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How To Get Sign-Off For Your Designs

“How did you do that?” My colleague Leigh sounded impressed. He had been working with a problem client for weeks trying to get design approval. Then I came along and was able to get signed-off in a single conference call. “Can you teach me how you did that?” he asked. I mumbled something about years of experience, but the truth was I didn’t have a clue. It just seems I can find design approval easier than most.

As I thought about it I realised there are actually quite a lot of things that have become second nature for me over the years. But I have learnt the hard way through many painful projects. Unfortunately because I started designing websites back in 1994 there was nobody around to teach me this stuff. I wish somebody could have just shown me how to avoid all of those endless revisions. Hopefully some of the advice I share with you here can help you avoid years of pain and suffering.

My first piece of advice focuses on the old adage — prevention is better than cure.

Prevention Is Better Than Cure Link

In our enthusiasm to start a project we often don’t take the time to prepare the client. For many clients this will be their first web project. So they may not really understand what that involves or what their role is.

Headscape factsheet about design
At our company, we pre-empt common issues and prepare the client by giving them a PDF factsheet about working with designers1.

So before you leap into your next project, let me recommend you complete the following steps:

  • Educate the client about their role
    Take the time to explain to the client what you expect from them. I always make the point of telling our clients to focus on problems, not solutions. I encourage them to avoid making design suggestions, but rather to point out why they feel a design is wrong. The job then falls onto us to come up with the right solution for their problem.
  • Take the client through a process
    Because many clients are not familiar with the Web design process, take the time to explain it. This has two benefits. When people are in unfamiliar territory they attempt to take control. This leads to micromanagement. By explaining your process you reassure them, giving them confidence. Second, explaining your process demonstrates you are the expert and puts you in the driver’s seat.
  • Pre-empt common issues
    We all know there are certain issues that always come up. Things like “make my logo bigger2“, “can we use comic sans?3” or “put everything above the fold4” have become standing jokes in the Web design community. Why then would we not pre-empt these issues? By talking about them upfront it makes it much harder for the client to mention them later. After all, none of us likes to be the person who is predictable, making the ‘dumb’ request.

WeeNudge.com5
WeeNudge6 is a superb site for pre-empting common issues and educating your clients about the Web.

Even once your project is up and running prevention can still be better than curing. For example, when you complete a design and show it to the client you can do a lot to prevent problems from coming up.

First, you should always present the design. This is your chance to justify your approach. Refer back to previously agreed upon work. If you have used moodboards, point out how the design draws on them. The same is true for wireframes, personas or any other elements the client has signed off on. It’s hard for the client to reject a design built on elements they have already agreed upon. You must never hand over a design without explanation.

Imaginary email asking the client to common on a design
Never simply send a design to a client asking them what they think. Take the time to present the design and ask for specific feedback.

Secondly, be aware the client may show the design around. This is problematic. Although you may have been careful to explain the decision making process to the client, others will not have this background information. This inevitably means the third parties will fallback on personal opinion and potentially sway the client in the wrong direction.

The solution to this problem is not to present your design as either a static image or as a final webpage. Instead, record a short video talking the client through the design. This video can then be passed on to whoever the client wishes to show. That way whoever views it will get all the information they require to provide educated feedback.

Finally, control the kind of feedback you receive. Never ask a client what they think of the design. Ask them instead how they believe their users will react to the design or whether it meets their business objectives. You can even go as far as asking them whether the design reflects the signed-off moodboards or wireframes. If you can get them saying yes to these questions they will realize that even if they personally dislike the design it is still the right solution.

Of course, when I was able to get the design signed-off on Leigh’s project, I hadn’t had a chance to lay down any of this groundwork. So what other factors came into play that made me successful where he had failed? One was my attitude going into the discussion.

Get Your Attitude Right Link

Leigh had been trying to get design sign-off for weeks. Both he and the client were frustrated. Battle lines had been drawn despite the fact both sides wanted the project completed.

