Working with Clients

We once had a client who made his secretary drive to our studio with a piece of a carpet from his office to be used as a color swatch for his company’s new logo. And while the final logo looked okay (very logo-like), it did little to represent the company’s brand. The company is no longer around today.

Having a client who opines on the color of the background, choice of typeface, thickness of line, or layout mars the design process. It’s easy to get lost in details and personal preferences—who is to say that green is better than orange? A good designer has to be able to manage the client, keep the conversation focused on business goals and user needs. But before we can delve into the design process, we have establish trust. Clients need to feel like they’ve been listened to, they have to know and understand that design is hard work, and they have to buy into our expertise.

The First Date

The initial group meeting between the design firm and their client tends to feel like a first date: this is a chance for everyone to declare their expertise and expectations of each other. And like a first date, it’s easy to make the wrong first impression. There are lots of advice columns written on the survival strategies of dating, what can be of use in the business scenario?

One of the most important things to communicate to a client is that you’re listening to what they have to say. We all get excited (I do) when we start a new project. It’s very easy to talk over the person—you feel like you’ve understood them and you’re grabbing “the ball” and running with it. But your excitement might not come across that way to your client. So here’s a trick to slow yourself down, give your client an opportunity to say all they want to say (and to brag), and to appear that you are a very careful listener: take notes. The simple act of writing someone’s ideas down on paper makes them feel important and listened to. And at the end of the meeting, you might find that some of those notes were actually important. For example, you can send an email afterwards that includes your meeting notes. Not only are you communicating that you care what the client was trying to say to you, but you also created a tangible record of the communication. At some later point, you might need to pull this up. And if you didn’t understand something or missed an important point, the client has the opportunity to clarify things (again, in writing).

From the stand point of body language, taking notes forces you to appear more open to your client. Instead figuring out what to do with your hands or what pasture to take, your body is simply in the position of taking notes—whatever you might feel about the conversation remains hidden from your client. You come across as thoughtful and business-like.

Informant Interviews

In a very real sense, the initial “client dance” is akin to developing a rapport with a population under ethnographic research study—it’s impossible to learn the inner workings of a community without their permission and without a direct transfer of cultural information to the researcher. Such rapport takes time, it doesn’t happen after the first hand shake. So as part of a good product design strategy, we have to budget time and energy on the development of client-designer relationship. Some of this time needs to be spent in one-on-one interviews with the stake-holders—what a person will reveal in private (behind closed doors) is not the same as his public opinions expressed in front of his cohorts. Such closed-door meetings can help identify personality issues and conflicts of interest inside the client’s company. Again, these interviews are very similar to “informant interviews” in the ethnographic research.

The notes that you’ve taken during the “first date” can form the foundation for your informant interview questions.

Group Games

To facilitate a good client relationship, some designers play group games—a set of activities designed to develop trust, reveal hidden needs and insecurities, and develop a good group working dynamics.

In a large group, it is often the case that different individuals have different ideas about the product they are hoping to develop and the goals for that product. What’s more, these individuals might have never thought that their ideas for the product are somehow different from their colleagues’. For a designer who is assisting in this process, it’s important to help everyone in the client’s company to get on the same page about what kind of product they are trying to develop. This needs to be done without anyone loosing face (loss of social status tends not to be forgiven regardless of the quality of the final design).

So rather than asking people to express their ideas to the whole group in person, a designer can set up a game where everyone gets to anonymously write down one very specific feature that they would like to see in the product on a piece of paper. Divide the room into two halves and collect the design notes into two boxes. Pass the box from the left side of the room to the right side of the room group and visa versa. Give about five minutes for each group to rate the design ideas from 1 to 7, with seven being the most important and one the least, but with the overall sum not greater than 4 times the number of design notes. So for 10 people in a room, each bucket should have 5 design notes and the maximum sum of importance can’t exceed 20. This means that if one design feature is rated as 7 on the scale of importance, than the combined importance of the rest of the 4 features can’t exceed 13.

This game forces people to first identify one idea that they really care about and then see how it is judged by the rest of the product team. And by trading the design notes boxes, no one will be in the position of reading their ideas and defending them to their peers. End the game by having the two teams read out their product design notes together with their relative values. The whole game should ideally take about 15 minutes. And everyone gets to talk and express their ideas about the product. The fast pace keeps the people moving and talking, and it’s over quick.

This game should give a visceral feel to everyone in the meeting on how difficult it is to judge what’s important and should help form a bond between the designers and their clients. It also brings the difference of opinions out into the open.

Similar games can be played with the object to identify the goals for the product, the audience for the product, the situations under which the product will be used—the basic what, who, where, and why of product design.

In a previous post, Jury & Group Dynamics, I talked about group decision errors. In particular, the importance of keeping members of the group from declaring their positions on the issues too early in the process. Such declarations made it very difficult to move the design process in the desired direction—no one wants to look like a fool, and so people stick with their early positions against better judgment and against the good of the overall project. Group games, like the one described here, can significantly reduce the group decision errors.

What If the Client Still Talk About Color?

When you walk into a store to buy an expensive piece of kitchen equipment, chances are you’re not an expert mechanical and/or electrical engineer—the inner workings of the device are probably a mystery to you. But you can have and give an opinion on color and shape—the Interface design of the device. “I hate that avocado green!” you say. Sometimes, we can use the color excuse to politely refuse a pushy store clerk from selling you the unwanted device: “If only it was made in tangerine orange,” you lament and quickly leave the store.

When a client starts talking about the background color or size of font, it is likely that they just don’t like the overall design, but are too polite to mention that to you. The color conundrum becomes an indirect way of communicating an overall dislike of the design solution. Thus no change in color is ever going to matter—the client will still hate it. As a designer you have to give the client the permission to hate your solution. Try to find out what’s really going on, then you can actually fix it.

Selling Your Ideas

One of the most important things designers have to do is sell their design to their clients. Usually, projects have complex design criteria and complex design solutions. This makes the totality of the design difficult to comprehend all at once. By chunking the design into smaller, more comprehensible and more memorable bits, designers can be more clear about how a particular design solves the given business and user product goals. This is usually done with a careful Conceptual Design Document—an executive summary of what the product is supposed to do and who it is intended for. By pulling out the Interaction Design and the Interface Design (the look and feel of the product), the overall cognitive load is diminished. And we can keep the client from talking about the background color and type size.

The final product can be judged by how closely it adheres to the conceptual design document. This doesn’t mean that you or your client can change your minds. But when you do, you have to come back and generate another conceptual design brief that reflects the new understanding of the product’s goals and constraints.