There's a lot of talks about successful cases in different areas, and much less about difficult and unsuccessful ones. And exactly the difficult cases can teach us a lot. Have you ever had such cases in your practice that still makes you flinch at every memory?
We have asked web designers to describe a gig that once gave them sleepless nights. So here we go with their stories (If you also have one to share, just do it in the comments section below).
Multiple stakeholder situations tend to be a nightmare with anything that has a design component, whether it's branding or web design. You would need to triple the anticipated revision and consulting budgets.
A few years ago we were working with a corporate culture consulting agency, and they had hired us to help them with both of those items, a rebrand and website refresh.
During the project, they wanted equal voting power and assured us it wouldn't be a problem moving forward. But in reality, they couldn't make up their minds and could never see eye-to-eye.
The project went way over budget, took several months longer than we had projected, and I personally invested additional time and energy trying to help them work with each other. One partner eventually bought the other out. We'll never be taking on another project with multiple stakeholders again.
A few months ago I was working on a project to create a unified experience between four different applications. All apps are different control panels for one massive application, so they needed to all look alike and have similar navigation. I built out the navigation and style guidelines, then passed that on to each app's development team. The problem was each app had a different stack, so it wasn't something that each developer could just plug in. It required weeks of sitting down one-on-one with the different developers and tweaking the code to work with their stack.
This is still an ongoing project and likely something that will happen again and again since it is so difficult to get multiple teams with very different stacks to agree on a single unified one.
There's been so many situations over the years where I've had to revisit an unsolved problem again and again until coming to a viable solution. Over time you develop systems and patterns for designing websites and solving problems — for both the coding aspects and with visual design. When the system does not go as smooth as possible and you’re forced back to the drawing board or doing research with no immediate solution it’s easy to end up in an anxious situation. Especially if there’s a deadline approaching. It all usually works out in the end though. You step back and approach the problem from a new perspective and figure out a solution that works for you and the client.
What gives me the most sleepless nights with web design is when a client does not provide the content on time or in as comprehensive a way as you initially expected. This prevents you as the designer or developer from moving at the pace necessary to complete the project. It happens more often than not and like the above description may require an alternative approach. Sometimes clients don’t realize that the timeline is not just for their own expectations but can affect your process, or worse, future projects.
As a developer, the number one issue you run into in web design is when you neglect to get input from designers. I don't have a specific case, but whenever a client wants to "just add a banner" or "double the size of that button" or "make it red", it's critical to pull in whoever owns design on the site and get their opinion. Usually, they have a working style guide, and there are either stylistic or UI/UX reasons for their design decisions. As soon as you start working without a designer, it can very quickly compromise the look of the entire site.
Robbie Sherrard, design-forward Shopify developer
As a professional website designer, you are constantly dealing with different types of people. Some are small business owners, some are artists, others are just part of a marketing team of a larger corporation. But every so often there is someone who lacks all respect for your process and expertise.
In my case, it was a new business startup for an appliance installer located in NYC. Upon starting the job, I was told that they had gone through multiple web designers in New York (this should have been a red flag from the start). Over time it was clear they had no concept of respect or hiring someone for an outside service. Their emails were sporadic, unorganized, and bossy. They showed no interest in following our suggested procedures and fought every possible mention that we would have to charge more for additional programming (despite it being clear in the proposal).
These types of people are hard to avoid and even harder to spot. Luckily it does not occur often. What we did to solve this issue moving forward was simple, we worked on an ironclad proposal.
Our proposal is detailed and covers every possible incident we have ever faced. Anytime we face a new problem, we add it to the proposal. New clients are strongly advised to read the proposal very closely as we stick to it like a judge to the law. Ever since this change in operations, we haven't had a single incident.
From my experience, almost every web design project has its fair share of challenges. The most common one that still annoys me the most is customers asking for items that are out of scope. No matter how much documentation or how detailed our proposals are, we still get faced with complaints about, OH!! why is that going to cost extra? I thought that was included…
We then have to outline the features & functions described and agreed to in the proposal, and then point out that in fact this wasn’t discussed or approved before signing off. Most non-tech savvy clients seem to think that most changes can be made by the simple “click of a button”. They often don’t realize the amount of coding work that can go into certain features & functions. They also don’t realize the amount of time it takes to test and ensure that new features work on every device and web browser.
I have a story in web design and it's still common with what I see happening today. I've been building websites for almost 20 years and now have a 10 person agency. Just trying to point out that I have some experience at different levels - freelancer to agency owner.
Something that happens all too often is the web developer buying the domain for the business owner. We all hope that we will be involved with that business 5, even 10 years from now. It doesn't always work like that. Where this becomes a problem is when the business owner looks to hire a new designer/developer and they find out they don't own their domain name.
I had a retail store owner contact me about doing a new web design for them. Not a problem I do this all the time. After doing some initial login gathering, I found the domain was owned by the previous web designer. The previous web designer also set up the web hosting on their reseller web hosting. I quickly realize the retail store owner does not own their domain and doesn't even own their hosting account. They also needed to renew this domain in a few days. The client reached out to the designer who supposedly unlocked the domain and transferred it to the client's account. It didn't transfer though, and it turns out the domain expired. The business owner who has a physical store in a small town just lost their domain they've had for nearly 10 years.
