Educate Your Stakeholders!

by Shane Diffily

34 Reader Comments

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  1. It’s sometimes a lot to take on, having to set expectations and so on in the board room. But it’s crucial. I’ve bitten my tongue before and wished I’d spoken up, because I got bit in the rump later when the client made unrealistic demands as the project wore on. I’ve also found that you’ll get more respect from potential clients and partners if you set clear boundaries and expectations early.

    Good luck if you run into the know-it-all dev guy / gal on staff…

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  2. Good points in the article. But I think the headline is wrong.

    There is no way to educate a middle aged decision maker!

    But of course you should advise your client or stakeholder. You should tell him about risks and consequences of the different options and advise him to take the best solution you can provide. Those stakeholders will gather the limited information they can soak up and make a decision based on this information. They do not want to be educated (at least most of them). You are the specialist and you have to propose the best solution for the stakeholders needs.

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  3. Good point Andi.

    “Educate” in this sense encompasses the task of equipping stakeholders with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions.

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  4. Shane i fully agree with You educate it’s for me the most important thing and it’s not good when alot of people forget this. btw. Thanks Shane for great article.
    Greetings

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  5. XHTML as the preferred markup language for the web

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  There have been a number of articles published regarding why XHTML served as text/html may be broken.

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  6. “Good luck if you run into the know-it-all dev guy / gal on staff”¦”

    There are times when the most valuable skill to have is the ability to just do what they want you to do—regardless of how wrong it is—and move on; the ability to do the “wrong” thing and not let it impugn your sense of self-worth, or otherwise “bother” you.

    It is nice to think that if someone hires you as an “expert,” that they will follow your advice. In reality, this is very often not the case, however. When this happens, you can’t get bent out of shape.

    More on topic, stakeholders don’t always want to be educated; they don’t want to be told that their worldview is in error; they don’t want to be guided to the “best” solution. They just want someone to do what they tell them to do. If you can’t walk away from these jobs for whatever reason, then you must be able to work against the grain of everything you know to be right and true, without destroying your own soul in the process.

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  7. I once worked for a really big media company. Was in charge of web development for a few hundred mini web sites. This was back when lucky people had 800×600 screens, and nobody had high-bandwidth connections at home. CSS wasn’t even mainstream yet. Anyways, the people in sales bugged me day in and day out to “really jazz up the designs!”

    “Make it snazzy! Sizzle! Need some Flash! Booyah! Why can’t we do something like this guy’s personal site? Hover over that menu. Hear that sound effect? F’in awesome!” No matter how much I tried educating them about scalability, usability, profitability, maintain-ability, no matter how many meetings or case studies, they never listened.

    They were even sending me those Website Mechanic reports (remember them?), trying to tell me everything i was coding wrong. “Did you know our site isn’t accessible for blind people on UNIX mainframes?” 

    When I left on vacation or business trips, they’d coax a designer to sneak in a Flash intro. Sigh.

    I eventually left the company, and started consulting. They became my first client. As a consultant, I got paid by the hour. I gave them everything they ever asked me for when I was working there full time. Flash, JavaScript, DHTML, streaming music. Everything. No matter how stupid, I gave it to them. Did I have any ethical problems with this? Honestly, I didn’t. They sincerely looked happy. Kinda like in the movies, when some dude has to kill his brother or pet dog. They make them really, really happy, then when they’re not looking—-bam. He’s put out of his misery. It was actually a good experience, because I got to learn a lot about all the bloated technology I could never use in real life.

    After one month (and thousands of dollars), they learned their lesson and went back to the old way. I mean they really learned their lesson, and spent some serious time learning how to keep things simple. They hired full-time people who were more fanatic about efficiency than I was. They also fired the people who were constantly asking for stupid stuff. Nowadays, I’m actually impressed by what the company is doing. They make my own work look bloated and slow.

    I thought they’d hate me after all that. But they just look at it as an experiment. “Hey, we tried. Now let’s go back to what works.”

    Sometimes you just gotta give them all the stupid stuff they ask for. Let it fail. Then they’ll listen to you after that.

