Why Criticism From A Client Is A Good Thing

By Alyssa Gregory
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sketchCreative work is subjective, so if you’re in a creative field, you’ve probably faced your share of criticism. In web design, there are very defined styles and tastes, and your style either jives with the client’s tastes or it doesn’t. Hopefully, this is something that’s determined before you’re hired (another reason why a design portfolio is a must-have). It’s still impossible to make every client happy all the time. And no matter how much experience you have, how versatile your designs are, how many years you’ve been in the business, how good you are at what you do, sometimes you just miss the mark.

It’s a shot to the ego when a client tells you that the design isn’t what she wanted. But if you can look past the initial disappointment, there are a number of benefits from receiving criticism.

The process has started.

Sometimes, I’m worried when a client loves the initial mockups. Of course, this is not always the case, but my fear is that they didn’t really give it a lot of attention or they just want it done so badly, that they’ll live with whatever I design.

When a client comes back with a list of things they didn’t like, the real design process has begun. This is the part where, as designers, our job is to reach into the client’s brain, collect all of the ideas they have for the project that may not be articulated, and produce a site that matches that as closely as possible. Criticism, really, means game on.

You get some direction.

Many times, the client needs a tangible design to get them thinking about what they like and don’t like…what they really want. This initial round can be a great starting point since it’s much easier to look at a design and say, “More of this, less of that,” than it is to explain in an abstract way when the client may not even know what terms to use.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

OK, maybe that is a little dramatic, but the concept is true. Receiving criticism from a client isn’t enjoyable, but it’s a valuable learning experience for two major reasons. First, when you hear what a client likes and doesn’t like, you learn a lot about them. This means you’re positioned for all future work you do for that client. Although their feedback may have been specific to one project, many times they provide general information that will make future projects easier.

Second, this is all part of design! Getting used to this process and being able to rebound quickly and successfully is what makes you good at what you do. And the client will recognize that.

You can make it right.

I don’t know about you, but part of what I find satisfying about design is successfully creating something the client is thrilled to call their website/logo/etc. Without the client being critical of your work, this would be pretty impossible to accomplish. It’s a partnership and each step of the process is necessary to get it right in the end.

Is there ever a time when you don’t readily take feedback from a client and try to incorporate it into the project?

Image credit: Mike Homme

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  • Anonymous

    All of this is right, but two caveats – the nightmare client who is seriously and I mean seriously web unaware, or the nightmare client who prevaricates endlessly so as to delay payment.

    The nightmare client and how to dump them or spot them has been dealt with in other (also excellent) articles and blogs on sitepoint.

  • Anonymous

    So how does everyone deal with a client who’s suggestions are killing the design? I don’t know about you guys, but as a developer I get tired of working on projects where at the start it looks great. “This will make a great portfolio piece”, but by the end the client does not listen to anything or anyone anymore, and ends up becoming draconian and killing the project.
    Any idea’s on how to steer such clients, and produce better looking and working software?

  • Sebs

    A open relationship to your client is a good thing.

    But the criticism thing goes both ways. Yes, your client pays your bills, but if that requires you to tell your client to tell him exactly what he wants to hear he maybe needs to get his job done for himself. ;)

    Why does one hire a team with art-directors and ui specialists when he wants to decide where every button graphic or html element goes? Most of these customers are not used to contractors with a own opinion and are used to point the fingers in the end to exactly this contractors when the whole thing goes wrong in the end.

    I am more in the develoment field, but i have seen awful things in my life when it comes to customers design decisions. The designers are responsible for making the whole layout and ui work and very often they do not have the balls when it comes to telling the truth about weird ideas of managers who think they can decide just because they are the customer.

    Here is where professonal requirements management comes in place and this means, like you said, abstracing the clients basic ideas from the customer, but more importantly, find a way to make him/her priorize his ideas and additions. And priorization is a very painful process for customers, because they are used, like i said before, to people telling them: We will make that work, even when it wont. Absolutely the opposite from deciding what is more important and what less.

    In the end, a real life design process will never give the perfect result, in the designers view, but its very important that there are no major mistakes (designwise) in the end. A customer who gets used to getting told the truth (Sorry, but this will not work) will start to trust you as soon as he sees that designproblems get more accurately solved by a designer and not the one doing the payment. From here on the process of creating a good layout or ui design is taking less iterations and is ore focussed on the real thing. getting the job done thebest way.

    Strong point i know, but i know both sides of the game. Id never work a second time with a design team that is simply putting my commands to execution just to satisfy me.

  • “Is there ever a time when you don’t readily take feedback from a client and try to incorporate it into the project?”

    Uhm, yes. I take on 25 new clients every month, literally, from logo design I offer at my site garysimon.net – It’s been very consistent at this number for the past 18 months (literally).

    In the field logo design, the customer isn’t always right. In fact, there’s a decent percentage that really don’t have a clue on what effective logo design is. It got so bad that I had to write a “READ ME” before they can enter their logo design details, that explains exactly what a good logo is and isn’t. While this has helped cut down on ridiculous responses, it’s obviously not full proof.

    Most of the time I will just comply with their requests, but sometimes I say **** it, and refund their money.

  • Anonymously

    Love this article Gaurav_m

  • I’m with dreamache on this one.

    99% of the time, clients are absolutely clueless when it comes to design. We in the design/creative side see site designs, brand identities, print, product, and even packaging design on a daily basis – while a client will see 2-5 sites before they meet you, at most, and believe they have an idea of what they want.

