I work as a contractor. The job involves helping a number of people who come in with project ideas.

One person who comes in wants a website. She has little background in websites or development process. She also asks for clearly unattainable things, or changes her mind too often for any real development to be made. It often becomes clear that she really hasn't any idea what she wants, and has not done adequate research to understand the scope.

My other clients tend to not have a strong technical background, but certainly have a direct plan of what they want and at least a vague idea of what the process to get there will be. I can't share these details with her because of NDA, so can't show her these examples.

What is the best way to tell her that I simply cannot waste my time any more with her projects, until she gives me a clear, concise, and direct plan of what she wants? Would it be unprofessional to simply refuse to help her until she makes a plan?

  • I had a friend who wanted me to "help" her build a website in a similar situation. I offered to teach her to build it herself. Oddly, she found someone else to "help" her after completely failing to find any time to learn about building websites for several months. Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 20:14
  • What does your boss say about this? Are you to help them anyway? Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 21:41

4 Answers 4


For the first client, you need to give them an outline of what to expect in the engagement. It should include the common questions that they need to answer / research before coming to you. To make this, think about what you would do if you approached someone to build a website. What content do you want, what layout, have you seen sites that are similar to what you want, etc. You should list in the outline the areas for back / forth - and the amount of it you will allow.

You don't need to show prior work. The main thing here is simply establishing how the process works. For example:


  1. Client locates 3 example sites that they like.
  2. Client identifies areas of those sites they like / don't like.
  3. Client gives logo and overall direction for color selection.
  4. etc..


  1. Contractor presentation of 3 layouts. The purpose is to get the structure so we know where content might go etc. Should include the home page plus a content page, if different. -- Client selects one to go with, with possible minor changes.

  2. Presentation of 3 color palettes. Using the selected template. The palettes should include what any links look like, header strips, etc based on chosen template. each color palette should be internally consistent.
    -- Client selects one, with possible minor changes.

  3. Presentation of template in colors chosen with logo. -- Client might make one more round of minor layout and or color changes at this point.

  4. Delivery.

  • 1
    I mostly do the development and not so much the design, but I like a lot where you are coming from. Prerequisites are probably a good idea
    – Crow
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 23:58

I think there are two important things to consider:

  1. Stay at the sketching stage. Don't write any code or digital mock-ups until you get something settled.
  2. Start charging for these designing sessions. The client has gone beyond what you consider ample free time to discuss the project.

I know some of the flat-fee graphic designs sights limit the number of revisions for this exact reason. Some people will just take too much time.


I think you're stuck teaching a client how to work with a web designer/developer - which isn't fun, especially if this person is both nontechnical and possibly used to working "as she goes."

First, make up your own mind whether you want to help her but charge her for the "brainstorming" time, to come to a final plan; or whether you want to send her away until she has a better idea of what she wants. Then, communicate that to your client. If you decide to continue helping her finalize her plan, explain to her that time brainstorming with her is your professional expertise and time, and in light of that you will need to start charging her for that from this point forward - same as you would for any other client.

Either way you proceed (continue to lead this client by the hand or not), you may want to introduce this client to a couple of ways of working:

  • have your client keep a folder of site ideas (like a scrapbook - or, hey, Pinterest) so that she can later look them all over and come to you with a decision, not more new little decisions every week (unless she wants to pay for all of those changes.)
  • break your larger client projects up into phases, each with their own start/end date and cost. This breaks the work into chunks (for everybody's sanity) and that allows her time to see the site "in action" and make the next set of decisions based on this new-to-her knowledge. Phases for a microbusiness site design might include:

    1. initial framework with bare-bones responsive code (no design flourishes, just the basic content buckets, minimal back-end functionality)
    2. first CSS/JavaScript design embellishments: custom colors and layouts, extra functionality (modals, accordions, more complex UI bits)
    3. additional back-end functionality: a cart, a gallery, whatever add-on functionality the client has decided Would Be Real Neat

(You may also want to set milestones for payment, so that you and she both have an idea of what happens when, financially.)

For future clients, agree to this beforehand: "Initial 1-hour consult is free, subsequent consults are billed in 30-minute increments. Work begins once you have come to a fixed idea of what you want done, and I write up and then we both sign a Statement of Work. If you have any changes to the Statement of Work, those will count as Change Requests. Each change request will both be an extra charge in addition to the already-agreed-upon work, AND will delay the project completion."


Many handle this situation by a paid prototyping/requirement gathering phase. How you sell this phase to client depends on marketing skills.

Paid requirement gathering creates a balance by shifting the burden partially to client thus ensuring promptness and effort towards attainment of goal.

Depending upon the client and size of account you can decide weather you want to do requirement gathering in pre-sales of free or not.

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