Contact Us

The Ignorant Client vs. The Passionate Developer

Posted on 4/10/06 by Felix Geisendörfer

As some of you might have suspected for years,- our fine field of web development is a place of war. The alliance of passionate web developers who care about standards, good code, accessibility, usability and other things are in a constant hate/love relationships with the union of clients who know as much about this field as some presidents know about 'nucular' weapons. The battlefield is filled with table layouts, WYSIWYG editors, inaccessible web 2.0 sites and bad code.

I think one of the biggest issues thesese days is, that we, the passionate developers, try to create systems a 10 year old could use. We fall for the clients demanding Word-like WYSIWYG editors and build right management systems for people we wouldn't trust to spell out the word 'Security'. And to make it even worse, the people we work for consider our work to be something everybody could do. The 90s created a mindset saying that everybody could make a web site (see this article). And it's true, every 12 year old can make his own web page. So I can understand the difficulty clients have when they are demanded to pay somebody $50 (or more) per hour for something their kids could do. I mean, how should one go about explaining them the difference between invalid tag soup and standard compliant beauty? How do you raise their aweareness for quality that's invisible to them?

I think the answer is education. Uhm, that doesn't sound very original, does it? So let me try to rephrase it. Taking away their WYSIWYG toys and replacing them with our geeky alternatives like Textile is not going to cut it. Telling them it's going to be very benifital for them isn't going to cut it either, because after looking at the obscure markup they already decided it's way to complicated and stoped to listening to you. I've tried it - saying "it's really simple, just take a look at it" - and failed. Same goes for other things like standards based html, accessible JS and good php code. Clients will not be able to percieve the difference between a good and a bad site just because you tell them it's bad to use table's, inline JS or even worse crimes against progress in our field. I think we've all tried to convince a client to use a certain technology or follow our suggestions and failed misserably because we bored them to death by being to technical. We spent way too much time talking in our geeky language with our geeky friends and build a huge barrier in terms of communication. And I think our only way out, is to understand how our clients think:

If I was a client, I would think it's perfectly fine to expect somebody to make a web page, for $300. I would tell the developer that I want this really sharp looking site and the ability to maintain it myself. I know my 13 year old son has his own site, so this should be more then enough money for the task, so maybe I can get it for as low as $250. So after sending out a short email with my basic requirements to 2-3 developers, they give me estimates ranging from $350 to $1500. The cheapest one says he'll use some system called Joomla and editing my page will be as easy as editing a word document. The most expensive one talks about (x)HTML, CSS, PHP, MySql, Textile, ACL, AJAX, Accessibility, Usability and how all of this will be really good in terms of SEO and standard compliance. Hm the expensive guy sure sounds like he knows a lot of stuff, but I really can't see how this beats "editing my page like a word document" for $350. So I give the job to the cheap guy, get an alright-looking web site, fill in my content and finally got rid of this "get a business web site" task from my todo list.

We as the passionate developers will look at the resulting web site with disgust. The cheap guy used Dreamweaver and created a table based layout, and if that wasn't bad enough, the WYSIWYG editor added an ugly tag soup called 'content' to the page. Search engines might have indexed the site, but the non existing alexa rank indicates the amount of traffic the site recieves. But I say that's the better of two scenario. The client got what he paid for. The other scenario is that you dropped your price and talked him into hiring you for $500-600. But now he expects magical things to happen in terms of design, while you are enjoying the frustration of tweaking CSS to work in IE and getting the WYSIWYG (he rejected to use Textile) editor not ruin your efforts and to spit out valid html. All of this while being payed ~$20 per hour. This is no fun and at some point you'll just want the project to be over. You'll fix some php bugs without knowing what caused them, deliver the site and take your money. You might have invested a lot more work, but the site won't get more visitors, nor will the client feel like he recieved a better page. Why? Because your passion turned into hate for the ignorance of the client. Because you feel like you were paid badly and the client was demanding too much.

