The Innocent Eye, 1981 Mark Tansey

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.]


4 responses to “The Myth of the Ignorant Client”

  1. I’m glad that you’ve pointed this out. Some time ago, I used to scoff behind a client’s back because I felt they did not know anything about the web. And, of course, I felt I was always right. Changing this attitude has done wonders for my relationship with clients.

    My company chooses to educate clients. We host classes on SEO, Social Media, Usability, etc. Our goal is to give the client the ability to make informed decisions about their website. No one knows their business better than they do.

    As a web designer, it’s a very rewarding experience. It allows clients to become a team players. All around there is less frustration and a better end result in the project. A little education goes a long way.

  2. Great, great post. I agree wholeheartedly — we’ve reached the point where the internet is shifting to become the dominant medium and, as such, nearly everyone has day-to-day experience with it.

    All of my recent clients have come to the table informed about their needs. They all know what works and what doesn’t, and it’s surprisingly easy to get things off the ground and focus on solid web design patterns — which we both know work.

    Really, it’s just the maturation of our industry from odd curiosity into an truly ‘new medium.’ Despite furious progress, the technological aspect of design projects are starting to matter less — we’re finding the patterns that work and deliver the most value.

    It’s exciting times to work in this field, right now. I’m thrilled that the challenges today are more about how to win with great process, messaging, and design — rather than hand-waving about selling the newest technology.

  3. Andrew Green Avatar
    Andrew Green

    Thanks for this post, Chris.

    I often think that consultants that create the music industry producer/artist relationship with the client generally create better experiences. You can only do that successfully if you respect your client, include and create with them.

  4. I often find my troubles increase if my client is half-informed. For example, I recently did a redesign a of an ancient site–thousands of static HTML pages with nested tables–but the client was extremely worried that moving to a simple PHP CMS would ruin their google page rank. Near the end of the project, I started getting questions about why the site wouldn’t update using FrontPage. (!) Honestly, in that case, it would’ve been very convenient to work with a completely uninformed client who was open to best practices.