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Designing With Your Clients

We have all known the pain of a client interfering in the design process. Phrases like “Make the logo bigger” and “Put that above the fold” have become a running joke in the web design community.

It is not unusual for web designers to lose money on a project as a result of the client endlessly iterating on the design. After a few bad experiences, we start to exclude the client from the process. We limit their number of iterations and avoid consulting with them.

Unfortunately, this often makes interaction with the client even worse. Each iteration then becomes more important in the client’s mind, so they interfere even more, creating a vicious cycle.

We have all had clients rip apart our designs.1
We have all had clients rip apart our designs. (Large preview2)

There must be a better way — a way that enables you to produce outstanding design and maintain your profit margin.

The answer lies in involving the client in the process, rather than excluding them. It involves collaborating with the client to produce a design.

Why You Should Collaborate On Design Link

The idea of allowing the client greater involvement in the design process may sound terrifying. All of those uninformed suggestions! All of that endless tweaking! How could that lead to better design, let alone any profit for you?

A big part of the reason comes down to psychology.

The Psychology of Client Behavior Link

Why do clients interfere in the design process? Why do they not trust your judgment?

Much of the time, it is because they are afraid of the unknown. They are not experts in design or the web. They feel out of their depth in the process, and so they attempt to gain some measure of control. The more we exclude them or resist them, the more concerned they become and the more control they try to exert.

After all, you want them to sign off on the design. This means that they will be responsible if it fails. Their job, their reputation in the company, are on the line.

What’s more, they have to live with the consequences of your design. You get to walk away, but they have to live with that design for years. It’s not surprising, then, that they want it to be right, that they will worry about the process.

By collaborating with them on the design, you accomplish two things: You give them a sense of control, and you educate them about the design process. This allays their fears because the process will no longer be unknown to them.

If the client is unsure about a design, they will endlessly iterate.
If the client is unsure about a design, they will endlessly iterate.

If the client has helped to create the design, they will not only worry less, but will have a greater sense of ownership over it and will be less likely to reject the result. They are also more likely to defend it when they show it to colleagues. The client shifts from being a critic of the design to an advocate.

But it also makes your job easier, too.

Collaboration Is Better For The Designer Link

As designers, we care about two things: producing high-quality work and making a profit. Working with a client on a design enables us to accomplish both.

Clients will spot problems early on if you involve them. We have all worked on projects in which the client moves the goal posts at the last minute. They are not trying to be a pain. They are just learning as they go, and sometimes ideas occur to them later because they haven’t spent much time with the design.

Clients sometimes change a design at the last minute because ideas occur to them late in the process.
Clients sometimes change a design at the last minute because ideas occur to them late in the process.

If they are engaged in the process, they will think about the design more and, consequently, will spot problems earlier. It also means you will have to do fewer iterations.

Iterations happen for a few reasons: because the client has a different vision and failed to communicate that; because the client is afraid of getting it wrong; or because they want to put their mark on the design. All of these issues go away when you work hand in hand with the client.

Hopefully, you are now convinced that collaboration is worthwhile. But how do you make it happen?

How To Collaborate Link

Let’s be clear. Collaboration is not about the client sitting next to you while you work in your design application of choice. It is not about reducing you to a pixel-pusher.

In an ideal world, it does involve you sitting in the same room as the client, showing them things as you work, getting their feedback on a grid structure, navigation layout or color scheme as you play with it.

It’s like that constant dialogue you have with people on “your team.” You should treat the client as part of that team.

Unfortunately, working with the client in their office is not always an option. So, what else can you do?

You probably held a kickoff meeting with the client, in which you covered things like business objectives, target users, etc. But discussion of design is often limited to, “What other websites do you like?” That is just too superficial. What if we use this time instead to run a couple of workshops?

Design boils down to two areas: aesthetics and structure. Let’s look at what you can do in your kickoff meeting to involve the client in these two areas.

Collaborating On Aesthetics Link

Aesthetics are subjective. People fall back on personal opinion if given no other framework within which to judge a design. A workshop on aesthetics gives you an opportunity to provide that framework. It also gives the client a sense of ownership over the aesthetics.

Teach the client to judge aesthetics according to two criteria:

  • Will the user like it?
  • Is it in line with the image that the company wishes to project?

We can do this through three exercises.

The Famous-Person Discussion Link

Ask your client and any other stakeholders in attendance one simple question: “If your organization were a famous person, who would it be and why?”

Without fail, this question always leads to passionate discussion. Out of the suggestions will emerge a set of words that represent the people discussed. You can use these to shape the aesthetics of the website. And you can refer to them when asking for feedback on the design later.

Having a tangible personality to work from will also help you design. Designing a website that represents somebody like Barack Obama is easier than designing from a list of vague brand values.

