Have you ever had to design something you hated, but your client loved?

Hi Guys,

I was wondering if any of you have had this happen to them?

You've been given a project to do and your client has stipulated it has to be done a certain way. You KNOW that way goes against just about every tenet of adult learning, and gently say so, offering an alternative but the client insists you do it their way.

You finish the project on time, and within budget. The client looks at it and congratulates you on a fantastic job and signs off on it. Happy client, happy pay day (well it would be if I didn't work for the government).

The only downside being, every time you look at the course you die a little inside. Yes, it's THAT bad. It will never, EVER be put in my portfolio.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and stories.






21 Replies
Christy Tucker

I try to turn down those projects. I know not everyone is in the position to turn down the money, but it's better to say no at the beginning. If you know it's going to be one of those awful projects, you can set your boundaries. There's a reason I have a blog post titled, "No, I Won't Tweak Your PowerPoint Slides."

Of course, if the choice is between taking the crappy project or missing a mortgage payment, take the crappy project. Sometimes you do have to just pay the bills and look for a better project next time.

On a smaller scale, even with good clients who generally make good decisions and trust my advice, sometimes they insist on a design choice that I know is wrong. If it's minor, I may go along with it and try to do better in subsequent projects. If it's major, I explain the research behind my recommendation. I tell them that if they want to go against my recommendation, I'll do so because ultimately they are the client. However, I ask them to acknowledge that they are rejecting my evidence-based recommendation and that they assume the risk for any reduction in effectiveness of the course. Most stakeholders don't want to take that responsibility. I have only resorted to that in very rare circumstances, and only when I've established trust over time. It is possible to push back and be more than an order taker. It's easier earlier in the process, but you can say no at any point.

Bob S

So thinking that I may be the odd man out again here....  ;-)

I look at this differently. Yes the client/stakeholder is paying for my expertise, my experience, my advice, and as a good business partner I will provide all that and more. Passionately.

But at the end of the day it is their business to run, not mine. And as long as I've followed my ethical and professional compass to steer them towards the best solutions possible, then I have done right by them... even if they chose a different path. My favorite business pragmatist saying = "I need a voice, not a vote"

Besides, it's entirely likely that me producing the "lesser" option may still afford the opportunity to create something slightly less egregious than if I walked away completely and they farmed it out to someone else anyway.

David Tait

I'm with Bob here.

I'll always offer the advice that I think is best for a given situation but if a customer wants something done a particular way then it's a case of 'he who pays the piper calls his tune'.

I have no problem tweaking Powerpoint slides if that's what someone wants. To turn those kind of jobs down is like a shop assistant refusing to sell you a pair of Adidas running shoes because she prefers Nike.

I have to admit to having had reservations about how customers have wanted jobs done in the past but on completion I've had a change of heart and ended up liking what's been done.




Christy Tucker

A lot of this boils down to whether you view yourself primarily as a service provider or as a consultant. Service providers are paid to say yes. Consultants are paid to provide expertise. An ideal consultant relationship is 50/50 with the client.

When you're a consultant, you provide your expertise and work with them to create a solution that really works and doesn't waste their money. They provide SMEs, time, thoughtful feedback, and access to enough information and resources in their organization that you can really understand their business needs. If you never tell a client no on anything, you're not acting as a consultant. If you ask your accountant to do something illegal or unethical, they will (hopefully!) tell you no. Your accountant is serving as your consultant. It's their job to tell you no sometimes, and to turn you down as a client if you continue to ask for inappropriate actions.

When you're a service provider, you're just an extra set of hands to your client. They tell you what to do, how to do it, when it will be finished, and how much you'll be paid. They control 90% of the decisions about what happens; you just do the 10% of implementing the decisions your client has made. In this case, the metaphor of a retail clerk is helpful to understanding the relationship. The retail clerk can make recommendations, but ultimately all the power rests with the customer.

The elearning industry has roles for both service providers and consultants. Not everyone needs to be a consultant. However, Todd, if you're feeling unhappy about working as a service provider, maybe it's time to reflect on which of these two roles would be a better fit for you.

Bob S


While I respect your opinion, it strikes me as more idealistic than the way I view the business world.

