Thursday, December 17, 2009

The First Rule of Web Design - Build a Thick Skin

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Recently, a student of mine from a few years back wrote me and asked for some advice as he was going out on his own as a Web designer.  He had finished his four years of studying Web design, purchased the necessary software packages, and built a small portfolio.  I thought about the last decade of doing Web sites and the different clients, etc. that I have had and my advice to him was simple, "build a very thick skin."
Web design is one of the few forms of medium that everyone has an opinion about, even though it may not be what is considered good Web design or follows any sort of design standards.  There are a lot of "bells and whistle" Web sites out there and an average user gets drawn to those things when they think about how they would like their Web site.  As designers, we know that these things are more times than not, interfering with the site and the concept of the product that is being sold.  An example that comes to mind happened a few years ago, a friend since high school asked me to create a Web site for him.  I put together a nice site, based off of the colors of his logo, that flowed nicely with easy to use navigation and a strong presence for his product.  When I was done, I showed it to him and got a, "yeah, it's good, BUT seems like something more is needed."  I thought to myself, "here we go."  We talked it out and the next day, partly as a joke, I put together a short Flash presentation taking his tag line and animating it and putting it on the site as an introduction page with a little 'Skip Intro' at the bottom.  I figured he would get a good laugh out of it and realize that the site was better without it.  To my surprise my next phone call was greeted with, "now, that is what I'm talking about."

Part of a Web designer's job is to save the client from him/herself.  You will design a site for them (which is what they paid you for) and then at the end, they will come in and start knit picking each section.  When the project started, you would hear, "you're the expert and I am sure that you will make the best site" and later hear, "can't the left bar be moved over more and the color of the background by the logo be different."  To add insult to injury, the designer takes the brunt of the criticism for a client's interference.  There are so many times that I have heard complaints over the most miniscule of things simply because it is obvious that the client feels that their role is to direct the site and have some input (even though theoretically, isn't that why they hired a designer for in the first place).  Here is where the thick skin is needed as it can become very unnerving and frustrating some of the things that designers deal with when trying to save a client from him/herself. 
Example of what I mean, this is a conversation I had not too long ago:
Client: "Can you make the text a lighter color, it doesn't seem to work well in black?"
Me: "If we make it lighter, I am afraid it is going to be hard to read seeing as the background is gray."
Client: "Yeah, let's make it closer to the gray color of the background."
Me: "But if the background is gray and the text is gray, the user won't be able to read it."
Client: "Let's just mark it up and let's see."
Adjust the CSS and e-mailed the client.
Client: "Yeah, that looks good."
Me: "I really think that you should go with a darker color, the gray is making it hard to read."
Client: "No, this is perfect, let's go for it."
Two months later I get an e-mail.
Client: "I keep getting e-mails from customers saying that the text is too hard to read, can you change it."
Me: "Sure, but I will have to charge you since the site is complete and you signed off on it."
Client: "Ugh."
Also, not only does the client feel that he/she knows about design, everyone that they know also believes that they know about design.  Don't be surprised if you get an e-mail one day that says, "my friend was using the site and she thought that the navigation was a bit hard to use, I think that we need to change it since she did make a Web site in college for her English class so I think she knows what she is talking about."  Then, the designer will have to go against everything that they know to be true, like navigation should be relatively simple and users shouldn't have to relearn how to navigate the Web just to use this one Web site, and make the site the way the friend of your client says.  Then, when they come to you in six months wondering why they are getting visitors but not many page views, you can tell them because the navigation doesn't make any sense since you listened to your friend who works as a toll booth operator instead of the Web designer you hired.

Not only do designers have to deal with the interference of the clients (and everyone they know), they take the brunt of the blame if the site doesn't perform.  I make it a point to explain to any start-up that SEO only can do so much and that patience is the key in getting traffic.  However, that isn't the mentality of most clients.  In their mind, they are putting the money into this new business, and once the Web site is done, they are ready to get rich.  Unfortunately, most sites do not take off right away - especially brand new sites that haven't even been spidered yet.  But, when that first month passes and they don't get the traffic that they originally anticipated, you become the scapegoat.  In 2001, I was brought on with a team of other designers/developers to put together a site very similar to Facebook.  It was a social networking site for a specific industry, which was inventive then and common now.  There were tens of thousands of dollars put into this projects and a team of designers and developers put together to make it.  Since the dot com bust was still going on, there was added pressure for this thing to take off since the investors had signed onto the project in the 90's when everyone was still making money off of the dot coms.  Well, not surprisingly, the site didn't bring in the revenue that they had hoped right away, the blame was passed on the team of developers and designers with the idea it was a design flaw, and they scrapped the project and basically wrote it off.  To think if they would have kept it around for the past eight years when social networking started to boom, they would probably have made their investment back tenfold.   But, someone had to be the scapegoat for the lack of traffic and the designer is the easiest target.

In the end, I am sure my student had read this and is now rethinking his career, I will say that if Web design is your passion and what you want to do, then do it.  It is rewarding and it is a ton of fun.  Just remember to let the criticisms and interference roll off your back and keep your thick skin and you will do ok.

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