    Maybe you can just do all this on a beta site, to minimize your company’s risk.

    But in my experience, nothing works better than to just give them exactly what they want. All those educating meetings? They’re just frustrating, and keep you from doing the work you enjoy.

    Do it, let it fail, call it an “experiment that we all learned from” then move on.

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  8. “There are times when the most valuable skill to have is the ability to just do what they want you to do—regardless of how wrong it is—and move on…”

    Well, you just completely contradict yourself then:

    More on topic, stakeholders don’t always want to be educated.. If you can’t walk away from these jobs for whatever reason, then you must be able to work against the grain of everything you know to be right and true, without destroying your own soul in the process.”

    Dramatic phrasing aside, which one is it? Do what they want you to do, regardless of how wrong it is—or work against the grain of everything you know to be right and true?

    Sounds like there’s some soul destruction in the picture, too?

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  9. The first quote said, in essence, “Do what they tell you even if you think it’s wrong.” The second, “If you can’t just refuse the job, then you must do what they tell you (which you think is wrong).” No contradiction there, IMO.

    So what’s your point? It seems you don’t like what I said (or how I said it), but your own point eludes me … maybe you’re just feeling contradictory today? :)

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  10. Maybe they don’t know what you mean. How often do clients you’re advising/educating seem to understand, while their silence is simply perceived as wisdom? Be careful with this, because it may be up to you to really find out what the group understands to make the project a success.

    And why let a project fail just to prove your point? I believe it’s important to establish a level of understanding on production teams, while being sensitive to each individual (whether the know-it-all developer or silently wise). Be diligent, and patiently concise so everyone has the opportunity to understand. If nobody is cooperating in the first place, then maybe it’s time to abandon the project before it can fail. None of us want to end up looking like a know-it-all as well, or like a fool who didn’t get his point across professionally.

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  11. … and it’s particularly frustrating for me, because our company’s entire brand is expertise in web success. Granted, we focus on content and architecture, but not things like semantics and standards (unfortunately).

    Even so, we’re constantly advising the best course of action only to met with a chuckle and a “That’s nice. Thanks for your input. Now do what we say and make the navigation in Flash anyway.”

    Why would you hire a company to maximize your website’s success, pay them thousands of dollars, and then do everything they tell you not to do?

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  12. I’m sure that I’m typical of many ALA readers and know most of the the standards, accessibility and copyright points you bring up. Not a complaint. I’m happy that you provide a detailed checklist.

    But the problem that I face, which is probably typical, is how to effectively make these points. What strategies have people successfully used? My biggest and most effective hammer is the Google argument, that what I want to do is make the site search engine friendly. XHTML? CSS? No chance in hell of selling them on their own merits. Progressive enhancement works sometimes, it widens market share but it’s the market share point that sells not ECMAScript.

    ECMAScript? Isn’t that a term found in footnotes of the introductory chapters of JavaScript books? I’m sure not going to try to educate a marketing type on a term that most people in the industry don’t even use.

    It’s not all hopeless but needs a lot of planning. Consider:

    Following copyright law equals lawyer avoidance. That can sell.

    Standards compliant code and focus on basic accessibility equal better SEO. Google likes it. Google is god.

    Progressive enhancement equals wider viewership. Sweet music to management.

    Following market trends, benchmarks and company practices equals speaking the marketing department’s language. That works. The more you can translate into their language the more effective you will be. Geek talk is suicide in that country.

    Meeting online culture? Trying to get that through to suits is like trying to communicate in Latin. It sounds impressive but doesn’t compute. Use terms like target market or, simply, “20 somethings really like it”.

    Resourcing? That equals dropping more on IT or the design department’s lap. You’ll have to be pretty high up on the food chain to have any say at all here.

    Governance, OMG, another committee, which will waste untold hours then drop the problems back in IT’s lap, even though those people are the least qualified to deal with it.

    Each of you scenarios are crucial and each require lots of preparation individually. Trying to blanket educate is about as effective as asking NASA to plan their rocket engineering with PowerPoint. It might feel good to do but we all know the end results.