This is a common problem. We start to see our clients as the enemy. In fact, there are many cases where bad past experience puts us on the defense from the outset. At every turn we start to build into our controls the limitations for the number of iterations and endeavors of the client’s influence. We even moan to one another how life would be better without clients.

Cartoon of an angry designer portrayed as a devil
Because of bad past experiences with clients we can often get off on the wrong foot with new clients.

It’s not surprising that design sign-off becomes a battle. We are looking for a fight even before we begin. It’s vitally important that we change this mindset and see every new client relationship as an exciting opportunity and not as a potential point of conflict.

When dealing with Leigh’s client, I had the advantage of not being on the defensive. My ego had not been bruised by rejection. You need to leave your ego at the door. Often it is worth picking your battles and letting the client win from time to time. This helps them feel their contribution is worthwhile and valued. It is when the client feels ignored or isolated from the process that conflict arises.

By getting your own attitude right, this goes a long way to establishing a good relationship with the client. This is key to successful design sign-off.

Get The Relationship Right Link

We would love to deny that the client is an intrinsic part of the Web design process. However, you can be the best Web designer in the world, but if the client isn’t on your side, you are wasting your time and ultimately the project will cost you money.

In theory we should all be experts in establishing good relationships with our clients. After all, we pride ourselves on empathizing with users and understanding their motivation and needs. We should then be able to apply these same skills to our clients. If we then understand their needs and motivations, it is much easier to establish a good relationship.

Working closely with them helps. The temptation is to hold the client at arm’s length and minimize their involvement in the project. However, if you want to get the client on board, you are better off working with them collaboratively. This means they will feel a sense of ownership over the design, and are more likely to sign off on it.

The team at Headscape in a wireframing session
We find wireframing with the client is an excellent way of involving them in the process and building a better working relationship.

The other advantage of collaboration is that it makes the client feel important. It provides them with a sense of purpose in the relationship rather than just being a spare part to rubber stamp your decisions. I tell clients that it is their site and their decision, I am simply there to give advice on the best practice. This allows them the sense of control that is so important.

“But what if they make silly decisions?” you may ask. Often they will listen to you simply because you aren’t arguing with them. However when they still pursue an unwise course of action, I do not allow things to descend into a fight. Instead I make my position clear and leave the decision over to them. I have also been known to use phrases like “that is a brave decision” or “that’s an unusual approach” which is a less confrontational way of telling them they are being dumb.

Giving the client a sense of control doesn’t mean you are a doormat. In fact, I don’t believe clients want that. They want you to control the process.

Take Control Link

Although clients want to feel involved and have a sense of control, they don’t want to run the show. Most clients only interfere in the process when they feel you are out of your depth. It is important that we always appear to be the authority in the project.

I think this is the primary reason I managed to get sign-off on Leigh’s project. On our conference call I took control. I was careful not to be arrogant or push the client out, but it was clear I was in charge of the process. I achieved this using the following techniques:

  • I was confident
    Sounding confident can often be half the battle. Listen to the client and make a recommendation. Know what you think and communicate it confidently. If you sound like an expert people will treat you as one. However, be careful not to come across as arrogant. Just know your mind.
  • I was willing to challenge
    When a client asks for something you disagree with, say so. That said, don’t immediately jump in with why it is wrong. Instead ask the client why they want to take a particular approach. Often the client hasn’t really thought things through and a few well placed questions will help them to conclude it isn’t sensible. Also by asking questions you demonstrate you have thought things through in a lot more depth than they have.
  • I referred to third party material
    A great way of demonstrating your expertise and control of the situation is by referring to third party material. Stats, quotes from other experts and references to case studies go a long way. Show that you know your stuff and that you have solved these problems before.
  • I kept us moving forward
    Design sign-off can be full of endless discussion and navel gazing. The more a client thinks about a design the more likely they are to second guess your decisions. Keep the momentum going by focusing on the deadline and the fact that design can always be tweaked once it goes live.

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/7
Clients will often take notice of research carried out by people like Jakob Nielsen over your own opinion.

