Editor’s note: This article is a summary of Paul Boag’s talk at our event The Future of Web Design. You can also listen to the audio or watch the video of the talk, which is below the article.
I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship between clients and designers. And about how we get clients to the point of saying yes. Yes to what, you might ask? Well, that might be yes to the design, that might be yes to your wireframe, some feature or just your approach. But it’s the way that we present ourselves to clients and the way that we interact with them that I want to look at.
Let me first introduce you to the ‘man from Del Monte’. For those of you who don’t know, the man from Del Monte appeared in an advertising campaign in the UK for Del Monte, makers of fruit juice. The advert consisted of a man dressed in an immaculate white suit and a trilby. He had a very colonial look about him and would visit various fruit farms around South America. Each time there would be a groveling peasant farmer who would present his oranges with fear and trepidation to the man in the white suit. And then there would be this moment of hush. And the man from Del Monte would pronounce judgement on the quality of the oranges that were being presented to him. Then when the answer came – ‘the man from Del Monte, he says yes!’ – there would be immense celebration, cheering and dancing. The farmer was very happy that his oranges were good enough quality to be included in the Del Monte range.
Apart from the fact that it’s impractical to be wearing a white suit in an orchard, the point that I took away from the advert is this; That in the web industry our relationships with our clients are sometimes like that. We present something to them and then we wait on tenterhooks for their answer.
At the heart of all of this is a wrong relationship between designer and client that is fundamentally flawed. It’s not something that we talk about very much but a big part of our job is our relationship with our client. So I want to concentrate on fixing that relationship.
In many ways we treat our clients like they are royalty. They’re the people who you have to bow and scrape to. Often we can blindly follow the client’s lead and we can end up being quite submissive in the relationship. We’re afraid to express our opinions, nor do we effectively communicate our opinion when we try to. What happens is we get so frustrated that we give up on projects and effectively kill them. We get to the, ‘yeah, yeah you can have whatever you want,’ stage and we give up.
Or, we swing to the other extreme and we become the person is constantly saying no to everything. We turn into the difficult and argumentative person.
Time to Change
It’s time for a revolution in the designer / client relationship. It’s time to go from a master / servant relationship to a peer / peer relationship. It’s time to change the relationship so that we, as designers, are the experts, providing an expert service and the client perceives us in that way.
How do we change it? Designers need to become the expert in the relationship. Designers also need to be more positive and move away from that negative mentality that ruins so many projects. Negativity can rear its head when we say no to clients but also in the way that we view our clients.
Become the Expert
- Have a methodology. It puts you in control. It enables you to set expectations with your clients and let them know what’s coming. Nobody likes uncertainty and they certainly don’t like uncertainty when they’re paying a lot of money for something. Clients like to have a sense of what’s coming next and what they can expect from the project. Sit your client down at the beginning of the project and tell them what’s going to happen. Show them the stages that you’re going to work through before you end up at your final deliverable. Maybe even beyond that if you plan to evolve their site over time. By doing this you’re setting yourself up as the person who is in control of the relationship. You’re also reassuring the client and setting their expectations at a reasonable level.
- Gather information. Everyone works differently and so your methodology may be different to mine. But whatever yours is like, make sure to include a big section on ‘information gathering’. So we’re talking about things like; success criteria, business objectives, competitive analysis, priorities, mood boards, user personas and user expectations. The reason why this information is so important is not only so that you can deliver a better solution but it’s immensely important when it comes to justifying why you have done something a certain way. This is a really important part of the process. It’s unfair of you to expect a client to accept it because you’re the expert. You need to prove that you’re the expert by justifying your decisions in a way that they can understand and associate with.
- Use third party data. You don’t necessarily need to use the information that you gathered from the client to justify your decisions, you can use data from third parties if you like, such as research institutes etc.
- Write down anything that’s agreed. Whatever you’re discussing with a client, either over the phone, on e-mail or IM, if something is agreed upon then you need to record that.
We need to take a leaf out of President Obama’s book and live by the mantra, ‘yes we can’. We need to stop blocking ideas that our clients have and stop being negative in our communication with them.