Perhaps it's the grey in my beard and experiences on both sides of the third-party/client relationship that have made me a bit more pragmatic. Or perhaps it's the years spent making a living as a Sales professional before even joining the L&D field.   But in either case, I've come to understand that one thing is true when dealing with a client...  ultimately it is their decision on what is best for their business.

To be clear, I feel as though I have an obligation to present what I believe to be the best solution(s) for their situation.... even if that means vigorously campaigning for an alternative that is at odds with what they were expecting/hoping for. But I try to (not always successfully!) to be humble and remember that ultimately it is their business, not mine.

Again, also sitting on the other side of the table as a client who has hired many third party partners, I know my reaction and that of  C-suite members  to "we know best and we won't compromise" pitches... Please trust that no matter how well-intentioned those pitches may be, they typically have the opposite effect of your stated intention of allowing you to help the business.

Finally, the metaphor of an accountant/tax advisor providing advice on legal compliance issues is also not analogous to what we do. It is a rare day when I've had to put my foot down around a training issue running afoul of legal concerns; and even then it was quite industry specific. Far far more often we are discussing topics such as effectiveness, appropriateness, timeliness and other important, but not black-or-white legal issues where there are nuances and answers fall on a spectrum. And because of that, I try to keep in mind that while my opinion may be grounded in  actual experience, It would be arrogant of me to dictate to a stakeholder what she/he must do for their business.

We live to serve a business need.... or we don't live at all.

Jerson  Campos

@Christy, I don't think your analogy is very effective here.  There is a fine line between requesting something illegal and something with poor design. If instead, you tell your accountant/financial advisor that you want to liquidate all your assets and invest in the Ubikistanian Ruble because you heard its gonna quadruple in value, then they might recommend not doing it, but I don't think they are gonna step away from your account because you go against their advice.

I agree with Bob on this. You are not always going to get clients that will agree with all your recommendations. It is their business and they are going to run it how they see fit, you are an advisor/consultant/service provider on a part of their business, not all of it. You can choose to walk away from clients who don't always follow your advice, or you can use this experience to learn from and an opportunity to keep building trust between you and this client. 

BUT... I would keep any documentations that you did make different recommendations in case they come back to you and ask you why the project didn't meet certain expectations. You can go back and say you recommended options XYZ but they chose options ABC. 

Christy Tucker

I don't think you need to find clients that agree with ALL your recommendations. However, if they disagree with literally everything you advise, then they probably aren't a good fit. I agree, Jerson, that it can be a learning experience to work with those clients. How many of those learning experiences do you think is appropriate to suffer through before you start screening those clients out early in the process? What exactly are you learning if you just agree to work with those clients over and over again? At some point, you have to decide to focus your efforts on the people you can help the most. Clients who don't trust your expertise can't be helped as much as clients who do trust you.

As for illegal requests, I've received many of them. Maybe I'm just unlucky and I get all the crazies so the rest of you don't have to deal with them, but here are some examples (all true).

  • Earlier this year a prospect contacted me about converting a linear, text-based course to something more engaging that used scenario-based learning. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he doesn't actually own the content he wanted to transform. It's copyrighted by someone else. He was planning on stealing it and wanted my help.
  • Another client asked me to copy images from her competitors website so she wouldn't have to pay for stock photos herself. In that case, I did convince her to use CC and public domain images instead. I would have walked away if she had insisted on stealing images though--and I'm sure she would have found someone else to do the job.
  • At my first ID job, I was legally forbidden to delete emails for the entire 2 years I worked there. When you're under an active SEC investigation, deleting emails is viewed as destroying documents (even though my work had nothing to do with the investigation). I personally witnessed federal laws systematically broken in the recruiting process. Besides the legal issues, there's a lot of ethical issues in the for profit higher ed realm. One of the reasons I left that job was because I felt I couldn't ethically be a part of that anymore. That market has collapsed because of those legal and ethical issues.

Beyond the legal issues, what about the ethical ones?

