Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Once upon a consult...

Once upon a consult, I had a client who was at once:
  1. in love with the web and the opportunities it could provide his organization,
  2. reasonably savvy about new and creative approaches to using the web,
  3. dealing with enormous gaps of information in his web knowledge that made him unsure of his decisions, and
  4. an ego the size of Cleveland that wouldn't made it very painful for him to admit mistakes.
We were going through a painful redesign of the web site -- the final of three big redesigns in less than a year.

"It has to be right the first time," he said. "Iteration isn't an option."

"Well, with the dynamic environment of the web," I said carefully, "it's actually pretty hard to get everything right...."

He glared at me. I gulped. "OK," I said. "We'll do our best."

"It HAS to be right. The FIRST TIME."

Weeks pass... we go through as exhaustive a design process as we can considering our total lack of a research budget and the short time line. We come up with a different approach that addresses the audiences and goals of the web site, working with the client the whole time. We have thoroughly explained and documented the rationale for what we are doing. We create a mock-up and give it to the client for final approval.

Then the client goes to a conference.

At the last minute, he decides to take the mock-up with him. The conference is about search engine optimization (SEO). Oddly enough, a speaker at the conference uses the client's current site in his presentation -- as a model of what should be done for good SEO. This is, of course, the current site that we are redesigning because it isn't meeting the stated goals set by the client.

After the speech, the client shows the mock-up to one of the speakers -- an SEO expert from Amazon.

The SEO expert doesn't like the mock-up. "It doesn't have enough text," he said. "It doesn't address any of the SEO best practices that we use successfully at Amazon. Don't do it."

The client comes back and confronts me on this person's assessment. "What were you thinking? Don't you know anything about SEO?"

I was floored. I do know about SEO. Early on, however, we had all decided to focus primarily on other concerns. I couldn't speak. I just kept thinking about all of those meetings, all of that documentation... and he still had no idea why we made those design decisions.

"My understanding of the goals was that we were designing for people to successfully interact with the tools on the site, rather than designing for search engines," I croaked out finally. "The design approaches can be pretty different...."

"The guy at Amazon said this is absolutely the wrong way to go. Amazon is a large, successful web site. Why should I believe you over him? We won't be requiring your services any longer." He got up from his chair and walked out of the room.


I don't tell this tale* as a plea for sympathy (though I'm sure there are one or two of you out there who feel the pain). The fact that "my services were no longer required" was best for all involved. My client no longer trusted that I was giving him good strategic advice and I no longer trusted that he ever listened to a word I said. I would rather this came across as a cautionary tale to well-meaning web consultants and conference speakers across the web industry.

Think before you cut loose with that free advice.

Imagine you are the guy from Amazon. You had just finished a speech and your adrenaline is probably still flowing. There's a good chance (if the speech was toward the end of the day) that you have a drink in your hand. Someone comes up to you out of nowhere and shows you a home page mock-up. He asks you to tell him your opinion of it. Please don't assume that he:

  1. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own unique, potentially narrow, experience,
  2. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own, potentially narrow, specialty (such as SEO), or
  3. actually knows that many of the best practices needed to make a web site the best it can be are in conflict with each other and that sometimes you have to choose which are most important.

You aren't thinking about all of the competing goals and audiences for the site. You don't know anything about the strategic goals of the organization. You don't know any of the stakeholders. You don't know what content is or is not available.

You are most likely thinking about dinner.

You just answered a question and you probably forgot about it an hour later.

*This story is based on a real interaction but most of the details have been changed.


  1. I have been there and fully understand. Very good advice.
    I was going to pose the question on a forum "Do you give the client what he needs or do you give him what he wants?" There is often a huge gap.
    On the other foot I was invited by a CEO to do a critique on his companies website, (me thinking it was only going to be for him) I walked in and there was the IT manager, the consultants and all the developers. The company had spent a small fortune and the site was flawed. Fortunately when I had done my home work my presentation contained no criticism, I just went through the site as I did as a visitor (the flaws showed themselves) and then as a client (again the flaws showed themselves) and we all lived happily ever after.

  2. Great comment. I've been on the other side of this as well. Web is complex (as are many other fields that mix creative and technical such as architecture) and clients often struggle to make educated assessments about what is good and bad. I think that is why it comes back to us in the industry to be constantly educating clients and to resist slamming a design without doing home work.