Now it wasn't until recently that I got to enjoy working for media agencies instead of end consumers, that paid me a decent wage doing exactly what I'm good at - php coding. They were happy with the quality they got and exited about the passion I brought into the project. On the other hand this felt much more like a regular job and I couldn't make all the decisions I was normally able to make. So I still want to work for end clients, but I want to do it for a reasonable wage and with the feeling of having created a web site that will help the client increase his/her business. So how does one go about this while maintaining high standards?

Let's join our efforts, let's educate our clients

I think it's about time for us passionated developers (and designers) to unite. I think it's the time to create a foundation dedicated to educate clients and to tell them the truth about web development. Let us talk to them in a language that makes sense, one that isn't filled with technical overhead. Let us work with illustrations and let's maintain a list with the most common questions clients have about pricing, technology, what can be done and what can't. Let us create something we can referr to when clients demand WYSIWYG editors, or don't understand the difference between table based layouts and ones that rely on CSS. Let us put up example's and demos demonstrating the difference between good and pure quality sites. But most importantly, let us KISS ; ). As soon as articles gets longer then 1 page or get filled with technology abbreviations something goes wrong.

So let me ask, who would be interested in such a project? This isn't something I could do alone in my spare time. It would need a couple people who are willing to donate content, a skilled illustrator and somebody helping me to create a little CakePHP CMS for it. We would also need a name for the project, maybe something like "The truth about web development"? We could also need the support of some of the leading people in the field, and a good amount of blogsphere buzz. Let me know what you guys think and if you would be willing to help.

--Felix Geisendörfer the_undefined

PS: If you think I should stop ranting, write about PHP, and put my head in a cake, that's fine too. It will happen ;).


You can skip to the end and add a comment.

Nate K said on Oct 04, 2006:

I am completely with you on this one. To be honest, it's one of the main reasons I love my job now. I no loger do freelance as a full time job - I am able to work on a website and built/scale it to my liking. I am able to put great thought and time into planning an implementation. I am able to give the advice on what works/doesn't work. I am able to maintain quality control, so that content managers don't try and screw things up with crazy HTML they learned from a 10 year old book or website.

I have recently starting helping my father in law with some projects, and it reminds me of what annoyed me most. People want something, they want it for cheap, and then expect it to be highly trafficked/ranked. They miss the MOST important parts about creating a usable and accessible website - and I try and express those parts, it falls on deaf ears (as you have said above).

Clients NEED educated. This field is not a 'anyone can do it' field. Sure, people can put something up - but it doesn't make it good. This is the SAME as in any other field. There are people out there looking to make a quick buck, and they will fool people into thinking they can do it for them - better and cheaper than the other guy - without addressing the real needs.

I could go into more detail, but i'm with you....completely. Great post!

Felix Geisendörfer said on Oct 04, 2006:

Nate: I just read your post on CMS and I completly agree on it as well.

I think a site capable of turning ignorant clients into people interested in what they actually pay us for would be huge. I just hope it's possible ; ).

m3nt0r said on Oct 04, 2006:

Thumbs up! :-) Felix,
yesterday i began to write a draft on my blog about the exact same topic. Whatta coincidence. I am totally with you on this. It is really like everybody is thinking: "that guy knows how to do!, lets ask him if he can make me one for 50,- or a little bit more if it 'looks nice'..."

As a developer meeting new people on the internet, i came to the conclusion that its best to "hide the skills". I dont like disappointing people so i am better off not telling them that i could make "their dreams about a kick-ass homepage" become true, simply because it is never that easy as they think it is.

Your scenarios are true all the way.. i expierenced all of them and so i like your idea. For devs like us it is really a hard task to explain what costs all the money and time. I myself really try to talk in understandable ways if i know that my opposite doesn't know all the funky terms and abbrevs. I am still not perfect doing so and i find myself repeating features and dependencies quiet often.

But to throw in something to discuss: How do you want to deliver the content to the "clients"? I think it could feel a little rude to tell the clients: "go on a website and learn before we can talk" :) What about a twist?: A ressource-website for developers to learn how to explain things to a broad audience?

