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13 things not to say as a web design client

There are certain phrases that we hear time and time again as a digital agency, and every time we do, our hearts sink a little. But most of these come up because clients aren't sure how to communicate their thoughts. Here are the 13 that come up most often, and how to avoid them.

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Most people don't regularly participate in website design projects. There are some roles outside of web design - such as inhouse Marketing Managers, or Project Managers - that may be involved from time to time. But for a lot of the clients we work with, this is their first or second time ever.

Without careful management, this can easily lead to misunderstandings, clients feeling like they aren't being listened to, or a derailed project.

Over the past decade or so, we've noticed that the same comments, requests or bits of feedback do come up time and time again. And we've adjusted our process along the way to better deal with these, and even pre-empt them before they pop up.

So that's why I thought it might be helpful to go through some of the classic client comments and try to understand what people are really asking for, why it might cause trouble, and how to communicate better on both sides.

"This design doesn't WOW me"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I am not surprised by this design.
  • What your Agency hears
    Throw out all the careful planning, just give me something shiny.

When it comes to looking at visuals, clients can sometimes forget what their website is for, and decide they want to abandon the carefully worked out strategy for something shiny instead.

That's often because the concept you're presented isn't a surprise to you. 

It WILL look like the wireframe you were given.

It WILL use the colours and fonts from your logo and branding.

Because you've seen all the steps leading up to the design presentation, it's not going to be a shock reveal, and sometimes clients can feel a little underwhelmed as a result.

And that leads to asking for vague, undefined things like "wow" and "pop". 

Our web design process isn't just about following the latest design trends, it's about creating something that is bespoke for your business.

There's a reason we laid all this groundwork, and that's because we're trying to create a web product that speaks to your target audience and encourages them to use your service.

A unicycling elephant juggling your products might have the "wow" factor, but is it actually going to bring you more business, or is it a distraction from the main goals of the site?

That's why the design shouldn't be a shock to you. In fact, if it is, there's probably been some serious miscommunication somewhere along the line.

And if you're still not loving the visuals, or think they aren't in line with what you planned, then try to be clear about exactly what the problem is. 

Is it the imagery? The colour? The messaging? The layout? 

You don't need to come up with a fix, but articulating exactly what is wrong gives your agency the chance to understand why something isn't working for you, and look at ways to resolve it.

What to say instead
I'm not sure about this specific element, can we make sure it's right for our target audience?

  • What the Client (usually) means
    We really want brand recognition.
  • What your Agency hears
    The logo is more important than the website.

Making the logo bigger is another classic request, and one that's gained infamy in the design industry. 

Generally, the logo size is carefully chosen by the designers so that it's clear, recognisable and perfectly balanced with the rest of the site and navigation. 

Which isn't to say that it can't ever be made a little bigger, but it's important to think about how big you expect the logo to be, and why you want it to be larger in the first place.

Think about what the most popular websites are online, and how recognisable their brand is. And now look at their website, and look at the size of their logo. 

Example logos
How some popular websites size their logo

For example, we've had clients request that the entire hero image just be their logo. Now that's not a good idea for several reasons, the biggest being that you lose your opportunity to speak TO your clients to simply shout your name AT them.

Not ideal.

But if you are concerned that your brand really isn't coming through, try to communicate that to your design team. But think twice about giving the dreaded request to "Make the logo bigger".

What to say instead
I'm not sure the website feels like it's part of our existing brand.

"Just do the same as <successful company>"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    This website is a success, I want to replicate that success.
  • What your Agency hears
    If I copy Facebook I'll be a billionaire by Tuesday.

This can be a bit of a red flag to agencies, and it's usually either because the client doesn't fully understand how websites work, or because the agency has misunderstood the client's intentions.

The key here, is to be a client with a plan. 

If you are creating a website that is similar to another, but has a key USP, a niche audience, a marketing strategy, funding or a detailed business plan, then you may have a great project on your hands. 

But if you think that just copying a successful website is a shortcut to success, then you're going to be very disappointed.

If you want your design to be identical to another site, then be aware, this is very much a breach of copyright, and an honest agency is never going to agree to do that.

And anyway, you're never going to succeed if your site looks just like someone else's. Instead, take the time to write a website brief, and be sure to mention your competitor or the website you like as part of that.

You need to stand out, not blend in.

