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Finding UX Research Participants




Finding UX Research Participants

For UX designers and design teams, research with stakeholders and users is critical. However, accessing research participants isn’t as easy as it sounds. For both professional and amateur researchers finding people to participate in studies can be an elusive task. We often hear about studies and their findings, but we don’t hear as often how researchers recruit study participants.

Researchers can choose from a variety ways to find participants. Many factors determine the best method to use. This includes resources such as time and money, the research method you’re using, the type or characteristics of participants you want to recruit, and the accessibility of these types of participants. In this post, I’ll remove some of the mystery and provide guidance to those interested in recruiting participants for qualitative UX studies.


Potential research participants are everywhere, if you know what to look for.


Potential research participants are everywhere, if you know what to look for.

Incentives

You can use incentives to increase the likelihood of participation in any of these methods of recruitment. Use of incentives is usually a personal choice. Do you feel incentivized participants provide skewed or biased data? I don’t have any issues with providing incentives. An incentive can be a small token of appreciation ($5 gift card) or something more substantial ($200 or more depending on time needed and type of participant.

I’ve provided guidance for each method based on my experience with incentives.

Identifying And Interviewing Key Internal Stakeholders

You gain insight when you interview key colleagues, clients, and other relevant stakeholders of a project. Particularly at the beginning of a project. This is a great opportunity to understand everyone’s role, what their vision and hopes are for a project or product, and how you might incorporate their experience into the rest of the project. You can increase buy-in and make people feel like part of the process by including stakeholder interviews in any project. I use the term internal stakeholder broadly to describe individuals who have a vested interest in a product or project who are connected to your organization or the product in some way. Many of these internal stakeholders might also be users of the product you are interviewing them about.

When To Use It

You can always look for opportunities to interview stakeholders and colleagues to learn more. This is especially useful at the beginning of a project. You can learn expectations for a product, background information on what led to the current status of the project, and goals and hopes for the future. Checking in with stakeholders throughout a project will keep them aware of how things are progressing and allow you to get their feedback. I’ve found this is helpful for building trust with stakeholders and making them feel included in the process.

How You Might Do It

You can often arrange interviews with key stakeholders yourself if they are internal to your company. You’ll identify who is relevant to your project, including project team members, and invite them to an interview. You can contact them to schedule a time, or look to schedule using your company’s shared calendar platform (e.g., Outlook or G Suite). You should know ahead of time how long you need to schedule and how you will interview the participant (in-person or remote) so you can share this information with them at scheduling.

Identifying and interviewing stakeholders becomes more complicated when you don’t have direct access to scheduling yourself. If your project team is part of a larger organization, you might need to ask colleagues in other departments to help identify and schedule stakeholders. If you are on a project team with outside partners or have external stakeholders, you will often need someone to facilitate identification and scheduling of interviews. I’ll cover some additional challenges for recruiting stakeholders and others through your clients in the identifying participants through a client section.

Positive Aspects

Gain insight into roles, backgrounds, and history of stakeholders’ involvement with a product or issue, potentially quick to schedule, low to no cost outside of time, can be done remote or in-person, talking to customer/user-facing stakeholders might provide some insight into what users think of a product.

Negative Aspects

Difficult to identify everyone you want to participate, might include people at high-levels who are hard to reach, scheduling if not doing it yourself, scaling down if resources are limited, does not replace research with users, many stakeholders are too close to their product to be objective.

Incentives

I typically don’t provide an incentive if internal stakeholders are participating during work hours.

Case Study

I worked on a project with a bank that wanted to design an online onboarding experience for new customers. We needed to understand what the current (non-digital) onboarding experience was. We wanted to document available resources to pull into the onboarding experience. Lastly, we needed to build trust with partners who we were going to rely on to champion the experience we created.

We relied on word of mouth to learn who we needed to speak with. First, we interviewed the people we were closest to and asked them who else they considered necessary for us to speak with. We spoke with people in numerous US states, both remotely and in-person. We were able to speak with 30 people in three weeks (this was not a project we were dedicating full time). Occasionally, we spoke to people who were not relevant to our specific purpose. There were two key reasons we were given names of some folks who weren’t relevant:

  • They were higher up executives with little knowledge of what we were exploring
  • The people referring them didn’t understand/effectively convey what we were trying to accomplish, so they volunteered to participate in something not aligned with their role

We found our most common difficulties were in scheduling and getting people to reply to our initial emails. We were trying to schedule an hour to speak with people who spend most of their days traveling and in meetings. Many of them had personal assistants managing their calendars. Some didn’t have an opening to speak with us for weeks after our initial request. Most people did want to make the time to speak with us. They viewed our project as one with high strategic importance in the long-term health of their company. We also had many people reschedule due to unforeseen conflicts involving client needs arising.

We were able to paint a clearer picture of the bank’s onboarding experience and what resources were available. We were able to understand what (some) of the leadership viewed as the potential future for an onboarding experience with new customers and what their perceptions of shortcomings were for the current onboarding experience. We were able to identify gaps in knowledge that required additional future research and education. We made connections with critical internal advocates who walked away with a better understanding and appreciation of the experience we were creating. We would not have been able to achieve these outcomes through a survey or through other means of recruiting participants. Later, we were able to approach these same stakeholders to have them provide feedback on the designs for the onboarding experience we created.

