9 Communication Tips to Save Your Next Design Project

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If you’re a designer, communicating with clients is an essential part of your job.

But it’s not always easy, and at times it can be downright frustrating–both for you and for the client

Ineffective communication can leave you and the client feeling intimidated by the process, which can cause a breakdown in the relationship and a failed project.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some techniques and tips that will help you improve your communication with your client and forge a strong working relationship.

1: Avoid Jargon

How many times have you been asked, “Can you repeat that in English please?”

For many clients, one of their biggest bugbears is a designer’s use of language that they don’t understand. Whilst you can happily wax lyrical on the subjects of CSS and JavaScript and the best applications of each, it’s easy to forget that many clients won’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

This means that you have to learn the client’s language and speak to them accordingly.

“OK,” you might be thinking, “but they should also be willing to learn my language?”

Should they? After all, they are paying for a finished product. They don’t particularly need to learn all of the terms in order to understand the end results.

You don’t need to stuff your head with all of the latest business terms, but it really is necessary that you understand the client’s goals and objectives if the project is going to be a success.

Here are some ways to reduce your use of jargon:

  • Write out the terms that you use often and attempt to come up with a “plain English” version of each one. For example, when talking about CSS, you might instead use the term “stylesheets” and explain that they that dictate the overall layout and design. Similarly, clients will understand “programming language” better than JavaScript.
  • Practice talking to family members and partners. They are much less likely to just nod politely when they don’t understand.
  • Give your clients a “jargon buster” sheet that lists common design terms and what they mean from the client’s perspective. This doesn’t mean that you have a free pass to continue using jargon, but it does demonstrate that you understand that some of the terms they might come across during the design process are not familiar to them.

It’s really just a case of retraining yourself when speaking to those outside of the design sphere. Once you have mastered simple language, it will come easily.

2: Adapt to Different Mediums

Social media, text messaging and other short-form communication tools can often cause misunderstandings.

It’s easy to misconstrue something that somebody has said when it’s communicated in this way. Even email can have this problem, as it effectively removes all of the nuances of expression that are found in verbal or face-to-face communications.

This means that it’s essential to be clear and concise when communicating in this manner.

In written communications, a good practice is to read what you’ve written out loud before sending. This also helps to ensure that it sounds right for the medium.

Even better, just stay away from social media and texting when communicating with clients–it’s just not worth the hassle.

If you have something that you need to talk about, pick up the phone, arrange a meeting, or use email and ensure that you keep the conversation in one string.

Be sure to save the email as a record of your discussions, so that you have something to refer to later and can pick up the conversation quickly and easily in the future.

3: Be Polite

I’m a bit of a stickler for good manners. It may be something of a cliche, but it still holds true: Good manners cost nothing.

Asking nicely, remembering to say please and thank you–these may seem like obvious things to do, but sadly many people don’t bother.

With some clients, this failure to mind your manners could be fatal to the project. It gets their back up and it gives them cause to regard you in a negative light.

Of course, sometimes you will come across a client who is rude to you: Don’t respond in kind. You retain the upper hand if you ensure that you are always well mannered and don’t ever lose your temper, no matter what has been said to you.

That’s not to say that you should take whatever a client throws at you. If they are rude–and particularly if they are abusive–then you should politely and firmly let them know that their behavior is unacceptable.

4: Keep Clients in the Loop

One way to surprise and delight clients is to give them unexpected “updates from the field”.

So if you’ve just discovered a new technology or technique, a quick call to the client to let them know how it can help the project can make a huge the difference. Keep the client in the loop at all times, set them up with other people who can help to make a difference to the project, and really get the client involved.

A client who is invested in the design process will be much easier to communicate with in the future.

5: Listen

An important part of communication is the ability to listen properly.

I’ve conversed with many people that make it quite clear that they can’t wait for you to finish talking so that they can get their own point across–or worse, they constantly interrupt.

When you have ideas buzzing around in your head, it can be difficult to hold back when all you want to do is get them out there, but that’s not good for two-way communication.

This is especially true of interrupting. Nothing is more obnoxious than a person who constantly talks over you. It’s rude, and it’s irritating. Bear that in mind when you’re talking to clients.

It’s also useful to listen carefully to the client at all times and take notes. This allows you to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they want.

6: Ask the Right Questions

Asking the right questions allows you to gain a deeper understanding about your client’s business, as well as what they expect from you as a designer and what they hope to achieve with the project.

I send clients a questionnaire as a starting point to help to kick start this process, asking questions such as:

  • What does your business do?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is your USP?
  • What competitors do you feel are getting it right?
  • Do you feel that you have a strong brand?

It’s important for you listen to your clients effectively, and an initial questionnaire can help prevent communication hiccups down the line.

7: Ask for Clarification

Imagine this scenario: You receive a brief and begin working on it as you see fit, without chatting to the client directly.

Before you know it, the client is raging about how your work is nothing like what they wanted. An argument ensues.

Sometimes communications break down because a brief isn’t clear, or because a clients have contradicted themselves.

If that’s the case, make sure you ask for clarity and confirm what the client expects before you start working on the job. A quick phone call or in-person meeting can be the difference between keeping the project and losing it.

It’s also useful to make sure that you keep a written record of everything that the client has asked for, in order to fully protect yourself. When you’re chatting, just slip in a casual “Can you just put that down in an email for me so I don’t forget anything?” and you’re covered.

8: Don’t Play the Blame Game

There will inevitably be breakdowns in communication, and how you handle them is critical to the health of the project.

Even if you feel strongly that the client is in the wrong, it’s not productive to point the finger at them and tell them it’s all their fault.

This leads to a feeling of defensiveness and even indignation in the client, and they’ll invariably come out fighting.

Instead, ask yourself if there’s any way you could have approached the situation differently or anything that you could have done better. Then approach the client directly and ask what can be done to put it right.

You may not feel that it’s your place to correct any wrongs that the client may have made, but hey, you’re a grown up, deal with it.

9: Learn How to Deal with Needy Clients

We’ve all had clients that want to call us 10 times a day to check on the progress of a project.

This kind of behavior is disruptive and time consuming–but how do you put a stop to it?

Set the rules early on. If a client wants a daily report then schedule it in once a day only. If they call outside of the designated time, firmly but politely explain that you can’t talk now and that you will catch up with them at the daily meeting.

Make sure that you factor in these meetings when it comes to pricing. If a meeting takes 30 minutes a day and a project lasts two weeks, then that’s 5 hours of lost work.

It’s surprising how much less needy a client becomes when they understand that your hours are billable.

Good Communication is Worth the Investment

Good communication is a must when dealing with clients, but it’s also a skill that has to be learned. It takes a certain amount of thoroughness, a willingness to accept responsibility when things go wrong and the ability to balance diplomacy with firmness. It also requires a certain amount of record-keeping and the ability to hold your tongue and listen, even when you don’t like what the other person is saying.

We’re not all natural communicators, but if you can master the art of good communication, you’ll encounter far fewer problems with clients and projects.

Have you seen projects fail spectacularly because of poor communication? Or maybe you’ve rescued situations that seemed beyond hope with a few simple words. Share your experiences in the comments below.

Kerry ButtersKerry Butters
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Kerry is a prolific technology writer, covering a range of subjects from design & development, SEO & social, to corporate tech & gadgets. Co-author of SitePoint’s Jump Start HTML5, Kerry also heads up digital content agency markITwrite and is an all-round geek.

client managementclient relationsclient tipscommunicationengaging with clientshourly billingJoshE
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