Review of "Glimmer" in the Designer's Review of Books
Data, Delight, and User Experience Design

Overpromise and Underdeliver

Burndown

If you want to break a client's heart, sell what you don't know how to produce. Bill your client the time necessary to learn the tools you need to make them happy. Wow them with your big thinking and static comps, but be coy about how your ideas can be realized in the appropriate delivery technology.

*

"Hello. We're from [client name redacted] and we're looking for a design firm to create a sales presentation for us. We've been hearing good things about Flash and we were wondering if we could get a quote from you to create a ten-minute movie."

"Hold on… let me put you through to the creative director," I said.

The year was 1999, the heyday of the web animation revolution, and I was working at a small design firm on the East Coast still swimming in print design and production. We'd just finished an annual report, we were knee-deep in some collateral and a logo or two. This request was a new one to my ears. Everyone wanted a Flash splash page for their website or a Director presentation extolling the virtues of their products through slick, interactive animation—or at least, that's what you'd think from the many sites larded with heavy interactive content.

A few minutes later, the creative director came into my office. "So, what exactly would it take for us to make this presentation thing?" he said. knowing I was the only person in the office that knew HTML, or anything vaguely web-like.

I was at a loss for words. Or, rather, I was at a loss for telling the truth: I'd done two Flash tutorial exercises. I had absolutely no idea where to begin with creating what the client wanted. And I was at a point in my career where I feared that being honest about my level of familiarity with Flash could potentially jeopardize my job—even though there'd been nothing in my job description about such skills.

"Let me look into it," I said. After he left, I opened up our trial copy of Flash 4 and stared at the timeline view, wondering what exactly it would cost to create what the client wanted—both in the money we would earn, and in the blood we would need to donate in order to actually produce a quality product.

*

Part and parcel of our trade is managing client expectations. They want to hear us say, "Sure, we're great at [X deliverable], and we can do it for [low amount of $]." However, what we often end up saying is: "Sure, we can do that for you," hang up the phone, and take a swift gap analysis of our lack of hard skills to get the job done. Thus the sprint begins, for us to try to become experts in a foreign computer program or domain of design in a finite amount of time.

Dealing with these technology gaps is a big problem. When we're desperate for work—whether for want of cash flow or killer portfolio material—we should never promise to carry out a client-desired deliverable without acknowledging our level of familiarity with the technology at hand. Our clients can't know or expect to understand the nuances of said technology—they're looking to us to be experts. If we're still learning how to produce the work, then we're expending time where we should be doing the work.

If you want to overpromise and underdeliver, go right ahead. But you're doing all designers a disservice.

*

After spending a day exposing great areas of ignorance in my knowledge of Flash, I put together an estimate for my creative director, padding it with an extra two weeks of time to fumble around. Then my CD padded the estimate by a factor of two. We delivered the estimate to the client, and they chose not to hire us, because the cost was too high.

After that experience, our entire agency huddled to discuss how that experience would never happen again. We set up a plan to learn Flash and HTML across the appropriate resources, and identify who we could tap to help design and execute the interactive work that was starting to trickle into our workflow.

*

I'm not a gambler. When I'm in casinos, you'll generally see me at the penny slots, losing dollars as opposed to paychecks in pursuit of the big payout.

When I'm working on a design project, the opposite is true. I give myself time to explore options that seem outside the realm of possibility, often verging into the surreal. Most of those ideas perish on the cutting room floor, but one or two often straggle their way into the final design concepts. But that is just conceptual thinking—selling the dream of what the final result should be.

Then the work actually begins. And your concepts will only be easy to execute within the domains that you have already mastered. Once you move from flat media, such as print designs, wireframes, or storyboards, and start getting down and dirty in a program that requires multiple animated states—or enters into the realm of back-end—the time cost for any designer to execute an idea increases by an order of magnitude.

A good analogy is from the world of music production. When you're laying down tracks in a recording studio with a band, the average rule of thumb is that any well-rehearsed band will spend one hour per recorded minute of music per instrument. I use the same rule of thumb when designers work in Flash, AfterEffects, Blend, and so forth—but it's more like one hour per couple of seconds per major element.

This is the divide between the soft aspects of the designer's work—the big creative thinking that solves the client's higher-order needs in theory—and the execution and production of those ideas to manfiest that initial concept in the real world in practice. The latter is where design actually becomes real, and the client's expectations are fulfilled.

Comments

David

Thanks for this and the article on estimates. Really love the business stuff.

Keith Streble

With the demand for interactive work increasing while the demand for print work decreases... design shops well-versed in print are left stuck in an awkward position. They will say anything to land a project of any kind -- even if they have no idea how to do the work. This is a serious injustice to not only the client, but to all members of the creative team left scrambling to learn new technologies on top of their already-unmanageable workload.

Needless to say, a lot of print studios do not have development teams in house. This forces them to outsource the development phases of the projects to teams that have the necessary skills. This might sound fine on the surface, but in practice, the development shop will often over-promise and under-deliver on their skill-set as well. This compounds the problem because now the client has been fed 2 lines of BS instead of 1. The likelihood that the project will meet expectations and be delivered on-time and on-budget decreases at a staggering rate. This is a dangerous game.

I've personally seen 3-month projects drag to well-over 12 months... destroying profitability and taking the client relationship with it. Legal action is not unheard of, especially when e-commerce is involved. If you think not getting paid for your work is bad, imaging getting sued for 9 months of profit loss on top of that.

David is right: When bidding, try to stay within your talents as much as possible, and leave the rest for someone else! If you MUST bid, line up the necessary talent beforehand, and pad your estimate and timeline generously.

David Sherwin

Hi Keith,

Thanks for your comment—and you bring up a really, really important point.

If you're looking to leave the rest for someone else, you need someone that you trust to finish the job. It's very important that you build up a strong network of peers in your design community that have talents that support yours. That way, if you're bidding on a project that verges outside your realm of expertise, you can quickly solicit the help of a collaborator that can support you and the client through the life of the project (and ideally, beyond).

This is the best way to keep your business running. With the complexity of design projects only getting greater, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to solve every client's need yourself and will have to get comfortable with collaborating with partners in design, UX, development, and other disciplines.

Best, David

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