Identifying Participants Through A Client

Many potential research participants are unavailable to the general public. You will find situations where you don’t have direct access to recruiting relevant participants. This is particularly true if you work for a design consultancy/studio, or as part of a shared services team within a large organization. For example, if your client is a widget manufacturer and their product is a widget warehouse product supply application, you will need to access their staff in order to understand their current pain points and needs. You won’t have an easy time finding relevant participants using the population you have access to. You want to conduct research and usability testing with participants who will become the end user of the application, which again means you’d need to access this population through your client.

When To Use It

In addition to the reasons given in the previous section for recruiting stakeholders, when you have to reach specific populations, need opinions from specific people, and want to make your client-stakeholders feel like part of the process. When you don’t have direct insight or access to critical research participants when you are looking to build relationships beyond the project team you are working with, when you want to include a diverse set of individuals covering relevant areas of the product you’re working on.

How To Do It

Work closely with your client or person you are collaborating with to identify the right people for the project you are on. Your project will dictate the exact specifications of roles you need. This includes Product Owners, VPs, Business Analysts, and Users. I often provide a script or email language for my clients to use for recruiting participants. I explain the purpose of the research, how you were made aware of the participant (e.g., Jane from accounting gave me your information) how long the conversation is expected to take, potential dates of availability, incentive (if any), prep work required (if any).

You should provide your client with a screener clearly stating:

  • How many of each type of participant you want to participate
  • Details you want to know ahead of time (e.g., years using the product, industry)
  • Factors leading to disqualification from the study (e.g., less than one year of experience with the product)

Bonus: Many organizations keep data on their users. Your client might be able to screen their database and provide you research participants. However, when I’ve used this in the past, there are often many permissions required and processes to gain access to customers. This can add a significant amount of time to your project.

I am always clear to my clients that scheduling participants is one of the largest hurdles to a project’s timeline. Working with others’ schedules is complicated. You should make it clear to your clients how to recruit, and the need to start recruiting as soon as possible.

Positive Aspects

You get specific people close to a project or product, you learn about long-term and short-term goals directly from the people you work with, you are able to ask to follow up questions that might inform projects well beyond your current relationship, you learn the history of the product or organization, you can reach relevant people you don’t have direct access to, you gain insight into roles, backgrounds, and history of stakeholders’ and users’ involvement with an issue, you will find talking directly to the users of the product provides context and texture you wouldn’t find from someone without similar knowledge.

Negative Aspects

This can be time-consuming, requires a clear communication of purpose, you might end up talking to people less relevant if your client doesn’t screen effectively, less control over scheduling, lack of control over how information is shared with participants.

Incentives – I typically don’t provide an incentive if they are from the client and participating during work hours. I’d provide an incentive if they have recruited users who are coming in on an off day or outside of work hours. You might also have a larger incentive but only give it to a couple randomly selected participants.

Case Study

I worked for a team looking at redesigning a digital report for a large mortgage lender. Many other banks and loan providers do business under the umbrella of this company. We needed to identify a specific type of user, one who: worked for a bank under the parent company and used the report as part of their daily tasks.

The client wanted us to interview 30 individuals with roles interacting with the report. They identified a handful of these individuals upfront, and then put out a call for participation to identify the remaining individuals. There were numerous layers of communication through relationship managers as well as permissions and disclosures the client needed to handle with each participant.

We were able to complete over 30 remote (over the phone) interviews in the month we were allotted to collect data. Our client arranged and scheduled each interview. Our most common difficulties were similar to those I gave in the previous case study, scheduling and relevancy of participants. We were interviewing people who spend their entire workday running the report and using the data to inform their decisions; busy people with limited flexibility of daytime work hours. We made ourselves available at any time a participant had availability in order to solve this. This created drawbacks in scheduling other meetings unrelated to working on the project.

Some of our participants forwarded the invitation to others they thought should be on the interview as well. We would find this out when more than one person would join the call. We were initially caught off guard when we had a call intended for one person take place with four participants at once. We created a separate multi-participant protocol to account for this occurring on future calls, which it did. I recommend expecting this to happen regardless of who is recruiting your participants. It’s difficult to control what happens, once you send out an invitation to the wild.

We used data from our interviews to understand the current behaviors, frustrations, and needs of users. We also presented later participants with sample designs in order to get feedback on report layout and feature changes. We delivered a redesigned report that exceeded client expectations and became a reference piece in their quest to get further funding for research and design projects.

Paying A Recruitment Firm (When You Have An Accessible Population)

Recruitment firms offer services ranging from participant screening and recruitment, facilities to conduct research, recording your sessions, and much more. You can use a recruitment firm when you are conducting research with populations you believe you can reach through contact with the general public. For example, if you are conducting usability testing on an online banking application. You can expect most people familiar with banking transactions (e.g., making a deposit or bill pay) should successfully use your application. Even if they don’t currently use your bank.

I’ve used a number of firms over the past few years. Most of them offer similar services.


Recruitment firms often provide facilities for interviews or usability testing.


Recruitment firms often provide facilities for interviews or usability testing.

When To Use It

When you don’t have direct access to potential participants when you want to have a third party screen your participants, when your sample is available through the general public, when you want to have someone handle recruitment, scheduling, and day-of-research preparation.

