Business Help & Advice

The value of business knowledge

Adults don’t just pop into existence, fully educated and well heeled. The same applies to businesses — things need to be learned along the way. However, the expectations of clients can be that the knowledge we apply to their projects is old, tried and fully tested. But it’s sometimes borrowed and totally new…

Sometimes, as designers and developers, we’re learning on our client’s time. But that’s not a bad thing, nor is it unusual or wrong — we can’t know everything there is to know.

Client expectations of our business knowledge

Problem is, the expectations of our clients are such that 1. they sometimes resent the discovery process, as if we should already know these things, and 2. fail to see that the discovery process aspect of a project is not just essential, but billable, too.

To be fair, let’s just look at things through the eyes of the client for a second, shall we? First of all, setting aside issues of copyright, IPR’s (Intellectual Property Rights) contracts and such, most clients would feel that whatever we learn on their time and their money should only be used on their projects and nowhere else.

After all, they can’t be expected to be the unofficial R&D lab’ for our other clients, some of which are possibly their competitors.

As much as anything else, the client wants / needs to trust our judgment. And if they then see that we’re researching or experimenting with ideas, concepts and methods, what signals are we sending out to them? Mixed, I should imagine.

In fact, I know we’re sending out mixed signals. But the thing is — and I know this is going to sound cliché and trite — we’re students of life and simultaneously apprentices of our professions, too.

There have been many occasions when I’ve taken on a project whose constituent parts exist only as grey areas in my mind, right up until the point where I begin to do the actual work.

This might sound weird to some people, but if it’s a PHP or a creative design issue, I’m rarely vexed; it’s more a question of time and the amount thereof.

The value of our time to our clients

But then the client’s expectations can be quite different, too. Sometimes their opinion of what we’re doing for them is that our job is easy — it’s just computer stuff!

Yeah well, we might make this computer stuff look easy simply by being sat on our arses much of the time, but the mental manual labour and heavy lifting is very much underway in our heads.

It’s during these times that the perception of our success can be skewed somewhat. So some education is in order, and here’s your chance to bring your clients up to speed with what your job entails by inviting them to the office. Let them sit with you and learn first hand the time it takes to turn Widget A from blue to red.

My feeling is that most of the perceived “us & them” client versus supplier arguments that emerge are almost entirely borne out of ignorance.

Talk to your clients, ask them what they think, what they feel. Allay their fears with a little light education and you too could prevent Project X taking on a life of its very own, devouring your time, and consuming all of the good-will currency you’ve banked with your clients in the process…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

5 replies on “The value of business knowledge”

This is a fantastic point, especially for clients who want something that stands out or pushes the envelope. I believe often we need to spend more time educating our clients on what it is we do for them, and why it does take so long to make “simple” changes sometimes. This of course leads into a conversation about how to make sure the client has thought through their needs BEFORE a line of code goes down to minimize those sorts of changes, and if anyone has tips on that I’d love to hear them!

Hi Kristina and thanks for taking the time out to comment.

You’d be surprised at how many businesses say “Yes!” to everything the client asks for and then worry about the execution afterwards.

I’m not afraid to say “No”, but I always give valid reasons. Sometimes, saying no can close doors and instigate some element of internal political pressure. But if you’re sure of your point, don’t be afraid of the power of no..

The best way to educate a client is to talk them through their ideas and investigate the various scenarios.

Doing this usually uncovers the problems you’d no doubt encounter along the way, avoiding costly wasted effort…

I think education is key. I’m actually meeting with a fellow this afternoon who wants to learn how he can maintain his site. Last week I taught him blogging, but I think he’ll quickly grasp how much more complicated this is, then grant it due respect. (He’s an amiable and bright fellow.)

In terms of learning on the job, in a field that is ever-changing I don’t see how we can get around it. The best way to learn is with real projects. But in the long run everyone benefits. When working for client B, you may be applying skills that you learned on a project for client A. What you learn with B can be applied to C and so on. Now in three years when B wants a new site, you’ll be coming in with a whole new slew of skills. And then begin to learn some more…

Back in 1996 I was a web designer and at the time there was, quite literally, no basis for comparison. The entire process of development, marketing and strategy were immaterial “old world” concepts that couldn’t apply to such a radically new medium.

Learning as you went was essential because the people that contracted you literally believed that simply creating a website was enough to drive business. The client expectations then were minimal because the general idea was that websites, “took a while to catch on.”

Consulting as a designer took on the tone of inventor rather than partner. It was magic, one day it wasn’t there the next it was. As long as there was simple functionality you survived the first paycheck. It was driving traffic, staying away from faulty coding styles and continuous evolution that defined the next generation of developers.

The difference now is that clients are able to compare past data and make assumptions on the future of their investment. The role of inventor is no longer welcome unless a strong relationship is forged and part of the plan is to push the boundaries of the genre.

Now, the successful modern developer paints the picture the client desires and needs strong communication to portray the changes that may deviate from the original plan.

Guys, you’ve all managed to uncover some very, very interesting and thought-provoking points.

And thanks Jerad, I can relate to a lot of what you say. I was there myself, during those early days. I remember the feeling of being a magician all too well.

I might need to follow this article up at some point…

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