What to say instead
I've got a business plan to transform this service for this audienceOR I like the look and feel of this site, can we create something along the same lines?

"Just get photos from Google"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I don't know where to get images.
  • What your Agency hears
    Use whatever poor quality images you can steal.

Photography on a website is important. Bad photography chocies can ruin a great website design, so choosing good photos for a website is vital.

Custom, purpose-taken photography is ideal, but that's not always feasible. So if you aren't supplying your own, your agency will need to be able to source licensed pictures. 

Feel free to find images you like the style of on Google, that can help direct your agency to the right sort of pictures, but usually you can't just copy those images without a license.

Just because something comes up in Google search doesn't mean it's free to use. Even if you're a small business, chances are you WILL end up being caught, and asked to pay a large settlement to prevent court action.

We have seen it happen time and time again.

So if you are using stock pictures, ask your agency which libraries they use, and make sure you select pictures from there.

What to say instead
I've found some photos I like, can you find similar ones from your stock library?

"I can't do the content until I see the design"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I don't know how to write/structure the website content and I don't want it to hold the project back.
  • What your Agency hears
    Get started on the design now and then redesign it all again once the content is written and doesn't fit.

Now, this is one of those things where a lot of the stress can be taken out by implementing a really good plan.

For example, if your agency does a card sorting exercise with you, then you should have a good structure for your content before the design is even started.

That can be really helpful, because it is a daunting task to write website content. It can be really hard to know where to start, let alone how to structure the text.

But if you have a structure in place, you AND your agency are working on the same plan, so fitting the content into the design will be super easy.

If you aren't going to do any content until the design is complete, then you're going to have to write to the design.

Now, this isn't impossible at all. In fact, it's a big part of what I do every day. But you actually have to write TO the design. With word and character limits based on the lorum ipsum that's there as a placeholder.

But even this way round you need to have done your card sorting exercise first. 

Otherwise you are going to be writing to fit the design and discover that there's no section or page for really important content, or that things are in the wrong place or order.

So whether you design to the content, or write to the design, you need to have a full content plan in place beforehand. Otherwise someone's going to have to rework everything they've done. 

And if that's your agency, be prepared for an extra cost.

If you are really worried about creating your own content, even with your plan in place, why not have a read of our quick guide to fantastic website text.

What to say instead
We'll do the content based on the structure we agreed on in planning.

"Can you do it quicker?"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I've got a deadline I'd like to meet.
  • What your Agency hears
    Magically work faster.

When your agency gives you a time frame for something, they're not just factoring in the number of hours devoted specifically to working your project.

Chances are yours isn't the only project they're working on, not to mention that other clients could be in touch at any point with urgent changes or updates.

And that's before you think about all the additional things that slow a project, like feedback, planning, revisions, asset gathering etc.

And the big secret is - that's mostly on you.

If you can provide information, assets and feedback quickly, then chances are your project will be finished on time, or even a little faster than you anticipated.

But your agency can't just magically "work quicker". 

If you're expecting that, then you're asking for them to do one of the following:

  • Postpone their other client work
    This is usually out of the question, unless they have work which is not time sensitive.
  • Skip important stages, such as planning or user testing
    Rushing work is a great way to reduce the likelihood of it being successful.
  • Pay their staff extra to do overtime
    If you want that, be prepared to pay more. Or for your agency to turn down your project.

So make sure you're upfront about any deadlines you might have (don't just drop them on your agency halfway through the project), because it might be a key factor when looking at choosing a design agency.

And more important, think about whether your web product MUST be ready by that date (and why), or whether you'd just prefer it to be ready by then.

What to say instead
This is my deadline, can we work to that?

"We need total control over the site"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    We need to make regular updates.
  • What your Agency hears
    We will ruin this website within 6 weeks of launch.

Usually what clients really mean by this, is that they want to be able to update and grow their website. 

That's a perfectly normal request, and depending on what you need exactly, you could just want editable content areas, the ability to construct new pages or to be able to add plugins.

But if you really want TOTAL control, including changing layouts, colours and fonts, then you need to understand that comes at a design cost. 

Total control means giving you a framework that you can completely change at will. Which means the site has to be simplistic enough to be flexible.

Not to mention that you'll need the capability in the back-end system to manage that flexibility.

Essentially, if you want total control, you're probably better off with a template site than a bespoke design.