How To Do It

You will need to create the screener the recruiter will use. You decide in advance how many of each type of participant you will want. You’ll want to include a number of “floaters” in your recruitment as well. Floaters are people who meet the requirements of the study and are willing to show up for participation in case some of the other participants don’t show up. Floaters are typically compensated at higher levels because they are committing to spend two or three hours sitting around in case they are needed.

You’ll also need to provide the screener with enough advance notice as the recruiter requires. I’ve found this is two weeks in advance for most studies, and three weeks in advance for more complex studies. All recruitment firms offer participants an incentive, usually cash, to participate in a study. You will have to be ok with the fact your participants are receiving money to participate. I haven’t found this to be problematic, but you should be prepared to defend why you don’t think this will add any additional bias to your data.

Positive Aspects

Very detailed screening, don’t have to find people, often have a facility you can use, will record audio and video as needed, will recruit additional participants in case some don’t show up.

Negative Aspects

Cost, the time needed in advance if you have a difficult to reach population, participants trying to game the system.

Incentives – Recruitment firms almost always compensate the people they recruit. You will pay the recruitment firm a set fee they pay to participants.

Case Study

I worked for a team wanting to define the digital needs and behaviors of specific types of Financial Advisors. The client did not want to expose their brand during any of the research, so they did not want to facilitate the recruitment. The client wanted the interviews to pull participants from more than one major city in the US. We worked with a recruitment firm to identify and recruit participants, as well as to conduct the interview sessions.

We worked with the client to create a detailed screener with items meant to refine the population to the specific participants we wanted for the study. The recruitment firm asked for three weeks to find 15 participants for the first city in our study. The usual turn around when working with the firm was two weeks with less specialized participants. We were also advised to provide a higher incentive, over double what we typically offered, due to the probability we were asking participants to step away from work and the perceived value of their time.

We were able to interview 15 participants over the course of two days. We found a few of the participants didn’t actually meet the qualifications we’d screened for. They had manipulated their responses to qualify. Our client was unhappy with this. We were able to use the floaters to replace the participants who didn’t truly qualify. We were also able to get a refund on what we’d paid to recruit the unqualified participants.

Ultimately, we reached our goal of interviewing the right number of participants in the right amount of time, and produced a report on needs and behaviors for our client.

We would not have been able to access this population without the use of the recruitment firm. The client was unwilling to expose their brand and therefore unwilling to identify participants from their contact list. We would have spent more time and money than the project allowed if we were left to recruit participants. We don’t have contact lists or the ability to easily identify specialized populations through our own resources. We still experienced frustration with the lack of initial quality participants the recruitment firm provided. In general, we’ve had positive experiences with recruitment firms, but the more specialized the population, the more likely you will find some duds.

Guerilla Recruiting (When You Want To Find People In The Wild)

You can utilize public spaces to recruit potential study participants. Guerilla research is a term for quick and dirty research conducted with people as they go about their daily tasks (in the wild so to speak). The term is meant to reflect a context in which you are pressed for resources. However, you can benefit from using this method of recruiting even when you have resources for other methods. Sometimes collecting data from people when they are in specific settings is the most appropriate method.


You can find plenty of potential users in the wild.


You can find plenty of potential users in the wild.

You should determine a space you want to recruit participants for a logical reason. Let’s say you’re designing a smartphone application meant to help people track their workouts at the gym. You would want to recruit participants from that setting, entering or exiting the gym. If you wanted to test out a new form of electronic payment, you’d want to be present in a setting where transactions take place.

When To Use It

When you have little time or budget, when you have access to relevant populations, when you only want to get quick feedback from a few people, when you can spend 20 minutes or less per participant, when you have a product related to a specific physical space (e.g., an art museum tour application).

How To Do It

Find a location, get permission if needed, create a script. I’ve previously written a detailed article on the specifics of recruiting participants in public.

Positive Aspects

Quick execution, the potential for multiple locations if you have the resources, small or large sample sizes, accessing relevant populations, compatible with multiple research methods.

Negative Aspects

Little ability for screening, approaching people takes practice and skill, potentially inclement weather if outside, a lot of standing around.

Incentives

I’d base the incentive on the amount of time and type of activity. For example, I might give a product discount code for something taking a minute or less. A $5 gift card if you are taking a few minutes of their time.

Case Study

I worked on a project examining the use of technology in library settings. Specifically, we wanted to understand the usability of a system for finding and locating materials within the library. We wanted to work with people who use a library. We needed to test inside of the library because the last part of testing involved physically locating the material.

We sent two researchers to spend multiple days at the library while it was open for patrons. We stood with clipboards at the entrance of the library. We asked patrons if they would spend a few minutes with us participating in our study. We then observed them using the system to search for an item and asked them to locate the material based on where the system told them it should be located.

Our biggest challenge was long periods of time where there were no new patrons coming into the library. We wanted to complete 30 to 40 sessions using three different scenarios. We had budgeted to spend one week onsite to get this many responses. We had to extend our timeline for the following week to reach our goal.

We were able to suggest improvements in the interface, terminology, and an explanation of where materials were located. We would not have had similar findings if we hadn’t been on location at a library and we might not have had as valuable insights if we used people who were not library patrons.