  • I was updating an old course for a client. The course claimed that "research supports" a bunch of strategies that I knew had been debunked (with no citation, of course). When I asked them to dig into it further and provide the original source, it was just from a book of theory, not research. Ethically, I felt it was my responsibility to take out the claim that these strategies were supported by research. I ultimately convinced the client of the same thing.
  • A client once insisted that I describe his course as "accredited" even though there was no review by any external accrediting agency. After multiple emails back and forth about the definition and legal meaning of the word accredited, I finally decided to "fire" him as a client. It might not have been illegal, I wasn't willing to help him defraud his customers.
  • I've caught a number of SMEs plagiarizing content from online sources. This is usually a bigger problem in higher ed, but I watch for major copyright violations and citation problems in corporate learning too.

If it's something on a spectrum where the research isn't clear and there are arguments for multiple different approaches, that's a different situation. If it's something subjective, then it isn't worth fighting over. One of my clients really wanted a male voice for their courses. I did some research, and I can't find any compelling research for one gender over another in elearning voice over. Therefore, I'm going to go with whatever the client wants for gender.

I think we do have an professional and ethical responsibility to try to at least nudge clients to better elearning design. That's what the Serious eLearning Manifesto is about. I certainly don't hit every one of those points in my projects. The goal is to try to do some of them and to incrementally move to better design. If it's clear in the first call with the client that I can't meet at least a few of those goals on a project, then it's not a good fit and I will turn it down.

It's different if all your decisions are based just on your own experience. If that's all you have to back up your choices, then of course you have no ground to stand on. Then you'll view everything as "nuance" based on different experiences.

However, for some of our choices, we really do know what will happen based on the science. You can cite the research that says, "Studies have found that doing this may reduce how much learners remember by x%. Is this really important to you? Are you sure you want to take the risk?" We all make plenty of design decisions that don't have clear cut research, but in the cases that do (e.g., narrating every word on the screen, using formal language), I think we're professionally obligated to do what's best for the learners.

Bob, I agree that we serve a business need. That need is helping the learners. If clients ask for designs that will hurt learners (or help them less), then we have failed to serve that business need.

Bob S

Hi again Christy,

Thanks for sharing your point of view so eloquently. One of the things that makes this community great is the ability to entertain different approaches and opinions. Kudos to you.

I think I've identified the difference in our stances on this and it is not order taker vs consultant.  Rather, it's in both of our last statements...

I believe that we are beholding to the business as our primary responsibility, and then the learner's well being as our chief concern after that. It sounds like for you it's the reverse. 

No judgment in that comparison; a good case can be made for both. I'm just observing that may be where the two points of view stem from.  In any case, thanks again for sharing yours.


Jerson  Campos

@Christy,  those are some good examples on when you should fire a client. I have had a few of the copying images request, but never an entire course.  I educated my clients on the consequences of copyright infringement and recommended stock photography instead. 

As for your question on how long should you suffer through these type of clients would be up to you. If it becomes a major problem where you are no longer happy working with that client and shudder every time you see their name on Caller ID or you believe it is actually hurting your business and reputation, then I would say that it is time to drop them. 

I am coming from a different perspective though, about 80% of the time I am just a service provider. Usually the content and storyboards are already created and my clients are looking for someone to develop their courses and need my expertise in that area. I enjoy what I do, but I do look for opportunities to stretch my ID muscles when I can.

Dave Ferguson

Peter Block, in Flawless Consulting, described three ways that clients (internal or external) employ consultants:

  • As an extra pair of hands -- "I know what I want done and how I want it done. I'm hiring you to do it."
  • As a specialist -- "We don't know anything about translating our operating procedures into Korean. We're relying on you to produce this in a way that's effective for manufacturing environments in Korea."
  • As a partner -- "We're trying to figure out if we could convert any of our classroom training to online. What should we be thinking about, and if any of it could, how would we go about that?" 

My hunch is that the earlier you are in your career, or the lower you are in the organization, the likelier you are to be the pair of hands. Potentially it's a way to build credibility, though if you find yourself doing nothing much more than converting bad PowerPoint (verbose, content-based, lecture-y) into bad elearning because your client sees this as "leveraging legacy content," and you're unhappy about it, there may be a mismatch between how the client manages the organization and how you work best.

