A List Apart


Client pulling Icarus-like developer back to earth

In Defense of Difficult Clients

There’s a certain breed of clients that lives in the past: web 1.0 clients in a web 2.0 world. They can be a nightmare to work for, and they often end up commissioning horrendous sites that pollute our precious internet. It might seem easy to just pretend they don’t exist, or, worse still, to do as they ask, but—brace yourself—these clients are the stepping stones to enlightenment. It can be frustrating to work for clients who force us to justify our strongly held beliefs, but, budget permitting, it may still be worthwhile.

The salt of the earth

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“[T]hese few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool…. There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical…” —John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

J. S. Mill may have died many years before the birth of the internet, but that’s not to say he can’t teach us a few things about dealing with clients who need to be educated. Only by being made to question our own beliefs can we prevent them from becoming dogma—and difficult clients certainly ask plenty of questions.

These clients represent the ultimate test: They require that we explain why frames are bad.  Why cross-browser compatibility is a serious issue.  Why the use of “click here” is considered inappropriate.  Why we now consider the web to be a medium in which vertical scrolling is acceptable.  They test our knowledge and they test our patience.

We all know why our methods are best practices, but can we justify them?  Because there’s no getting unjustified statements past these clients, and there’s no bamboozling them with buzz phrases and marketing spiel.  You have to justify each of your points in plain, simple English, whether it’s a usability concern, a standards issue, or a design choice.

Why enlightenment matters

The big clients—the clients who are already paying megabucks—often tend to believe whatever you say.  You’re the expert and they’re the client, and you’re implicitly right because it says so in the last “0” on that invoice.  If you weren’t, they’d feel it was money poorly spent, and nobody wants to admit to a bad investment—so nine times out of ten they’ll take your word as gospel.

The little man, on the other hand, isn’t always so easily convinced. They’re not intentionally testing you: they just don’t get it.

But there’s a benefit to staying on top of your game.  Because the next time you hit that one client in ten who’s paying megabucks and wants a better explanation, you sure as heck don’t want to be caught off guard.  Perhaps it’s been 12 months since you last had to explain everything from grassroots.  Perhaps that hesitation, that delay in justifying your fee, is going to go down badly.  Maybe today’s the day that you lose out on a Fortune 500 gig because you’re wearing your comfortable slippers and no one’s made you dance in a while.

If it is, it’s going to humble you to realize that the owner of the corner shop (let’s call him Mr. Smith) might have helped you win that contract.

Finding the stepping stones

Nine times out of ten these clients will have already found you. Remember? You probably turned down the job because they asked too many questions. They often tend to be shopkeepers or the owners of small businesses.  Sometimes they’re just innocent technophobes embarking on their first web adventure.  The last website that they were involved in was 1991, and they don’t understand why things have to be different now.

They insist fervently that there should be “absolutely no scrolling.” They want those cool animated GIFs. The concept of writing content specifically for the web seems as alien to them as this new-fangled and utterly unnecessary thing called “broadband.”  They more often than not have a son who is a web designer.  He uses FrontPage and hemorrhages “frames.”  Isn’t he clever?

Falling from the path

You: You’ll see I’ve removed all the “click here” links…

Mr. Smith: Why?

You: Ah.  Well.  You see, they’re not considered to be good practice these days.

Mr. Smith: Why?

You: Well, for one thing they don’t mean anything if the website is printed.

Mr. Smith: Well who does that?

You: Right… well, urm… the other thing is it’s not really technically accurate.  If the user’s using a keyboard instead of a mouse… if they have a disability for example…

Mr. Smith: Well that’s just political correctness gone mad.  You’re being stupid.  You’ll be telling me Microsoft’s had to rename itself to “Vertically-challenged-soft” next…

You: ∗Contemplates beating the client to death with a handy philosophy textbook…∗

Mr. Smith: ... why are you looking at that book?

You: I was just thinking how to best explain the virtue of this concept to you.  Would you perhaps be persuaded by an amusing and colorful comic strip?

Mr. Smith: No.

You: Oh.

Hold fast, gentle reader. There’s another reason to remain on the path. What if we’re wrong? What if Mr. Smith is right?

It’s only by being forced to question our beliefs that we can be certain they’re right. The web is an ever-changing medium, we need to be prepared to accept that there’s a possibility that some of our practices are no longer best.  Or that—and it happens—they may never have been best in the first place, but no one thought to question them with enough force when they were first mentioned.

Should we really not be using tables for layout? Is the use of “click here” really so wrong? You don’t need me to play Devil’s Advocate—Mr. Smith is more than happy to do so without even realizing it. Periodic reasessment can only improve your work.

Sleeping well at night

After learning to deal with these antediluvian clients, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief next time you’re dealing with an “easy” client.  They’ll be infinitely more convinced that you know what you’re talking about, and I wager you’ll have increased confidence in what you’re preaching. Even if they never question your decisions, you’ll have the kind of self-confidence that puts a smile on your face.

Difficult clients who require education represent the ultimate test.  Before we devote all of our time and efforts to producing all-singing, all-dancing websites for Fortune 500 companies, let’s see if we can spare the time to keep the local shopkeeper happy. Go on. The path to enlightenment is never easy, but you never know: you might even enjoy the challenge.

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