Friends And Family (Low On Time And Budget)

Sometimes, you might have very little opportunity to engage in research. There are many reasons for this, time, budget, or your working for a client who refuses to allow research as part of the project plan. The designers I’ve worked with still want to have some type of feedback to shape their thinking. You can still look to gather some meaningful data from those you have closest access to. Perhaps you are on a project where you are working on a product that is relevant to your coworkers or friends you have easy access to. You might ask a few of them to participate in interviews about the product.

Friends and family are the definition of a convenience sample, and should only be used when no other options exist. This is the most biased and least rigorous way of collecting data. However, you can still benefit from insights into experiences you might otherwise not get. You can use friends and family to participate in interviews or usability testing as a means of accessing informing your design. I strongly recommend conducting additional research, using one of the other methods of finding participants, as your design progresses.

When To Use It

As a last resort, when you have no budget, little time, yet you want to know something about the context or users you are designing for when you have access to relevant people to participate in the study. Background information of your participants.

How To Do It

Reach out to others you and your team know; you can include social media to distribute the call to participate, schedule a time to speak or send an email explaining what you’re asking participants to do (you can also distribute survey links this way)
Positive – you will get some feedback, almost instant, low budget

Negative Aspects

Most limited pool of participants, possibly less reach, you’re are relying on favors, less ability to screen for specific characteristics, introducing a larger bias due to familiarity with participants.

Incentives

I would incentivize based on time and budget. A $25 gift card is much less expensive than what you’d pay for a participant from a recruitment firm, but friends and family might find this amount acceptable for up to an hour of time.

Case Study

I was part of a project team responding to a (paid) request for proposals (RFP) from a major vacation industry company. We had two weeks to turn around our response, including design concepts to show our thinking. Most of our team had no experience in using the services from this specific industry. We needed to find out more information to help inform our response. We didn’t have the resources to undertake our typical research process of finding and interviewing stakeholders or representative end users. Instead, we reached out to friends and family members who stated they’d had experience in this vacation activity within the past three years.

We emailed our staff and asked if anyone had friends or family members with this qualification who’d be willing to engage in brief phone conversations about their experience. We conducted interviews with seven people over the course of the next two days. Our designers were able to use the insights we gained to better understand the types of needs users might have while vacationing. Our concepts attempted to address some of the issues our participants stated existed when they had experienced while vacationing.

Although we didn’t win the long-term work, our team was able to place among the top candidates. We credited the participation of friends and family in our research as part of what helped our design stand out in a positive way. We were later awarded separate work from the team we presented to for the initial RFP.

The table below provides a summary of key characteristics for each participant recruitment method I’ve covered in this article.

Time Cost Ability to pre-screen participants Ability to access participants
Stakeholder Slow Low Easy Easy
Client Recruits Slow Low Difficult Difficult
Recruitment Firm Slow High Easy Varies – harder to reach specific populations
Guerilla Recruiting Fast Free Difficult Easy
Friends & Family Fast Free Moderate Easy depending on topic

Table 1: Characteristics of common research participant recruitment methods

Conclusion

We need to access users and potential users in order to effectively conduct research. I’ve covered a number of common ways you can find research participants. Each has certain strengths and weaknesses. You’ll want to become familiar with each of these and adapt your approach based on your product, budget, and timeline.

Smashing Editorial
(cc, ra, il)


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Finding UX Research Participants

Why Web Application Maintenance Should Be More Of A Thing

Traditional software developers have been hiding a secret from us in plain sight. It’s not even a disputed fact. It’s part of their business model.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about high-end enterprise software vendors or smaller software houses that write the tools that we all use day to day in our jobs or businesses. It’s right there front and center. Additional costs that they don’t hide and that we’ve become accustomed paying.

So what is this secret?

Well, a lot of traditional software vendors make more money from maintaining the software that they write than they do in the initial sale.

Not convinced?

A quick search on the term “Total Cost of Ownership” will provide you with lots of similar definitions like this one from Gartner (emphasis mine):

[TCO is] the cost to implement, operate, support & maintain or extend, and decommission an application.

Furthermore, this paper by Stanford university asserts that maintenance normally amounts to 60% to 90% of the TCO of a software product.

It’s worth letting that sink in for a minute. They make well over the initial purchase price by selling ongoing support and maintenance plans.

We Don’t Push Maintenance

The problem as I see it is that in the web development industry, web application maintenance isn’t something that we focus on. We might put it in our proposals because we like the idea of a monthly retainer, but they will likely cover simple housekeeping tasks or new feature requests.

It is not unheard of to hide essential upgrades and optimizations within our quotes for later iterations because we‘re not confident that the client will want to pay for the things that we see as essential improvements. We try and get them in through the back door. Or in other words, we are not open and transparent that, just like more traditional software, these applications need maintaining.

Regardless of the reasons why, it is becoming clear that we are storing up problems for the future. The software applications we’re building are here for the long-term. We need to be thinking like traditional software vendors. Our software will still be running for 10 or 15 years from now, and it should be kept well maintained.

So, how can we change this? How do we all as an industry ensure that our clients are protected so that things stay secure and up to date? Equally, how do we get to take a share of the maintenance pie?

What Is Maintenance?

