Daniel Mason
Web design conference

Last week we attended the Business of Web Design conference in Cardiff, centred, as you might guess, around the business side rather than coding and design. As it was such an excellent and inspiring event, I thought it would be good to share our thoughts on the talks and what we have taken away with us. Also some of the things we would like to, or already have, implemented in our own business.

A good conference will have talks that can confirm what you are doing is right, highlight what you are doing wrong, give ideas for the future, or introduce new ways of working. Plus its a good day out and you meet some interesting people!

Often though there is a lot of ground covered in one day, and although its interesting you may not actually implement anything, which would be a shame and defeat the purpose of going in the first place. That's partly why I am writing this, to expand a little on the brief one word scribbles I made on my phone, and to get a list of ideas to refer to over the coming months.

Firstly though hats off to Joel for organising the whole thing, a good mix of speakers in a well thought out order, we have been to few conferences and this was definitely one of the better ones.

Most of the points I will look at are relevant to us as relatively small agency, there was a lot of info aimed at freelancers too though, so this is not indicative of the speakers content throughout the day. The ideas often came from multiple speakers too.

Look at problems, not feature requests

This is something we have done for a while, and whilst often getting a list of features in a brief, it really is best to define the reasons for having a web project and the problems that you will be solving for a client.

As Paul Boag said, the feature requests are the clients perceived solutions to problems, and they may not always be the best ones, always ask ‘why?’

We have already pushed this further though in a couple of recent meetings. This type of advice does not require a lot of implementation, you can just do it!

Value based pricing
This came up a few times, mainly by Dan and Sean, and something thats pretty new, so could take a while to get right. Some of it touched upon the above subject, but the other side to it shows a different way to actually calculate costs of your work to the client. How much is the web project worth to your client? For example if they currently have 1000 monthly subscribers at £50, and they get another 1000 due to a new website and digital branding, that's worth £600,000 a year to them, even a 10% investment would be £60k, which would be a very good return.

Do we just simply sell our time, or is there a better way, looks like there is.

The best projects after all are where we really make a difference, this can be in increased sales, business expansion, better conversions etc, the return on investment could be huge for some clients. Coming up with solutions and creating one of the most important tools for many business is quite possibly worth a lot more than we are currently charging, and at the end of the day, as much as we love our jobs, we need to make money.

There is a lot more to explore here and its something we will be looking at over the next few months, so will write an update in the near future.

Better relationships with clients

This is vitally important for projects, a lot of us keep up to date with design or coding skills, but people skills are just as important and difficult to learn.

Many issues in projects stem from clients changing things, there is a lot of moaning online about this, but why does this happen? Do clients just do it to annoy, are they all just horrible people, perhaps they all just difficult and stupid.

Of course this is not the case and thinking of anyone like this is not going to help.

Give them roles

Someone being put in charge of a project will need a sense of ownership, and they do have some valuable roles to play, so let them have some. They can help highlight problems, give knowledge on their business, and help think what their users will do. (The latter won't be as useful as testing or your own UX experience, but gets them in the right frame of mind). We will try this on our next project!

Backup your design decisions

When clients make suggestions you don't agree with, rather than arguing it's sometimes easier to ignore them and hope they get forgotten. However your client will be wondering why you are not listenening to them, and in the end will simply tell you to implement the suggestion. Try to envisage the suggestions in advance and explain why you have done anything and back it up, if something comes up you didn't envisage you can still use this process.

Paul Boag had a great example along the lines of this, say you have a long page in the design, tell the client that you know what they are thinking about users scrolling, Jakob Nielsen did a report in 2004 that users would not scroll, however in 2006 he updated it based on recent user testing, and generally users will happily scroll.

In doing this it's very unlikely the client will say they don't think users will scroll. However if you don't mention it, and the client does, they will not want to back down on this and dig their heels in, not many people like to admit they are wrong.

I actually used this exact example last week and it worked very well!

Be assertive

There was quite a lot around this but what we took away was that being more assertive than passive in communications with clients is not rude, but conveys confidence and expertise. I must admit some examples Viv gave felt almost rude, but myself and Stuart who attended the conference both lean towards being passive, so we have tried doing this to a degree and actually the results have been good. We also have started calling clients more rather than just emailing.

Prepare for meetings

One of the points raised by Kirtsy, the better prepared you are, the better the meetings will go. Fairly self explanatory. We have just produced a timescale website that we use in presentations, rather than Prezi or Slideshare, to explain our process whilst showing off a little front end dev and design. For an upcoming pitch we will look at doing an add on regarding our company history and team, as with many points raised, even if you are doing them already, you can often look to improve.

