These icons are killing me

A friend accused me of being idealistic the other day. This was after I suggested I might be a little stupid and a lot stubborn. I think it was one of those po-tay-to, po-tah-to things. The conversation was triggered by my latest rant about clients not listening to my well-reasoned, well-researched (and footnoted) recommendations.

I understand they won’t always listen. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that when they don’t listen, they often end up paying for the work twice. This kills me every time. I want them to implement my recommended solution rather than coming back to me in 4-6 months asking why their solution didn’t work. I don’t like repeating myself. And I don’t like spending their money twice, answering the same question. It makes me feel like part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This is a recurring theme for me professionally and personally. Here’s why it drives me crazy. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I am sophisticated enough to recognize that the world is not black and white. There’s a great big gray area in the middle. It’s full of people who don’t have the skills or subject matter expertise to be part of the solution; we would not characterize them as part of the problem. They are neither here nor there.

But in this case—the case where 75% of my clients are in higher education—I do in fact have the subject matter expertise to fall squarely on one side of the fence or the other. Hence, I start to feel like I am contributing to the rising costs of higher education. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. That was a big leap. My, my does she have an ego. Way to go Sarah, overblowing your sense of self-importance. You’re kind of right. But I’ll tell you, sometimes I wish they wouldn’t spend so much on my services. I don’t want to spend money that shouldn’t be spent. It’s like that scene from Independence Day where the good guys meet up at the underground bunker. The President says, “How do you get funding for something like this?” And the cranky Jewish dad played by Judd Hirsh says, “You don’t actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?”

Okay, maybe that’s a bad analogy. I don’t feel like a $20,000 hammer. But sometimes I feel like a $2000 hammer. And sometimes, just sometimes, I feel like a $2000 hammer being used as a wrench. Like when a client asks me what I think about their idea for developing a system of icons to represent approximately 140 unique and diverse features and functions. If you haven’t guessed already, I’ll tell you I thought it was a pretty terrible idea. So I spent a little bit of their money explaining why it was a bad idea (excerpted here for those curious about icon dos and don’ts) in hopes that they would spend no more money (measured in their own wasted hours) developing a solution that clearly would not work. In short, I tried to set them on a better path. I failed. I wrote this blog post to bitch about it.

How we use our time and how we allow our clients to use our time—these things matter. They matter because I feel this way a few times a year. And I think I’m a pretty conscientious vendor. Two thousand-ish wasted dollars a few times a year adds up. Multiply that across all the vendors each of these institutions use. Then add a little bit more to account for the less conscientious vendors. Now you’re talking about serious money, money that could have been spent on other things, or better yet, money that needn’t be spent at all.

Although I don’t normally walk around philosophizing about whether or not I am part of the answer (mostly because the answer is 42; how could I possibly know if I am part of 42?), this bugs me quite a bit. At the end of the day, it’s not really about my ego. Despite the fact that almost every sentence in this post starts with the letter “I,” it’s not about me getting worked up because they aren’t listening. It’s because I feel icky about the money.

I want to be in a position to say the following.

  • Don’t spend the money just because it has to be spent. Challenge the assumption that it has to be spent.
  • Don’t take a “build it and they will come” attitude. Understand how to get them (your audiences) to your site and develop a strategy for getting them there.
  • Don’t build it because your boss told you to. Ask your boss for a vision and a purpose.
  • Don’t think this is a one-time investment. Make sure you’ve budgeted for maintenance.
  • Don’t believe that building a website is the answer to your marketing, communications, [fill in the blank] problem. Remember the value of interpersonal relationships.
  • Don’t build it big when you can build it well. Play to your strengths.

Do what you do, and do it well. Let me do what I do well. Together we can come up with a kickass solution to your [insert business problem here]. We can do it without spending a lot of money. And we can all feel good about that personally, professionally, and, of course, for the greater good.

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