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Before client meetings, an early design guru of mine always insisted our team stand in the hallway and chant the phrase “All designers are arrogant bastards” until he felt we were in the proper frame of mind for the upcoming stand-off. From the vantage point of a decade I’d love to ask him about this little ritual; the project was a website redesign for the space industry, not the most cut-throat of opponents to begin with. There’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from dominating a bunch of kindly old astronomers. But for whatever reason, we never failed to ram our design suggestions through.

That website is still in use today, and it gives me the deepest pangs of shame to browse over its now-venerable pixels.  Not ’cause the design is so  ancient – for all I know its longevity could be a sign of really timeless thinking and not, as is more probable, budget cuts.  The shame comes from this:  My goodness were we a fantastic design team.  But what were we absolutely lousy at?  Astronomy.

It takes a lot of cash to hire a consultant who’s sure enough of herself to be a bully, and there’s a temptation to believe that throwing your weight around is part of the floor show.  This is the same line of thought that leads to rude service in a fancy restaurant: only a restaurant completely confident in its food could afford to be so disdainful of a customer. But does anyone actually enjoy eating at those restaurants?  No! Oh neophyte consultant, of course you know more than your client, but only, and this is important, only in one very small, specific area. What does your client know more about than you do?  Everything else.

A dude was recently ranting to me about a troublesome coding team.  The whole project idea, so terrible!  I’d offered them SO many better alternatives! And they wanted it in purple!  Agh!  Well dude of mine, let me take this opportunity to apologize for the angry lecture I gave you (not for the angry part, but I really shouldn’t have cursed so much.)

It can be tough to explain why it’s so important to never say no to a client.   I myself have asked prospective employees “So give me an example of how you handled a difficult client” and chortled at their tales of supremacy.  But why do we offer alternatives and trade offs, and when all else fails, beg and plead, but never ever ever ever outright say no?  It’s not, as the poor beleaguered dude guessed, that we need the money, although there are worse incentives for diplomacy.  It’s because more often than we’re comfortable admitting, the client is completely right.  After all, they do know a hell of a lot more than we do.

Imagine if any of the big innovators had let themselves be intimidated by their design team: Alright, let me get this straight – you want a big screen with extremely limited functionality, but you’re going to charge three times the amount of a fully functional computer. But having no content won’t matter because you expect thousands of programmers to teach themselves one of the more sophisticated coding languages  in order to create entirely new custom apps for it. And you’re going to make it white and rectangular, and name it the “ipad”, a combination sure to make schoolchildren everywhere snicker.  Mmmhmmm.

Well if that were you, wouldn’t you feel silly now (not to mention totally poor).  Every once in a while, the client isn’t being stupid or stubborn or disdainful or dense, they’re being gosh darn brilliant and you’d better listen up.  And the kicker is, you’ll never know which one it is until afterwords.

So, dude of mine, just for a moment,what about entertaining the possibility of a completely purple website?  Who knows what fantastic new ‘all-purple’ trend your clients may actually be onto?  Being an arrogant bastard is a great way to bulldoze over a couple of sweet old astronomers, but a really crappy way to build a website about astronomy.  It’s an awesome way to get things done your way, and a terrible way to innovate.  When it comes to assuming idiocy over invention, consider giving your client the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were smart enough to hire you, eh?

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