Is The Way We Communicate With Clients All Wrong?

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I had a client meeting today, though it was a different than usual. I had the distinct privilege to be working with a committee on a web design project. Yes, some of what they say about design by committee is true, but by sitting in on their meeting, I was able to gain some unique insight about how clients approach a design project. It really brought into question how we go about our interactions with clients, and how we the designers are doing it wrong, or at least could be doing it better.

A little background:

I work for a university as a web designer. If you’re not familiar with how the education system work, it’s like any government department, where committees are, more often than not, the way decisions are made, and work gets delegated.

I’m building a website that is going to incorporate a few objects from a dozen or so organizations on campus, and so a dozen people are involved in the process. I meet a person in charge of the project, get the information I need, and got to work. I designed a mockup quickly, there really aren’t a lot of pages, and the website should be somewhat persuasive. I decided to essentially make it a one page site with four sections, each linking to their respective pages. One long main page with a fixed bottom bar for in-page navigation and 4-5 other pages. Pretty simple I thought.

I meet with the same person again and they like the design. Then the committee had their meeting and the response was that they generally liked the design but there was some “confusion.” I didn’t really know what that could be, because the design was so simple, but I agreed to come meet with them and go over some things…

What I Found

The confusion was generally caused by people’s inability to understand the Photoshop mockup. But it went even deeper than that.

If a person has never seen a mockup before, you really shouldn’t expect them to understand all of the assumptions you the designer are making (and there are many). Such as:

  • What content are links and where they go
  • How the page looks in a wide browser (no there won’t be white space on either side of the design)
  • How the content will look when scrolling and in smaller viewports
  • Any type of animations or hover states
  • Internal vs external vs in-page links

Another problem, which still amazes me in 2012, but many people, especially over the age of 40 have only a very basic understanding of the internet and how to use it. They manage, but in the most clumsy, awkward way imaginable. Most people can’t tell you what browser they use, they press in the “internet button.”

But the biggest one is: What about the design can change and how easy is it to do. Clients, rightly so, have no concept of how a design is made and how hard it is to change something, or how long it will take. So they do one of two things.

Instead of saying what they want changed they say they want you to change the content of an area. Not because it should be changed but because they don’t know what it would take to make the change they really want. Or they come out and say it. How about you move this over here. Which may or may not be better.

The real problem is that the client cannot get past the mockup in front of them. They have never played with interface design and have no idea what is possible. So any changes they try to make are housed in the narrow confines of what is on the screen before them.

And maybe you are thinking, you want it that way. You don’t want clients causing you to start one completely. But the problem is, we as designers aren’t really solving the client’s problems. A website has a purpose aside from bring functional and looking pretty, and the client knows more about that than you do, yet they are forced to use your mockup, to solve that problem. For the client it’s like trying to assemble a complex toy for their kid and the instructions are in a language they cannot read.

A Typical Approach

What do you do when you work with a client? You make them fill out a questionnaire. You sit down with one or two people and try to figure out what they need. Chances are good that you don’t get it quite right but you agree to work together. You probably check out some of the competition, maybe a few other website to see what else is out there.

And then you make the big mistake. You start designing. I do it, we all do it. We have a good meeting. We have some ideas already forming in our minds, so we pop open Photoshop, or a sketchpad, and start working on the mockup.

By doing so we are seriously reducing the chance of creating a successful project. We could make an amazing looking design – the colors, fonts and imagery all look perfect. The layout is functional and easy to navigate, but does it really solve the client’s problems and do you address all of their needs? And not even that, how can you make a mockup without any of their content, or even knowing how much content there needs to be?

In reality, you are letting your client down. You may come up with the best way to organize and display the content you were given in a pleasant looking way, but it may not be the best content, the best implementation of that content and you aren’t spending all of your design time and page real estate address the most important issues the company may be facing.

We are presenting what information we were given in the best way we know how but it isn’t the right information.

