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Beyond You

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In client work, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our work lives beyond ourselves. Sometimes that means making sure the CMS can handle clients’ ever-changing business needs, or making sure it continually teaches its users. For clients with an internal development team that will be taking over after you, it means making sure the design system you create is flexible enough to handle changes, yet rigid enough to maintain consistency.

Making your work live beyond you starts by changing your approach to design and development. Rather than defining and building a certain set of pages, focus on building an extensible design system of styles, modules, and page types.

Clients can use the system like LEGO bricks, by taking apart and rearranging modules in new and different ways. The key to a successful system is keeping that modularity in mind while going through design, front-end, and backend development. Every piece you build should be self-contained and reusable.

But a system like that only survives by educating your clients on how to use, maintain, and update it. Show how the components function, independently and together. Document and teach everything you can in whatever way works best—writing, screencasting, or in-person training sessions.

The most common mistake made in this process—and I’ve made it plenty of times before—is stopping at education. Building and teaching a modular system is a great start, but success hinges on your clients being able to use it entirely on their own.

In order for that to be the case, there is an important role reversal that must happen: the client team must become the doer, and you become the feedback-provider. That may sound weird, but think about how the design process normally goes. Say the client gives feedback on a checkout form—the functionality needs to be tweaked a bit to match their business operations. You take that feedback, design a solution, and present it back to them.

Instead, after this role reversal, the client team identifies the change that needs to be made, they use their knowledge of the system to make it, and you provide feedback on their implementation. That process gives their team a chance to work with your system while you’re still involved, and it lets you ensure that things are being used the way you intended.

So if you’re on the agency side like I am, remember that it’s your responsibility to make your work live on beyond your involvement. If you’re on the client side, hold your partner accountable for that. Ask all the necessary questions to really learn the system. Late in the project, ask how you can make changes, instead of letting the agency (or freelancer) make changes themselves. Force them to teach you how to care for what they’ve built, and everyone will be happier with, and more confident in, the result.

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