Kjell aka m3nt0r

Felix Geisendörfer said on Oct 04, 2006:

m3nt0r: Thanks for your positive feedback. Well if you are on the phone or in a meeting with a client you can certainly not redirect them to a page like this, that would be rude. So in that case you should be able to handle the task the web page would normaly do yourself. But if the client looks for a developer online and stumbles across your page, pointing him to this site could certainly put you in a better situation when having to make an offer. Essentially this web site could/should help both, the client who is willing to learn, and the developer who is in need to teach ; ). Good that you mentioned that aspect! ; ).

Daniel Hofstetter said on Oct 04, 2006:

I think educating the client is the wrong approach, because the client doesn't care whether a layout uses tables or CSS or whatever. It is not his business. He just expects a solution that fits his needs. It is like buying clothes: you usually don't care about the production method used to create the clothes. But you care about how they look, how they feel, etc.

What does that mean for web development? Well, it is the same: the client cares about the look & feel, the features. If he likes what you offer, then the price is secondary.

jtreglos  said on Oct 04, 2006:

Well I couldn't agree more. I was this afternoon at a meeting with a client, and was dumbstruck at how hard it is to explain what seems so evident and simple to us. We need to share experience, arguments and use the tool you're talking about in your post to train ourselves in convincing our clients ;) After all, our choice should be what's best for THEM, why is it so hard to convince them about that ? Oh yeah, because quality has a price... ;)

I usualy have a fair amount of success in convincing my clients with this comparison with their own craft. They usually understand, and most of them will then prefer a quality evolutive website that will grow in time, than a website with all the bells and whistles that won't match their requirements.

So Felix, count me in, I totally aprove this project !

Felix Geisendörfer said on Oct 04, 2006:

Daniel: Web development is not the clothing industry. Clients don't think they could make a T-Shirt in their spare time. But they think that doing a web site is just a matter of reading a book on it and spending a couple hours on the actual site. When paying you, many of them think "I could have done this, but I don't have the time".

Yes, if you are a good designer, you can try to win "look & feel" points, but if you are more of a programmer you really can't. That's why I think education is far more suitable to this problem then anything else.

And as far as features go: Clients think WYSIWYG editors are a great feature. They don't understand that the web can never be a really good word processor because it's such a inconsistent enviornment to begin with. It's totally insane to assume you could easily port something Microsoft has paid douzends (or hundreds?) of programmers and engineers to work on for years to the web. Same goes for other stuff. Seriously, I know of people who think that building something like Google Search, MySpace, YouTube or Wikipedia ranges in the same area as drawing a pretty picture - with the difference that some of them think "yeah, I could have done that". Those people don't even know that there is a clothing err web development industry, and yes, they *NEED* education.

jtreglos: Good luck with that client ; ). Yeah, I think we have to change our vocabulary considerably. We have to translate technologies like Textile from "Markup languages" into "Productivity tools speeding up the process of putting content on the web by 3 times!" ; ). We have to get cute little graphics showing blind people, pda users and search engine robots crying about being "blocked" by a table based layout web site. That's the kind of thing I have in mind ^^.

m3nt0r said on Oct 04, 2006:

Okay.. then we probably go this way to make the site where clients can learn popular: I think, if such site has been build, it would be the best way to point possible clients to it right on your site where you offer your service. A link right below the "hire me" button, for example ;)

Something like: Learn what i can do for you.

The site should then explain terms and techniques and then redirect to possible contacts for their interests -> "Teach and deliver" -> Why!, where and who.

I think this could work well and everyone involved would benefit. The clients first in line, the contributers due to generating clients by good content and presentation.

olivvv  said on Oct 04, 2006:

Yeah, this is the reason why in webagencies we have as much project managers as developers...

And even there it is very difficult to explain to peoples why beautiful code is beautiful. They do not live the hassle of maintaining messy stuffs, and they believe that positionning is something you get if you pay for, and that should ask to a "positionning agency" for that.

