Jeremy Smith on March 08, 2017

Client Collaboration

Professional web design is always collaborative. Even if you are the sole designer or developer on a project, you are in collaboration with your client. What you create together will always be constrained in some ways by your client, as it will also be constrained by you.

I fought this early in my career. I wanted to receive a set of objectives, and then disappear during the creative process, only to return for a final approval, without any feedback or review. There are several problems with this. I came to realize that I was often wrong. Wrong about what the client wanted, wrong about the context I was making guesses about, wrong about best approaches to solving the business problem, and (especially as a young designer/developer) wrong in my technique. It was also very hard to find clients who didn’t want a say in what I made for them, and who would actually pay me.

But there was also a deeper problem. I was denying the essential nature of the client relationship. I’m sorry for the cheesy metaphor, but…it’s really a dance. And I didn’t want to dance with my partner. I wanted to be able to say I had a dance partner. I wanted the benefits of the partnership (work to do, and pay for my labor), but I didn’t want the close connection that was necessary for best results.

In the beginning, part of my reluctance was my own lack of skill in managing the client relationships and in doing the work. It’s hard to enjoy dancing when all your focus is on staying on your feet and not bumping into anyone. It’s also hard when you know what you’re doing together doesn’t look good, and that it’s your fault.

But later, after my skills had improved, I was frustrated when I was dancing with a partner that I perceived to be worse than me. They would make feature requests that went against best practices. They wanted to see design concepts that would be embarrassing to put into the world. They wanted to move in ways that I knew would not look or feel good, and because we were together, I had to move with them. I resented the relationship, because I wasn’t producing the best work I could produce – work I believed would be better if I was left to dance alone.

Except, dancing alone is not client work.

I eventually realized that being frustrated at a client for being a less-than-ideal dance partner didn’t improve our dance in any way. I could hold out for perfect partners, quit dancing, or simply accept the dance I was in. I found that there’s both graciousness and effectiveness in accepting the limitations of a partner, and embracing the challenge of making the best performance possible together, given the imperfect circumstances.

Over the course of a dance, I will only be able to change my partner in small ways. Skill, technique, and taste just take too long to develop. So my focus now is on evaluating their capacity, their weaknesses, their style (for better or worse) and fitting a dance to them, finding ways to make up for deficiencies, mine or theirs.

I don’t have to be embarrassed or resentful about an imperfect partner. I don’t have to wish I was dancing alone, because I imagine the performance would be better. I can focus on making us both look the best we can together. It’s an act of care to fully accept a client, flaws and all, without self-conciousness or reservation, and to focus on their enjoyment and satisfaction. That care is what’s needed for good client collaboration.

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