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Agencies: Don’t Lead with Design!

Many of the agencies I speak with have a hard time figuring out how to build client sites without losing some combination of their reputation, bankroll, and sanity. It doesn’t have to be this way. You are capable putting together a great web project–you just need to have the right process. The main problem we all encounter when approaching a web development project is that a commonsense approach to web development doesn’t work. A good example of this is the way most agencies begin the process of building a website.

When approaching web projects, agencies tend to lead with design. That initial design unveiling usually goes something like this: “Hello Client, welcome to the future of your website! Please don’t pay attention to the navigation we’ve got in there as a place holder, and that tagline and this content are just some things we’re batting around in the back room, so disregard those as well. Anyway, we wanted to get some designs in front of you to get things started. So…what do you think?” 

If this sounds like you, and your goal is to baffle your client so completely that they couldn’t possibly give you anything resembling accurate and constructive feedback, then congratulations–you’re on the road to success! Agencies complain all the time that their web projects fail because their clients can’t make up their minds about anything and are continually contradicting themselves. These agencies aren’t delusional; their clients really are giving them lousy feedback. But it isn’t the client’s fault, it’s yours. 

Happy Designers

Don’t take my word for it, look how happy Justin is now that we don’t lead with design.

Your client hires you because they can’t build the website themselves. They need you to expertly guide them through the very difficult and unintuitive web development process. As a guide, it is your responsibility to never give your clients more than they can handle. You should always be putting them in situations in which they can succeed. They will only be successful if they can give accurate and timely feedback, so the onus is on you to make sure you are never showing them more than they can comprehend and respond to in a single sitting. 

The client in the above scenario will not be able to ignore the navigation, text, and tagline–it’s just not in their nature. It doesn’t matter how often or emphatically you tell them to look here and not there–they’re going to look everywhere. When you lead with design, clients are going to instinctively look at everything but the design elements. “Is that what our main navigation buttons should be?”, “Do we really want a picture of Herb on the homepage?”, and “Where’s the mission statement we just spent the past ten months writing?” are examples of things that are racing through your client’s head when you overwhelm them with a design-first approach to web development. They get so overwhelmed and anxious that often times they simply shut down, and end up offering unhelpful feedback such as, “I don’t like blue.”   

Clients need to be led in a logical and consistent way through the web development process, and there is only one place to start: information architecture. Information architecture comes first and design comes second. Flipping the order of these two stages will poise the project for success. In my next post, I’ll be writing about how you can work with your client to discover the perfect information architecture for their website.

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