About client education, I recently could explained to a client how to make the difference between text and "image-text". That the kind of "educational" successes I can have. I don't even dream to expain the necessity of the tag, nor the elegance of Javascript Image Replacement to get around the limited number of fonts usable on the web.

I have a huge hope though, to see the mobile Internet hit the mainstream market. We'll have to jumb from IE-based design to tons of browsers, screen width, etc... At that moment, I predict to elegant CSS, unobtrusive javascript a long waited victory...

Felix Geisendörfer said on Oct 04, 2006:

m3nt0r: I don't think we should teach the clients the technics we use. We should teach them the benifits of hiring us vs. somebody cheap. We should teach them the fine difficulties between good and bad quality in terms of the web.

So for example if you would need to explain them the benifit of using CSS instead of table based layouts, I could imagine something like this to work:

"When hiring somebody to build your web site, you can make an important choice. You can either get a disposable web site that you basically have to throw away when you want to upgrade it, or you can get a chameleon web site, that can very easily change it's look and feel when you want it to. The chameleon web site might be a little bit more expensive, but you'll only have to pay very small fee for changes, where as the disposable web site comes a little bit cheaper, but has to be redone completly everytime you want to change it's look. You'll reagonize a web developer offering Chameleon-style sites by looking for phrases like "standards based web design" or "CSS based layouts" and similar."

I think that' the kind of information that needs to be created, and we can add pointers for those who want to get a little bit more technical, but this should serve as a good entry level.

Lucian Lature  said on Oct 04, 2006:

Hi Felix!...
Great post!...Usually I choose my clients to avoid the "war", I don't let them choose me ;)

You can count me in too for that CakePHP CSM project.

Nate said on Oct 04, 2006:

I think the appropriate approach to take with business people is to educate them on *why they should care*. For example, 10-year-old-HTML could theoretically render the same as valid markup, so the casual observer will assume that it is no better or worse.

It's not our job to educate them on what, but on why: valid, semantic markup gets better search results, and is more accessible to visually impaired readers. These are both valuable business considerations that non-technical people will not immediately see or understand. But once they do, they see the value in doing things right.

Felix and Daniel are both right in a way. Clients don't care about the technical elements of it, and we have to educate them on why they should care.

Troy  said on Oct 04, 2006:

This is so true. I'm the developer who caved and did the site for $350 with dreamweaver and joomla lol.

I don't think we should educate clients, because...

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Einstein

I mean you can try, but there are just too many people who don't know.

Daniel Hofstetter said on Oct 05, 2006:

Felix: Yeah, of course, web development is not the clothing industry. But you can get inspirations if you look at other industries ;-)

If a possible client thinks he can do what I do in my job by reading a book, then he should do it himself. I have no problem with that. And I don't want such clients anyway.

I think even as a programmer you have to win "look & feel" points, because that's what matters to the client. You can write the best code, valid and accessible and everything, but if the user experience sucks, your entire application sucks...

I have to disagree with you on the topic of WYSIWYG editors. They are a great feature for non-geeks, because people can reuse what they learned with word. If they have to learn some markup language, well, that causes costs. And at least in my case markup languages are time killers, because I have often to lookup the syntax as each application uses its own syntax ;-)

Dan S.  said on Oct 05, 2006:

Most clients write off the development process as a trivial thing. Their main objective is to get their business going. Throw in a lack of technical savvy and your argument for web standards just seems like a time consuming expense for them. They just don't understand it because its not their world, its ours. What they really care about is the outcome. Not the process.

Also, one big hurdle for us is that our clients only see the HTML that is rendered but the masterpiece of backend code driving it all doesn't exist as far as they're concerned. It all happens "magically". As opposed to a designer where their work is quantifiable. Its right there on the screen. All pretty and bubbly. What did the programmer do?


Maybe we should start a support group instead... lol...