Design a Reception Link

Another way to dig into how an organization wants to project itself is by asking stakeholders to imagine the organization’s perfect reception area. The series of questions you might ask include:

  • How big would it be?
  • What would be on the walls?
  • What signage would you have?
  • What furniture would be there?
  • What music would be playing?
  • What would be on the coffee table?
  • Would there be a receptionist?

This will get the client thinking about design without dictating the specifics of the website. As with the famous-person exercise, you can refer to this exercise when creating the design and asking for approval.

The client is less likely to reject a design that reflects the elements of this exercise — elements they chose, elements they feel committed to.

User-Focused Moodboarding Link

The final aesthetics exercise is collaborative moodboarding. The idea is to focus the client on the aesthetic tastes of their audience.

Ask them to create a moodboard of things that their target audience would like. To get them started, focus them on:

Getting them to produce more than one moodboard might be necessary if they have different audiences. This will not only improve the design, but also help the client think about users’ needs.

However, focusing the client on aesthetics is not enough. We also need to engage them with the website’s structure.

Collaborating On Structure Link

One of the big challenges for a designer is balancing user needs with business objectives. The solution is to put emphasis in the right places.

Designs are often rejected by clients because they focus on the wrong aspects of the business or on the wrong audience — or sometimes because they focus at all! (Some clients just hate to prioritize.)

Fortunately, three exercises will help you to focus. This will save you a lot of revisions because the client will have already agreed on the focus.

Design a Book Cover Link

A book has a front cover, a back cover and an inside flap. The front cover makes the first impression; the back cover provides more detailed information; and the inside flap goes into even greater depth.

Designing the front cover, back cover and flap of a book can help a client to prioritize their core messages.8
Designing the front cover, back cover and flap of a book can help a client to prioritize their core messages.

You can use this hierarchy to help the client prioritize their messages. Ask them to design a book that communicates the core messages of their organization. What would appear on the front cover? What do you most want people to know? What would appear on the back cover or inside flap?

By completing this exercise, the client will start to focus their messaging, and you will better understand the organization’s core messages.

The User Points Exercise Link

Given the chance, clients will cram their home page with as much information as possible. To educate them about why this is a bad idea, I run a user points exercise.

It begins by showing them Google and Yahoo’s home pages. I ask which is more effective, and they always say Google’s. I explain that this is because Google has focused the user’s attention on a single thing: the search box.

Google’s home page demonstrates the importance of focusing the user’s attention.
Google’s home page demonstrates the importance of focusing the user’s attention.

I go on to talk about the limited attention span of users. In this exercise, you would represent that attention span as 15 to 20 points (depending on how generous you’re feeling).

Each element that the client adds to their imaginary home page costs one point. If they want to place more emphasis on an element (as Google does with its search box), then they would have to add more points.

This exercise helps them to understand the tradeoffs you need to make as a designer. It also highlights the importance of prioritizing what we want the user to focus on.

The Six Versions Exercise Link

The final exercise I do with clients helps them to understand the many options available to them and encourages them to set a firm direction.

The exercise is simple. Ask stakeholders to sketch six different approaches to the home page. This could be a series of scribbled boxes representing the header, news, footer and so on.

Getting clients to sketch multiple approaches helps them consider the different options available.9
Getting clients to sketch multiple approaches helps them consider the different options available. (Large preview10)

The client will do two or three and then start to struggle. At that point, you might want to prompt them. Suggest that they consider what the home page would look like for different audiences. Or suggest emphasizing different calls to action.

This could lead to an interesting discussion, one about the emphasis of the website and how the design could fulfill its requirements.

Yeah, But… Link

No doubt, this article has left you with concerns. Working collaboratively with clients does come with risks, particularly the risk of losing control or having to deal with impractical suggestions. But with careful planning, you can mitigate these risks.

As you work more collaboratively, you will learn how to deal with these dangers. You will discover that you are less likely to lose control if you focus the client on identifying problems.

When a client suggests a solution, you have to either accept it or reject it. You are stuck between losing control and alienating them. But if you get them to talk about a problem that they’ve perceived, then you can suggest a solution. This keeps you in the driver’s seat.

You will also come to appreciate wish lists for future development. Wish lists help to put off impractical suggestions, encourage continual development and secure future work.

Even at its worst, collaborative design will save you hours in iteration and lead to happier, more engaged clients. Sure, it has some dangers, but nothing worse than the dangers you are already dealing with.

The only way you will learn to deal with these dangers is by giving it a go. Yes, you will make mistakes. But, in time, you will find that your projects become much more pleasurable experiences, for both parties.

(al, il)

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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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

    Great article, thanks Paul!

  2. 2

    Here’s my original post on designing a Reception Area / Waiting Room – with client handout.

