"I think what we have here is a failure to communicate."
More than anything else, poor communication causes the worst problems in a web design project. As a web designer I know that the rare times I have a problem with a client, in 99% of cases, it's not a lack of talent on my part, a bad design that I've done, or even a failure to complete a project on time - it's just poor communication between myself and the client, plain and simple.
When the client and I are on the same page, constantly in touch and clear about the client's needs, there are no problems. Communication is the key to a successful project and a successful web design business.
That was important. Let me say one more time: Communication is the key to a successful project and a successful web design business.
Since how to effectively communicate with a client is a pretty broad subject and certainly beyond the scope of this article, I'm going to focus on what tends to be the biggest problem area in a web design project: the start of actual site development.
You see, most web designers (myself included) communicate TONS with a client before they close a sale. There's a preliminary questionnaire or phone call to collect info about the technical aspects of the site to determine a price, plenty of talk about costs and contracts, and a bit of correspondence about that lovely little check that all web designers cherish. And when all that's done, communication usually takes a nosedive.
Web Design Is Like Love - Only Fools Rush In!
After money has changed hands, a deadline has been set, and the project is almost underway, the inclination of both the client and web designer is to start hammering away at the site - without spending plenty of time determining what the client really needs; the client wants the site done as soon as possible, and the web designer wants a big fat check when it's done.
I've done it a few times. Admit it - so have you. And it's cost us quite a pretty penny in time and money, hasn't it? It's easy to understand, though - we're busy people, us web designers, and putting together a great site takes quite a bit of time! We don't have room in our schedules to spend a couple of hours on the phone ironing out little details and listening to our clients blab on and on about what they want. (I'm kidding - sure we do, but it's not ideal.) So we don't talk with our clients, and we pray for the best.
But what if you didn't have to spend hours on the phone taking extensive notes (and scribbling them out, and rewriting them, and then scribbling them out when your client changes her mind three times with every single thing in the course of the three hour phone call that's cost you $20 and a huge headache)? Well, there's an easier way, and what's better, it's a real no-brainer...
Use a Prewritten Secondary Questionnaire
The idea is simple, folks. For any given project, there are probably about 10 to 20 key pieces of information you need to get the site right for your client. You need to know things like:
Realistically, everything else is basically junk information that you probably won't use. So, if you always need to know the same things for each project, why not just put together a simple list of questions that you can send to your client before you begin work? (Note: if you've got a wide range of client types, just create several questionnaires, each tailored to a given client type). You do it when you give a price, so why not do it when you're actually working on the project and put together a secondary questionnaire?
It's perfect: you and your client save time by not having to discuss the project extensively over the phone (all you have to do is send the questionnaire!); your client gets to take his or her time thinking about and answering the questions, and he or she can complete the questionnaire bit by bit; and you get all the information you need in one place organized just as you need it.
Gee Whiz, That's Awesome! But How Do I Make my Questionnaire?
First of all, it's easier than you think. As noted above, the whole point is to get those critical questions answered that provide you with the info you need for the project. I'd give you a list of the questions I ask, but I can't divulge my mega-buck-making trade secrets. So here are some common starting points that will vary a bit depending on your client base. You'll probably want to ask questions about:
Remember that the idea here is to save time for your client and yourself, so keep the questionnaire as concise as possible while still getting all the info you need. For a point of reference, depending on the type of client I'm working with, the questionnaire I use ranges from 10-15 questions. However, all my clients are small business owners with relatively simple web sites, so don't be afraid to ask more questions if you think it's necessary.
Putting the Questionnaire to Use
Probably the simplest way to put the questionnaire into action is to write it up in Word (or your word processor of choice) with a bit of space for the client to answer each question, save the file, and then just attach it to an e-mail when it's time for the client to fill it out.
Another great option I've found (and use) is an online questionnaire system that allows a client to log in, answer questions and save the answers, and return as often as necessary until all the questions are completed. (This is actually a good system for a primary questionnaire, one that asks questions about scope and features instead of design and functionality, if you are working on a large-scale projects). It's actually designed for this specific application, so it's got most of the questions you'd want to ask already in place.
Keep It Fresh
Well, now you know what to do and how to do it, so go write your questionnaire! It shouldn't take you long to create (10-15 minutes), and it'll save you five times that amount of time with every client you have. Just remember to keep the questionnaire fresh and up to date - as you use it more and more, figure out which questions are helpful and which aren't, and take out questions that don't provide you with needed info.
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