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Client Matters: Ironclad Contracts: Tougher Than a Pinky Swear

UXmatters just published the fourth article in my bimonthly column, Client Matters, where I give UX professionals an honest look at initiating and managing relationships with clients.

The latest article is titled, Ironclad Contracts: Tougher Than a Pinky Swear. In it I expound on how to determine the nuts and bolts of your client contract: the various payment structures and payment schedules to consider; how to handle changes in project scope; how to craft a contract; determining whose contract to use — and at the very end I scare you into reading the fine print by telling you what happened to me when I didn’t.

You’ve passed the seduction phase. You’ve made the client fall in love with you. You’ve determined the terms of your engagement. Now, you need to make things official.

When I used to do freelance on the side, while still employed full time, I never got my clients to sign contracts. I didn’t see the point, and I hated the formality. It felt stuffy, and I thought it would be a turnoff to my clients. Instead, I outlined a loose schedule and process in an email message, told them the dollar amount, then got to work while I waited for the check. If I didn’t get things done on time, it was no big deal, because my clients’ expectations of my commitment were pretty low. If the check came later than I was hoping, that was no big deal either, because I had my salary to rely on. All in all, everything was fine.

But once I quit my job to do consulting full time, all of that easy, breezy stuff had to change. I needed protection. And so did my clients.

I’m going to tell you right now, the legal part of consulting isn’t fun. All of the good will you’ve built up with your prospective clients during the getting-to-know-you phase is going to be tested. It’s entirely possible your budding relationships won’t make it. Sometimes people get touchy about the details, and seeing them all on paper can make people uncomfortable. You’re essentially asking your fiancée for a pre-nup. It’s going to be tough, but trust me, it will be worth it.

Everything you figured out during your scope-definition process lays the groundwork for the terms of your contract: the activities you’ll be conducting, deliverables you’ll be producing, your intended schedule, costs. But there are some crucial elements you and your client still need to agree on: payment structure, payment schedule, overage policy, change request policy, and the dreaded termination agreement.

Read the full article on UXmatters, and stay tuned for future articles in my Client Matters column.

Huge thanks goes to Matt Nish-Lapidus, Justin Davis, Livia Labate, Jared Spool, Kyle Soucy, Katherine Gray, and Josh Evnin, who shared their best advice on contracts in pithy and well-constructed one-liners.

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