- Say yes. As part of my quest to have my clients see me as the expert I try to say yes to them as much as possible. However, as part of saying yes I also explain the consequences to them at the same time. “Of course we can do that, but if we do then this, this and this will happen.”
- Suggest an alternative. Instead of leaving the discussion on a negative note try to suggest an alternative. You can still say yes, present the consequences and when the consequences are not desirable then suggest an alternative.
- Be enthusiastic and caring. When you suggest an alternative do it with enthusiasm for the project. Give the impression that you give a shit. Obviously, this has to be sincere.
- Be positive about your relationship with your client. Clients are not stupid. I hear designers talking like their clients are stupid all the time and it annoys me so much. “They just don’t get it”, is a favorite phrase a lot of people use. Clients aren’t stupid, they’re clever, intelligent people. They just happen to be good at something other than design. And just because they don’t understand the Web doesn’t mean they’re not clever. There’s more to life than the Web. Your client will pick up your condescending, patronizing attitude and so we need to be very careful to keep that under control.
- Give your clients credit for what they’re good at. They know their target audience, they know their business, they know their strategy. They might have trouble communicating that in a way that you can understand but they do have a lot of knowledge. Don’t forget that they have to live with the sites we build. So listen to them when they give you information.
- Show your work little and often. As designers we don’t like to include clients in the design process if we can avoid it. We don’t like to show work that isn’t finished. Whether it be wireframes, sketches or designs you need to show it to the client as you work on it. By getting them involved they are becoming committed to the process. They’re a part of it and they feel valued. They’re much more likely to approve a design if they have seen it early on and been part of producing it.
Shape the Role of the Client
- Explain what’s required of the client. At the kick-off meeting you need to set out and explain what’s required of the client. You may have designed hundreds of websites, one after another, but they haven’t. This may be the first time for them. So it’s really important for them to know what their roll is not only to help them but to constrain them as well.
- Focus the client on the problem, not the solution. If a client comes to you and says, ‘I really hate that blue, I want it be pink.’ You don’t know why he or she wants that, or what the background to the request is. If you just do it then you’re just a pixel pusher. What you need to do is to refocus them on the problem. Why do they dislike that blue? In this situation a more useful statement would be, ‘I’m unsure that the blue will appeal to my teenage girl demographic.’ Now, you know what the problem is and you can work on it.
- Focus the client on the business. Try to get them to concentrate on the business objectives of the new site. So often clients get caught up with the detail. They worry about the names of sections or the white space on the design. What they should be concentrating on is the question, ‘does the new design help achieve their call to action?’. ‘Does the design communicate the unique selling points of this particular organization?’.
- Focus the client on users. It’s no use to you if your client tells you what they don’t like and what they do like. What’s important is what the users like and don’t like. Never, never ask a client, ‘what do you think?’. Ask them, ‘how do you think your users will react to this?’.
Everything is fine when the designer is talking but once our clients start to give us feedback, that’s when the issues start. So we need to manage the way in which our clients give us feedback.
- Talk to everyone involved in the decision. Clients consult other people. Even if you’re working with a very small business and your point of contact is the business owner himself, you can bet he’ll show his wife the design (or vice versa). If you’re dealing with a bigger client then there could be a whole group of people who will see your design. Try to talk directly to those people too if possible. If you can make them feel wanted and listened to then they are more likely to come on board.
- Meet with people individually. Have you ever been in a meeting where one person says, ‘I think the blue is too dark.’ And someone else says, ‘I think the blue should be light.’ And what you end up with is a lighter shade of the existing blue. That’s design-on-the-fly. This can be avoided by meeting with each person separately. If needed, issue a questionnaire in order to really control the kind of feedback you’re getting.
So to recap. You need to turn your relationship with your client into a peer / peer relationship. You need to become the expert and be more positive. You also need to mould the roll of your client and manage feedback carefully.
Listen or Watch
You can listen to the audio of the talk, or subscribe to the podcast.
Like this article?
If you enjoyed, this article, feel free to re-tweet it to let others know. Thanks, we appreciate it! 🙂
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/jonchristopher