Avoiding the Effort Heuristic in Client Work

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The effort heuristic is a mental rule of thumb in which the quality or worth of an object is determined from the perceived amount of effort that went into producing that object. In brief, the effort heuristic follows a tendency to judge objects that took a longer time to produce to be of higher value. – Wikipedia

When it comes to managing a team that’s producing work for clients, it’s critical that everyone working on the project understands the goals of the client and is aligned on what the client will ultimately find valuable. This, of course, means being on the same page with the client in the first place and making sure they’ve clearly articulated what’s important. In the absence of well-defined goals and a clear understanding of what constitutes value for the client, it’s very possible that your team members will resort to using the effort heuristic to judge their own work.

Here’s an example scenario:

The team is tasked with designing and building a landing page that’ll be used to collect emails from people interested in learning more about a yet-to-be-released product. The team has been told, in a vague manner, to make the landing page “exciting and dynamic” and “on-brand”.

The designer and web developer assigned to the project spend many hours over the next few days creating a meticulously crafted landing page full of visual details, whimsical animations, and fun copy. The extra effects that they’ve added to delight the client takes the developer over 10 hours of debugging to perfect. The final product is a beautiful and intricate page that took multiple late nights over the course of a week.

When the client reviews the landing page, he’s not impressed. Instead, he asks what took so long. “I was hoping to have it a few days ago. I just quickly needed a page where people could just sign up. A simple image with our logo and some copy would’ve been fine. Can you guys ditch the effects, make the background white, and swap that Photoshopped pic for the one that’s already on our site?”

The designer and the web developer are aghast and fuming. Doesn’t the client know how much effort went into this amazing landing page? It’s so nice that it can probably be featured on a website award site. How dare the client want to “dumb” it down? Doesn’t he know anything about good quality work? 

There’s a disconnect in this scenario. The designer and web developer were not aware of what constituted value for the client. The client valued quick turnaround more than any craft. He would have been perfectly happy with a barebones landing page as long as it worked and got done fast. The designer and web developer, not knowing this, defaulted to creating what they themselves valued–beautifully detailed designs with cool effects–and poured a great deal of effort. When confronted with feedback that questioned the value of their work, they immediately became defensive, feeling that their work, which required so much effort, was objectively something of high value and quality.

When I think about the effort heuristic, I can recall days when some of my employees would huff and puff about clients “just not getting it” or “not understanding design”. I used to dismiss this as “artistic temperament” or “not being a good professional”, but I can see how in many situations, there was little to no facilitation of clearly defining goals and value criteria for our clients. Pointing the finger inward, I can see how I fell short in properly briefing our team and also not fully aligning with our clients on what was valuable to them. What our team should be striving for on every client engagement is to make sure that everyone working on it is 100% clear on the outcomes that would help our clients achieve their goals and make them feel that they’ve captured maximum value by working with us.

Some Side Thoughts

  • Could the client be persuaded to value the work more if we told him that it took great effort to create it? This has worked in some cases, and the nicer clients will appreciate the “hard work” put into it. But at the end of the day, I’ve found that clients often have an internal measure for what they perceive as valuable and if we underdeliver, no amount of effort will make up for the deficit.
  • My example was an extreme case and, thankfully, rarely happens at Barrel in real life. A few tactics we employee to avoid falling into the effort heuristic are: having our team members repeat the objective of the project before any major meeting with clients and to give them an opportunity to agree or clarify (and also serves as a good enforcing mantra for our team); scheduling various workshops and check-ins with the client where we can collaborate throughout the process instead of setting up high-stakes “big reveal” presentations where we show our work after several weeks “locked up in the tower”; diving into analytics, KPIs, and other sources of data to determine success metrics and how our work may deliver a lift versus the status quo.
  • There are “designers” with artistic temperaments who, even when briefed and given all kinds of research and data, will still cling to aesthetics and place disproportionate weight on anything that is visual while dissing clients who may not share the same perspective. Personally, I don’t consider these types designers but artists who’re trying to make a living by masquerading as designers. Thankfully, we don’t hire such people at Barrel, no matter how talented they may be. We require a very high standard of skill and creativity when it comes to bringing a brand to life, telling stories visually, or laying out content in interesting ways, but these must all be in the service of helping our clients achieve their goals.
  • Check out this paper on the effort heuristic. The abstract says: “The research presented here suggests that effort is used as a heuristic for quality. Participants rating a poem (Experiment 1), a painting (Experiment 2), or a suit of armor (Experiment 3) provided higher ratings of quality, value, and liking for the work the more time and effort they thought it took to produce. Experiment 3 showed that the use of the effort heuristic, as with all heuristics, is moderated by ambiguity: Participants were more influenced by effort when the quality of the object being evaluated was difficult to ascertain. Discussion centers on the implications of the effort heuristic for everyday judgment and decision-making.”

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