    Clients try to get involved and insist on moving forward with what they think is right: layouts, navigation placement, logo placement, content hierarchy, content flow, etc. etc. And 99% of the time, they ruin the project instead of help.

    We’ve since adopted an “agile” way of doing things – we explain: “listen, we’ve been doing this for years, we know what works for you, and what doesn’t. We’ll build a wireframe first, and explain to you why everything is where it is, then we can both discuss possible changes (if any).” This way, we control the flow of the process, and the client is “kept in his corner”, thus preventing the client from compromising his own project.

    To take a quote from the Watchmen movie: “We are saving them from themselves.” And my apologies if others may think this is warped, but I see it very similarly to the way a Doctor would not recommend a certain procedure, because the said Doctor knows that what the patient for is absolutely pointless.

    Too bad us web folk don’t have PhD’s. It would surely make clients listen more.

  • *because the said Doctor know that what the patient wants the procedure for is absolutely pointless.

    (Why can’t we edit our comments?)

  • Stevie D

    I think there is a difference in expectation. When we hear the word “criticism”, we think of a negative response – and that isn’t something that any of us want, and it isn’t productive, it doesn’t move us forwards at all.

    What we do want is “constructive criticism”, forming a dialogue between client and designer on how and where the site could be improved. If the client says “I don’t like the background”, what do you do? You’ve got precious little information on how to improve the situation. If the client says “I think the background is a bit too plain and boring, I was hoping for something jazzier” then you know where to go next.

    Some aspects of web design are very subjective, and the design may be great but just not what the client was looking for.

    Other aspects of the design are about good practice, and XLCowBoy, I understand exactly where you are coming from! Often the clients have very little understanding of good web design. But if you get into a constructive dialogue, you can explain why you have done things they way you have. This (a) shows them that you are professional and know what you are doing, (b) gives you the opportunity to politely talk them out of sabotaging their own site, while making them feel involved in the process, and (c) gives them a better understanding of the process and of good practice, so that they are less likely to ask for stupid things next time round.

  • There is constructive criticism and there is negative comment. Usually I try to explain to clients and take professional approach but if things work out not what I expect, for instance, the clients repeatedly ask for a revision without clear reasons, I’d rather fire them and spend my time on more worthwhile projects.

    Certainly my judgment is different from yours. We have different level of tolerance. And I think this could possibly make a good topic for a post. :)

  • @Stevie D

    We used to do that: explain everything before the project got off the ground – often, the time spent having to explain every detail (and believe me, clients usually ask about every detail) is significant enough to be detrimental to both parties. If, for example, you spent 2 weeks discussing a project before starting anything, you still have to add the amount of time needed to actually build a working draft, and then the discussion and revisions after.

    You can cut down on that time by asking the right questions, creating a working draft, then having a sit-down with the client. Instead of the client dictating the majority of the direction (which, more often than not, leads to more significant revisions down the line), you, the expert, have the ball in your park.

    Once you have a working draft you can show, you can then explain to the client why it works that way. If you’ve had enough years in the industry, you would already know what works and what doesn’t for your client, and you should helping them by eliminating the guesswork.

    Think of it this way: If you were a cosmetic surgeon, and a patient walks in and says “I would to reduce my thighs”, why would you ask them which of the 50 procedures they would like, and explain each and every one? You simply look at them and say “based on my observation, I can only recommend one or two procedures…” and then proceed to sketch/illustrate them, while providing detailed explanations.

    There’s educating a client, and OVER-educating a client. A client will NOT remember all that you had explained to him 2 months down the line. Just as how a cosmetic surgery patient will not know everything that was done to him/her – the majority will simply say “I got it done at this great plastic surgeon…”

    So why waste time (and money).

  • I agree – there’s a difference between the overview/mockup stage and actual HTML pages: criticism/comments *should* be voiced at this stage. Of course, it depends on your client and their view of what they’re actually hiring you for.

    I’ve been lucky enough to have clued up clients who buy into the ‘why’ of what I do (I find small/one man operations are better in this respect) – their criticism tends to have more validity. If you’ve been hired as as someone who can just get pages up on the internet, you’re more likely to get the silly stuff and hear ‘well, it’s all subjective anyway, why didn’t you put a flashing button here?’ style comments.

  • @XLCowBoy

    “You can cut down on that time by asking the right questions, creating a working draft, then having a sit-down with the client.”

    I agree with this! I just don’t know what the best way would be. Could you point me in the right direction?
    Do you maybe have examples of the “right questions” and a “working draft” that actually works?

    How do you make your clients trust you and make them feel that you only want what’s best for them? How do you make them feel that what you are saying is because you know what you are doing and not because you don’t want to do it their way?

    Examples of the “right questions” and a “working draft” would really help point me in the right direction and I would really appreciate it if you/somebody could help with this.

  • @FaridHadi

    I can only speak from my experience, but drawing from that, I tend to stop asking “what do you want”, and instead lead them with “what are your goals”. Asking “what do you want” is the equivalent of “how would you like your birthday cake?” – and 99% of the time a client will choose what THEY want, not what’s right for their site (or those who are eating the cake). Asking about goals is the same as saying “what do you want to achieve, and I will provide you with the services needed to achieve them.”

    Once they list down a series of general goals, I talk them through each “ok, this one I need to bring up…” then give them short but clear examples of horror stories and success stories.

    The client should be all ears by the time you finish.

  • Prodigal

    I’m with XL, an important step in managing clients’ expectations is to coach them to clarity of purpose. This will also save you lots of time and increase your job satisfaction, because you’ll feel you’re doing something that matters.