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  13. How do you make them listen? Sometimes you can’t.
    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”.

    However, we can make ignorance as painful as possible by putting a price on it.

    For example, you could express your advice to clients along the following lines:
    You need to know about the web environment in which you operate, in order to make pragmatic investment & development decisions. That is why I am giving you all this information.

    Act on it or ignore it as you see fit.

    However, by ignoring some of these factors you will increase the risk of unnecessary cost, poor site performance, poor customer perception, etc.

    To help you decide which factors you should act on, I am giving you the following advice for each item:
    Ӣ Impact: The effect of adoption or non-adoption.
    Ӣ Urgency: The time period within which action should be taken.
    Ӣ Risk: The effect of failure to act, e.g. cost, poor performance.

    You can use this to decide which factors you wish to act on.

    Show Me How
    The easiest factor on which to use this approach is the Law. That is because the risks of non-compliance are usually very clear, i.e. financial penalties.

    For example, suppose new rules are introduced that compel all businesses to make sure their websites are accessible. Additionally, suppose your client’s website is not accessible. You could present information in the following way:
     
    LAW: New Website Act 2007
    This legislation compels you to ensure all your sites are accessible to persons with disabilities. Compliance with the Act will be monitored by an independent authority. This authority has the power to penalise offenders.
    “¢ Impact: High – You must comply with the Act. To do so, you must redesign/recode your website and implement new content management procedures.
    “¢ Urgency: Medium – There is a 12 month grace period before monitoring begins.
    “¢ Risk of non-compliance: High – Non-compliance will lead to fines of up to $50,000.


    However, this “price of ignorance” approach is more difficult on factors where the only costs are “opportunity costs”.

    TECHNOLOGY: Web 2.0
    Web 2.0 is the name given to websites that include rich functionality built on new technologies such as AJAX. AJAX allows for a very rich online experience to be created that can hugely enhance the value proposition of a site.
    “¢ Impact: High – Adoption of AJAX would require significant redevelopment.
    “¢ Urgency: Low – Your competitors are not reacting and there is little evidence of customer demand.
    “¢ Risk of non-adoption: Low-Medium – Although existing systems continue to be work well, the “opportunity cost” of non-adoption could be substantial if your competitors move first. This is because they could attract your customers and earn revenue that should be yours.

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  14. “”¦ maybe you’re just feeling contradictory today? :)”

    maybe so :)

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  15. LAW: New Website Act 2007 This legislation compels you to ensure all your sites are accessible to persons with disabilities. Compliance with the Act will be monitored by an independent authority. This authority has the power to penalise offenders. “¢ Impact: High — You must comply with the Act. To do so, you must redesign/recode your website and implement new content management procedures. “¢ Urgency: Medium — There is a 12 month grace period before monitoring begins. “¢ Risk of non-compliance: High — Non-compliance will lead to fines of up to $50,000.

    Okay, a Google search turns up no such act under that name. Do you have an actual title of this act, or a bill number. This is very important.

    thanks

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  16. Erin is right, that was an example. I admit I could have made that clearer!

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  17. yes, i was thinking there would have been some serious discussion in the media about the implications of such a bill, but you never know.

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  18. An excellent article and I think that you are right on when it comes to creating websites for bigger sized companies and there needs, but with smaller clients AKA mom and pop stores half of this stuff they do not care about, they just want up. But when dealin gon a glboal scale no mom and pop store can know every law in every country every day of the week. Most can barely afford to build the website

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  19. I’d have to agree with the general sentiment that educating the stakeholder/boss/client is a mixed bag. Many clients have blind spots that no amount of proven research, carefully crafted presentations or logical reasoning can sway. All you can do in those situations is limit the damage and make the most of the restrictions you have to work in. The client who is interested, involved, and completely open-minded is usually the exception not the rule. Here is my list of pet peeves:

    Just Gimme a Website
    This is the client who doesn’t care or want to be involved, just build him a website. While this hands off approach lets you build a great website, you can run into problems down the road after you’ve finished it when he discovers something he doesn’t like after all, and then what would have been a small issue in development is now a disaster after the fact. Even if you hand it off without a problem, you usually aren’t appreciated for your work.

