In my model I outline three forms of client interaction in the client/ designer-developer relationship each with implications on the pricing and contract structure employed. This model was developed from the realization that adhering to a single method of handling clients, structuring contracts, and managing scope would not be appropriate unless the size and type of clients and projects being handled were relatively homogenous. This is not usually the case at mid to small sized web development shops where you are often working on projects with budgets below $5,000 along side projects ten times as large. The model is based specifically on web development but could be abstracted out further to other types of design and software development projects
Managing multiple modes of client interaction concurrently, as opposed to funneling all clients through the same structure, adds a layer of complexity to the department’s process and creates certain knowledge requirements to key members of the staff.
The different modes should not be known and understood solely by developer. They should be discussed and presented to the potential client and the client should have some say as to which mode is most appropriate for their project.
Different modes of interaction result in different patterns of accountability and responsibility in respect to deliverables and deadlines. This needs to be understood by both staff and client and clearly discussed, defined, and documented prior to instituting the recommendations of this document.
Not only is it crucial that responsibility be defined but the responsibilities outlined prior to project start must be strictly adhered to and enforced by the developer. Because of this it is crucial that the client understands their responsibilities and the timeline and pecuniary implications of not meeting those responsibilities prior to contract signing. Additionally the developer should work through and document likely problem scenarios and how to best handle them before implementation of this document.
Different modes of client interaction have significant implications for how a member of the production staff will approach a project. If we are following the lead of a client on an hourly basis going beyond the scope of the assignment to investigate and suggest improvements to aspects of the project may not be appropriate whereas in other mode it might. Therefore the production staff must fully understand and appreciate the differences between the modes and have full awareness of the status of the project at hand.
Since it is the sale staff who should initially discuss our process and ultimately is responsible for writing, delivering, and managing the contract it is essential that they fully understand and can fluently discuss the implications of the different modes of interaction.
Below I introduce the three modes, Designer, Client, and User-Centric. The names of the modes highlight the primary driving force behind the project.
In a designer-centric mode the designer and design-company are the primary drivers and decision makers in the development process. The client has limited, punctuated, and defined points of access where they can offer limited direction and feedback. The scope of changes that the client can make is strictly defined and any changes that fall outside of that scope are billed on an hourly basis.
In a client-centric mode the client is primary to the process and the designer acts passively implementing the vision and ideas of the client. When the client asks for opinions and direction the designer may give some input but it is ultimately for the client to make decisions. In this mode the need to monitor scope is obviated by the deliver of estimates and not quotes.
User centric design is focused completely on the end user of the project whether that be a consumer looking to make an online purchase, an internal employee using a web application in the course of their work, or someone looking for a the phone number for a local company. This process involves significant research, many more processes and steps, possibly user testing, and typically the highest cost of the three modes.
There are a number of implications in how handling a project adhering to each of the three modes.
The designer-centric mode is most suited for small projects; local companies who need a small site, limited web presence where most traffic will be generated through offline materials. The company is not strongly branded and the principals do not have strong feelings about the design of the site and are very cost conscious.
Ideal for small local businesses with small budgets. The contract should be a firm quote and it should be contractually specified as to when and how the client may influence the project.
Because the resulting project is likely to have a simple structure and low budget, complex sitemapping and wireframing should be bypassed and a design comp should be the first step. The number of pages should be contractually specified and defined prior to project start. A simple content inventory should have firm deadlines and consequences to the client if these deadlines are not met. This would be idea for having a series of xhtml/css templates to provide the backbone for the design so that time is not wasted in browser compatibility testing or in fixing breaks.
The client centric mode is ideal for, ironically, clients who know exactly what they want and clients that have no idea what they want. The purpose of this mode is to allow the client to get exactly what they want without the ability to make the company take a loss due to their indecision. Clients that know exactly what they want and are adamant about their ‘vision’ can become problematic if they have difficulty communicating that vision or if the designer has difficulty implementing it. Clients that do not what they want often come up with good ideas during the process but are incapable of visualizing things prior to the beginning of development, this mode is designed to be able to accommodate that while not forcing the company to push out a poor quality product or put off features to ‘version 2’. The cost of a project in this mode is largely dependant on the client.
The primary ‘innovation’ in the client centric approach is that contracts provide estimates and not quotes to the client and the entire project is billed on an hourly basis. Deadlines should be avoided. The client should have unfettered access to the project and unlimited opportunity for feedback. However it is in this mode that communication regarding hours used and how the process will operate are most important as to not damage the relationship with the client.
The process in this mode is completely open ended. We can introduce approaches and milestones used in other modes but it is ultimately the client’s decision. For example we can explain the purpose of a wireframe but the client might not think that it would be very helpful and have us just move to the comp. The goal here is to make sure the client is reassured that you are working hard and effectively on the project and not wasting their time and money.
This mode is most appropriate for large clients that ‘get it’ or are open to allowing us to educate them about the value that we and this approach can provide. In a number of small business cases the benefit of a user-centric approach will not outweigh the development costs and this should be considered in employing this approach. We do not want to develop an amazing site that is appropriate and focused on the users if the target market and site traffic is so low that the site will not generate enough revenue to justify the difference in cost between this mode and a designer or client centric mode.
Contracts will tend to be large, have many processes, points of interaction and contact with the client. With large projects it made make sense to have a small consultation contract just to set up the project. Because of the increased cost, longer deadlines, and more intense analysis it is absolutely critical that the client is educated about the value of this approach. If they are not, we will seem slow and expensive and by the time we provide value to the client (typically months after launch) the relationship may have already soured.
Due to the complexity and length of the contract there needs to be an owner of a project in this mode that understands and oversees all marketing, strategic, and usability analysis since all design, functionality, and coding decisions are based upon these higher level analyses.
Many web development firms use aspects of each of the three modes discussed. However many firms run into problems because these modes are not clearly differentiated and defined, their contracts to not reflect the mode or process, and they fail to inform their clients of the implications of their process, many of which do not know ‘the right way’ web development is supposed to proceed. This often results in the clients being confused and unhappy about the progress of their project and, as a consequence, the web development company is forced to take a loss on too many projects in order to maintain a healthy relationship with the client. Moving forward, the next step would be to have an open discussion with relevant staff and then set about a) producing educational materials for clients and for use by sales staff, b) hiring sales staff with the capabilities to understand and promote this process and c) developing documents needed for implantation such as contracts.
Co-founder and Creative Partner at Station Four