Sometimes All You Need Is a Consultant

Not every web project needs a web designer or developer. Sometimes all you need a consultant. Whether it’s budget limitations or the fact that you already have the resources, sometimes you’re better served by a designer’s opinion than his work.  If you let a web designer act as a consultant, it can actually be great for both parties.  He gets the freedom of telling you exactly what he thinks, and you get the choice of listening or doing it your own way.

Not too long ago,  I started up a dialog with an old high school friend, Rob French. Rob is the PR manager for the Illinois Chiropractic Society. They recently bought a new Customer Relations Management system, which also manages content on their website. They decide to curb their costs by doing most of the web-work in-house.  The only problem is that they don’t have any web designers or developers. Rob desperately was trying to learn whatever he could, all while doing His full-time regular job. So our dialog started as a discussion on best practices for a style guide  which ultimately led to me signing on as a consultant for his web re-design.

Rob’s bachelor’s is in graphic design, so he’s got the the eye and PhotoShop skills for doing a mockup. What he lacked was web knowledge. He and another guy had the basic HTML skills, but having not worked in web, they didn’t know best practices for usability, user experience, or developing a style sheet.  This opens a great consulting relationship because Rob and his team weren’t really looking for someone to do the work, they just wanted to know how to do it.

Because of Rob’s desire to be taught, our consulting relationship has been a very natural progression – and it’s been great. Rob has the business knowledge and he knows what his leadership expects out of the web. What he didn’t know was how to arrange it all on a page. So Rob was sending mockups, and I shared my thoughts.  I explained basic usability practices and user experience issues, and I gave him resources that supported my arguments.

Our basic practices included avoiding multiple calls-to-action, replacing text with icons, the F-shaped way our eyes explore the page, and coloring text. In five rounds of mockups,  only once did I do any work in his PhotoShop file.  Rob accepted my advice, and did a great job of merging his business needs with my experience. While there were some final design  points that I disagreed on, as a consultant, there’s a forum in place that allows us to respect our disagreements.

After we went through the task of mockups, I offered to develop his pages for him. Rob turned me down and got to work on his own. Not too much later,  though, he was on the phone asking about best practices for HTML and CSS.

Sometimes, all you need is a consultant. Sometimes.

What Rob wanted to learn about HTML and CSS couldn’t be learned in a day, or even a week.   I’ve had multiple mentors over five years that have helped me learn that there’s much more to HTML than just a few p tags.  I couldn’t consult him on being a developer nearly as well as I can develop.

Rob didn’t have the time to learn what I already knew.  He had deadlines that I could help him meet, but he doesn’t want to be in a position where there’s a dependency on someone outside the business.  So we compromised; I code and explain every step along the way.  Now we’ve  shifted from consulting to delivering, and delivering to teaching. I’ll admit, it felt odd coding something I hadn’t personally designed. But it felt good knowing that Rob had taken so much of my advice along the way; I could respect the way he wanted this developed and I was happy to develop it.

Rob’s primary business requirement was self-reliance. If that’s a valid need, any freelancer should respect the client enough to help them meet that requirement first.

If meeting the requirement of self-reliance also  means letting the business maintain creative control, then so be it.

It’s normal that a client will insist upon creative control.  It’s their business, their customers, and their site. They know their customers better than we do.  Rob and I differed on some finer points of the layout, but it was his layout, and it was based on what he knew about the business that I didn’t. Freelancer and client really butt heads when the client is grossly unqualified to exert creative control and too unwilling to compromise. Those are called  clients from hell.  In such cases, allowing the client too much creative control hurts the project, along with the freelancer’s pride and portfolio.

I’ll admit Rob was a special case; he already had graphic design experience and a willingness to learn.  Initiating the relationship as a consultant gave Rob an opportunity to be further educated. It also proved that I was competent in my field and deserved a creative voice in his project.  The result was a natural progression into me being the developer when we saw the drift from his area of expertise to mine.

Most of the time, a freelancer doesn’t get to work with someone like Rob. But if we get the chance to have a client who just wants to be self-reliant, consulting is the place to start.

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