    Target Market of One
    My favorite. The client doesn’t seem to realize that just because THEY like the idea of a splash page, incredibly cool flash graphics, audio effects for rollovers, and every other silly/pointless website gimmick that comes out that their target market won’t absolutely eat them up as well. A website that the executives will love typically doesn’t work; they are not the target audience.

    Get To Work Pixel Monkey
    This person has no concept of creativity or design and thinks all you do is a technical job, barely above the level of their office secretary with MS Publisher. You can extol the virtues of user-centric design and complimentary colors only to be met with a blank look when he tells you to “just use this design I whipped up last night in MS Word, and be sure to use all those fonts, colors, and starbursts EXACTLY the way I did”?.

    We Don’t Need No Stinkin Visitors
    Similar to #2 except with an emphasis on usability. This client can’t see past their own business needs to the needs of their consumer and structures the website accordingly. This features such gems as “I don’t want any outbound links on the website so people won’t leave the site”?, to “I don’t want too much information on the website so people get confused and leave”?, as well as “Lets drive visitors to our conversion page by plastering the link in every single place where we can possible stick it”?. They don’t understand that the user experience is paramount, and structuring the site in such a way to meet your users needs ensure that they will meet YOUR needs, not the other way around.

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  20. Let’s face it: Clients and colleagues will often not view you as the expert you were hired you to be. The solution? Do user testing and bring this feedback to the team. Often users will say the very same things you were thinking. It’s much more effective to say: “Five members of our test group said they would never watch a 30-second Flash intro” than for you to announce that this as categorically a bad idea. And guess what? Sometimes you learn something too.

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  21. Glad to see some people are going through the same headaches; but I am still afraid to ask, how do you avoid looking like a fool, since nobody else but you seem to understand what reality is?


    · · · — — — · · ·
    Cheers

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  22. I do believe in educating my clients, generally because I want to earn their trust. It has been my experience that the more “magic and mystery” I can remove from the design process and the more I can demonstrate rationale behind what I’m doing, whatever it may be, the more my client tends to let me do what I’m going to do.

    On the flip side of that, however, is reminding myself that it isn’t merely my website. Building a website is a collaborative process between me and my client. If my client could create the website himself, he would. But since he can’t, he’s relying on my skills, my background, my knowledge etc. to breathe life into his vision. While I don’t play a silent role in this process—it is certainly co-creative—I don’t generally allow myself to play the prima dona card, either. I will guide him and make suggestions and offer my expertise, but ultimately he gets to decide.

    I have two children, and I find that my role as web designer is often very similar to that of parent. I educate my kids and give them advice, guiding them and influencing them, but for the most part they have to make their own decisions. It’s their lives. It’s the same with the website. I love it when my client gives me the go-ahead to do whatever I want, but when they don’t, remembering that is is a co-creative process is very beneficial to my own sanity.

    So educate then, yes. Offer your opinion. Hell, be aggressive if you’re very passionate about the situation. But also know it isn’t merely your baby. It’s important to learn when and how to let go.

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  23. Since the client has the ultimate decision authority, (s)he might be upset if you try to explain whats right and whats wrong. I get many queries everyday where clients are asking for a clone of ALIBABA.COM or EBAY.COM and yes they have the money (well, I know that the budget that they have is not enough to stand anywhere close to these biggies – say about 10-15K dollars).

    But the issue is that, if I try and educate them, they contact someone else who sells them an off the shelf software with their logo placed on top for 10K and makes the website to go live. They spend the balance money on advertising and the website goes off-line in an year or two at the most.

    So, eventually.. I have lost 10K business and my competition has that as easy money in his pocket. So who stands to loose if I educate the client?

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  24. I’m not so sure about xhtml being the markup of choice. Seeing as how it can’t be served correctly (to IE) I don’t see why it is the best choice. A better choice would be HTML Strict.

    Otherwise, I totally agree in the education of one’s clients, where possible. I try and evangelise to them myself. Sometimes though, it’s just not possible and you have to go with what they want, even against your better judgement.

