Working with clients is always an adventure. Whether it’s last-minute changes to a project or design politics, there’s plenty to keep web designers on their toes. And you never quite know when the next surprise will rear its head.
One thing you can count on, however, is that there will come a time when a client has trouble (real or perceived) with their website. This could be the result of an actual problem or a simple misunderstanding. Either way, it can seem impossible to replicate or track down the source.
It’s what I like to call “unexplained website phenomena”. The phrase may conjure up images of UFOs and other assorted science fiction scenarios. That’s fitting, as there is a tinge of the paranormal to these issues. For example, a client sees something that you can’t. Or a blog post they were working on vanishes without a trace. Spooky, right?
And just like a good sci-fi thriller, these types of problems are never quite what they seem. For web designers, it means looking past the rhetoric (and maybe even panic) in a quest to put things right again.
So, put on your space helmet as we look at ways to help your clients unravel these mysteries. We’ll even count down some of the most common of these “stranger things”.
Identify the Issue
The first step in our mission is to find out what exactly a client is experiencing. If your client is fairly tech-savvy, this part might not be so bad. They might point you towards an error message or some other clue that lets you move on with the investigation.
But if they’re decidedly not a friend of technology, things get harder. Much like encountering beings on a strange planet, you may not speak the same language. In that case, you’ll want to ask a lot of probing questions:
- What were you trying to do?
- What did you expect would happen, and what happened instead?
- What page were you on when the problem occurred?
- Were any error messages displayed?
- Did you make any attempts to fix the problem?
- Are you aware of any recent software updates (CMS, theme, plugins)?
- What device, OS and web browser were you using?
Of course, there are all sorts of questions to ask. And some things might be assumed based on the situation. The goal is to understand what went wrong, or at least what your client thinks may have gone wrong.
Retrace Their Steps
With some basic information now in hand, we can turn our attention to experimentation. That takes the form of retracing a client’s steps to try and reproduce the reported problem. What, were you expecting a spacewalk?
Sometimes you’re fortunate to reproduce an issue in a way that leads you right to a fix. But since we’re talking about unexplained website phenomena, that’s more the exception than rule.
So much can depend on a user’s choice in web browser and operating system. Not to mention the possibility of browser extensions or security software that could be interfering with their ability to perform certain tasks.
That’s why attempting to replicate an issue can be so difficult. One system’s configuration may cause errors, while others seem to work just fine.
Timing can also play a factor. Your client could have attempted to do something right as a server or connectivity problem occurred. A temporary DNS outage can also wreak havoc.
If retracing a client’s steps doesn’t yield results, these other factors need to be considered.
Explaining the Inexplicable
Every website related problem has a cause. Yet it’s not always clear why something went haywire. Those times are by far the most difficult to explain to a client.
Technology is so often about having concrete answers. If the data says this, it must mean that. This what web designers are developers are used to talking about. When things aren’t so cut-and-dry, it’s hard to know what to say.
About the best you can do is report back with a truthful answer: You don’t know why this terrible/annoying/inconvenient thing occurred. Perhaps it sounds a bit pathetic, but better than the alternative of making something up.
That said, it’s still acceptable to speculate. Along with your “I don’t know” monologue, you could include a list of possibilities. This will at least provide a client with something to think about. And you won’t have to suffer the shame of a failed mission.
The Most Common Website Gremlins Exposed
What would the web design life be without a little mystery and intrigue? Let’s take a look at a few of the more common gremlins that invade our Zen and put us into battle mode:
Cache can be a beautiful thing, as it helps to make your website lightning quick. But it can also be the cause of many unseen issues. As in, your client can’t see the update you just posted – because they’re viewing an older version of a page that’s stuck in cache.
It’s also a bit of an intergalactic shapeshifter, in that the offending cache could be stored locally or on the server. Either way, its spell must be broken (er, cleared).
Horrific Web Hosting
Wonky hosting can bring even the most elegantly-built website to its knees. Prolonged downtime is awful, but intermittent problems are even worse. For example, those few error-prone seconds when your client was trying to save a post or upload a file and – crash.
The unpredictable nature of such problems can make them hard to track down. Why, it might even lead you to chalk it up as one of the unsolved mysteries of the universe.
Restoring Balance to a Frazzled Client (and Their Website)
If anything, the web can be an extremely unpredictable place. And while web designers may be used to navigating this hazardous black hole, our clients usually aren’t. Therefore, they often have a different reaction when facing issues with their website.
Clients won’t always know, for example, to look for specific error messages. And they may not realize the impact software, such as an outdated web browser, can have on their user experience. Accurately communicating what they’re seeing and doing is also a challenge.
Providing a fix is often a matter of picking out the most useful bits of information you can gather. From there, it’s about trying to piece together enough clues in order to reproduce a problem. Sometimes it works, other times luck won’t be on your side.
You probably won’t have an answer every single time. That’s OK. It’s a great big web out there. As such, some things are just unknowable.