A lot of the time clients who ask for total control are people who don't want to have to come back to their agency for additional work or updates. 

They're usually clients who've been burned by a bad relationship with an agency before, or who don't want to engage with their provider post-launch.

At its heart, this is an issue of trust. 

If you can't trust your agency to create a website that's right for you, that gives you day to day flexibility and ongoing support, then you might be better off without an agency at all, and get a flexible template that you can edit at will instead.

What to say instead
These are the updates we want to be able to do regularly, will we be able to do that in-house?

"Give us 2 design options, and we'll choose"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    We're worried we won't like the design.
  • What your Agency hears
    Do one design that you know is right for the project. Then another completely different design. But that's also equally right for the project. And let us arbitrarily choose between them.

The big reason you're not going to get multiple concepts from your agency isn't that it's twice as much work (which it is - and more!), but because if they've done the groundwork, research and planning, then coming up with two completely different design concepts is just unnecessary.

Often this request comes up because a client is worried that they'll see the concept and not like it.

So multiple options is a safer bet, right?

But you need to remember that the best website for you isn't necessarily the one that you think looks the nicest - it's the one that your customers respond to.

If your agency is doing the planning, research and strategy that it should be doing, then when they present your design concept they'll take you through the decisions they've made and why they've made them.

That should show you that they've made the right choices for your target audience - which should be the right choices for you too!

After all, your website doesn't exist so you can admire how pretty it is, it's a tool to grow and expand your business (whilst looking lovely too!).

What to say instead
Explain to us how you make design decisions.

"You're the expert, just do what you think is right."

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I want to trust your judgement and allow you to be in control.
  • What your Agency hears
    I don't want to do any work for this project.

You probably think that an agency loves to hear that they're the expert and they're in charge.

But usually this is a bit of a worry.

A lot of the time clients say this because they know they aren't the expert, but remember, you most certainly ARE the expert on your business and your customers.

And your agency absolutely needs your involvement, otherwise they can't know what "right" is.

Your involvement, particularly at the start of a project is absolutely vital, and it's only after this stage that your agency can take the knowledge you've given them, and THEN "do what they think is right".

But you probably do have visual opinions too. So if you genuinely can't stand green, or think sketch style images are childish, please tell your agency. 

After all, we do want you to love your website as much as your customers will. 

What to say instead
Here's loads of information about the company, our goals, our customers and our services. Come back to me if you need anything else. Also I hate pink.

"Can you give me a quick quote?"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I need to have an idea what this might cost.
  • What your Agency hears
    I'm going to make my decision on price and nothing else.

Finding out how much a website costs can be a right pain. Especially if your web project is a little out of the ordinary.

And a good agency isn't going to want to just give you the cheapest price possible for a website. 

They want to give you a price for creating a website that's actually going to achieve what you need it to.

Sometimes, a little extra investment can be the difference between a website that just sits there and looks pretty, and one that inspires customers to interact.

And similarly, your agency might suggest spending less upfront and starting with a smaller, less complex web app so you can grow and expand based on user feedback and interactions.

So one agency's quote of £y might have everything you need to make your project a success, even though you haven't asked for everything they're including.

And another agency's quote of £x might tick all the boxes for what you've asked for, but isn't going to deliver what you need.

It can be really difficult to understand what costs are involved in creating a web product.

It's important to think about how to budget your web project. Just price shopping for a website is a really difficult game, it's like price shopping for a house - there's simply too many different variables that impact that price. 

But in short, it's not just about the money. It's what you're getting for that money. And that can't be delivered in the form of a quick quote.

Investing a little time into speaking with some agencies to get the full picture of what they offer is going to be well worth the effort.

Otherwise all you're doing is comparing a £100k house to a £1million one. And assuming that you're getting the same thing.

If you really are at the early stages, it might be a good idea to ask your agency for a ballpark cost, or an typical project cost. This means you aren't wasting your time (and the agency's) if you're both poles apart.

What to say instead
I'm expecting to invest somewhere in the region of £x-£y in my web project, can we talk about what you can do for me? 

"Can I sit with a designer?"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I want to be involved in the creative process.
  • What your Agency hears
    I'm going to turn this process into a nightmare.

Please, please never ask to sit with a designer or developer as they work.

Most clients imagine that when they sit with the team, it will be really helpful to get real-time feedback so you can make changes quickly and speed up the whole process.