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  25. HTML is the preferred markup language, not XHTML. You have to break standards to serve it to anyone other than the most modern of browsers. 4.01 strict should be the preferred markup choice.

    I don’t think educating clients about “emerging technologies” will help in any way, at least not in the manner you seem to present in the article. There needs to be education on the negative side of “2.0”. About how it can break accessibility and how usability goes out the window on anything but the most modern of browsers. I think these are decisions best left to the designer. Have the client describe what they want and then the designer takes care of figuring out how to deliver it. The designer should have a far better grasp of the pros and cons to “2.0” than the client and be able to make those judgement calls.

    I think choices made “in ignorance of new trends” could actually be a very good thing. Very basic pages (no javascript, basic css, well structured markup) are going to have a high compatibility rate not just on desktop systems but handhelds as well.

    “Finally, if your employer operates in the government sector, you should not forget about accessibility…” this was disappointing to read. Accessibility is treated as an afterthought, something only very specific clients should bother with. Accessibility should be key on every client’s mind. If it isn’t it’s the job of the developer to educate them on why it is important.

    I also didn’t see anything about usability in the article. You might think this is a topic that only the developer need be concerned with, but I think the client should as well. Certain design choices will be made to create better usability. These choices might go against a particular design choice the client was really hot for (like hiding all navigation behind a single dropdown list). If you’re going to educate clients you need to include all areas that affect design choices so that they understand or can at least follow arguments when questions about why a particular design choice was made.

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  26. So, eventually.. I have lost 10K business and my competition has that as easy money in his pocket. So who stands to loose if I educate the client?

    Everyone stands to lose. You’re l*o*sing a contract. The client is l*o*sing the opportunity to get a good website and is instead being ripped off. The pixel monkey who did build the site is l*o*sing credibility in a world that is ever more focused on standards and compliance.

    But what happens if you take the contract? The client will be no better off, and you will have lost credibility. You will be the one with a dodgy site in your portfolio, that makes potential clients think you’re just a rip-off merchant.

    Yes, I understand financial realities. I understand that there will be times when people can’t afford to turn down a bad job because they need the money. That’s the way life goes. But if you do have principles, stick to them whenever you can and make the world a better place.

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  27. Does anyone have a good link for a place to stay on top of the legal issues that pertain to U.S. web creators? The ideal would be some sort of advocacy group that tracks issues, translates them into layman’s terms, and discusses the ramifications for real-world builders who have enough of a task just staying on top of things like technological/tool changes.

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  28. I really agree with what Amber had to say on the power of compromise in creating a sense of ownership for various stakeholders.

    “Mapping Dialogue”:http://pioneersofchange.net/library/dialogue/ is a great compilation of methods for creating dialogue in communities or between stakeholders. Great for more complex contexts, but parts and pieces are useful for smaller scale projects as well.

    My favorite part of the document was the idea of strategic compromise; talking about compromise not in the context of a dilution of the soul in a project, but an active search for synergy in two seemingly opposing viewpoints.

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  29. Great points in the article and I totally agree with you about the need to “Educate Your Stakeholders”. In my experience that education has to start even before you win the bid and often times that can seem counter-intuitive. Not, that you go into all the nitty-gritty details you mentioned before you have a signed contract. But you certainly need to set the stage. In essence, you need to educate them in one simple truth, they are hiring you because you are a credible expert in your field. If you don’t the project can be headed for big trouble.

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  30. I just wanted to say that i loved this topic, it is really a great read!!

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  31. I just wanted to say that i loved this topic, it is really a great read!!

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  32. thank you

    Great Article

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  33. I’ve always felt that educating clients is a vital step. First of all, they don’t know what you know, so education regarding Web and marketing issues and website development is necessary. Secondly, consider the idea of making what can amount to business decisions without the client’s input or—if the client gives input without understanding the issues. Not so good. And you may discover that the educated client has other input and ideas that expands upon what you had in mind. That’s a win-win.

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  34. But in my experience, nothing works better than to just give them exactly what they want. All those educating meetings?”

    Sure right.

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