In their 2012 paper Effective Application Maintenance, Heather Smith and James McKeen define maintenance as (emphasis is mine):

Porting an application to a new server, interfacing with a different operating system, upgrading to a newer release, altering a tax table, or complying with new regulations—all necessitate application — maintenance. As a result, maintenance is focused on upgrading an application to ensure it remains productive and/or cost effective. The definition of application maintenance preferred by the focus group is — any modification of an application to correct faults; to improve performance; or to adapt the application to a changed environment or changed requirements. Thus, adding new functionality to an existing application (i.e., enhancement) is not, strictly speaking, considered maintenance.

In other words, maintenance is essential work that needs to be carried out on a software application so it can continue to reliably and securely function.

It is not adding new features. It is not checking log files or ensuring backups have ran (these are housekeeping tasks). It is working on the code and the underlying platform to ensure that things are up to date, that it performs as its users would expect and that the lights stay on.

Here are a few examples:

  • Technology and Platform Changes
    Third-party libraries need updating. The underlying language requires an update, e.g. PHP 5.6 to PHP 7.1 Modern operating systems send out updates regularly. Keeping on top of this is maintenance and at times will also require changes to the code base as the old ways of doing certain things become deprecated.

  • Scaling
    As the application grows, there will be resource issues. Routines within the code that worked fine with 10,000 transactions per day struggle with 10,000 per hour. The application needs to be monitored, but also action needs to be taken when alerts are triggered.

  • Bug Fixing
    Obvious but worth making explicit. The software has bugs, and they need fixing. Even if you include a small period of free bug fixes after shipping a project, at some point the client will need to start paying for these.

Hard To Sell?

Interestingly, when I discuss this with my peers, they feel that it is difficult to convince clients that they need maintenance. They are concerned that their clients don’t have the budget and they don’t want to come across as too expensive.

Well, here’s the thing: it’s actually a pretty easy sell. We’re dealing with business people, and we simply need to be talking to them about maintenance in commercial terms. Business people understand that assets require maintenance or they’ll become liabilities. It’s just another standard ongoing monthly overhead. A cost of doing business. We just need to be putting this in our proposals and making sure that we follow up on it.

An extremely effective method is to offer a retainer that incorporates maintenance at its core but also bundles a lot of extra value for the client, things like:

  • Reporting on progress vs. KPIs (e.g. traffic, conversions, search volumes)
  • Limited ‘free’ time each month for small tweaks to the site
  • Reporting on downtime, server updates or development work completed
  • Access to you or specific members of your team by phone to answer questions

Indeed, you can make the retainer save the client money and pay for itself. A good example of this would be a client’s requirement to get a simple report or export from the database each month for offline processing.

You could quote for a number of development days to build out a — probably more complex than initially assumed — reporting user interface or alternatively point the client to your retainer. Include within it a task each month for a developer to manually run a pre-set SQL query to manually provide the same data.

A trivial task for you or your team; lots of value to your client.

A Practical Example

You’ll, of course, have your own way of writing proposals but here are a couple of snippets from an example pitch.

In the section of your proposal where you might paint your vision for the future, you can add something about maintenance. Use this as an opportunity to plant the seed about forming a long-term relationship.

You are looking to minimize long-term risk.

You want to ensure that your application performs well, that it remains secure and that it is easy to work on.

You also understand how important maintenance is for any business asset.

Later on, in the deliverables section, you can add a part about maintenance either as a stand-alone option or bundled in with an ongoing retainer.

In the following example, we keep it simple and bundle it in with a pre-paid development retainer:

We strongly advocate that all clients consider maintenance to be an essential overhead for their website. Modern web applications require maintenance and just like your house or your car; you keep your asset maintained to reduce the tangible risk that they become liabilities later on.

As a client who is sensibly keen to keep on top of the application’s maintenance as well as getting new features added, we’d suggest N days per month (as a starting point) for general maintenance and development retainer.

We’d spread things out so that a developer is working on your system at least [some period per week/month] giving you the distinct advantage of having a developer able to switch to something more important should issues arise during the [same period]. Depending upon your priorities that time could all be spent on new feature work or divided with maintenance, it’s your call. We normally suggest a 75%/25% split between new features and important maintenance.

As previously mentioned, this is also a great opportunity to lump maintenance in with other value-added ongoing services like performance reporting, conducting housekeeping tasks like checking backups and maybe a monthly call to discuss progress and priorities.

What you’ll probably find is that after you land the work, the retainer is then not mentioned again. This is understandable as there is lots for you and your client to be considering at the beginning of a project, but as the project is wrapping up is a great time to re-introduce it as part of your project offboarding process.

Whether this is talking about phase 2 or simply introducing final invoices and handing over, remind them about maintenance. Remind them of ongoing training, reporting, and being available for support. Make the push for a retainer, remembering to talk in those same commercial terms: their new asset needs maintaining to stay shiny.

Can Maintenance Be Annoying?

A common misconception is that maintenance retainers can become an additional burden. The concern is that clients will be constantly ringing you up and asking for small tweaks as part of your retainer. This is a particular concern for smaller teams or solo consultants.

It is not usually the case, though. Maybe at the beginning, the client will have a list of snags that need working through, but this is par for the course; if you’re experienced, then you’re expecting it. These are easily managed by improving communication channels (use an issue tracker) and lumping all requests together, i.e, working on them in a single hit.