By setting your ego aside, establishing a good relationship and taking control of the process you can usually get the client to sign-off on a design. However, like all things in life, no approach is full proof. In such cases I have a couple of fallback positions which have been known to work.

What To Do If A Client Digs In Their Heels? Link

Some clients can be very dogmatic and no amount of careful management can lead them down the right road. In such situations I use three techniques in the following order:

  • Suggest testing
    If the client wants one thing and you recommend another, suggest testing both approaches with real users. It’s hard to say no when services like verifyapp.com8 are so cheap. Often clients will give in at this point because they don’t wish to be proved wrong.
  • Ask to have your name removed from the project
    Often client’s don’t believe that a change they are suggesting is really that bad a thing. They just think we are being overly precious. One way to show how serious you are about your concerns is to say that if the clients’ changes are implemented you would like your involvement with the project to be kept secret. As designers are normally so keen to promote their work, this makes a client realize how unhappy you are.
  • Give the client what he or she wants
    It is important to remember at the end of the day that it is the client’s website, not yours. I know that some people advocate walking away from a project before compromising their ‘standards’. However, personally I think that is unprofessional in all but the most extreme cases. If a client is really insistent and unwilling to listen to reason I will deliver the site to the exact specifications they requested.

verifyapp.com9
Tools like verifyapp10 makes it very easy to quickly test design. This can be a great way of diffusing disagreements.

I imagine this post will generate mixed reactions. Some of what I have said here seems to be manipulative. I believe it is simply nudging the client in the right direction to give them what they ultimately want — a great website.

Other things won’t sit well with some designers. Suggesting you give the client what they want or letting them win even some battles might smack too much of compromise. Nevertheless, in my opinion this is what a collaborative relationship is about.

However, I am interested to hear your approaches. Where do you draw the line between what you believe is right and what the client wants? What techniques do you use for nudging the client in the right direction? Do you set limits on revisions or the client’s involvement in the process? Let me know in the comments.

(jvb) (il)

Footnotes Link

  1. 1 http://boagworld.com/business-strategy/10-tips-for-ensuring-a-better-site-design/
  2. 2 http://www.makemylogobiggercream.com/
  3. 3 http://www.comicsanscriminal.com/
  4. 4 http://weenudge.com/thefold/
  5. 5 http://weenudge.com/
  6. 6 http://weenudge.com/
  7. 7 http://www.useit.com/alertbox/
  8. 8 http://verifyapp.com
  9. 9 http://verifyapp.com/
  10. 10 http://verifyapp.com
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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    We all use consciously or unconsciously some or all of these technics.
    The problem mostly remains being in the mood for this kind of games. Hard sometimes not to loose it !
    Yet, you don’t talk about the possibility to fire a client.

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    • 2
      • 3

        Very interesting… He removed this article. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he wanted to rewrite it. Will have to investigate.

        Also I realized (later on) that Edouard must have meant that Paul does not discuss firing the client. Paul, if you’re reading this, perhaps you could elaborate on that… I’ve read other designers take on firing the client but I think it’s still good to get as many perspectives on this as possible. Maybe you don’t even put yourself in the position to fire the client, but if you had to, why would you do it or what would you do to avoid it?

        -1
  2. 4

    Tomáš Kapler

    May 6, 2011 2:27 am

    For me the crucial part is “Give the client what he or she wants” – i do not. If a client is e.g. a carpenteer and I’m (or my employee) is a profesional graphic designer, the client will not tell him, that the graphic design must be different. I do not tell him, that he must redo his carpets too. My scenario
    1. i ask for the crucial things – who are their customers, what are their main products they want to promote, what are they corporate colors etc.
    2. i give them my opinion what should be on the web and why and then combine it with their opinions
    3. i create easy and fast wireframe, where they can discusse anything
    4. i create a first draft.
    5. They may want changes, but not against things negotiated in previous points. This they put on the list
    5. i do the changes, send it to them
    6. if they want anything else, they pay extra. If they do not want it? I do not care (it happens maybe 1 of 100)
    they are informed about on first meeting and on the agreement.

