The three golden rules of designing for friends and family

We’ve heard it all before, “Never mix business with friendship”. Some of us have ignored this (sadly, I have my hand raised). For those of us that have, you can probably attest that it either ended great or quickly turned a great relationship into a well, not-so great relationship.

I have no problem calling a friend who may be a plumber to check out a leaky faucet – a quick, straightforward, one-time favour. Designing, well that’s different. Requests are open to interpretation. It requires a much longer engagement. There are different creative styles … you get the point.

Over the past few years, I’ve had my opportunities to work with both friends and family. I should also say that nearly all of them have been miserable. Good friends have been lost, others have become more distant. I don’t blame any of them: I blame myself.

An iPhone app screen design, currently in development, for a friend in 2011

An iPhone app screen design, currently in development, for a friend in 2011

Based on my experiences, here are three “Golden Rules” that I’ve made that I wish I knew looking back in hindsight.

  1. Manage communication. Most of us wouldn’t want a Friday night client phone call. Be clear about hours to talk business and hours to talk personal life. If you’re a person who has business hours of 9 to 5, enforce that. No exceptions. This means no talking about the project while hanging out with mutual friends on a Saturday night. This also means no talking about the project when you go to their house for dinner. If your mobile phone rings at 9pm on a Friday night, hope that it’s to figure out what plans are for the evening and not how to improve that subpage design. Break this #1 rule and social events will no longer be social events. Family dinners will no longer be family dinners. Drinking with the boys will no longer be just drinking with the boys.
  2. Manage expectations. Just like you would be clear with your clients, it’s equally important to be clear with your friends or family member. Don’t dance around the subject because you don’t want to ruin a relationship. If you wouldn’t promise a client a particular turnaround, don’t promise it to a friend. No “squeezing in” because they are a friend. Friends, family, clients – if you have a great working relationship with clients, manage your friends and family the same way.
  3. Feel free to terminate the project. If you need to, end a project before it ends your friendship. Just like clients don’t like to drag out engagements that are no longer a good fit for one of the parties, don’t drag out your project because it’s a friend or family. If they are ruining your “poker night” by talking business, you no longer talk about personal issues, or you feel that working with them is changing your relationship, end the project. They may be in a bind because you’re either doing them a favour by not charging them or charging them lower than what you’d charge your Fortune 100 client but that’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

That’s all folks; three simple rules. Had I known or been more conscious of this when working on projects for friends and family in the past, it would have resulted in a much different set of experiences and outcomes. Don’t let what may start as a “favour” end in fury. Do yourself and your personal relationships a favour and manage communication, manage expectations, and know when to say when.

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