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Help a Client, Help Yourself
By Eric Lander - August 07, 2001

As webmasters and designers, we all know how much stress our client's put on the look and graphical design of their sites. More often than not, the design of a website is prioritized over content, usability, and even legalities. As the web development industry grows each day, it is important to understand how to better suit clients because competition in the industry itself is growing exponentially.

But as is the case with any other industry, the well informed are those who can capitalize.

I know that many of TopSites' readers are webmasters, site promoters, and web specialists looking for some valuable resources to better their sites. So, with you all in mind, I want to discuss some methods that you can save yourself some time, money, and hassle when dealing with a client that just comes to you wanting a snazzy looking site without thinking beyond it's looks.

First of all, we need to understand exactly what the client wants their site to do. By this, I mean that the ideal site user needs to be clearly identified and described:

• What are their intentions?
• What are their habits?
• What information are they most likely to seek?
• How quickly can such information be accessed?
• How quickly can such information be accessed?
• What kind of layout will assist this type of browsing?

Even if a realistic user cannot be envisioned, it is possible to create a realistic scenario in which you (or site testers) can closely imitate.

Getting back to our test-client scenario… This particular client has some printed materials, basic contact information, an email directory, a fine-tuned niche of Internet users… And a really bad idea. Yes, it seems that this client has fallen in love with the most evil element of web usability. The Flash introduction. Now, your excited about the project as a whole, and you know that with a great and receptive audience this site can easily succeed. But with a Flash intro? Granted, these intros or maybe even billboard like graphics on the home page will look great if the viewer has the right browser setup - but can you really hope that everyone you are targeting has plugins x, y, and z? Of course not. And, I'm sorry to say, these larger graphical elements very rarely answer the questions or address the needs that a visitor to our sites may have.

I am willing to bet too, if you are a web developer by trade, that well over half of your clientele has no idea what SEO is or why it is important. I don't need to address what SEO is on this site (I hope!), so what we need to convey to these clients is that while design and aesthetical value are important, the site still needs to be found by those who do not know it exists. The way to do that of course is through various methods of structurally sound design. The perk lies within the fact that well structured sites intended for a broad user type often lends the benefit of clean coding - another bonus for SEO.

So, lets say that this client approaches you and they have a great idea for a Flash based introduction for their website highlighting everything the company is and does, what it stands for, and what it sells. While the information they are looking to present in such a presentation may in fact be a great idea, the client needs to know that they will likely lose 15 to 25% of their visitors when that page is presented as their homepage. No joke, and a serious matter to any business who wants to be cautious of spending when establishing a web presence.

In cases like this, we need to save some headaches further down the road and tell the client straightforward, that no matter how great the idea, it should be incorporated elsewhere. While we may be the ones to develop and construct these sites, we cannot (and should not) freely implement methods of distraction and expect any project to succeed, as the client would like to think it should.

Rather than deter every motivating factor though, immediately offer some alternatives that still incorporate the ideas, the paying client, wants to see. Add the Flash presentation to the "About the Company" or "Press Materials" sections if they exist. Add a small graphic and put it on every page so users can access it when they want to. Just don't let the issue be forced.

Recently, Rich Cirillo wrote an article for var Business quickly profiling Harold Hambrose of Electronic Ink and his company's efforts of factoring in user research into every web design that his company produces. And I couldn't be more supportive of this approach. I would highly recommend reading that particular article available below, or any other articles written by Cirillo.

Just remember the next time things like this come up - while aesthetics do need to be a factor, a site's success relies on how well the site works for its target audience, and how easily it can be found. How can you find out where people go, what they look for, and how they navigate? Research. All the design skills in the world cannot beat the ability to give people what they want, when they want it. The trick is that we as developers need to think for our project sites' visitors.