What provides clients the most value?

Coming from a freelance design perspective, I think a lot about what services create the most value for my clients. I’m often hired to do an array of jobs on a project, which may range from branding, info architecture and design, UI design, front-end , CMS development, print design, and more.

This is in stark contrast to an in-house design position — especially at a larger agency or corporation — where there will be other specialists on your team to cover those roles, so you can focus on what you do best.

As a freelance designer, you rarely have that luxury. Most clients don’t have the resources to coordinate an entire team of specialists freelancers. If they were to bother with that, they may as well hire a full-service agency. They need one or two dedicated, trustworthy people who can do it all for them. That means you have to wear many hats. You can’t be only a UI designer, or just a front-end developer. That’s too narrow a range to offer substantial value. You need to be T-shaped.

Let’s look at a hypothetical project as an example

A small business is developing a new responsive web app. They already have a developer as part of their team, but they don’t have any design capabilities in-house. They realise the importance good design plays in the success of their app, but they don’t have enough ongoing design work to hire a full-time designer. So they look for an independent designer to steer the design part of their project and deliver what their developer needs to implement it accurately. This is a very common scenario in which I’ve been hired for a number of jobs.

This project may be broken up into phases like this:

  1. Info architecture
  2. UX design and wireframes + prototyping and testing
  3. UI design
  4. Front-end code
  5. Back-end development

This client has #5 taken care of internally, but they need help with 1–4. If you, as a designer, can’t supply that full range of services, they have to look for yet another freelancer or two to fill in the gaps. Chances are, that’s one hurdle too many for the client. They’ll pass on you and look for someone else who they can trust to see the project through from start to finish.

You just lost a design job because you don’t know front-end code. In that client’s eyes, you’re not well-rounded enough to take a gamble on. They need more value.

Here’s another example

The same client’s in-house dev has strong enough front-end skills cover both phases #4 and #5. You’re great at 1, 2 and 3, so you’ve landed the job. Congrats!

UI design goes smoothly, and you package up all your files for hand-off to their developer.

Weeks later, you start getting frustrated emails about how some of your design solutions are extremely costly in development. That slider you thought was simple is actually adding 8 hours to their dev schedule. They now have to either come back to you (and pay you more money) to revise designs for a different solution that’s easier to implement. Or even worse, the developer hacks together an alternative on her own with little design consideration.

Had you known what was involved in coding that feature, all of this could have been avoided. You would have brought up the potential complication from your side when you first presented the design idea, initiating a conversation to see if they were comfortable with the development cost. Had it been a problem, it would have been caught early, and you could have provided an alternative solution on the next design iteration.

But you didn’t, and you just cost your client a thousand dollars because of one poor design decision, stemming from your lack of front-end understanding.

These examples may sound pedantic, but they’re not to your clients! And they are all too common.

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