Visuals Prevent Clients From Expressing Their Needs

Clients have a hard enough time trying to communicate what they need but put a mockup in front of them and it just became impossible. They have no experience communicating design ideas with anyone and have now forgotten why they wanted the website in the first place. They get stuck on the little details like the size of the logo and background colors.

That website had a definite purpose when you first met with you but from the time the client sees that mockup it just becomes a process of moving pixels back and forth. What happened to that content that was supposed to be so important?

Those Dreaded Last Minute Changes

The worst thing you can hear from a client at the end of a project is “I talked to so-and-so and they feel the main photo area should be at the bottom”. You try to explain that making that change is a bad idea or out of the scope of what was agreed upon in the contract but really if the client understood why you designed it the way you did there wouldn’t be this problem.

The reason clients drop these bombs on you is because you’ve both moved so far away from the problems the website was supposed to address. You laid out the site that best fit with web standards and a way that looks pleasing and functional but the client doesn’t know why one area is above or next to another. The client is happy with how it looks but they realize an important goal isn’t being met but instead of just saying that, they try to explain it to you through the design, and they fail miserably. Causing frustration on both ends.

You’ve based your design choices not off of solving the clients problems but what works best with the content you have. So you defend your design because you did do it the best way possible and the changes the client asks for probably are making it worse. Communicating through the design is causing the project to be less effective than it should be.

How The Process Could Be

We as designers are at fault for the problems that arise late in the design process. We have led clients to believe that the design comes before the content. That the design is somehow separate. When really the entire site should be completed, in writing, before the design ever begins.

Start With A Series of Problems

From your first meeting you should layout the purpose of the website, what problems must it solve? Make a list of everything the client would like to accomplish and what their company’s goals are, then order them from most to least important.

  1. We need to launch a new product
  2. We aren’t selling as much as we should be online
  3. We don’t know our customers
  4. Our support team is understaffed and gets the same questions every day
  5. Product B should be selling but it isn’t
  6. Our reach doesn’t exist outside of X area

What you are doing is finding real problems your design will try to solve, and you are putting it in terms the client understands. You are also making the cost of your services worthwhile. The client isn’t going to the website store and picking out one they like the look of. You are an integral part of the problem solving process, working to increase exposure, sales, brand recognition and profits. Your services have real, definable, value.

Find the Best Way to Solve Each Problem

Don’t think in terms of just a website. A website can do a lot of things but it cannot do everything. Brainstorm solutions to each and every problem. This should be done alone and with the client. See which ones can be done from within the website. Those will be the focus of your design efforts.

If a large website currently exists, a content audit may be in order. Check every piece of information on the website against your list of problems and solutions. If it isn’t mission critical, consider removing it.

I would strongly recommend getting the content written for the website at this point but I know how we designers are. You’ll probably get to work on the mockup. Which is still a better place to be than if you hadn’t spent the time finding the real purpose for the website.

Revealing the Mockup

When it is finally time to show the client the mockup, go over the list of problems again, in person. Show how you went about solving each one with your design. If the client(s) start to talk about the design, try to steer the conversion back to the problems and have them describe their changes in relation to them.

If the client says, “I don’t like the blue background,” explain in regards to the solution to a problem, why you chose blue over green or red. “Your main competitor is green and we felt red wouldn’t resonate with the target market.” If they are not satisfied with the answer have them come up with another solution that doesn’t involve design.

Even when working in a committee, if you can keep the conversation about problems that everyone can understand, you can keep people’s design opinions out of the conversation a little more and focus on issues everyone can talk about. This allows really solutions to be made, or at least gets you looking in the right direction.

Nothing is ever easy but when you don’t define the problems in terms everyone can understand it gets a whole lot harder. Clients have no business worrying about design, they hired you after all. So don’t let them get caught up in what you do best. Find out what they really want and need and you both will be happier in the long run.

Tyler HermanTyler Herman
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