Video design presentations

An interesting idea, this was to help stop the seemingly inevitable; “I love the design! Great work, just a couple of changes.....”

If you are doing the other points above, then when you go to a design presentation meeting, whoever is in the meeting should understand why the design is the way it is. They will have seen the process and the reasoning.

Why not video it, and colleagues, friends, family, pets etc. can only see and comment on designs if they see the video. (Paul was betting no-one did this although one agency present did.) We have set up our Go-Pro on a stand so will try doing this very soon.

NDA for client

This was centred around asking clients about financial information, to better help you discover what a web project is worth, (which would help with value based pricing), if they are sensitive you can offer them an NDA to show them you would not discuss this with anyone else, an interesting idea and all helps with getting clients to trust you.

Build trust & confidence

As builders of the web, we have a lot of knowledge and experience, and clients work with us because of that knowledge, if they trust our experience they will have confidence in our decisions. Clients do have valuable input but this needs to be channelled and utilised correctly. As Paul said, 'clients are experts too, they're just experts in a different field.'

Always look for work

Stu Robson's point here was that you can get lots of work on, then you get busy doing that work, and all of a sudden it runs out. Panic ensues and you do lots of marketing and chasing and get more work, then get busy and the cycle repeats.

We have definitely done that in the past, but now as we have more than one person we can share tasks, and as a freelancer you just need to make sure you devote some time to this. Both require organisation though.

We have also utilised our CRM (Capsule) more and keep track of sales and opportunities in one place.

Size doesn't matter

Just because you are a freelancer, or a small agency, doesn't mean you cannot go after bigger projects. Steve Kirtly did a great talk on this subject.

It can even be a unique selling point. The client only has to deal with one (or a few) people, and they are the ones actually doing the work. Even if you don't get them the first few times, its a great learning process.

Decide by consensus

This was well timed, we have been concentrating so much on improving client relationships that we have actually neglected our internal process’s a bit, resulting in some perceived friction between our team.

We have re-instated our weekly project meeting, so everyone has an overview of what we are doing, and also regular meetings to discuss various stages of the project before discussing with a client. This stops things getting agreed by clients that are then not agreed with us internally later.

Obviously you don't want to have so many meetings that nothing ever gets done, but we have started doing this over the last few days and things have already improved.


This, and the next few points were raised by Danny Bluestone, and especially interesting to us as we are growing organically, and what Danny has done with Cyberduck is pretty impressive.

Holocracy is where teams can make their own decisions rather than having a traditional hierarchy, with management at the top, maybe middle management and cascading decisions.

I don't know much more than this yet, but as we have a team based approach to decisions, we already have a flat structure. In our upcoming plans we can look at new people fitting into this, making everybody a more important piece of the organisation.

It also uses circles to depict structure, everyone loves circles.

Lean management

This was touched upon, just a mention really, (you cant cover everything in a short talk!), but I have come across the term before. It seems to be about refining process and reducing waste, giving value to the client, lean goes beyond management too and can be used in everything, more efficiency means more profit too so can't be a bad thing, one to read up on.

Business & strategy plan

This is the next big step for us now, defining a long term strategy but with everyone on board. A great quote to bear in mind is “Train staff so well that they can leave, treat them so well they don't want to.”

Myers Briggs

This is a way to determine personality types that then helps you build a stronger, more diverse team. We did do some psychometric testing on our last hire, and we were going to use the same company to do something similar for the whole team. We will publish the results once done, looks like this one has squares rather than circles.

Process driven

This was the main subject of the talk by Danny, and something we have been looking at over the last few months since being introduced to Business Process Management (BPM) on a client project. Mapping out process's on post it notes first, we have introduced a sales process using our CRM, have just completed a web project process to use in our project management software, and will work on recruitment and other project work next.

The great thing about mapping everything out is that you can see how to improve or re-order steps for efficiency. It also means nothing gets forgotten, and you can continually improve.

Conclusions & next year

Ideas we were already doing

  • Prepare for meetings
  • Looking at problem not feature requests
  • Build trust & confidence 
  • Always look for work
  • Go for bigger projects 
  • Process driven

Ideas we have started doing

  • Client roles
  • Back up design decisions
  • Assertive
  • Video design presentations 
  • Project meetings
  • Design by consensus

Ideas we will do (or at least look into further)

  • Value based pricing
  • Client NDA
  • Holacracy
  • Lean management
  • Business & strategy plan
  • Myers Briggs

We are also looking at past projects that didn't go to well, and why did they not. Given our new found information, what could we have done differently?

Looking forward to another event next year, maybe Joel can try to top his flamboyant shirt :)