In recent weeks I suffered what I consider to be the most grievous insult ever spoken by a client to a designer. A client of mine said, “Thanks for the work you did. Don’t worry about the revisions. Our IT guy will take it from here.”
All manner of expletives popped into my mouth. I barely managed to stifle them back with a cough and leave my client’s office with the shreds of my dignity mostly intact. I drove back to the office in a daze, narrowly avoiding two cyclists and several pedestrians. I was Driving While Distracted, my mind too busy spinning over all the things I wanted to say to my client to see anything on the stretch of Mass Ave between Boylston and Central Square. It’s amazing I didn’t get pulled over. (Although, as a friend recently pointed out to me, bad driving has become so commonplace in Boston it’s practically expected so I needn’t have worried.)
Back at the office, Best Tech Guy heard me climb the stairs, my slow, heavy tread indicating not-so-good news, and my face, as he turned to greet me, emoting despair. Wearing that wry, bemused look he does so well, he cautiously inquired, “How did the meeting go?” My mind was tangled. I was so hurt by the words, “Our IT guy will take it from here” that I could barely speak. I stuttered. I sputtered. I collapsed into my chair and said, “You won’t believe what that [client] said to me.”
When I finished my story, Best Tech Guy was silent. (Like any tech guy, Best Tech Guy thinks he’s the Cleverest Man on Earth, and he is never-ever at a loss for words. Until that moment.) After a pause the length of the Amazon (the river, not the ecommerce site) he said, “Wow. Are you okay?”
The complete understanding and genuine expression of sympathy was exactly what I needed. It knocked me back to my senses. I replied, “No, you [donkey’s behind]. Of course I’m not okay!”
Best Tech Guy braved my juvenile name calling and dramatic exclamation with a calm smile and asked, “Are you sure? Because you sound like you’re okay.”
I sighed, pouted, and acquiesced to his smug smugginess. “I’ll survive,” I admitted. And then added, “But only if you take me to Mariposa and buy me something fattening.” (I admit it. I was acting like a complete child. I figured I could drag out his sympathy a bit longer. It was a nice reprieve from the never-ending stream of sarcasm I typically endure in his company. And I should at least get a cookie or something out of it. Plus, he’s scared of what happens when my blood sugar drops.)
We walked and talked and I vented and ranted a bit more. Ultimately I agreed that it was not the end of the world. We would wait to see what the IT guy came up with. And I could get over it: the worst insult ever. I was tough enough to handle it. But then…
Two weeks later, Best Tech Guy and I were invited back to that [client’s] office to review the wireframe changes completed by the unidentified IT guy. We had a productive conversation and asked several questions, pointing out issues and challenges to the user interface they had drawn. We made helpful suggestions to improve the experience and smooth out the development process. And then the conversation turned to one particular feature that we didn’t understand. The feature and our issues are unimportant. What’s important is the [client’s] response to our questions. We suggested the functionality would not be clear to his end users. He replied, “Well, that’s a training issue.”
And that’s when I nearly died. The effort and willpower required to stop myself from jumping across the table and choking him nearly killed me. I thought I was angry about the whole, the IT guy will update my wireframes, thing. But this was an all new low. That [client] expected his end users to figure out how the non-intuitive interface worked because he was unwilling to either A) ask his end users how they thought the system should work or B) design the system based on best practices and insight offered by his user experience designer (i.e., me). Seriously?!?
Now mind you, my ego was over the fact that the [client] was clearly not going with option B. And he was obviously uncomfortable with option A. But the fact that he was unwilling to go with (previously unnamed) option C was just unconscionable to me. Because option C (obviously) is to do what makes sense.
Best Tech Guy, noticing that I was once again struck dumb by the turn in the conversation suggested, “Maybe you could put some instruction copy on the page, something that explains how it works.” He knew it was a lousy compromise. I didn’t need to cite chapter and verse to him from the usability bible. He’s heard it all before. Jakob Nielsen documented it in his Alertbox and Steve Krug explained it in his masterpiece Don’t Make Me Think. Users don’t read. That’s not a solution to any user interface problem. More text on the page just creates more clutter. Best Tech Guy knows that. But he was stalling for time in hopes that I would rejoin the conversation.
I didn’t. I sat quietly thinking through the options. We couldn’t talk to their end users. The [client] wasn’t going to take my word for it (nor was he going to listen to Best Tech Guy). And he was totally uninterested in doing what made sense. Because in this case, doing what made sense meant changing the business rules of the system. Business guys don’t do that. They don’t question the (business) rules. It just isn’t done. So I bit my tongue (again) that day and three days later when he said to us (again), “That’s a training issue.”
Here’s my real problem with all of this (as I am sure you are wondering, if you are even still reading at this point). My client resembles a reasonable person. He is intelligent and well-intentioned, which is a good combination in my book. I think he’s even good at his job. (Although, I could be wrong. His job falls into that category I call jobs I wouldn’t want and therefore I hesitate to criticize.) He’s a business guy and therefore he’s a penny pincher, which again I can both understand and appreciate. But his math is wrong. He took up two weeks of his IT guy’s time not just updating my wireframes, redrawing them from scratch because he didn’t ask me for the Visio file. The changes they made to my drawings were so minimal I could have turned around the revisions in under two hours. Then he scheduled six of us in two review meetings that required follow-up emails and phone calls totaling way more hours than it would have cost had I been allowed to gather proper user requirements from the people who would be using the Web application or to have them check our work after sketching the user interface.
And that’s my real problem. Gathering end-user requirements and/or doing a quick usability test doesn’t have to be a whole big thing. Sometimes it can be as simple as walking around the office with paper print-outs of wireframes and talking to whoever happens to be in that day. It can be as easy as asking a question.
I do this all the time at home with my husband. We try to share chores around the house on the basis that there are things one of us refuses to do. For instance, I refuse to fold laundry. I will wash it, dry it, and put it away. But I absolutely refuse to fold it. It’s weird. I know. I’m even weirder about the dishwasher. I will load it. And I will unload it. Except the silverware. I hate putting away the clean utensils. Lucky for me, he refuses to clean the bathrooms so the kitchen is entirely his responsibility. Once in a while when he is out of town, I will take the clean dishes out of the dishwasher and put them away (except the silverware; I leave the utensil basket-thingy on the counter for him). Inevitably I put something away in the wrong place. When he goes to look for the liquid measuring cup or the cheese grater, he can’t find it. And then we have this ridiculous fight the next time he goes to put it away. He asks me (in his slightly accusatory tone), “Where does this go?” And I respond (in my most-patient academic voice), “Where did you look for it?”
Interactions like these, believe it or not, provide insight into solving bigger problems. Asking one simple question is sometimes all it takes. If I could just find a way to convince that [client] to let me show the wireframes to his end users, we could sort out this feature that follows business rules that nobody understands. I would simply point at it and ask them, “What do you think this does?” And then we could make it do what everyone thinks it does. And viola, a well-designed interface is born.
To make a short story long, it’s a training issue. I need to train my clients to understand that a little usability goes a long way. And I need to convince their budget-controlling bosses and accountants that I am not trying to sell them more hours. In fact, I am probably trying to sell them fewer hours. After a long lunch with their end users, I could have answers to all of our questions. And we could skip all those review meetings, follow-up emails, and phone calls and get on with bigger and better things, like teaching them how to break their (business) rules.