As the application matures, you’ll drop into a tick-over mode. This is where the retainer becomes particularly valuable to both parties. It obviously depends on how you’ve structured the retainer but from your perspective, you are striving to remind the client each month how valuable you are. You can send them your monthly report, tell them how you fixed a slowdown in that routine and that the server was patched for this week’s global OS exploit.

You were, of course, also available to work on a number of new requested features that were additionally chargeable. From your client’s perspective, they see that you are there, they see progress, and they get to remove “worry about the website” from their list. Clearly, ‘those clients’ do exist, though, so the most important thing is to get your retainer wording right and manage expectations accordingly.

If your client is expecting the moon on the stick for a low monthly fee, push back or renegotiate. Paying you to do — say — two hours maintenance and housekeeping per month in amongst providing a monthly report and other ancillary tasks is exactly that; it’s not a blank cheque to make lots of ad-hoc changes. Remind them what is included and what isn’t.

How Do We Make Maintenance Easier?

Finally, to ensure the best value for your clients and to make your life easier, use some of these tactics when building your applications.

Long-Term Support (LTS)

  • Use technology platforms with well documented LTS releases and upgrade paths.
  • Ongoing OS, language, framework and CMS upgrades should be expected and factored in for all projects so tracking an LTS version is a no-brainer.
  • Everything should be running on a supported version. Big alarm bells should be ringing if this is not the case.

Good Project Hygiene

  • Have maintenance tasks publicly in your feature backlog or issue tracking system and agree on priorities with your client. Don’t hide the maintenance tasks away.
  • Code level and functional tests allow you to keep an eye on particularly problematic code and will help when pulling modules out for refactoring.
  • Monitor the application and understand where the bottlenecks and errors are. Any issues can get added to the development backlog and prioritized accordingly.
  • Monitor support requests. Are end users providing you with useful feedback that could indicate maintenance requirements?

The Application Should Be Portable

  • Any developer should be able to get the system up and running easily locally — not just you! Use virtual servers or containers to ensure that development versions of the applications are identical to production.
  • The application should be well documented. At a minimum, the provisioning and deployment workflows and any special incantations required to deploy to live should be written down.

Maintenance Is A Genuine Win-Win

Maintenance is the work we need to do on an application so it can safely stand still. It is a standard business cost. On average 75% of the total cost of ownership over a software application’s lifetime.

As professionals, we have a duty of care to be educating our clients about maintenance from the outset. There is a huge opportunity here for additional income while providing tangible value to your clients. You get to keep an ongoing commercial relationship and will be the first person they turn to when they have new requirements.

Continuing to provide value through your retainer will build up trust with the client. You’ll get a platform to suggest enhancements or new features. Work that you have a great chance of winning. Your client reduces their lifetime costs, they reduce their risk, and they get to stop worrying about performance or security.

Do yourself, your client and our entire industry a favor: help make web application maintenance become more of a thing.

Smashing Editorial
(rb, ra, hj, il)

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Why Web Application Maintenance Should Be More Of A Thing

An Introductory Guide To Business Insurance For Designers And Developers

At some point in your career, most web designers and developers can relate to issues with scope creep, unexpected project delays, client relationships breaking down, and unpaid invoices. The good news is that there’s an insurance policy to help with these scenarios. In the UK, we call it “professional indemnity insurance.” Elsewhere, it can be called “professional liability” or “errors and omissions insurance.”

Let’s explore what this insurance is and how it’s designed to keep web professionals in business. I’ll also be sharing real stories of businesses who were glad they had insurance.

What Is Professional Indemnity Insurance?

Professional indemnity insurance protects your business from screw-ups and problem clients.

Let’s say a client threatens legal action, claims loss of income or damages due to a service you provided. Even if you’re in the wrong, professional indemnity steps in to ensure the consequences to your business aren’t crippling.

A creative agency working on a project together


A creative agency working on a project together. (Large preview)

It’s also important to distinguish what professional indemnity insurance isn’t. After all, business insurance is an umbrella term for different types of cover. One of those covers is public liability insurance — or general liability insurance as it’s known in the US.

Public liability insures your business against claims of:

  • physical injury to clients and members of the public
  • accidents on your work premises
  • damage to third-party property.

This is a popular cover for those who have clients visit their office or those who work from client premises. However, in this article, we’re focusing exclusively on professional indemnity.

How Can Insurance Help Me If I’m A Designer Or Developer?

Business insurance isn’t often talked about in web circles. I think it’s because insurers have focused their products and user experience on traditional industries. A lot of the information out there isn’t relevant to those of us working in digital.

To add to that, people don’t equate working with a computer as being a danger or massive liability. Especially when you have all of your clients sign a contract. This can lull designers and developers into a false sense of security. A common objection I hear from web professionals when talking about insurance is:

I can’t cause any damage as a web designer. For anything that does go wrong, I have a clause in my contract that says I’m not liable.

Firstly, I have to debunk the myth of not needing to have insurance because you work with a contract. Contracts don’t alleviate you from liability. They’re useful for laying the foundation of what duties are expected of both parties, but insurance steps into action when those duties come into question.

With every scenario I’m sharing today, they all had the following in common:

  • A contract was signed by both parties.
  • They had years of experience in their profession.
  • They were professionally insured, but never expected to have to use their insurance.

