Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

It's Not About the Website

July 2, 2005

Every Web designer probably has his or her own approach to conducting creative discovery meetings with clients. Surely there is more than one way to skin a cat, but I believe that among the many there are more effective ways and less effective ways.

I also believe that there is no more crucial step in a client’s project than the initial creative discovery meeting. It’s quite possible that a project’s level of success can be fully decided by that one event. It is then that we designers have the best opportunity to either succeed or fail to meet our responsibility to the client.

Despite the vital nature of this initial meeting, I don’t find many articles or books or weblogs that provide designers with relevant strategies for or advisable approaches to such meetings. Furthermore, every forum discussion about designer/client interaction I’ve seen (admittedly few) generally revolves around only the financial or troubleshooting aspects of projects. Most are concerned with what to do when things go wrong.

In this article I want to describe my suggestions for not allowing things to go wrong in the first place. This article is a rather cursory examination of the subject, so I hope you will delve deeper into these matters. While there are lots of ways to conduct discovery meetings, some of these suggestions just might make things easier for you.

What not to do

It’s not about the website, it’s about communicating

Perhaps the first stumbling block for designers and clients in a creative discovery meeting is the fact that each speaks a different language and each lives in a different world.

Suggestion #1
Your language and your world are not important to the client. Don’t try to speak or explaining “design” to the client.

The person sitting across the table from us is the only person in the meeting that matters. Don’t waste time trying to bring them into our world. We’re there to learn about their world.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to communicate our competence to the client, but there are better ways to do that than to talk gibberish to try and impress them. We’ll get to how best to do that a little later.

It’s not about the website, it’s about asking the right questions

As designers, we generally want to think in terms of layout, color, shape, mood, grid, navigation, functionality, usability, etc… but these usually mean nothing to the client. Asking about design issues would seem to be logical, but it is usually a mistake to do so.

Suggestion #2
Don’t ask design questions of the client. Design is your job, not the client’s job.

Asking the client design questions is like asking a website visitor HTML questions. In most cases, such questions are not relevant. What is relevant are the client’s business, branding, and marketing needs. With answers to those sorts of questions, we can accomplish an effective bit of design (hopefully).

If we opt to explore design with the client instead of exploring the client’s business aims and needs, we won’t know what our design needs to do to be successful for them. That’s a bad position to be in.

It’s not about the website, so don’t show other design examples

Opening a website design gallery book in a creative discovery meeting might seem like the thing to do, but it’s pretty much an amateur hour bonehead play.

Suggestion #3:
Never use other design examples to fish for the client’s design preferences.

Close the book, look at the person across the table and ask a question about their business. Again, their design preferences are not often relevant to the project. Plus, as mentioned before, the client is out of his element when discussing design. Stay in the client’s element (business) so that he can offer relevant information.

More on the perils of design questions: The trap

The desire to impress is a dangerous one. As designers, we often feel the need to impress the client in our first meeting, but we’ve got competition. The client also wants to impress us. If we allow the client believe that we think they should know something about design, they’ll usually fall all over themselves to try and convince us that they do know something about design. And, with very few exceptions, they will muck up their own project by doing so. This is the trap.

Trust me, you don’t want to fall into the trap. This happens when we ask design questions of the client, only to find out later that their business or marketing aims and needs conflict with their personal design preferences. Oops.

The problem with this situation is that clients have this annoying habit of hanging-on to their misguided design preferences like a bulldog hangs–on to a rope toy. They then expect us professionals to just “make it work.” In this lose-lose situation, they either end up with a website they hate or one that will not effectively support their business or marketing needs. Yes, the trap sucks.

What to do

Okay, now we know a few things not to do. We’re not trying to bring the client into our designer’s world. We’re also not asking them design questions. We’re also not showing them design book examples. So what are we doing and what are we talking about?

We’re talking about the only thing that matters: the client’s business, their business and marketing aims and their business and marketing needs. Knowing these things, we designers can decide how best to provide the right design to meet these aims and needs.

It’s not about the website, it’s about preparation

But we shouldn’t come to the meeting blind and empty–handed. Before we step into the meeting and begin asking questions and listening, we should already know a lot about the client’s business, their industry, and their market.

Suggestion #4
Before you ever meet with a client, spend a few hours learning all about them, their business, their industry and how their industry fits into the marketplace.

Armed with this information, we’ll be able to ask just the right kinds of questions. Furthermore, our knowledge about the client and their industry will let the client know that we’re competent and prepared to help them. That engenders trust – and trust is the most valuable commodity in our business. Truly when it comes to design, where trust exists, everybody wins. Where it does not exist, everybody loses. No two ways about it.

It’s not about the website, it’s about trust

As designers, our job is not so shallow as to merely provide clients with websites. Rather, our job is to provide clients with business and marketing solutions. We need to ask the sort of questions that allow us to learn what the client wants and needs, from a business and marketing standpoint. Then we can provide the right solution, through design. We need to behave as though they and we are partners in their business – because we are partners. We also need to recognize our measure of responsibility for their success. And the client needs to know that we recognize this responsibility so that they will trust us.

So tell me about yourself,” is far more endearing than “Let me tell you about myself.” An approach that says, “Explain to me what you need,” is far more trust-engendering than one that says, “Here’s what I need from you.” Talking about the client’s business, asking about the client’s needs and speaking the client’s language communicates our commitment to their endeavor. Spending time examining the issues that determine commercial success for the client let’s them know that we understand the whole point of this project (you do understand the whole point of this project, don’t you?)

Once they understand that we’re interested in their success, we will have the necessary license to do good design work for them. If we fail to establish this sort of trust, they’ll second-guess everything we show them. As a result, everybody loses.

You do care, don’t you?

But here’s the kicker. We actually do have to care about the client’s success. We actually do have to care about how our design effort will work to help them achieve their business and marketing aims and satisfy their needs. If we don’t care about such things, if we’re mostly interested in completing the contract and getting to the next one, we’re failing our clients and we’re failing our agency (unless you’re a freelancer – in which case you’re failing yourself).

No bones about it, if you don’t judge your design success based upon your client’s commercial success, you should do everyone a favor and choose a different career path. Please.

Suggestion #5:
Spend lots of time talking about those who will be using the site, how they will be using the site and why they need the site.

It’s not about the website, it’s about the website visitors

It is easy for both the designer and the client to get caught up in their own visions and purpose for the website. While the website is certainly being made for the client who’s paying for it, it is mostly for the people who will visit it.

The result of our design work will likely be a failure if those who will be using the site are not thoroughly considered in the creative discovery process. They don’t have a voice in your meeting with the client; so make sure that enough time is spent considering the ultimate users of the site. If possible, make sure that relevant data about end-users is available and carefully considered in the design process.

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