In the web design consulting business, there’s always been an unspoken assumption that our clients just don’t get the web. I’m sure this is true with many other consulting businesses, but for web consultants this has been particularly true.
And it’s easy to see why: Until recently, it actually was kind of true. Clients used to hire web designers and developers to do something they had no clue how to do themselves. Sometimes they were even desperate, lost in the woods.
Until about 1999 or so, almost all web design projects started from scratch. If someone hired you to build a web site, it was likely that almost nobody on the client side had ever built a web site before. And the few individuals who did have any experience often operated in a culture of ignorance and inexperience, requiring a tangible dumbing-down of the whole client-vendor relationship. Consultants with a few site launches under their belts would have to spend a lot of time explaining to their clients some very basic concepts about the Internet and HTML, or were forced to repeatedly illustrate how the client’s ideas were impossible to implement or would create impossible user experiences.
On the other hand they could also get away with some blatant snake-oil salesmanship and techno razzle-dazzle, and often didn’t have their work closely scrutinized by their clients. God knows how many pre-dotcom-bust web consultancies built thriving businesses whose revenues were possible only by virtue of this expertise disparity.
But around the end of the last decade things started to change. Site designs became site redesigns. One-off static web sites became ongoing dynamic web businesses. Experienced consultants jumped the rails and joined client teams. Clients built up their own internal competencies in all areas of web site strategy and implementation: design, technology, usability, marketing.
By the early 2000s, web services vendors would frequently encounter clients who had more experience working with the web than they did. Now it’s an everyday occurrence.
Today’s clients know as much as we do.* It’s now hard to find a person responsible for a company’s internet strategy who hasn’t been making web sites in one way or another for a decade or more. Sure there is the occasional outlier, people who have landed or kept their jobs despite manifest technological incompetence, but no more so than in any other corporate arenas.
And yet I still regularly hear designers and consultants stereotyping their clients as if it were still 1999, as if they were still dealing with people who had never bought a book online and don’t know how search engines work, much less joined a social network or had their own blog. This is just wrong. This kind of attitude doesn’t help you as a consultant, nor does it help designers and consultancies as a whole. If this sounds like you, I suggest you drop it. You’re making your clients mad and probably coming across as more than a little condescending.
[* Perhaps you noticed the asterisk above. I want to be clear that I am not implying that consultants are irrelevant, or that our clients don’t need us anymore. Naturally clients hire designers precisely because we know things they don’t, because we have experiences, talents, skills, and competencies they lack. And there are huge swaths of corporate culture who are still clueless. It’s our job to be at least one step ahead of our clients (and our peers for that matter, to think about and tackle problems with an eye towards learning lessons that can apply to future challenges and future clients. It’s our job to bring fresh new ideas to our clients. That much has not changed and should not change.
My point, really, is that by assuming your clients are profoundly ignorant about technology and design, you are missing a chance to collaborate with people who may be your peers in a lot of ways, people who often know their own businesses and objectives extremely well. You are missing a chance for a truly harmonious relationship where client and designer bounce ideas off each other to produce greater results than the designer, no matter how visionary they are, could have accomplished on his or her own.]