RWD: Are we failing our clients?

I was reading through the recently released 2014 Responsive Report from the good folks over at Gridsetapp and I couldn’t help but notice this line:

“…and clients are becoming more of an issue, year on year.”

It is possible I am reading too much into this phrase, but I couldn’t help but feel uneasy reading it. Maybe it has to do with how that sentence was phrased. Either way, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this is a problem caused by us as web site creators (designers, developers, content strategists, project managers etc) or whether this is a natural progression in the different battles we are fighting as we continue to embrace responsive design.

It is quite possible that we are now at a stage where we are squarely focused on “dealing with challenges that stem from (external) clients” as the survey defined it. After Ethan Marcotte first introduced the idea of responsive web design back in 2010 (seems like it was just yesterday), we changed how we approached designing and developing for the web. We changed our workflows to design for multiple screens (desktop, tablet, phone) using fixed media queries. Then we changed tact and stopped using device-specific breakpoints and instead started introducing breakpoints whenever the content dictated it. The expectation is that over time, we would improve our techniques and take on each challenge eventually.

But what if this was not a natural progression?

According to the report, there were open-ended questions for respondents to answer. Their responses were then categorized “manually by reading each and every one, and then tallied the results to generate” the ranking of terms.

Would we have seen similar results had the exact same respondents from the 2013 report filled the 2014 survey? I’m not a statistician, but I believe the “natural progression” argument would have stood the test if that was the case. In this instance, I am assuming that we had a new set of respondents with different experiences who gave their opinions, which is awesome. But if taken as a true measure of where we are with responsive design the analysis of the results might be a little misleading. Or it is possible that how the analysis of the responses is framed is leading me to an unintended perception and conclusion. Regardless, I’d be curious to see how what would happen if we had a similar survey with the same respondents year over year.

My second question revolves around the make-up of the respondents. Designers and developers made up a significant chunk of survey respondents, but would the challenges listed have changed if we had a somewhat even distribution of roles among respondents?

The report did not list out some of the challenges that respondents faced from external clients, but a list would likely include the following:

Not seeing the need for responsive design
Feature requests that are difficult to execute responsively
Budget considerations and not-so-sexy projects
Old approaches/workflows/expectations i.e. reviews and approvals

We don’t need a responsive design
Five years deep in responsive design, I would like to believe that we have beaten this horse to death, back to life, and to death once more. So instead of picking up my club, I’ll simply point to handy resources:

Is Responsive Design Worth It?
How’s Responsive Redesign Boost Conversion by 20%
Impact of Responsive Designs

Difficult to execute feature requests
Certain things that are designed or requested can be difficult to execute in a responsive site. But we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse in these situations. The role of a design is to support content, not the other way around. So we have to first assess the content we are trying to display and figure out how best to visually display it. If something seems extremely difficult to execute responsively, consider other approaches to presenting that very same content. Make this is an exercise in visual and technical execution with the user experience in mind.

Budget considerations and not-so-sexy projects
There’s not much we can do on the budget front. We can only work with the budgets the client has available, and this is something we simply have to accept. What we can’t do, however, is build a Mercedes Benz S-Class with a budget meant for a Toyota Yaris. Additionally, not all projects that we’ll work on will be sexy. That’s just a fact of life, and one that Jeffrey Zeldman has already discussed in a recent Ask Dr. Web article as well as in a follow-up article.

Old approaches, workflows, and expectations
When you work with clients for a long time, they become used to the processes that you have in place with them. They could also be used to a certain way of doing things from working with a previous vendor or agency. Introducing new approaches to them can be difficult, especially if it amounts to an almost complete overhaul. When it comes to responsive design though, some of these overhauls are necessary if we are to have a more collaborative and iterative approach to design and development, and it is on us to elaborate on why this is not only beneficial to us, but to them as well.

Getting back to my original question, it would seem that any challenges stemming from our clients can and should be solved with education. If we are not educating them then we are surely failing them especially since they look to us as the experts. But who is currently on the front lines of educating our clients? And who really should be on said front lines?

If you come from an agency background, you have likely noticed that developers rarely interface with clients. That role falls mostly on project managers and account managers. Designers will get to talk to clients but usually to present ideas and work. This has to change if we are to tackle these challenges. Going back to the respondent make-up, I think developers and designers are the most passionate people when it comes to responsive design, and we are driving most of the changes taking place in our organizations. So shouldn’t we be just as heavily involved in sharing what we have learnt not only internally but also externally with clients?

“…every client needs an education on web design, the process of web design, and the internet.”

How we tackled client education
We recently invited the entire creative team and some of the leadership folks from one of our clients and held a 3-part series of creative classes around responsive web design. We started off by covering how we got to responsive web design and why it is important, and eventually dove into the “hows” which included a collaborative workshop. From our side, we had someone speak from each of the disciplines: UX, development, design (art director, copy writer and creative director). The feedback from the clients was that this was not only super helpful, but extremely informative and actionable.

“It’s our job to educate the client as to why our work is worth the cost, so that onus is ours, but it can be a difficult obstacle to overcome.”

Difficult sure, but I believe it can be done when armed with the right information.

Lead Front-End Engineer working on Design Systems at Sabre.

Lead Front-End Engineer working on Design Systems at Sabre.