The registrar wouldn't work with the client or me since neither of us was the domain owners. The previous designer had checked out. It was clear they didn't want to work with my client anymore since the client was getting a new design. Rather than to help get the domain back, they let it expire. The domain was then bought up by a domain holding company and offered for sale for 1600 dollars. My client is a small business owner and didn't have the money to buy it back or the patience at this point to even fight for it.
It shouldn't be like this. Website providers need to help their clients own their digital assets. You can set them up in a way that they are owners of the accounts and you have the logins to make changes as needed.
Most difficult case: Over A Year And A Half Approving Text, Website Still Not Published
Our agency was hired to redesign a very old website for a professional firm, one of the tops in their field in our area with a great history and reputation. The top priorities for the redesigned website - a modern rebrand and new Search Engine Optimized content that would attract new business. Easy! Their current website had no ranking keywords for their industry type because they had no real content.
We made an awesome new design that has received no complaints. Our content writer researched and wrote new optimized content ... that the client just couldn't approve but couldn't say why. We got a new content writer and had the same response. Then the client suggested we copy content from other websites, which we said no to as it would be recognized as duplicate content.
Months and months later, the client finally decided to just write all the content themselves. We recommended this. Now, it's been over a year and a half and the client still can't approve the content they are writing - content that is not optimized or easily readable or long enough to be ranked by Google.
They still have their old existing website online and it looks so old like it was painted with oil paints in the Renaissance. With no content. We're now 17 months into the project with no end in sight.
Lesson is ... sometimes clients will prevent an entire website from being published because they can't agree on or provide content. So unfortunate!
Alex Wright, Web Design and SEO specialist
There are two sides to this.
1/ Clients that *think* they have great an idea which will make their website amazing. Unfortunately, this always results in the opposite. Making the website so difficult to use you lose every single customer, bearing in mind design and development disasters happen commonly on ecommerce sites.
2/ As a web strategist and consultant, before diving into any code, it’s important to sit down with a client and advise from a User-Centered Design (UCD) methodology. This means meeting your customers needs and requirements with every aspect of your website. All users visit a website to fulfill a set of tasks. If you make a website easy to understand and use, the engagement and conversion will increase, which also meets your business goals. Ie. To receive more customer leads or orders.
So basically you have to steer away from crazy ideas to do something more.
Two nightmares that I did just this - where I changed clients minds to something more useful was:
1/ 3D spinning floating menu - which would have had all sorts of device compatibility issues as well as accessibility issues for many users.
2/ Crazy checkout process on the ecommerce site that would have lost customers as it was not intuitive. Again it would have taken many hours to create, to benefit no one. It would have actually lost the client money on their development budget and sales!
Bottom line - use existing design patterns that users know and already use. You can still make a strong brand that looks professional and trustworthy. However, a great design is one that no one actually notices once they are ready the content on the website or app.
Jim Callender, Freelance WordPress Designer, UK
I've definitely had some difficult and unsuccessful cases. The ones that make me flinch are the cases where the client thinks they are giving feedback, but they don't actually give anything actionable. For example, scenarios when the client is incapable of providing feedback beyond "make it pop more". Sometimes they'll talk about their business for an hour, expect it to have some kind of meaningful impact on the design conversation, and then end it with "you get it" or "you know what I mean". Well, NO I don't know what you mean. I asked what colors you wanted on your website and you gave me details no one but you will ever need. 😉
We are actually in a bit of a rough situation with a client right now. We're doing our best to make them happy, but in this case, the owner is not tech savvy so he's having someone else handle all communication with us. The problem is that person hasn't done a good job of communicating with us, so we've been trying to reach the owner to explain that we're trying to move the project along. He is upset that the project has been delayed though and is refusing to talk to us. He insists that we should go through the other guy. Ugh!
Many years ago we had a client who just wouldn't take our advice as they knew better. They had spoken to many many other web design agencies and gotten opinions on everything, confusing their self even more.
The task was very simple: Slow loading WordPress website - Make it fast again!
We ran all the tests and noticed that the server was responding slowly and they had tens and tens of unused and out of date plugins along with an incorrectly set up visual page builder.
We proposed to the client to firstly move hosting at little to no cost to them to see how the site speed improves. They said no as their hosting was fine. So we copied the si eon to our server and a boost of around 5 seconds in load time straight away. Still, they would not change their hosting.
Secondly, we removed their out of date plugins and updated the ones that they needed to keep and run a cleaner on their WP Table... The load time fell from near enough 30 seconds to 5.
Still they would not move hosting and still, they would not remove the plugins even though the proof was there right in front of them!
This was solved, in the end, they removed some plugins but stayed on their web hosting - we decided to end our relationship with the client at this point.
In our years of working with businesses to build successful online experiences, the projects that have presented the most friction are the ones where clients try to micromanage the design process despite having little-to-no experience or authority in the world of design. As designers and UX professionals we bring our best to every project, so when a client is attempting to steer the project in another creative direction that we don't think will help them achieve their goals, it can grind the project to halt. It's an unfortunate scenario considering the client has paid for our expertise. In these cases, our job becomes helping clients see beyond their own design bias to what is best for their target audience.