One of the biggest shortcomings to web design is communication, or lack of it. Most web designers just plain suck at it most of the time (I know I’ve been there).
We’ve all seen it before. Nothing gets done. Milestones are missed, projects aren’t finished and clients aren’t happy. These are the telltale signs of poor communication. Communication is perhaps the most significant part of the web design process, too. You can be the best CSS coder or the most talented graphic illustrator, but if you can’t hone in on your communication skills, you’re at a loss.
How can we be better communicators? These are some of the things I’ve done to improve my own communication abilities.
Get in the mindset of your client
This is a key first step toward better client communication. How does your client think and process information?
Some clients are very organized and thorough, and will provide detailed answers to your questions. Others are disorganized and will float off into another world if you let them get away.
How does your client think? Are they clueless about the web or have an email phobia? Do they think they know it all? Do they prefer to use the phone?
Think like they do. If your client comes across as technologically challenged then they may not return your emails in a timely fashion. You need to call them. Figure this out immediately.
Establish a system
You need a clearly defined methodology for dealing with projects and clients. Once you engage a client, what is the next step? Do you send them a welcome email, schedule a meeting or give them a call? These may seem like minor or even obvious actions, but documenting them in a coherent manner will help you stay on track.
Also important is to communicate this methodology to clients. Explain how you plan on communicating with them and what they can expect. This is the easiest way to learn about potential obstacles straight from the client. I’ve had people tell me right off the bat that they only use their phone, which I then built into my methodology.
Always ask questions
When interacting with a client, always ask questions. If you’re speaking with them over the telephone, take a moment to make sure they don’t have any questions. Some people just don’t speak up unless prompted.
If you’re communicating via email, it’s essential to keep asking questions. In some instances I’ll build a bulleted list of questions and inform the client that I need them answered before I can proceed. In other instances, I just ask broadly at the end of the message if the client has any thoughts or feedback. Just the mere act of asking for feedback will go a long way in clearing up the communicate process.
Even more important than asking questions is following up. People are busy and sometimes need a little nudge when they haven’t returned your phone call or email. Be diligent in your follow-ups but not so much that you’re annoying.
Set firm timelines
Many projects and communication processes go awry because there are no deadlines or timelines. If you don’t know when something is due then you can theoretically procrastinate indefinitely.
This should be built into your project and client methodology. How will you establish timelines and how will you keep track of them? There are many tools out there that can help.
Make sure your clients are aware of the timelines and encourage them to partake in them. Some clients will follow the timelines but many will fall off course. Just keep nudging them back on the track and be firm about your timelines.
Focus on the outcomes and goals
People tend to be shortsighted when it comes to the nitty gritty of web design. It becomes a chore and time somehow always seems to run out.
This is when you need to remind yourself and your client of the outcomes and goals of the project. How will you benefit by completing this project? Payment should be a good motivating factor. How will the client benefit? They will likely drive more business through their new web site.
Or maybe you have more specific goals. Whatever they are, keep reminding yourself of them, especially when the details of the project start to become overwhelming.
Eliminate scope creep
Scope creep is a huge problem in web design. One change leads to another and then another, and the cycle begins.
This can hamper communication because it creates unneeded noise. You need to be focused on completing the project, not filling feature requests.
The best way to handle this is to explain your policy about it to the client upfront. Draw out a specific scope of work and tell your client that this is the work to be provided. Anything above and beyond that scope will either need to be phased into a new project or charged at an hourly rate.
And don’t feel bad about saying “no” to a client’s feature request. If it falls outside the scope, be firm in your stance about scope creep. Most of the time, the client will understand. If they don’t, you can point to the agreement you both signed.
Get past setbacks as soon as possible
In every web design project there will be problems and setbacks. The best course of action is to deal with them decisively and swiftly.
When a problem interferes with a project, it has the ability to worm its way into everything. If the problem goes unaddressed, it can even create tension between you and the client.
Nip it in the bud and get rid of the problem before it snowballs into bigger issues.
How do you deal with communication issues? I’m always interested in hearing about other things people do and improve their methods of communicate.