Below are real stories of how professional indemnity insurance helped these designers and developers.

Scope Creep

A developer built a web platform to spec, but the client complained of missing functionality.

The developer agreed to build the perceived missing functionality for a further fee, but the client believed it should have been included in the initial build. Not only did the client refuse to pay the remaining invoice, but they threatened legal action if the developer didn’t cooperate.

Having professional indemnity insurance meant that the developer had a team of legal experts behind him. They helped the developer communicate with his client to avoid the problem escalating.

The developer’s professional indemnity policy also had a mitigation costs clause. This meant the insurer paid the amount owed to him by his client, which was thousands of pounds.

Project Delays

Designers and developers often work to tight deadlines. Missing deadlines can cause problems if the project has an important launch date.

A creative agency was hired to design a website, but the project started to unravel. Key members of the team left part way through the project and the pace of the work being completed slowed down.

While the website was delivered in time for launch, it was missing a lot of major features. The client said it wasn’t fit for purpose.

After wasting money on a marketing campaign for the launch, the client refused to pay the final invoice. They also incurred extra expenses from hiring new contractors to complete the website’s missing features.

The client threatened to involve solicitors if the agency pursued payment.

The unpaid invoice was settled by the insurer under the mitigation costs clause of their professional indemnity policy. The insurer also provided the agency with legal advisors to confirm with the client that the project is considered at an end.

Client Relationships Breaking Down

This is a common catalyst for professional indemnity claims. Even if we spot a few amber flags, we like to believe we can make our client relationships work and projects run smoothly. However scary it is, sometimes you have to burn bridges with a client.

A designer did this when working with a client they felt didn’t respect them. An ever-changing scope, long hours, and poor pay lead to a breakdown in the relationship. What had started off as a promising project was now a strained working relationship and source of stress. The designer decided to walk away from the project.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of things. The client wanted to be reimbursed for the money they had already paid to the designer. They also wanted damages for the loss of income due to a delayed launch and compensation for hiring other contractors to complete the project.

A team of legal experts was arranged by the insurer to deal with the designer’s client. A settlement was agreed out of court, which was also covered by the insurer.

What Does A Professional Indemnity Policy Insure Against?

Professional indemnity insurance is a meaty policy, so it isn’t feasible to cover every scenario here. At its core, it’s designed to put your business back in the same financial position after a loss as it was in before a loss. As you can see from the stories above, a loss can be legal fees, client damages, compensation or even unpaid invoices. However, this has to stem from a client expressing dissatisfaction with your work.

While all professional indemnity policies differ, let’s look at some of the key features you can expect to see.

Defence Costs

If a client makes a claim against you, your professional indemnity policy will pay the defence costs. This isn’t just for situations that have escalated to court. Insurers want to solve problems before they get to that stage, so they’ll provide a team of legal experts to help negotiate terms with your client.

Intellectual Property Infringement

Web and graphic designers are vulnerable to arguments over copyright infringement, whereas developers could get into disputes over who owns the code. This clause covers claims against copyright infringement, trademarks, slogans, and even domain names.

Mitigation Costs

If you read the stories above, you’ll have seen mitigation costs mentioned where unpaid invoices were paid by the insurer. If a client is dissatisfied with your work, refuses to pay any or all your fees and threatens to bring a claim against you, professional indemnity may pay the amount owed to you by your client. This is only if the insurer believes it will avoid a claim for a greater amount.

Negligence

Negligence covers a broad spectrum, but think of this as a warranty for any mistakes you make that lead to an unhappy client.

Unintentional Breach Of Contract

Breach of contract can take many forms. It could be something as simple as failing to deliver a project on time or not meeting the client’s expectations. Any breach of contract may entitle the client to make a claim against you.

A web developer working on his laptop


A web developer working on his laptop. (Large preview)

Some Practical Tips For Buying Insurance

The first question people ask when it comes to buying insurance is, “How much should I insure my business for?”. The level of cover will typically start at £100,000 and can go well into the millions. It can be a difficult question to answer, but there are factors that can help you arrive at a reasonable figure.

Client Contracts

If your client contract has an insurance clause, it’s usually for £1,000,000 of professional indemnity. This is the base level of cover a client would expect. It’s the most common level of cover I see businesses buy.

Types of Clients

What type of clients are you working with? Is it large corporations with in-house legal teams, or local small businesses? It’s not unwise to assume the larger companies pose a bigger threat, therefore should have a higher level of cover. You may also find that larger companies will have an insurance clause in their contract.

Type Of Work You Do

A developer building a payment platform will potentially face a bigger risk than somebody designing a website to showcase a restaurant’s menu. Does your work involve dealing with sensitive information or higher-cost products? Are businesses depending on your service to generate income for them?

If it feels like I’ve skirted around answering this, it’s because there isn’t a straightforward figure. A lot of insurers will simply tell you to buy what you’ve budgeted for. If in doubt, consider a base level of £1,000,000 and periodically evaluate your clients and type of work you do. Most insurers allow you to make a mid-term adjustment part way through your policy to increase your level of cover.

Other than the cost of insurance, there are a few other factors to be aware of when buying insurance.