Ben Hirsch said on Oct 05, 2006:

Education is always very important. With more of it, we would have fewer wars!

However, I am not completely in agreement on the underlying Education To Help Justify Cost argument here. Although the idea of having an educational site is a great idea.

I have clients who are genuinely interested in what I do as a developer. They ask questions about the process and contribute to the ongoing discussion of the development process. I love these clients. If only I was so fortunate as to have only clients like this.

In my opinion you have to feel out the aptitiude and the willingness to learn of the client. If they are being ignorant, let them be like that or don't take on any future work with them, period. That is my policy. You can't make them learn and you should never expect anyone to want to learn. In many ways they want to pay to avoid having to learn anything at all.

** One technique I have adopted is to have ME ask THEM questions rather than having ME always be the explainer. Ask them a question like 'How important is search engine optimization to you?' and then let them explain WHY they want it. Then suavely compliment their response with sharing with them the cool things that you can do to satisfy their need. You don't have to teach them anything technical, just explain very simply how you can help. THEN, wait till they talk with the Dreamweaver guy and see how dissatisfied they are with him.

Finally, if they are trying to chisel you down to 600 bucks for a site, just forget it (unless you are just getting started in this business). If money is the bottom line and a cheap site is all they want you should be more than happy to let the Dreamweaver guy take a stab at it.

Olivvv  said on Oct 05, 2006:

Ben you are making a good point:

** One technique I have adopted is to have ME ask THEM questions rather than having ME always be the explainer. Ask them a question like ‘How important is search engine optimization to you?’ and then let them explain WHY they want it. Then suavely compliment their response with sharing with them the cool things that you can do to satisfy their need. You don’t have to teach them anything technical, just explain very simply how you can help. THEN, wait till they talk with the Dreamweaver guy and see how dissatisfied they are with him.


Brandon P  said on Oct 06, 2006:

I think the key to our future is accreditation.

Little Jimmy (some 13 year old kid down the street) downloads Dreamweaver and Photoshop from any P2P network and bam … “Web Designer”. Similarly, Bobby a 20 year old designer who hasn’t even seen a single line of PHP downloads CakePHP and bam … “Web Programmer”.

You see where I am going with this?

The reason we have such a hard time conveying our value to clients is because of the simple fact that we work in an industry that is inundated with people who claim to be professional, but really aren’t!

If you were building a house there are thousands of contractors to choose from, right? A home owner doesn’t walk into a room and solely choose a contractor for their price – they check references, past work, etc.

But then why do clients choose designers and developers based solely on their price and what they "promise" to deliver?

Because the term “web designer” is a false positive. It makes the client feel like they are hiring a professional, but that “web designer” they hired could be Little Jimmy from the example above.

We need to educate clients, not on the technical aspects, but on HOW to choose the correct developer. Moreover, build a resource of developers that are worthy of calling themselves “professionals” through licensing and qualification exams.

This way a client can come to the site and say “Ok, I need X,Y and Z” and have the site reference back to them what they should look for and maybe even a list of QUALIFIED candidates.

With PHP being the #1 scripting language... why are only ~ 1,500 people certified?

Cat said on Oct 10, 2006:

If you have an email alert list for when your project is completed, please add mine.

We've been working on a similar project for the past year - a professional design organisation with a client focus.

One of the problems with educating clients is there is no one place to send them to online. Sure, there are design orgs with a page here and there, but what client wouldn't get lost trying to wade through all the designer specific information?

It's been slow going because:
1) the time involved and

2) everyone has day jobs

We've got a long way to go yet, but we'll get there. Eventually. I'm looking at the end of 2007 or a bit sooner.

Chris Hoeppner said on Dec 13, 2006:

If you still need any help, count me in. As many, I have a time consuming day job to pay my bills, because I never got a single client to accept my rates (If I can still talk about rates...). So I'm what I'd call a "part-time professional developer/designer" somehow.

This post is too old. We do not allow comments here anymore in order to fight spam. If you have real feedback or questions for the post, please contact us.