Improving Your Process: Maintaining Product Quality

Posted: April 14, 2008 Comments(3)

It’s no secret that Web 2.0 continues to be quite prevalent in the day to day happenings around the Web. I think this can be attributed to the fact that many business owners are just now discovering the trend because their competition has redesigned their website.

Very often, a business will want to revamp their website solely because their competition has done just that. Instead of considering their current website and its inherited faults, a new website will find itself in a company budget simply to one-up the competition. While it is important to remain competitive, there’s a fine line between advancing and playing catch-up.

As a designer, developer, or agency, it’s important to keep this in mind. It’s also important to find a balance between effective client communication and producing something that is going to benefit you and your client.

Competition as inspiration

Circumstances permitting, clients will forever believe that the websites of their competition are doing things right. I know we’ve experienced it a number of times; a client will request a superfluous feature straight out of left field, and upon further inquiry, you’ll realize their top competitor already has the exact feature your client desires.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t examine competitor websites when considering a redesign. Often times, that is one of the first steps many designers take when beginning a project. The difference comes with analysis of the competition. Just because a (possibly successful) competitor has done one thing, it doesn’t mean it was a good choice.

There are plenty of mistakes to learn from when looking at existing websites, the trouble comes when a client ceases to view you as the professional, and insists on having things a certain way. When all is said and done, your client has hired you and they’re going to get what they want. What’s important is to try your best to provide the best quality product possible.

In my experience, one of the more difficult things to do is deflect client requests which have no backing. Requesting a feature simply because another website has it is not going to help anyone. That includes not helping yourself, not helping your client, and most importantly, not helping the visitors to your client’s website. I’ve found that an effective way to have a better outcome with poor client requests is to simply start a dialog about the feature. Very often, a five minute phone call will help bring to attention that a particular element just doesn’t fit the project. Better yet, your client will be reminded that you’re both on the same team, that you’re the professional, and that you’re working hard to make sure the end product is the best it can be.

When budget interferes with accessibility

Coming full circle with my introduction about Web 2.0 and the contagious inspiration it offers many business owners is the inherent issue of accessibility. I’d like to go on a bit of a limb in saying that it is more difficult now than ever to produce properly accessible websites. Not because Web 2.0 is at the forefront of the Web and by default makes documents less accessible, but because of project budget.

Before the term Web 2.0 flowed down to even the most average Web user, it was partially difficult to explain the importance of accessible websites to potential clients. The arrival and acceptance of SEO in business made things exponentially easy. Explaining that a more accessible website provides better search engine visibility was an “easy sell” for building accessible websites.

SEO as a selling point continues to help ensure many Web projects built remain accessible (and a good business decision), but with Web 2.0 & Ajax being so prevalent, projects can come under fire when it comes to the budget. Clients, for one reason or another, seem to lose sight of accessibility (and SEO) when it comes to AJAX. They’ll see a competitor has a certain feature on their website and request their new site has it to. After examination, it’s painfully obvious the feature was implemented poorly and greatly degrades the browsing experience for a significant percentage of their readers.

As a designer or developer, you can take the time to explain to your client (in great detail) how the feature has been poorly implemented, adding a number of improvements to be made when adding to your project. More often than not the client will be eager to hear your improvements, as you explain the various benefits of the changes you’d like to make. A less pleasant discussion may come about when it comes to budget adjustments, however.

I’d like to be explicit in first saying that implementation of JavaScript shouldn’t automatically mean that a budget should be greatly affected. On the contrary. As a modern developer, you (or your agency) should be more than able to effectively implement JavaScript features that progressively enhance the viewing of a particular document. There will be budget adjustments required, however, to ensure that your implementation will gracefully degrade in applicable cases. An AJAX-powered contact form, for example. While easily implemented, an alternate (working) experience should be available.

While it may seem to go without saying, I’ve heard many clients proclaim that “Agency B can provide feature X for a cheaper price, why does it cost more for you to get it done?” The answer, more often than not, is that Agency B is not concerned with developing well-built, accessible websites. They’ve found an AJAX-powered contact form widget and will implement it for pennies. It probably won’t work in a number of cases, but it’s “implemented.”

What to take home

Unfortunately, reminding your client that the product you’re building is topnotch will be a constant requirement. We work in an industry saturated with establishments trying to make a quick buck anywhere they can, which degrades our surface value. Building websites is a craft you’ve been working on for any number of years, and you should stand up for what you’ve learned over time.

With issues like competitor inspiration and budget restriction, it’s important to realize that when working in Web design, you’re never done learning. By simply working in the industry, you’ve dedicated yourself to an ever changing set of guidelines to follow if you’d like to remain applicable. Keeping that in mind, you know more than your client about the Web. It’s important to remember that you both have the same goal in mind; providing the best product possible.

What are some client interactions you find to be reoccurring? I know it’s happened to me in the past, but have any of your clients been so adamant about their project that you were forced to simply succumb to their requests? What other issues have you come across?

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  1. “Just because a (possibly successful) competitor has done one thing, it doesn’t mean it was a good choice.”

    That is one of the biggest things I have had to re-inforce in the past. Just because a competitor is doing something, doesn’t mean it is a de-facto standard (in some cases it could be just plain stupid).

    I think one of our biggest challenges is what you stated at the end:

    “We work in an industry saturated with establishments trying to make a quick buck anywhere they can, which degrades our surface value. ”

    Agencies like this are all around us, and will say ‘yes’ to anything – without really knowing how to make things a cohesive whole.

    I have had to succumb to some stupid things in the past, but that was mostly because I was in house and it entailed requests from CEO/Marketing – even though I may have battled.

    It was harder when I worked in house, as the CEO would always say ‘our competitor site has XYZ, why don’t we?’ – when I knew full well it wouldn’t fit our business model and goals of our website. However, he was the CEO – and as such thought he had all the right answers. This made it tough on my position as he didn’t respect my opinion (backed by research) – and just assumed I should do what he said. It was poor leadership.

  2. @Nate Klaiber: Thanks very much for your thoughtful response. Convincing yourself that a successful competitor is doing something wrong is no easy task. Try to convince a client of that is even more tough. There are definitely times where you’re literally forced to do something, and in all honestly I believe it’s unavoidable when you’re being paid to build websites. At the end of the day, you can’t outright refuse to do things and expect to retain clients. Much of the time, however, clients are more than willing to listen to your suggestions for alternatives, as well as your explanation of the fault(s) behind their idea. You bringing up a situation in which the problem is completely internal is one which escaped me while writing this piece. When the ‘orders’ are coming from higher up the ladder, there really isn’t much you can do other than bite the bullet and implement. In a more hostile job scenario there’s always a threat of repercussions as a result of voicing your opinion when marketing is trying to do their part. Thanks again for providing your experience!

  3. Jonathan: Well spoken, sir. I’ve seen the monkey-see, monkey-do problem far too often, especially with churches and ministries. For instance, with, since it’s the largest in its denomination, many smaller churches just ripped off their ideas (and graphics) whole-sale. But, such is life, I suppose. We just have to keep fighting the good fight, advocating quality vs. a quick-fix (which is often quite broken).

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