly any text or images directly related to it, the more the window dressing, the more obvious they spent more money on image than substance. It cries out misplaced priorities at best, vanity at worst, either on the part of the designer or the company. A visual circus can detract from the information and even make the user feel like they are jumping through mental hoops to find nuggets of any value. So when is a visual circus acceptable? Well, if the web site is literally for a circus. Or a rock band. Or artist. In that case, it is all the more important to organize the content and navigation to be as simple as possible. But you can still end up with a circus in a simple design, with too many diverse things calling your attention on a front page (or even every page). Want to make sure something important can be seen on every page, reminding the viewer without getting in their way or reading the site? That’s what sidebars and footers are for. But too many “NEW!” graphics and promo boxes reduces the impact of everything instead of increasing it. There are a LOT of ways to screw this up on the designer’s end, so please don’t outright ask for it.

How to Choose and Handle a Web Developer

Every web guy is different. Some will do whatever you tell them because they don’t care or know any better. Some WON’T do what you want because they don’t care or know any better. But some of us may give you a hard time to save you from yourself. How do you know the difference?

Determine who they really are. Are they really a geek waiting to be given direction on every detail, or a marketing and communications consultant interested in the real-world result? Is there knowledge based primarily in technology or the process and psychology of the web? Are they focused too much on code or design, or use “form follows function”, focusing on content and functionality based on the purpose of the site? Do they pay any deliberate attention to fonts and colors specifically related to your industry? If they can’t give you advice (and a reasonable explanation) on the direction of your site in such details, it’s up to you to know all that and communicate it to them. More hand-holding will be required, versus them holding your hand, which is preferable in most cases.

What questions are they asking? I don’t mean technical questions you shouldn’t have to know about. I mean questions about that only you can answer: Who is your target audience(s)? What are your functions (products and service areas, etc.) and their priorities? For branding, they should ask to see what you’ve already done and if you continue to go in that direction. We’re talking logos, color schemes, fonts, everything. If they don’t have a plan, someone should create one. If you don’t, they will (or won’t). This is roulette, and you need to be clear if they have expertise in branding or are just “winging it” based on nothing in particular (because that’s what you gave them). If someone has an existing site, I start by replicating the content and may or may not change design based on the “interview” process. Then we have something to compare and contrast, decide what we like and don’t like.

But again, who is your developer? Are you the lead with them as a code horse, or are they an expert guiding you? Ideally, it’s a team process. If your web guy asks for direction on every little thing, or doesn’t ask anything and does what they want, that’s not a good sign. Look for the sweet spot in the middle.

How much is too much? Giving your web guy more information (including photos and files) and feedback is better than less, in my opinion, simple because you don’t have to use everything you have, but a web designer can’t use what you don’t give them. However, there are two pitfalls — Micromanagement and Design by Committee. The more specific you get about details, the more your designer has to work and you can’t expect them to do it for free. Sometimes even the simplest shift of a button is more trouble than you would think because of the nature of the code these days. Sometimes what may seem like a minor change to you means redeveloping the whole site in another format to accommodate some feature. Lastly, you can’t just “copy and paste” from Word documents or other websites, especially whole layouts. If you don’t know why, that’s a topic for another discussion, but you need to take our word for it.

But too many cooks in the kitchen is the worst. When you have disparate goals and expectations, with everyone throwing in their personal “requirements” (versus necessary information and functionality), the site will become a schizophrenic nightmare. It will look like a circus and likely not make anyone happy. Feedback and cooperative input is great, but there such a thing as too much. Someone has to take the responsibility and make the final calls, recognizing that nothing is written in stone.

This is also true of too many cooks one after another. Over time, new people may take the wheel — new designers, new project managers, new management — and add this or that, consistent or not with the branding of the past still visible. You end up with a Frankenstein site that looks equally fractured and unfocused. Sometimes a total redesign makes more sense than an umpteenth addition or partial change to get by.

Personality Matters

In the end, it’s really about getting along. You need to know when and how much to trust your developer, based on what their role is and their competency in and out of just keyboarding. You may need to let go of prejudices and preferences about what a site should look like for your purpose, keeping in mind the people using it may be very different from you in age, web literacy, and taste. You may need to hand-hold, but make sure if you do, it is only when necessary, letting the pro do their job. If you are giving them a lot of money and they are worth it, give them your ear and attention to the project as they request, in exchange for their counsel and an end result you can all be proud of.