Insuring More Than One Activity

The web is a multi-disciplinary industry. You should be looking for a policy that can cover your various activities. A web developer may also provide web hosting. A designer may also offer consulting services. If you fall outside of the typical box, you might find it useful talking to a broker or using a service like With Jack where your policy can be customized instead of using an online comparison site.

Insuring Your Work Worldwide

By default, professional indemnity policies in the UK exclude US jurisdiction. If you’re working with US clients under US contract law, look for an insurer that can lift the jurisdictional limit from your policy, so you’re insured worldwide. Just beware that it will increase your premium.

Your Policy Can Adapt To Your Needs

Insurance can be flexible. Don’t delay buying insurance because you’re thinking of switching from sole trader to Limited company down the line, or because you’re waiting to add a new service to your business. A good insurance company will allow you to adjust your policy, adapting it as your business changes and grows.

How Insurance Can Help You Build A Bulletproof Business

Whenever I see newcomers ask for advice on starting their business in the web industry, I see a lot of suggestions that look like this:

  • “Get an accountant immediately.”
  • “Build a network!”
  • “Have your clients sign a contract.”
  • “Monitor your cashflow!”

This is all great advice, of course, but rarely do I see anybody mentioning getting insured. Insurance should be a crucial part of any professional designer or developer’s toolbox.

Offering your professional services to clients comes with a degree of risk. It’s your responsibility to mitigate that risk. You have to be confident that — if something does go wrong — you can get back to work quickly. There can be issues with mistakes in your work, a relationship going sour or a client claiming they’re unhappy with your service. It doesn’t matter how good you are, these things happen!

This is why I’m sharing these stories — to highlight the importance of being insured. I want to get web professionals not just thinking about insurance, but understanding it. Insurance is something we don’t necessarily want to budget for or consider, yet as professionals, we have to. The stories above show how critical it can be.

So yes, work with a contract. Monitor your cash flow. Have an accountant manage your bookkeeping, but also get insured. There’s little point in building your business only for one problem client or mistake to take it away from you.

Smashing Editorial
(ra, yk, il)

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An Introductory Guide To Business Insurance For Designers And Developers

How To Build A Skin For Your Web App With React And WordPress

So you’ve trained yourself as a web engineer, and now want to build a blazing fast online shop for your customers. The product list should appear in an instant, and searching should waste no more than a split second either. Is that the stuff of daydreams?
Not anymore. Well, at least it’s nothing that can’t be achieved with the combination of WordPress’ REST API and React, a modern JavaScript library.

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How To Build A Skin For Your Web App With React And WordPress

Contributing To WordPress: A Beginner’s Guide For Non-Coders

If you’ve been using WordPress for any amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the following statement: “Free as in speech, not free as in beer.’ If you haven’t, pull up a chair and let’s talk.
WordPress is a free and open-source software (also known as FOSS) project. The explanation of that could easily fill up a separate article, but the TL;DR version is that the software is free to download, use, inspect and modify by anyone who has a copy of it.

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Contributing To WordPress: A Beginner’s Guide For Non-Coders

A Comprehensive Website Planning Guide (Part 1)

As a veteran designer, developer and project manager on more sites than I can count, I’ve identified a common problem with many web projects: failure to plan. As the same issues come up repeatedly in my work, I’ve written this guide in order to help our clients, other designers, businesses and organizations plan and realize successful websites.
Who This Guide Is For Written in relatively non-technical language, this guide provides a broad overview of the process of developing a website, from the initial needs assessment through site launch, maintenance and follow up.

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A Comprehensive Website Planning Guide (Part 1)

How Do I Know If Venture Capital Fits My Business?

There is a popular image in the world of software which many young and inexperienced entrepreneurs are becoming infatuated with. It’s the idea that when you come up with an awesome idea, the highest peak to strive for — the ultimate goal — is getting in front of a venture capitalist and receiving a huge lump sum to propel your business to unimaginable heights and bring tremendous personal wealth. Well then, let’s explore what it really means to fund your business with equity capital.

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How Do I Know If Venture Capital Fits My Business?

How To Iterate Your Way To A Winning Content-Driven Website

If, like me, you spend most of your days working on content-driven websites, you can feel left out of the cool kid’s party. Best practice like Agile, continual iteration, and user feedback don’t sit quite as well when serving up lots of information, rather than a killer web app.
When I talk about a content-driven site, I am referring to any website whose primary aim is to convey information, rather than complete tasks.

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How To Iterate Your Way To A Winning Content-Driven Website

Table Setting Guides for Great Design

Designing at your desk with Photoshop or HTML and CSS is easy, but getting your bosses and clients to give your work their stamp of approval is often quite a feat. In this webinar, Dan will share some stories of tools, methodologies, and non-traditional deliverables that can help you get the buy-in you need. Follow along to learn how to make everyone you work with say “please” and “thank you!”

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Table Setting Guides for Great Design

Welcome To The Next Level Of Mobile App Development

(This is a sponsored article.) As users spend 89% of their mobile time inside apps — and 56% of all traffic is now mobile — creating a mobile app has become a top priority for many businesses. Statistics show that the average American spends more than two hours a day on their mobile device. Having a mobile app can be beneficial for your company for a number of reasons. But we all know that building an app from scratch is difficult — the gap between a concept and solution is wide and requires a lot of time, effort and money.

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Welcome To The Next Level Of Mobile App Development