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When what the client wants isn’t what they need

On a recent client project, I had to tell a client that I wouldn’t do what their CEO wanted. Or, more accurately, that I wouldn’t do something just because their CEO wanted it.

I’m hired to solve problems #

“They didn’t hire you to create something they like, & something they like may not solve their business problems.”
Mike Monteiro via Dan Mall

In my case, the client’s CEO, “Doesn’t like white backgrounds on websites.” And that’s a valid matter of taste.

His preference, though, was a gradient black to charcoal background with light gray text and deep red links on it. For sighted users, it’s difficult to read. For about 5-percent of the male population, those suffering from a few forms of colorblindness, it’s completely unusable.

I explained my concerns. And I was told, “This is the kind of thing you don’t ask questions about. You just do it and move on.”

How do you respond to that? #

The problem is, you don’t hire me to cater to your tastes. My job as a web professional is to make my clients successful, and sometimes that means pushing back on bad decisions.

Here’s what I did.

1. Have the tough conversation #

It was pretty obvious to me that my client wasn’t comfortable pushing back on the CEO. So I offered to do it.

I don’t have to work there every day, and I understand the implications of the proposed solution. I can have a conversation that someone well below the CEO on the reporting structure might not feel comfortable having.

What’s more, the CEO may not “like white backgrounds,” but that doesn’t automatically mean you need to use the existing gray on black. There are plenty of other combinations that fit in the brand color palette, are accessible, and attractive.

This suggestion was immediately dismissed.

2. Appeal to data #

Given the desire to please the CEO, I thought data might be a more effective approach.

“Did you know that with the proposed solution, about 5-percent of the male visitors to your site won’t be able to use it effectively?” Surely the CEO would want to maximize visitors who can use a site, no?

Maybe, but my contact at the client site still didn’t feel comfortable moving forward, data or not.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Why not just do what the client wants and move on?”

Because clients don’t hire me because I make them happy. I mean, I do that, too. But my job is make them successful. That’s how I make them happy. And this was a decision that would be detrimental to their success.

My last attempt: appeal to the legal implications. I sent them the American’s With Disabilities Act specifications on Web Accessibility, and specifically called out the section on color contrast and vision impairment.

I mentioned that going forward with their proposed solution might put them at risk of violating the Act, and offered an alternate solution. Use almost-black text on a light-gray background. It’s not white, and it’s a pattern that was already in use on their existing site.

That did the trick.

Getting the confidence to tell a client “no” #

Until recently, I didn’t feel comfortable telling clients “no.” I believed my job was to do what they asked me to do.

Then I discovered Mike Monteiro.

First, his talk, F*ck You, Pay Me, which influenced how I set up my freelance business. Then, his book, Design is a Job, which is required reading for anyone in a creative field who interacts with clients. Then I saw him talk at An Event Apart Boston about how the things our clients don’t know about design are our fault, not theirs.

Mike has done more to influence my thinking around the business of web work than anyone. He also helped me have the confidence to stand up for what I think is right instead of just doing what the client wants.

Check out his work.

Have any questions or comments about this post? Email me at chris@gomakethings.com or contact me on Twitter at @ChrisFerdinandi.

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