4.6 Troubleshooting

Okay, things don't always go as planned. This fact should cause little concern for a professional. As such, few things will catch you by surprise and nothing should catch you unprepared. If you've made deliberate preparations, established your uncompromising standards, evaluated your potential clients and projects accordingly, and upheld your responsibilities, trouble should be an uncommon visitor to your agency.

Given the fundamental context most design projects are involved with there a few maladies with the potential to arise. You should be prepared to circumvent or deal with all of them. The following are the most common ones, each with some advice for how to prevent it.

Note that this section includes some unflattering characterizations of individuals on the client's side. This is not to say that clients are inherently problematic; only that when folks on the client's team do cause problems, the scenarios that follow are likely to result.

Second Guessing

A client may second-guess your work or your decisions for a variety of reasons. 1) if they're not fully confident in your abilities, 2) if the individual (client), too, is habitually second-guessed at work or is being second-guessed by a superior in the course of a project, 3) if they are deferring evaluation of your work to a third/hidden party, 4) if they mistakenly believe that they're supposed to second-guess you in order to achieve a good result (as ridiculous as that sounds, it happens). And there may be other reasons.

Preventing second-guessing

Your ability to prevent second-guessing usually hinges on whom you allow to enlist your services and under what circumstances. For instance, when a client knows little or nothing about you and simply needs a website or an application designed and chooses to contact you along with other potential agencies, it means that there is no initial basis of trust. It is best perhaps that you work mostly with those who come to you because of your reputation or because they've decided for some substantive reason that you are the right agency for them.

Other circumstances, too, can invite second-guessing: client-side “teams” where multiple individuals pretend to share responsibility (more on that later), stakeholders or decision-makers who are hidden or are removed behind layers of administration, a single primary contact who lacks full authority on the project, etc… For most cases, do not allow your clients to behave in these ways. Remember, professionalism requires that you insist on your clients behaving professionally, too.

  1. Before taking on the project, find out who has ultimate authority for approval. Insist on working directly with that individual (alone, if appropriate).
  2. Except for complex projects where different individuals are responsible for different components of the project, do not allow your client to assign a “team” to the project, where responsibility is shared. Shared responsibility means no responsibility. The buck must stop with one individual who has responsibility and authority for all decisions, else no one does. If your client refuses to designate someone to this role, accept the client only if you have extra time and money to spend on foolishness and shenanigans.
  3. If the potential client wants to designate one individual to work with you or your agency but that person does not have full decision-making authority, there will be little chance for success. You should decline such projects.

If the owner or manager on the client side is the one with final authority but does not have time to work directly with you, he also does not have time to bring off a successful project. If this person refuses to give full project authority to a single employee, he either has control issues or is employing the wrong people. Neither of these situations is good for you.

Posturing

Posturing may have several incarnations. One form of posturing is when multiple people are involved on the client side and one or more individuals try to outdo one another in order to establish internal “territory.” Another form is when the client believes it necessary to engage in posturing directed at you or your agency because of insecurities or a desire to establish some sort of political superiority over you (which among other things leads to second-guessing). Generally, this is done in order to exert strong influence over your design work because the individual suffers from trust or control issues.

Preventing posturing

Simply possessing and adhering to your own professional standards goes a long way toward keeping this sort of childishness out of your projects. If you accept only those clients who want specifically to work with you, it is unlikely that they'll be the sort to engage in posturing. If you insist on working primarily or entirely with the individual with ultimate authority on the project, there's little chance of this sort of behavior among your client's team.

Beyond that, unless you are careful and deliberate in your pre-bid discussions, this sort of behavior is hard to circumvent. Perhaps the best way to prevent having to deal with posturing is to spend adequate time in direct discussion with your potential client before accepting them. If you have a good grasp of behavioral indicators you should be able to spot troublesome tendencies during those important initial conversations.

Nit-picking

Nit-picking, like second-guessing, typically has its roots in the client's lack of confidence in a designer's abilities. Alternately, it could be the result of a client's belief that design is mostly about aesthetics, and “everyone can be a decorator” …or the client's belief that designer/client collaboration requires that the client engage in design. Or it may simply be that the client is compelled to nit-pick in an effort at posturing. Or perhaps—because of your asking their opinion about design issues in discovery—they feel the need to try and impress you by adding their touch to the designs. Still further, this behavior may stem from the mistaken idea that the design work is meant to please them (the client) and not their website/app visitors or users.

