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Get It in Writing

Stating in vague terms—even if they're written down—that you'll create a web site of so many pages and with certain interactive components is not enough to protect yourself from the wrath of a dissatisfied client. This vagueness leaves it up to the client to paint expectations in his or her mind. To fully protect yourself and manage the expectations of the client, you need to detail in writing exactly what you are to do and then an agreed-upon process of how to do it.

Your agreement should answer the following questions:

  • What are the obligations of both parties in this agreement?

  • By what date and time will those obligations be met?

  • What will be the agreed-upon contract amount?

  • What will be the process to fulfill your obligations and those of the client?

These details sound simple enough, right? On the surface, yes, but a deep understanding of what these obligations are and how they'll be executed will determine whether the client comes back at you and sues after the project is done.

Briefs - But Not the Legal Kind

Here's how to ensure a satisfied client and a paid invoice at the end of a project. Each one of these steps must be approved and signed off by the client.

Your first thought is to create a site map of the web site, based on one or two meetings with the client. The site map would detail the home page, site navigation, and the number and makeup of the internal pages of the web site.

There's your first mistake.

A few general conversations will not give you an exact idea of what your client really wants. A verbal interview process doesn't give you a detailed understanding of the client's expectations. So, before you create the site map, you should formally interview the client and record his/her requirements in two documents—a creative brief and a technical brief:

  • The creative brief tells you what the client expects the site to do.

  • The technical brief tells you how they expect the site to do it.

For example, the creative brief should ask for any guidelines or preferences of the client with regard to voice or style of the site, color preferences, logo identifiers, multimedia or streaming media use, recommended visuals, and theme, if any. It should list competitive sites that the client wants you to view, analyzing what they like about those sites, what they don't like, and how they want to compete against them. The creative brief should also provide any information regarding legal issues, copyrights, trademarks, or other do's and don'ts.

The technical brief should ask what kind of hosting and bandwidth will be available for the web site. If the site will be hosted on a high-bandwidth connection, the site can be more graphic-intensive and contain streaming media presentations. If not, the site should be designed with more fast-loading text than images.

More Writing - And Not a Single Line of Code Yet!

Once the client has signed off on the briefs, you're ready to create the site map. That includes a home page, the major navigation structure, and the number of internal pages of the web site. Once the client approves and signs off on that, you're ready to create the storyboard. A storyboard includes all the elements of each page of the web site, including the client-approved copy and a description of any interactive elements and how they will look on a web page.

Now you're ready for the creative work.

In the creative process, you should provide the client with up to three proposed "look and feel" examples for the web site. These would include a sample home page and one internal page for each "look and feel." Your agreement with the client should give them a number of "passes"—usually three—that allow them to narrow down which creative design they'll approve for their site. This process of "passes" must be included in your written agreement and make clear that any additional "passes" will be charged on a T&M (time and materials) basis. This both protects you and encourages the client to think seriously about your designs and choose accordingly. If after the last pass you and the client can't agree and they won't pay the T&M for more designs, you should seriously consider redoing the contract or even abandon the project before you expend more resources.

Build the Site in HTML

The same idea of "passes" should be used for the next phase of the project. Once the design is agreed upon, the entire copy of the site is laid out in HTML on the appropriate web pages. Again, give the client a number of passes to agree and sign off on each page of the web site. At this point you're ready to install any interactive programming agreed to—shopping cart, discussion boards, newsletter sign-ups, etc. The sign-off process here is simple—either the programming works or it doesn't.

And Now, a Bit More Writing...

The project is now finished and ready for final approval by the client. If all went well, the end result should be a happy client and a final check made to out to you. One last thing to consider if you want to keep the legal world from your door, though: Document your work!

Why? Consider this scenario.

Your client's employee who has been approving and signing off on the process detailed in the project agreement suddenly leaves the department or the company and is replaced with someone new. This sometimes happens. The new person in charge wants to quickly make the project his own; he decides that he doesn't like what he sees and instead begins to make the case that the end result is not what was agreed upon. The replacement even questions the fees that were paid out so far for work that he disagrees with. He makes his concerns known to management, and they in turn ask you to defend the fees you've charged to complete the project.

This is where many a design house falls down, opening the door to successful litigation. But there's one little device—if maintained properly—that can back up your claims and make your client think twice about taking you to court.

It's called a time sheet.

You staff should keep track of every minute they work on the client's project. The time sheet should detail all time spent on each pass of creative and copy layout, the programming time for multimedia content and interactive elements, and any and all project-management time spent interfacing with the client by your project manager. If your staff keeps track of all time spent on the project, not only can you defend your fees but you'll be able to see whether you bid the project successfully. It's always good to know that you made a profit on any project you do. If not, you can use the information gathered to make a more accurate bid next time out.

Follow the procedures outlined here and your next design project for a client will be both successful and profitable.

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