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

Design Questions

May 31, 2007

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the initial direct contact with clients during the discovery meeting is likely the most important moment in the life of a project. While most of my previous reference in this regard has been toward the establishment of designer competence and development of fellowship with the client, there is another vital aspect to this initial meeting: the specific questions asked.

For myself, over the past few years I’ve learned which questions better serve my design process and the clients’ success, and which questions are useless or detrimental to the project. Some of you reading may be struggling to arrive at just what questions are most useful in getting to the heart of a project’s productive core, I’m going to suggest and expound on a few here, later in the article. Take them or leave them, but I suggest you at least think about them.

You may be surprised, but I never ask design-related questions in design project discovery meetings. Some might wonder at this, as it may seem counterintuitive. The reason I don’t ask design questions of the client is the same reason an architect doesn’t ask the client what PSI the building’s load-bearing foundational structures will need to endure.

In either case, such issues are for the design/architect pros, not the client. The result had better serve the client’s needs and it just better damn-well work. That’s what the client and his customers care about.

The Division of Labor

One way to ensure that everything works well is to also ensure that everyone involved is working in their area of expertise, rather than feebly crawling around outside of it. Therefore, during the discovery meeting the business executives should hold forth on business matters, marketing experts should share their marketing knowledge and plans, sales people should discuss sales issues, and we should take it all in and then apply all that design crap we know so much about: Later. After the meeting.

We can’t positively affect their company’s bottom line based on a sales manager’s anecdotal preferences and guesses about design application.

Design has no place at the discovery meeting. In fact, the term “discovery meeting” should provide some subtle suggestion that we’re there to discover things, not talk about our design stuff …or ask about it. Design has no purpose, no impetus, nor any relevance until all things pertinent to the challenge at hand have been brought to light and understood.

So outside of user information we need to know mostly about the client’s business: their profit model, their operation challenges, their marketing plans, about their clients and target audience, their sales process, their future aims, and their blue–sky dreams. This, not the CEO’s aesthetics opinion, is the sort of information that affects intelligent design. We can’t positively affect their company’s bottom line based on a sales manager’s anecdotal preferences and guesses about design application. So I suggest to you that it’s generally quite detrimental to a website design project to even raise these issues during discovery.

Non-Design Questions

So here are a few suggestions for some business drill–down questions to visit in your discovery meetings with clients. These questions are geared mostly to retail or product/service clients. They may not all be applicable to your every project and they’re not nearly the entirety of what you should likely address, but they may provide some template for thinking in the right vein for such situations.

Basic Business Questions:

With these questions you’re working to get to the core operational issues for the company. A website should likely work to support the profit model and sales process while addressing specific challenges, so you’ll need to understand these things for the client. The last question there is a gateway to a discussion of some of their basic business practices and how some of these might need to change or be reflected in the website design approach.

Audience Questions:

Obviously, these questions tap what the client knows about his target audience. But more than that, they likely address what he doesn’t know about his target audience. As we learn what the client knows and does not know here, we may find opportunities for design solutions that address these issues in some relevant manner. For instance, if the client says, “my customers only care about price,” perhaps that’s because, as Seth Godin so eloquently put it, no one has given them anything else to care about. The last question there often brings clients up short. It’s one they may not have considered and it get them thinking about how to generate need.

Website Questions:

Here we get to some specifics that the client wants to realize via the website. The first question might seem dull and obvious, but you may be surprised at the answer the client offers. This one question has sparked some interesting discussion in some of my discovery meetings and I almost always lead with this one.

You may have noticed that many of these questions get straight to the heart of the client’s profitability. These sorts of questions are important for a couple of reasons. First, if they don’t already, the client needs to appreciate the idea of the results of this project serving their business aims rather than merely providing an online reference to their company (this is not an issue for all clients, but it is for most business sites). Secondly, these sorts of questions serve to help you—the designer—appreciate your responsibility to the client’s enterprise.

So when you’re preparing for a project discovery meeting with a client, plan to spend time delving into what they know best: their business.

When you’re doing work for a client who needs this website to serve his profitability, you’re directly affecting the fortunes of every employee of that company. This is a serious responsibility and something to keep in mind during the design process. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, you do actually have to care about the client’s enterprise. Else you can’t do your best work for them.

We’re the design experts. We’re the ones who understand how to bring focus to an important message on a web page or how to consistently communicate certain values visually, page to page. We’re the ones who understand what sorts of interface elements or mechanisms facilitate online shopping or that engender user confidence. But to do this we have to discover what needs to happen according to the client’s business aims and marketing plan and customer service model and user habits and expectations. These, rather than design issues, are some of the things that clients can help with.

So when you’re preparing for a project discovery meeting with a client, plan to spend time delving into what they know best: their business. Invite them to speak long and deeply on that thing about which they’re so passionate. Let them wax philosophic, poetic, esoteric, and scientific. Let them take you into the guts of their business and I’ll wager you’ll be far better prepared to do your design thing for them. But when it comes to design, don’t talk about it, don’t ask clients about it. Just do it.