How do I convince…?

When I was speaking at An Event Apart in Austin I gave a somewhat rambling presentation. As usual, I was hammering home the importance of progressive enhancement, a methodology that’s actually not that tricky once you accept that websites do not need to look exactly the same in every browser and neither do websites need to be experienced exactly the same in every browser.

I had some time after the talk to answer a question or two from the audience—something I always enjoy. One of the questions went something along the lines of “All of this sounds great, but how do I convince my boss…?”

I smiled.

I smiled because I had been having exactly this same conversation with Beth at the opening party the night before. Here’s what I told her (and what I repeated in answering the person who asked the question)…

I’ve been giving talks since around 2005. At first I talked about DOM Scripting, trying to convince people that JavaScript wasn’t evil (at a time when JavaScript was very unpopular). Later I spoke about Ajax and progressive enhancement, hoping to persuade people to use the technology in a responsible way. Sometimes I gave talks about microformats. Later I got excited by HTML5 and spoke about that. More recently I’ve been talking about the importance of taking a Content First approach to responsive design.

Almost every time I gave a talk—no matter what the subject matter—someone would inevitably say “Yes, but how do I convince my boss?” or “That’s all well and good but how do I convince my clients?”

In fact, one time when I was giving a talk at From The Front in Italy, I made an extra slide that I kept in reserve after the final “thank you” slide. It simply read “How do I convince…?” Sure enough, when I was taking questions from the audience, someone asked that very question (and I advanced my slide deck and looked like a mind-reader).

The reason I mention this recurring trend is that I find it reassuring. We’ve been here before. What each one of my previous experiences has shown me is that things do change. Change might seem slow at times, but there’s a big difference between slow and static.

I remember the days of the web standards campaign. Trying to convince developers to use CSS for presentation instead of tables seemed like a Sisyphean task. But we got there.

I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness crying out in favour of liquid layouts for years, but now—thanks to the rise of responsive design—change has finally come. As for responsive design itself, I was sure it was going to be another uphill struggle to convince people of the benefits—and I was all set to take a hardline approach—but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that it’s an idea whose time has come.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this cyclical trend of new technologies and methodologies being pessimistically dismissed. Eric recently said:

So take heart. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

But what about answering the question? How do you convince clients/bosses to adopt a new technique or technology?

I’m afraid that this is the point at which I tend to throw up my hands and say, “Don’t ask me! That’s not my job—I just make websites.” But it’s a perfectly valid question and I think it would be good to have resources we could all point to when we need some ammunition.

Luke is exceptionally good at providing data to back up his arguments. I wrote on the back of his book:

Luke doesn’t just rely on his wondrous wit and marvellous writing style to make an overwhelmingly convincing argument for designing the mobile experience first; he also hammers home all of his points with oodles and oodles of scrumptious data.

That’s a good tactic. As he once said to me, “If you torture data for long enough, you can get it to confess to anything.”

Something I’ve found useful in the past is the ability to point at trailblazers and say “like that!” Selling the idea of web standards became a whole lot easier after Doug redesigned Wired and Mike redesigned ESPN. It’s a similar situation with responsive design: clients are a lot more receptive to the idea now that The Boston Globe site is live. But of course if you only ever follow the trailblazers, you’ll never get the opportunity to blaze a new trail yourself. Frustrating.

Another tactic that I’ve used in the past is to simply not ask for permission, but go ahead and use the new technologies and techniques anyway. That isn’t always practical but it’s worth a try. Rather than spending valuable time trying to convince your boss or client that they should let you do something, just do it (if you’ll pardon the Nike-ian platitude).

Andy likens the “How do I convince…?” conundrum to having a plumber come ‘round to fix your sink, only to ask you “Is it alright if I use this particular wrench?” You’re the plumber—you decide!

Except we’re not in the plumbing business (and we’re clearly not in the metaphor business either).

I do sometimes wonder whether we use the big bad client or the big bad boss as a crutch. “Oh, I’d love to try out this technique, but the client/boss would never go for it. Something something IE6.” Maybe we’re not giving them enough credit. Given the right argument, they might just listen to reason.

Have you published a response to this? :