Nit-picking prevention

One of the surest ways to prevent a client from engaging in nit-picking is to first make clear that as the design professional you, not the client, will be engaging in design. You might even go so far as to put that into your contracts where you can get your clients' signed acknowledgement. If they trust you to do your job, there should be no problems going forward. In pre-bid discussions I always make clear that I and my staff won't be asking any design questions in our discovery. I explain that instead we'll be asking about aims, needs, and constraints, and then as design experts we'll craft the design that meets appropriately with those (client/user/brand) aims, needs, and constraints. If the potential client expresses confidence in this approach, it bodes well. If they seem confused or dubious of this approach, I know to be otherwise very careful in evaluating their suitability for working with us.

In your pre-bid discussions, find out how your potential client intends to participate in the project. If they are predisposed to helping with the design work, you may be inviting problems by taking on the project (depending on the specific circumstances). Know also that if you make a habit of asking design questions of your clients it is likely that they will feel compelled to impress you with some semblance of design acumen, whether they possess any or not. It is difficult to escape from this trap and I highly recommend that you do not place yourself in such a position.

Additionally, it is best that in pre-bid discussions you work to discern whether the potential client is most interested in a design that pleases her or one that pleases her visitors/customers/users. If it's the former, you must plan to make an effort at reeducating your potential client if you are to salvage any hope of success. If the potential client understands that the design is meant to serve her visitors and users, chances for success are greatly increased (but do remain vigilant and diligent in your further assessment about the client's predispositions!).

Jockeying for position

If you are unwise enough to take on a client who insists on assigning a team of non-stakeholders to the project, you are inviting several inappropriate behaviors from your client; the most prominent of which may be these individuals' jockeying for position in an attempt to impress you, or more likely, their boss. In such a hellish environment, a good suggestion from one individual on the client's team is not so much rewarded as it is bait for competition. As none of the participants has any real authority, their only reward is to outmaneuver and beat back their coworkers. Instead of moving toward success, the participants merely keep score. But there will be no winners, just a bunch of losers; you and your client among them.

Prevention of jockeying for position

The surest way to prevent this sort of jockeying for position is to require that your clients not involve anyone in the project who does not have relevant insight or authority. True, it is not uncommon that an owner or manager or CEO may desire to have several others involved in the discovery process in order to ensure that requirements and concerns are fully expressed. And this is generally a very good idea. However, you would do well to insist that their influence is removed going forward and that only those with ultimate authority then be engaged in the project outside of ongoing discovery issues.

One way to explain this requirement is to point out that design is not a negotiation. Point out that you, not they, are the design professional adept at crafting appropriate and effective solutions. Internally negotiated results are almost always corrupted results. The only people who need to work to impress the client authority figure in the course of the design project are the designers. All else is distraction.

Committee meetings and task forces

Committee meetings and task forces are ever made up only of 3 kinds of people: those who seek to share in glory without having to accomplish anything, those who want to influence outcomes without being burdened by responsibility, and those who are there by requirement yet have no stake in or enthusiasm for any outcome. The consistent feature of committees and task forces is the utter lack of specific responsibility. In what world could these people positively contribute to a successful design project? Such a world does not exist.

Prevention

This one is easy. As has been said several times so far, you are the design professional so your clients must adhere to your processes. If you do not require committee meetings, do not allow them in your project. If your potential client does not agree to let you to manage the project, he is not ready to work with professionals and you should not engage him. This is something you need to know before you have signed any contracts.

Professionals have responsibility to control the issues of process and standards that contribute to or detract from success. If you invite or allow committees or unaccountable project task forces into your process, you deserve the misery you'll get.

Practical Conclusion

Success in practical matters is entirely up to the professional(s) involved and, skills aside, is governed entirely by strict adherence to professional standards. Compromise comes only when it is invited. Don't do that.

It is important to note that those who make a habit of compromise will find that they are unable to garner any interest or attract any business without it. Those in the habit of being entirely uncompromising will find exactly the same thing. The difference is that the former will work in constant stress and misery and their success will be in the hands of others. The latter, however, will enjoy seemingly effortless fulfillment and legitimate success that they alone control. Which would you prefer?