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The Battlefield of Design Designers vs Clients

Tue 16th , June 2009

By: Paul Boag


Establishing the look and feel of a site can be a point of contention. Web designers often become frustrated because they feel there’s a lack of respect for their expertise. Meanwhile, clients grow annoyed when their designer seemingly fails to listen to them.

This confrontation inevitably leads to a loggerhead. On one hand we have a designer with years of design knowledge and experience; on the other, a client who knows his audience and business objectives. In this stare-off, sooner or later, somebody has to blink. Either the client will end up with a design that he is unhappy with and that fails to meet his objectives, or the web designer will give in and produce a design that she believes to be less than optimal.

The problem with this confrontational approach is that it ignores the fact that design is a collaborative process.

Fortunately, there’s no need for it to be like this. In my experience it truly is possible to work in partnership with your client. Doing so allows you to explain your design decisions and to better understand your client’s business and user objectives. The ideal relationship is about collaboration rather than confrontation.

However, for this relationship to work, the designer needs to include the client in the development of a design. Unfortunately, many designers find this difficult—they prefer to avoid showing unfinished work. I’ve seen too many hours wasted by designers who want to make the design just right before showing it to the client, only to have it rejected as inappropriate.

At Headscape we like to use a “design methodology” with our clients that includes them in every step of the process. This approach provides a number of benefits:

    *  The client is educated about the principles of good design.
    * The design benefits from the expertise that the client brings to the table about their business and audience.
    * The client is unable to reject the design outright—he or she has contributed to the design’s creation, so will be unsurprised by the final result.

So what does this methodology include? Well, we follow seven key steps. Certain projects may only make use of some of these steps, but our experience is that the more steps we include in the process, the healthier the client relationship.

Let’s look at each step in turn.
1. The Kick-off Meeting

Having a face-to-face meeting at the beginning of a design project is a crucial step in establishing a relationship with your client. This is your opportunity to really understand the requirements and discuss items like:

    * Business objectives
    * Success criteria
    * Design objectives
    * Target audience
    * Site personas

This meeting is also an opportunity to establish the parameters of the relationship. Many designer-client relationships fail because the client micro-manages the design, reducing the designer to the role of ‘pixel pusher’. The client is not necessarily at fault because the designer may have failed to communicate the type of feedback he or she requires.

We encourage our clients to focus on the big picture and leave us to deal with implementation. So instead of a client providing feedback such as …
"I hate the black and red. Change it to pink."

… we encourage them to focus on the underlying issue, such as …
"I am not sure our pre-teen girl demographic will respond well to such an aggressively male color palette."

Comments like this allow us to see the underlying issue and find an appropriate solution (which may or may not include the use of pink!)
2. The Stakeholder Interviews

Although kick-off meetings are valuable for understanding the business and educating the client, they’re not always enough, especially when working with larger organizations.

The people in the kick-off meeting don’t always understand every aspect of the business, and they may not have the authority to sign off on the design by themselves. This can present problems when the designer has worked closely with client staff to produce a design that everyone involved so far is happy with, only to have it rejected by other stakeholders within the organization.

One way to include others in the process and ensure the designer has a better grasp of the business is to arrange individual stakeholder interviews. In these meetings, the designer talks with anybody who has a vested interest in the site, and encourages them to share their frustrations and desires for the site. This way, the stakeholders feel included in the process and the designer gains a better understanding of the role that the site will play.
3. Inspirational Sites

Once you’ve been fully briefed through the use of kick-off and stakeholder meetings, it’s time to begin suggesting a design approach. For many projects this involves launching Photoshop and creating a final design from a blank screen. However, doing so is a considerable investment in design time when a consensus on the direction of the site has yet to be reached.

Some designers ask the client what sites they like in order to get a better understanding of their preferences. However, whilst doing so has some merit, it is a flawed approach for two reasons:

    * First, the client is not always the best equipped to identify examples of good design—they tend to select sites based on their content rather than aesthetics.
    * Second, the question “What sites do you like?” focuses too much on personal taste rather than designs that will meet business objectives.

Instead of asking this question, I recommend that the designer select half a dozen existing web sites that have elements he or she feels are appropriate to the project. The designer should then present these sites to the client and explain why they have been selected. Doing so will stimulate a discussion about the different approaches the design could take, and will give the client something relevant to respond to.

Many designers already keep a repository of inspirational design. However, if you’re looking for inspiration I highly recommend Patrick Haney’s Flickr Feed or Design Meltdown.

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