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  3. 7

    Wow! This is really helpful. It is very important to educate your clients. I find that addressing the client’s role from the beginning is good practice and laying out the steps of the job process from the start reduces the stress on your work outside of the design process.

    Thanks!

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  4. 8

    Great advice. Thanks.

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  5. 9

    Tnx for this usefull blogpost!

    2
  6. 10

    Creative people are usually in conflict with marketers / clients who’s primary concern is ROI. Clients usually cant see the long-term impact a design element might play, which is why I strongly agree with Paul on subjects of open communication and confidence in your proposed solution. Clients usually think their existing customers are going to be scared by the change and it will impact their revenue. Which might be the case… in the short-term.

    Solution, compromise: try to work in clients changes in the design, not all of them naturally, but stop and think. Maybe what they are proposing actually might bring value to a design if you implement it correctly. Ask them what are they trying to accomplish by the change they are requesting … (circle back to communication & explanations)

    My way of dealing with clients was to start working in an in-house team :)

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  7. 11

    Some interesting advice, although making a video walk through does seem a bit like overkill. I mean who really has the time to do that when you have multiple projects.

    I think if the client really wants something and its not unreasonable then I see know problem with making them happy. They are paying after all. Only in extreme circumstances would you refuse to.

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    • 12

      Dani Kelley

      May 9, 2011 6:16 am

      I’ve actually taken the video walk-through approach with a client of mine, and it turned out splendidly. Just used Jing and screenshots of my workflow while I talked through it, and the client loved it. Have also seen the difference it makes when the process is explained before unveiling the design, whether in a video or in a meeting.

      1
  8. 13

    Jason Gross

    May 6, 2011 5:06 am

    What a great post Paul! It’s good to see that some of the points you bring up have become a regular part of my project closing tool set but even better to see some techniques and approaches that I am unfamiliar with but agree with.

    I am on the same page with in some cases just giving the client what they want. I think designers who claim they never give into client demands that are driven by poor decisions come off as arrogant and must have plenty of money in savings. I have elaborated on this topic in recently (http://bit.ly/m7VJkq).

    I am curious as to how you approach the method you explained for pre-empting common issues such as placing everything above the fold. I have gone the route of educating clients through third party research before but always feel like I sound like an ass. Do you have a method for presenting this research to clients? What if it comes up after the beginning stages of a project?

    1
  9. 14

    I have tried using Jacob Nielsen’s name many times – as soon as a client sees his site, they totally discredit whatever his stats say. They don’t want a site that looks like that, and won’t listen to his opinions. Useless.

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  10. 15

    Chris Raymond

    May 6, 2011 6:05 am

    @Spinneret re: Nielsen. Right on!

    Paul, I agree with your arguments. I was esp. responding to your dissection of why clients micromanage: They are in unfamiliar territory and don’t want to feel out of control.

    I finally realized that was an issue with an “internal client” and once I brought her into the early brainstorming stage and delineated the design process, she has actually become the biggest promoter of the process and seeks out my judgments about design issues.

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    • 16

      Chris, you make a great point about bringing the client into the design process. Have any of you ever read Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People? Well I can say that the techniques learned in that book can be applied and work wonders when dealing with clients, especially those who are stubborn. A couple of key lessons from that book include, Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Give people a feeling of importance. and Arouse in the other person an eager want. Even just following these three steps can be very helpful. It’s certainly worth a try in any case. I would encourage all designers to read that book as not only will it make client relations more easy but it will also make all relations with anyone easier. Personally, I’ve gained more friends, clients, and referrals in the past year by applying the tenets of that book then at any other time before that. I hope you find the same success. Cheers!

      1
      • 17

        I have read this book. I give it a re read every couple months also and it has been a tremendous help for both my career and my personal life. Honestly I do not think I would even have my job that I have if I did not apply this book in my original meeting.

        When ever I talk to my clients through either email, in person, or over the phone I always follow the rules outlined in this book and it has helped tremendously.