If you're an internal consultant, as I've been most of my career, there's only so much walking away you can do. Pragmatically, my tendency has been to try and influence the client to rethink what's clearly going to be ineffective, but if I can't, I try to get it out of the way and to apply my skills more energetically and effectively with other clients.

I once did three drafts of a course, all rejected by the client AVP (through intermediaries, since he had no time for me, and with no useful feedback). He insisted that we strictly follow the instructor guide he'd brought from his previous employer (which went bankrupt). My most senior colleague advised me to give him what he wanted. I took that advice.

Getting the never-in-my-portfolio stuff done efficiently can also demostrate to some other stakeholder, like your longsuffering manager who might also see the counterproductive nature of the request, that you're able to set priorities, work hard, and potentially can do a hell of a lot of good on the right project.

Sally Milford

Hey Christy and Matthew,

This brings up an interesting predicament I often find myself in and one which I have recently gone back to my eLearning contacts about too.

Regarding 'evidence-based' recommendations, I have a lot of 'good practice' standards which I have built up from 10 years in the eLearning biz but it would be great if I could reference some published 'eLearning standards' to help support my arguments.

I'm struggling to find any and would be particularly interested if there happen to be any clear Australian standards I could point to.

Any advise would be wonderful.



Christy Tucker

Clark and Mayer's book is the one I most often reference for these sorts of discussions with clients. I reference Clark's Scenario-Based eLearning if it's something specific to scenarios and simulations.

Julie Dirksen's Design for How People Learn is a good book on overall learning and motivation. She really makes the research understandable.

Make It Stick by Brown et al is more broadly about learning and studying. It's aimed more at teachers and college faculty, but there's plenty of evidence for instructional designers if you reflect on how to apply it. This is a good one for explaining the value of spaced, varied, interleaved practice, as well as for busting the myth of learning styles.

If I'm explaining why a Jeopardy game isn't effective for complex learning, or discussing how gamification can be more than just badges and leaderboards, I cite Karl Kapp. He's written several books on the topic. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction includes significant summaries of research.

The ATD blog on the Science of Learning is a source for ongoing learning about evidence-based practice. https://www.td.org/Publications/Blogs/Science-of-Learning-Blog

Patti Shank's new book, "Write and Organize for Deeper Learning" has tons of information about how to improve your writing. It just came out, so it's 10% off until May 15.

If you want overall eLearning Standards, you could use the Serious eLearning Manifesto or Will Thalheimer's Decisive Dozen.



If you aren't feeling overwhelmed by resources yet or are looking for something specific, let me know.

Juanjo Haro

Most of projects. But, as I work as employee, i don't care... is not my product, is not my name. I just get paid a monthly salary. In spain we have a expression "Do you want shit, i'll make you shit" cause this situations are very common. Sometimes ago, i fought against that trying to create correct elearning but it was useless. 
As an example, one of the last courses I have assembled, almost 500 slides of which, almost 400 are test questions. From the minute zero I said that it was impractical and incorrect, other that the LMS manager will say that it was not right. They ignored me. The course is barely stable, I need my home computer to be able to do it since my work does not have memory to work with that slides.
In addition, the times to save or open the project, if it does not fail, reach 15 minutes, operations as simple as changing a text can take up to 1 minute and, at random, the course crashes and you have to copy scene to scene in a new file which takes about 30 minutes each time it happens.
Even with all this, the customer does not care, he still wants his 400 questions so I do not care, the course sucks but it's not my thing. I'm only paid to waste my time with it instead of doing a good course

Sean Speake

There's a Polish expression - "Not my circus, not my monkeys"

As a freelancer, I often had to simply accept what a client wanted, despite it being against their own best interest and their learner's best interest. We knew (me explicitly, they suspected) the solution wasn't going to resolve the performance need, but at the end of the day the "We did something about it" box needed to be ticked.

Such is the nature of large organizations. Will that stuff ever make it into my portfolio? Nope. Did it allow me to pay my mortgage on time? Yep.

Sometimes you just grin and bear it. And remember the next time that client comes to you with a job... there's a lot to be said for turning down work you don't need or want. But eventually you've got to decide if you want to be an order taker (where there's good money to be made) or be a partner.