Educating your clients

In my experience, most web design clients don’t know much about design, and even less about the web. This isn’t a fault, and it doesn’t make them a bad client. It makes them a regular web user. But sometimes the knowledge gap between a designer and their client can lead to communication problems. I have found that with a little education my clients are better equipped to understand my decision making processes, and we are able to start talking to each other, rather than past each other.

The knowledge gap

As web designers we are in the upper percentile of web users when it comes to familiarity with the medium. We devote most of our waking hours to exploring, researching, and building websites. By contrast, most people spend less than an hour each day using the web, and are largely unfamiliar with its inner workings.

A client’s lack of web experience can help to keep us honest, ensuring we create sites that are appealing and functional for the average user, not just the techo elite. But generally a client who lacks web savvy simply adds to our workload and increases frustration levels.

Common problems

I’m sure we’ve all had at least one client who surfs the web using IE/Mac, has a monitor resolution of 800×600 or lower, or still only has Flash 6 installed – I’ve encountered all three of these things within the past 12 months. Scenarios like this make both our job and our client relationship awkward. The additional work involved in supporting an obsolete computer configuration will very likely blow out the project budget and timeline, and the obvious solution – telling the client to update their system – is likely to cause tension: if a competitor’s website works just fine on the client’s outdated computer, they will expect that theirs should too.

Other clients have a more generalized lack of computer know-how, and turn to their web designer whenever they encounter a technical problem, be it related to their website or not. They tie up their designer’s time with numerous support requests, often to ‘fix’ something that wasn’t broken to begin with. These are the clients who can’t work out how to configure their new email account, need their hand held when resizing images in Photoshop Elements, and ask for advise on getting rid of spam.

Then there are the clients who make unreasonable or ill-conceived demands of their web designer. I’ve had a couple of clients who wanted me to make their site rank #1 in Google by “adding those meta keyword thingies”, or have insisted I add a promotional popup window to their homepage, despite my recommendation that popup windows are blocked by most web browsers and engender a negative user experience.

These are just a few examples from my personal experience, to illustrate the sort problems that can arise. Over the years I have gotten tired of dealing with these same issues again and again, and have developed some strategies to tackle my clients’ lack of web-savvy.

Come prepared

Learn as much as you can about your client’s computer systems and web knowledge at the outset of a project, to avoid nasty surprises down the track. For example, if you notice at your initial meeting that your client has their monitor resolution set to 800×600, then you would be well advised to design them a website to fit within those dimensions. If you believe it is in the best interests of the project to design for larger dimensions, then you will need to prepare a solid argument to justify that position. Either way, it helps to know beforehand the hurdles you might face.

Write a proposal

Usually I will supply a written project proposal to a client along with my quote. This gives me an opportunity to outline my proposed design and technical approach, and answers many questions that the client might have going forward.

Make sure you are clear in your proposal about what the client will (and won’t) get with their new website. For example, if you don’t intend to build a Content Management System allowing the client to make site updates themselves, make sure this is stated clearly. These days many clients make the assumption that some sort of CMS is ‘automatically’ included with their website, and it can be a source of friction when they discover this isn’t the case.

Statistics are your friend

Your client may be reluctant to trust your expertise, especially on the first job you do for them. Recently I was commissioned to build a hybrid Flash/XHTML website, but subsequently discovered my client only had Flash Player 6 installed on his computer. When faced with the prospect of downloading the latest Flash plugin, he panicked. “What if my customers have the same problem? I want our website to be accessible to as many people as possible”. This is a valid concern. If I had told my client that “most people” have Flash Player 7 or higher, I doubt he would have been convinced – his own negative experience would likely have outweighed my reassurances. But it’s a lot harder to argue with the statistics. As it is, Macromedia’s current figures on Flash Player version penetration show that 95.8% of web enabled computers have at least Flash Player 7 – that should be compelling enough to put any client’s mind at ease.

I make a habit of keeping up-to-date statistics on Flash Player version penetration, monitor resolution, and browser market share. Keeping abreast of changes in user behavior not only helps me to make informed design decisions, it allows me to justify those decisions to my clients.