  3. 3

    Good article, thanks for sharing. I think getting the right approach to working with clients is the toughest part of the job. That and getting paid on time :)

  4. 4

    I had a client once that I included in the design process for the reasons mentioned above, just to hear at the end that actually they did all the work not me, haha, how about that :)

    • 5

      That is very true. I can totally see that happening. They will skew the details and just say they did the work.

  5. 6

    Thank you for this article.

  6. 7

    Sounds like a great idea if you have the perfect clients.
    Some may think its our job to do this work not them. Also if budgets arent there it would cause even more discussions.

    • 8

      I totally agree. 9 times out of ten I get a client that can barely schedule time for a meeting, let alone create a book cover or moodboard. A lot of the time it comes down to how many people are on the deciding commitee and if they have effective communication, good working relationships and similar goals. In any case, educating the client and providing clear reasoning when presenting a design has worked well for me.

  7. 9

    Some great tips Paul.

    Another tricky aspect when dealing with clients is … content.

    All too often, I’ve found myself working on projects where the team are working with next to no content.
    We ended up generating what we think will be a suitable framework, whilst waiting on the client to finalise exactly what they want on the website. It’s nearly impossible to produce a competent design for a website without content.

    The collaborative approach will definitely help to galvanise some clients into action, for those that aren’t budging, you have two choices.

    Assist them in creating the content, with an additional fee.
    Put the project on hold until they deliver. Both will have a knock-on effect with your project scheduling!

    There is a third option, the “Phase I, Phase II” gambit ;)
    “In phase I, we’ll just place all of your content (half a page) onto a single page, with some neat parallax effects, using iStock photo’s”
    Invariably, Phase II never happens, but at least you can deliver and move on…

    ^ I am joking about the third option, but I’ve been on projects where it’s happened …

  8. 10

    I interview my potential customers for their experience and expectations in their web design and presence (marketing) and I always ask them about their fears. The most economical design is the one I design and manage. Everything else costs more. Doing business, any kind of business, is a matter of trust. These days ”trust in business” is at an all time low all across the board and with good reason. In web world, great online prices are often foreign companies with no loyalties to the American customer at all; and American companies offer do-it-yourself web design programs with hosting and domain services; but then the customer finds out it takes more than a teen age soccer player with better things to do than design their web site on a consistent basis. Once I start designing, I explain the reason behind each thing I do, one step at a time. Once a customer feels like you know what you are doing, they will trust you with more of the design. Later on, most of their questions have to do with marketing.

  9. 11

    Really great article!

    However, as neither a designer nor a client of any, I am amazed that you _need_ to write such an article!

    “It’s like that constant dialogue you have with people on “your team.” You should treat the client as part of that team.”
    Honestly, did some people need to be explained about this?!

    I guess that yes. In this case maybe it’s good to have those people know that…
    It’s like shopping for your clothes and the assistant insisting that you’ll wear what they recommend. It’s like a tv channel forbidding you to change channels if you watched them for more thatn thirty minutes. It’s like the waiter ordering for you.
    It’s *not* like the engineer building your house asking you for advice. It’s *not* like the doctor asking you which of the two diagnoses is correct. It’s *not* like the cook involving you in shopping for the ingredients.

    • 12

      Here is a perfect example of what makes being a graphic designer so difficult – the lack of respect and appreciation for the profession.

      Shopping for your clothes is *not* like creating a corporate identity, or building a website. Graphic Design is *not* art, however it can be artistic. It fulfills a very specific goal that is usually not specifically for the client but for the client’s audience. Knowing the techniques and methods to effectively communicate with that audience requires training and experience, which many people (like you) don’t seem to understand.

      There is a reason people go to school to become a graphic designer – the same reason they go to school to become an engineer.

      • 13

        “It’s like the waiter ordering for you.”

        Yes, its EXACTLY like the waiter ordering for you. Right after you’ve just said to them “I’m really hungry, but I’m not really familiar with this sort of food, can you help me choose something I’ll like?” You would be absolutely right if the waiter simply walked away and brought back some food AND the bill, expecting you to pay whether you like it or not. But that isn’t how a good waiter works; they ask you what sort of foods you really like and base their decision on that. They ask you if you like the food as you are eating it, and you probably will, but if you don’t they will almost certainly try to remedy the situation because it means you will come back again and probably tell your friends too.

        tulpoeid, your response to this is hugely oversimplified and condescending. You even admit that you have no experience with this field or the complexities involved from either the designer’s or client’s perspective and yet here you are suggesting that those who struggle with this are failing at their sole task of making people like you feel good about yourself simply because you’re paying us.

  10. 14

    After reading this, I did develop a little more faith to continue working in collaborative mode with the clients :)
    Thanx a lot for sharing !!!