        It usually works wonders with the result being I get to produce quality work and they receive quality work. There is the odd occasion where the client won’t see reason so I just give them what they want.

        I also recommend anyone who has to deal with people to read this book. At the very least there is a quite a few little interesting stories inside and it is a rather easy read =)

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  11. 18

    Excellent advice. The bottom line is working with your clients is key to a successful business. I’m not a one-off designer. I like building relationships with my clients that remain over time, why? People are friends with people like themselves. A lot my clients have friends that also run small businesses or non-profits (my target markets). If I make my clients happy, they will be more likely to refer me.

    I love the idea of using video to present the design. Most of my clients are local and I present the design in a strategy meeting. I do however have a few clients that are not local and using video to present nips that issue in the bud (thanks for that piece of advice)!

    It’s not about compromising your design, it’s about compromising your ego (hard to do I know). My nature is to help my clients business succeed the suggestions in this article are great points to “nudge them in the right direction”.

    1
  12. 19

    Thank you for sharing this article. I’ve always had problems getting sign-off for projects, I believe the advice and tips in this article will be a great asset to me for future projects. I don’t work with clients externally, but within my company, and I believe the advice is just as beneficial. Thanks again.

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  13. 20

    Interesting article. I was actually hoping you would have a couple recommendations of online software to help with this issue (some type of online signoff or something).

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  14. 21

    I really loved this article. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it and share your resources.
    I haven’t ever had a huge issue getting a client to sign off on a design. I’ve made a few revisions, but I’ve never had to scrap. I think it’s because I do spend the time going over everything with them, being direct and telling them the WHY behind the design. Most people are really receptive when you’re direct and explaining exactly what you did and why you did it. Not only does it validate your design choices, but it makes you a true expert in their eyes.
    If anyone says; “who has time to explain this stuff”, please don’t be in business. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Your customers are the reason you get to sit on your expensive laptop and design all day and have a gorgeous apartment and live the life you do. Without them, you’re an overqualified overeducated shirt folded at Macys. If you don’t treat them like gold, you don’t deserve to be working with them.
    Also, go out of your way to learn about marketing. Design is great, but useless if no one sees it and marketing is what is going to drive people to your gorgeous design. Design and marketing shouldn’t fight about anything – they should work together to make sure ALL the needs are met. People aren’t plunking down 5k on a website to let it sit there and be pretty. They need to make money off of it, or the investment is wasted.

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    • 22

      Peter Werkman

      May 8, 2011 12:18 am

      Spot on Crystal!

      I think that the best designers are the ones that are able to speak the common language of the client and design. The client knows their company and business at best. Unlocking this info will provide you with a very valuable ally in your design process. Marketing is no rocket science and such is design.

      1
  15. 23

    Great article!

    Esp like this “I always make the point of telling our clients to focus on problems, not solutions. I encourage them to avoid making design suggestions, but rather to point out why they feel a design is wrong. The job then falls onto us to come up with the right solution for their problem.”

    Making sure the client understands my role and their role is key.

    1
  16. 24

    Leanne Kroll

    May 6, 2011 9:35 am

    Great article, Paul!

    I am a Technical Illustrator, but I find I deal with much of the very same issues with my clients for sign-offs. It’s amazing what we can learn over a short period of time simply by dealing with a mixture of good and bad clients.

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  17. 25

    Paul,

    This is a great article and I thank you for sharing it with all of us. It’s really common sense but often times in dealing with overbearing clients, the emotional factor can supersede common sense and create issues. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Thanks again!!

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  18. 26

    Janis Liepins

    May 6, 2011 12:03 pm

    Tnx for article i used some advices .. “Ask to have your name removed from the project” this helps moastly

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  19. 27

    The big takeaway there for me is asking to have my name removed from the project. What I plan to do is quote the project and give a discount *at my discretion* for having my link in the footer. I’ll write that into my contracts immediately.

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  20. 28

    amazing post, dealing with clients is not easy, I’ll use some of the tips detailed here. :)

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