But what you'll actually experience is a lot of work that doesn't make any sense to you. Code. Sketches. Isolated elements.

You can't understand the full picture until the full picture has been created. 

It's also not faster to make changes "on the fly". It's infinitely easier for your web team to get a full list of changes you'd like and update the concepts or product in one fell swoop than to get a constant flow of feedback and changes.

And last but certainly not least, if you sit with a designer and give them direction, you're not making use of their expertise.

Essentially you're just directing them to do what you want. Which might sound great in the short term, but you're paying for a professional to turn your creative ideas into something powerful. 

Don't you want to get the full value of their expertise?

So, while your agency absolutely wants and needs your feedback, it's much better to do it in a structured way, based on the concepts or products that they've presented to you. 

Not by interjecting in the creative or constructive process.

It's fantastic to be keen for your ideas and voice to be heard, but there are much better ways to get involved.

Maybe ask for a meeting with your designer before they get started to take them through your creative ideas, or examples of sites or web products that you like or dislike.

That gives you the opportunity to shape and collaborate in the process, without hindering your agency's creativity or slowing down the project. 

What to say instead
I'm really excited about being involved in the creative process, can I meet with the design team to talk about the sort of style I think would work for us?

"Bob doesn't like it"

  • What the Client (usually) means
    We've had some negative feedback.
  • What your Agency hears
    Screw the plan, just make Bob happy.

Getting feedback for a project can be tricky. There's a big difference between getting constructive feedback from key stakeholders, and opening the process up to everyone.

Clients often present the opinion of Bob from Sales, who's not been involved in the process and doesn't know why certain decisions have been made, as though it's as significant as Amy from Marketing, who's been a key figure in the planning and strategy for the project.

Of course you want everyone to like the new website, but it's really important to remember that you're not trying to create a web app that everyone likes.

You're trying to create one that improves your business performance.

And Bob wasn't part of that process. So he's just looking at it in terms of whether or not he personally likes it.

There's often a person in design presentation meetings who wants to be devil's advocate, and declares that they don't like the site.

That can be an opinion that needs to be heard and considered, but you need to make sure that the criticism is constructive and based on the strategy you've worked out together, not just on personal opinion.

So, "Bob is concerned that users aren't going to know X" is constructive, "Bob doesn't like the font" isn't.

This is one of the big reasons that agencies like to keep initial feedback to key stakeholders in the project, so everyone is on the same page and working together to make a product that achieves your business goals.

What to say instead
Bob's made some good points about how x might affect our user journey.

"Just one more thing..."

  • What the Client (usually) means
    I have more feedback.
  • What your Agency hears
    I haven't actually looked at everything yet.

Ah, the Columbo client.

This is one of the most common and easily fixed communication problems between a client and their web agency.

Because there's never just ONE more thing. Once that one thing is dealt with, chances are there's another. And another.

Clients often try to give feedback as they go through a project, or only look at one aspect at a time.

As soon as your agency gets in touch to say that request a has been completed, you realise there's something else you need doing.

It's a really easy trap to fall into, but if you're putting together feedback, requesting changes or new features, please, please try to make sure you've got a full list of everything you want first.

Think about it this way, any update to your website takes x minutes to actually do, and another y minutes to take the request, schedule the work, take someone off their current project, upload the files and get back to you.

Sure, y isn't a huge number of minutes. But when you're doing it 3 or 4 times, it starts to add up.

Not to mention that doing incremental changes can sometimes mean that the big picture is missed.

Sometimes the 4 separate requests you've made could actually be one larger change that improves the whole process by a bigger margin.

So, as much as you can, try to make a full list of everything you want before getting in touch. It's often worth quickly going through the website to make sure you're not missing anything.

What to say instead
I've made a list of changes I'd like to make.

Better communication for better web products

As with almost everything in life, good communication solves most problems before they start.

If you're ever in a situation when you find yourself saying one of these 13 phrases to your web developers, have a think about what you really mean, and maybe try using one of our alternatives instead.

That should stop your web team experiencing that sinking feeling when you ask for more "pop".

And more importantly, it should help you actually get what you need out of your web project.

And after all - that's the whole point of this experience, isn't it?

If you want to talk to us about a web project that is chock-full of "wow", or better still, brings you big online success, get in touch with us, we'd love to hear from you.

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Hannah Laird

Digital Marketing Manager