    Happy New Year in advance Everyone !!!!

  11. 15

    I know all this, but all too often I find myself having to remind the client that we actually agreed on something and they are looking at a result of that agreement. They seem to forget that/why we made a certain decision together, what the consequences are of making a change, how the whole is affected when we alter the parts, that the way it looks is a part of the usability, that usability is the handle that allows you to use a hammer etc… I guess what I need is a system of registering changes, agreements, interactions, results… simply writing it down seems to be futile and sending brief/debrief e-mails back and forth after every meeting, mail and phone call is hugely time-consuming.

  12. 16

    great article but sometimes you get those clients that don’t know anything about design or UI/UX and they want you to do things that you know it’s not going to work you tell them that… And what you hear back is: the website is mine, not yours, so as I say!

    I’ve done 2 website for this client that I don’t show on my portfolio because I don’t agree with 98% of how the site was done, he is one of those cases of “how a design goes to hell – from the oatmeal website”, where I’m just a mouse clicker and he is telling me to do things… In the end he is happy but I have nausea every time I look at the site.

    Cheers D

  13. 17

    One way I get around the issue of diminished profit margins for excessive edits is by charging by the hour for all my services. I give an initial itemized quote for the entire project (ie.: wireframes: 20hrs, markup: 15hrs, etc.), and any additional changes are billed hourly as well. I do agree that the client should be very much involved in the design process, but with this arrangement I am still compensated should they change their mind on a design that was already finalized.

  14. 18

    Thank you for the great article! I recently ran into this situation at the company I’m working for. Our design team wasn’t able to interact with the client directly and the result was a high number of iterations and final products that the client wasn’t pleased with. Eventually I insisted that we (the designers) meet with the client before beginning a project to discuss concept, aesthetics, layout, etc. Now we’re typically delivering something the client loves within the first few iterations. Obviously mileage will vary from client to client, but for us, getting them involved in the design process was the missing link.

  15. 19

    In general if needed for a client, take the design process step by step, by explaining/reasoning each step will help with the acceptance/understanding from the client off the final work.

    In saying that you need to understand your clients expectation/requirements of the design process.

  16. 20

    I agree with this article in a lot of ways, but I think Smashing Magazine is in a bit of a bubble where the clients the SmashingMag staff are used to are very competent and likely have at least a little bit of taste when it comes to design. However, when dealing with business owners of blue-collar professions like contractors that have no real design experience or talent, I find it hard to try to get anything positive out of client ideas in regards to design.

    I think a lot of business owners who want a new web design subscribe to the fallacy that design is subjective or akin to art. It is not. It’s just as objective as having a molar capped, a toilet plumbed, or having tires rotated. Having a roofer tell me where he wants his call to action to be or what color his brand should be is akin to me telling the roofer what kind of nails he should be using.

    • 21

      “Having a roofer tell me where he wants his call to action to be or what color his brand should be is akin to me telling the roofer what kind of nails he should be using”

      That’s one of the issues with design, because it’s so subjective, everyone feels they have a stake in the final product, whether they are qualified or not.

      I’ve sat in a meeting, explaining the concepts behind UX decisions, demonstrating a static template driven product walk-through, asking for feedback through the entire process, only to be faced with:
      “I’m not sure I like that shade of orange, what does everyone else think?”
      A 10 minute discussion then ensues about the colours of the design concepts, rather than the actual user journey. At that point, you have to tread carefully and try to swing the conversation back to the logic – and make no promises about design amends!

      Then we get wireframes – the idea being to steer the client away from matters such as colour and get them involved in the design logic. I once spent 2 weeks crafting the logic and UX for a challenging, complicated product. The client was involved during this process on the phone and also with comments on the wireframes. They were clearly labelled as ‘Wireframe screen x”, with annotations.
      When we got into the sign-off meeting, it suddenly became clear the client didn’t understand the concept of a ‘wireframe’, even though we’d been discussing it for weeks!
      They kept asking about colours, the size of items, the content on the wireframe. It transpired they thought the wireframes were designs.
      “Why is everything in boxes? Where’s the colour? Where are the images?”
      All the work I’d done was scrapped and we sat in the meeting as if we were back at square one.
      The project never saw the light of day.

  17. 22

    great article! 200% agree

  18. 23

    Hello Paul,
    You have shared exactly the right thing which generally happens with web designers and it also happens to me as I am also a web designer in Indore. You have shared a fantastic way on dealing with such clients.

  19. 24

    Stuart Crawford

    December 31, 2014 12:07 pm

    Colour is a great place to directly collaborate with clients. It’s entirely subjective and hard to put into words sometimes, so directing them to things like Kuler as you suggest is a great way to involve them in the process.

  20. 25

    Great article. I have discovered this the hard way. :)


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