Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in Design

I often feel like clients don’t feel like they’ve got their moneys worth unless they’ve made me change something. They don’t feel like they’ve added value.


Freelance design is a weird process. In no other field does someone hire you to do a job, and then tell you how to do it — yet in design it’s commonplace. Clients see what we do and think it’s trivial: there’s nothing to it! I can totally do that!

Why clients are always getting you to change insignificant things and how to channel it.


What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality states that people will give disproportionate weight to little things — things they (think they) understand. In our case, the colour of this button, the size of the logo, the font used. They never comment on the form layout UX, the information hierarchy, the navigation — because they don’t understand it & can’t “add value” there.

Parkinson observed and illustrated that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spended the majority of its time with pointless discussions on relatively trivial and unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the less-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult and complex task to criticize constructively.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson's_law_of_triviality

If clients want to “bike-shed” about something, what’s the problem? The problem is they don’t understand the importance of things like the font used, the colour of the button, the navigation style used.

They want to change the font, despite the fact you chose this font because it’s readable & has a bunch of different weights you can use to accent the body text.

They want to change the colour of that button, despite the fact you chose it because it contrasts perfectly with the rest of the site and it’s a call to action. They don’t get that some buttons should be styled differently & thus harder to click (think “nuke my account”).

They see other apps using hamburger menus and say “Why don’t we use one of those slider menus?” because they don’t know they should be avoided.

This is all stuff I’ve been asked to do this week — luckily I’ve managed to avoid/compromise on most


Fixing it

It’s all part of the process. I don’t like giving clients a complete comp in the first revision, it’s either a wireframe or a rough PSD— always grey boxes instead of images, always lorem ipsum, no styled buttons. They know this isn’t final, they don’t comment on the details.

Every composition you send to a client that looks final, they’re going to have a comment on it — they’re going to want to “add value”. Avoid sending a complete design until you’re certain you won’t have to change much more.

Clients want to change something — let’s give them something to change.

It was well known that producers (a game industry position roughly equivalent to project manager) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.
The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen’s animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the “actual” animation.
Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, “That looks great. Just one thing: get rid of the duck.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson's_law_of_triviality

Use a dodgy font. Use a weird stock image. Make their logo tiny.

They’ll pick on these things — hell, guide them to these things when you deliver your draft. What do you think of the font? How about the logo size? Trick them into “adding value” where you want them to. Pray they don’t like the stuff you put in to throw them off.


In Conclusion

Obviously this isn’t going to be the case every time. Some of your clients are going to trust you to get on with it and deliver. Sometimes they’re going to pick at everything no matter how many ducks you add.

If I’m working with a technical client, I’ll never do this because they’re aware they’re hiring me because I know what I’m doing. I can explain why they’re wrong and they’ll take it on board or make an informed decision to go a different direction/compromise.

If I’m designing a website for a coffee shop & the owner has never used anything other than their iPad, I’m throwing in a few ducks. From all my experience, non-technical clients won’t take any explanations on board & will bring up something similar over and over again. Explaining why my choice is better repeatedly feels obnoxious and wears thin quickly.

Remember: Sometimes the client will be right and you’ll be wrong. I know I am often. Don’t get arrogant!