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Thoughts on the Responsibilities of Web Firms

Over the weekend, designer Sean Borsodi and I were talking about the question of responsibility when we create websites for clients.

All web professionals have the experience of wanting to do something different from what the client wants. It may be that the client wants text that we know won’t perform well for search. They may want navigation and site architecture that won’t be as usable as what we suggested for them. They may just want to use outdated or poor quality images they happen to have on hand.

Here’s my initial feeling on this:

  • We could be wrong. I once had the opportunity to rehearse with the conductor of the National Orchestra. At one point he said to the horns, “Always consider the possibility that you might be wrong.” It’s as true in other areas of life as when a section of the music seems to be out of tune. We’re experts, we base our decisions on data and principles and extensive experience, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be wrong. Our clients know their audience, they know their brand, and they know the tastes of their customers. If they think that their particular target audience would love to have thrash metal begin playing automatically when they open the site, we should entertain the possibility that they know what they’re talking about.
  • Sometimes it’s a matter of taste. One of our designers has an edgy urban style. If we asked him to design a sweet website for a cupcake bakery or a pet shop, his first draft could be black and red with grunge effects. We love his work, but we know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  When I wrote content for a martial arts guru, he added in a whole bunch of exclamation points. He likes extreme punctuation, and he has a right to it. I should have gone back after I finished and sprinkled some more in for him, since I had plenty of evidence that low key and conservative wasn’t his preference. There’s nothing about grunge style or exclamation points in the agreed upon best practices for web sites; it’s just a matter of taste.
  • It’s their website. Even if we’re right, they have a right to their opinions and preferences. We watched once as a client took one of designer Jay Jaro’s elegant logos and turned it into something that would have been perfect for a bad example in logo design class. You know what? We’re not in logo design class. As long as the site owner is prepared to accept the consequences, the site owner should be able to indulge a whim or two.

So that was my initial thought on the subject. But Sean disagreed. Part of what they’re paying us for, he says, is our knowledge. If they really wanted an ugly, unusable site filled with grammatical errors, they’d have done it themselves. What’s more, even if we don’t put our name on the site, word of mouth ensures that people will know we worked on it. And, I’ll add myself, clients tend to hold us responsible for their bottom line results, even when they are steadfastly ignoring our advice. We should be firm, Sean says. There should be a point, he feels, where we say, “No, sorry. If you’re determined to have twelve main navigation points and all your text in capital letters, we just can’t make this website for you.”

It’s basically a philosophical point for us web workers, I guess. But you may be a client in this kind of situation. What do you do when your web workers disagree with you strongly enough to fight over it? I have some suggestions:

  • You could be wrong. Your web designer, copywriter, and SEO professionals all spend a lot more time than you do working with websites. I’ve worked on an average of six websites a month this year, myself, and that’s usually from the analytics out. We also know, in our field, that keeping up with best practices is a high prioritiy — for us, not for you. Things change fast, and we don’t expect you to put time and energy into staying current. Let us do that for you. If your experts suggest that you might be wrong, you should probably at least consider the possibility.
  • It may not be a matter of taste. We built a website featuring a costumed dog once. We don’t argue against things just because it’s not to our personal taste. Ask for a reason before you turn a suggestion down. If the reason has to do with web standards, usability, or the fact that sites using your preferred keyword usually contain adult material, consider making the change.
  • It’s your business website. Building a website can be exciting, emotional, and a personal thrill. Once the novelty wears off, though, you’re going to want that site to do its job for you. If you make decisions that are likely to affect the ROI of your website just because you can, you’ll regret it later. Do some testing, ask for data, and make your decisions on the basis of sound principles, not for emotional reasons.

One last thought: if your web professionals disagree with you constantly, if they can’t show you evidence to back up their claims, and if you don’t like what they create for you, then you may be better off cutting bait and switching to another firm. It may be a designer/client mismatch, or they may not actually be experts.







2 responses to “Thoughts on the Responsibilities of Web Firms”

  1. Phil Avatar

    At the end of the day, you just can’t turn down a slice of the highly lucrative online costumed dog market.

    1. Rebecca Haden Avatar

      The client begged!

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