5 Communication Strategies to Use With Your Web Developer

I don’t really know what I want on my site. Can’t you just read my mind?

When you are having your website built, communicating effectively with your web developer(s) will get the job done sooner and better. You might be saying, “duh”, and you’d be right, but it’s surprising how often it goes awry. Differing communication styles are often at fault.

The iPhoner

OK, I’m picking on the iPhone, because its annoying fanboys are legion. But this really applies to any “smart” phone. I had one client who did as much communicating as possible via his cellie. He had various sites he wanted built, nothing tremendously complicated, but certainly large enough to require a fair amount of work and customization. He would convey specs to me along with email attachments of design images.

So far so good, but then the goofiness began. No matter how precise specs are, invariably questions come up. To save time, I might ask several questions at once in an email, something like this:

  • Do you have an email recipient in mind for that contact form?
  • The log-in credentials you sent aren’t working, could you check on those?
  • Will the videos be hosted on Youtube or your server?
  • Your comp is extremely wide, I’d like to bring it down to a normal width of 960 or so. Will this work for you?

The answer that comes back is:

yes

That’s when I realize that he never got past the first screen and thumbed back a reply while driving or something, and I know I’m in for a long haul. Unfortunately, a whole generation of people addicted to and dependent upon their phones has emerged. So this problem will only increase.

The iPhoner guy described above staunchly refused to use chat or phone. He was occasionally willing to do a screencast, which helped some. I will do my best to avoid this type of client from here forward. The projects, though now finished, were very inefficient, full of misunderstandings, and generally a pain.

The Face-to-Facer

The opposite extreme is the old-school business approach, where every decision requires multiple face-to-face meetings with multiple “stakeholders” as they slowly build consensus. Usually my client is in another city, sometimes even another country, so this is sometimes a moot point for me. But even in my hometown, there are real disadvantages to this approach. The normal snail’s pace of bureaucracy is somewhat less noticeable when you’re working somewhere full-time. The hours don’t really matter when someone else is paying for them – after all, you get paid whether they’re efficiently used or not. It’s just funny money that The Man takes care of, right? For me, it is significant, because I have travel time, and I’m going to charge for it as well as any meeting time. I don’t have any billable long lunches, chitchat, online shopping, or ESPN viewing.

When you’re a freelancer, time spent becomes very real, because you’re recording it, billing for it, commuting to get to the meetings, figuring out expenses, etc. Even if you’re not too far away from the client, the travel and meeting time mount up very quickly. I think that clients figure “oh, we’ll hire some contractor for that, it can’t be that hard, maybe a couple hours”, but they don’t take into account all the time spent fumbling, hemming, and hawing before actual decisions are made. Then maybe the iPhoning part finally begins. 🙂 Actually, because of the expenditure of time, not to mention the boredom of endless meetings, I usually recommend that the client simply have all their meetings beforehand, and only then contact me after everything’s decided. (If they want to pass along meeting notes for my input, that may be a useful option). Then I can get the job done more quickly, and they save money!

Oh, Just Call Me!

An offshoot of this phenomenon is the person who wants to do all their work via phone calls. This person likes the live human interaction, and doesn’t feel he/she has time to write emails and specs. The personal touch is nice, but this can be surprisingly problematic. Someone will call me, and I’ll take notes, implementing their idea after we hang up. Even if the notes I take are excellent, and I get it done, I might get another call where he says “you didn’t understand me, I want …” or “I never said that”, etc. That’s why I like having things in writing. Not only can this reduce misunderstanding (maybe), but it also provides something to go back to for reference. Some people like to use Basecamp or similar project management tools that are good for this. Some use Word docs or PDF’s. Others might just prefer everything via email, and although the threading, length, and complexity of emails can get messy (and iPhoney), it’s still better than trying to do everything orally. (That sounded funny, but you get the idea.) In multiple phone conversations, things will be forgotten, and even though I try to take good notes, I can miss things.

This type of phone-oriented person is often a manager, and many of them won’t deal with details. So you may not get any specs from them, just very general thoughts. Then they say, “just do it”, but complain later because you didn’t make exactly what they wanted.

The Chatter

I used to use this a lot to clarify requests with a client. Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t been seeing so much of this lately. It may be because everyone’s on a “smart” phone, and typing isn’t fun on those crap keyboards. But it’s an under-rated tool for helping development communication, and if you’re working with a poor emailer, or have spotty specs, this can help straighten things out.

The Skyper

I like using Skype. It’s convivial, and you have your hands free to look at screens and notes while they’re talking to you (unlike when using the phone). You can also send them things via chat or email as you’re talking to help clarify things. You can even show each other screens for clarification. This makes things easier for everyone. You have the advantage of being able to see and share documents and files, AND have phoning/chatting for clarification. The only problem left is scheduling a time to meet.

Mix Your Methods to Get the Right Blend

There’s no perfect system of communication. It can only be as good as the parties involved, even with the best tools. If you take advantage of 2 or more of these methods, you have a genuine chance of having your project go well. It could also lower your costs!

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