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How to Say "Your Site Sucks" Nicely

February 19, 2008 — By Dr. Pete

No matter what your area of expertise, there comes a time in every web developers life when you have to tell a client that their site, to put it plainly, sucks. I'm all for honesty, but in 11 years of working with clients on internet projects, I've found out the hard way that the direct approach isn't always the best.

Even if, deep down, the client knows their site is a mess, they often have a lot of time and money invested in it, and are bound to be defensive in the face of criticism. The problem is, sometimes clients need to know the truth, no matter how ugly. So how do you break the news gently?

Accentuate the Positives

Like any bad news, sometimes it helps to ease into it with a little good news first. I've never seen a website that was a complete loss, and there's always something that can be salvaged. Try to step back from your initial reaction and take a good look at what your client is doing right. Even an awful website might have a decent navigation scheme, good copy, or a solid architecture.

Of course, be sincere. If the best you can come up with is "Those dancing hamsters really capture the essence of rodent frivolity" or "The screen looks like the 70s threw up on it, but at least it matches your sweater", then you should probably keep your mouth shut.

Stick to Business

Ultimately, your job as an internet consultant, whether you're a designer, usability specialist, or SEO, is to help your client's business succeed. When you're breaking the bad news, stick to the business case: gently explain, point by point, why the site is hurting your client's bottom line.

Focus on Facts

Especially when you're talking about design, it's easy to confuse opinion with fact. Keep your criticisms specific, whenever possible, and impersonal. Be especially careful around issues that involve personal taste, such as color schemes. Even if you know you're right, your client may take your criticism as a personal attack.

Call for Backup

One of the best ways to keep things from getting personal is to bring in a 3rd party buffer. For a large project, this might mean an in-person resource, but often it just means citing online articles, market facts, or other industry experts.

Provide Solutions

Especially when you're a paid consultant, everything has to come back to solutions. The best way to soften bad news is to be prepared to tell your client how to turn their situation around. Ultimately, bad news only matters if it's permanent, and providing answers isn't just a good communications strategy, it's what you're getting paid for.

Question: So, how do you break bad news to your clients?