Don’t talk in techno-babble

When you’re buying a new stereo or television you don’t want the salesperson to baffle you with a list of technical specifications you don’t understand. Unwittingly, that’s often exactly how we make our clients feel when we discuss their website. The thing to ask yourself when explaining a website feature is: does my client really need to know about the underlying technology? Another web designer might be impressed to know an image gallery is powered by AJAX – the client just wants to know that images load smoothly. Focus on the business benefits to the client, rather than the technology. They don’t need to know that their new website’s XHTML markup and CSS stylesheets pass W3C validation, but they will be chuffed to hear that their website is easy for search engines to index and loads faster than it used to. If you speak to your client in terms they can understand, you’ll have a better chance of selling them on your chosen approach.

Write an FAQ

I find I spend a lot of time answering the same questions for my clients, over and over again. Writing a document that answers the most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) saves you having repeat yourself to each new client. An FAQ is also a good way to educate your client on topics they might not ask about themselves, but you feel they ought to know about anyway.

You could provide your FAQ to your client as a written document, or you could put it online in a ‘client area’ on your own website. If you think your FAQ is likely to overwhelm your clients with too much information you might prefer to keep it to yourself, and email relevant information to your client only when they have a specific question or concern. Whichever approach you choose, it’s going to save you time in the long run.

The precise information you include in your FAQ will be specific to your business, but here are a few points to consider:

  • Setting up email accounts
    If you have purchased a new domain for your client’s website, then the responsibility probably falls to you to create new mailboxes at that domain. Many people don’t know how to set up a new email account on their local machine, and who can blame them: POP, SMTP, IMAP – it’s all a bit baffling for the uninitiated.
  • Ranking well in Google
    There are many myths surrounding how to achieve good search engine rankings. Personally, I advise clients that their best chance of ranking well in Google is through quality inbound links.
  • What are web standards?
    I like my clients to know that I build standards compliant websites using “best practice” techniques. I point out the business benefits as well as the benefits to website visitors.
  • Technological baseline
    Just so there is no confusion down the track, I spell out what server and client side environment is required to run and view my websites. If my client goes home, fires up the old PC in the spare room, and tries to view their website in IE5, I don’t want them to come crying to me.
  • Website statistics
    Website traffic statistics can be overwhelming in their level of detail, so I explain to clients the key metrics they need to pay attention to.

On-site training

As part of the job scope, factor in a couple of hours on-site training at the completion of the project. If the website you have built includes a content management system, this is the best way to teach your client how to use it, and will save you numerous annoying support calls down the track. Also make sure your CMS is fully documented, so that if your client has ongoing questions you can direct them to read the manual before they pick up the phone.

Be prepared to learn

In most cases, you are in a better position than your client to make effective design and usability decisions about their website. It’s what you do day in, day out, and your expertise is what you are being paid for. But don’t get too sure of yourself. There is one area where your client’s expertise far exceeds your own: their business. Your client understands their own industry and business far better than you ever will. Be prepared to learn from their experience, and for it to shape your design decisions. For instance, your client might realize that the majority of their customer base are over 50, and that text copy on the website will need to be larger than average to accommodate this older audience. Don’t ride roughshod over your client’s ideas with your own design agenda, or you run the risk of disregarding potentially valuable input.


Hopefully you will find a few of these pointers applicable to your own web design practice – here’s to happy and knowledgeable clients!

2 thoughts on “Educating your clients

  1. AL says:

    Thanks a lot. Very helpful tips indeed!

  2. Soroush says:

    I was nodding my head as I read your article. In my case, I’ve also had clients giving me advice on what I should do for the design, eg. colour and positioning!
    I’ve also had the case of, “have a look at site X, I want something like that.” So when we both browse to site X, I see that that it’s a non-standard compliant, design-ugly website with unnecessary (=annoying) Flash, which looks 1999! That’s when the convincing them to trust my design decisions comes to play.
    Great article!

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