One of the most important things about being a designer—especially when you are dealing with clients who think that “design is totally subjective”—is to be incredibly precise about soliciting customer feedback.
When gathering design requirements, the first thing that I always ask a customer is “why? What are the drivers?”
Customer feedback on timescales
This even extends to the deadlines that the customer gives me: why do you need it by that date? Is there an internal driver—such as a presentation to the Executive Team or, maybe, a pre-defined publicity event?
These things are useful to know because it enables you to understand what latitude you have: and, when you are dealing with large corporate clients, you do need to have some latitude—not least because the main risk is that the customer themselves very rarely meets their own deadlines.
Customer feedback on design
Establishing drivers in design is equally important, because they help to ensure that your design meets the customer needs. I have always maintained that “design is art with a function” (and seen variations of that sentiment elsewhere), and in order to provide design that is going to meet that function, we need to know what the end goals are.
All of the above might seem unbelievably obvious, but I am constantly astonished by the number of designers that I encounter who design for themselves, and not for the client.
That is not to say that the client is always right as regards design—but the client is always right as regards the end goals that they want to achieve.
When pushing back, always do so from solid foundations
Designers should not argue with the customer on the basis of their own personal preference: designers should only argue with the customer when they are absolutely sure that the customer’s proposed design changes will harm the end goals.
Apart from anything else, arguing from solid design principles linked to the goals that the customer has set does a good job of removing the assumption that design is purely subjective: design is not subjective—that’s art.
Customers are often intimidated by the design process
It is easy to under-estimate how intimidated people often get around designers. Some years ago, I had a manager who said that he didn’t understand design and therefore was unable to manage a me.
This is, I believe, partly because people imagine that designers possess a weird, eldritch power that no one could ever hope to understand. Whilst this mystique often means that customers and companies will pay good rates for top-notch designers, the flip side is that many often distrust designers more than other functions.
This lack of trust often causes a lack of clear communication between customers and designers. At best, this can engender frustration on both sides and, often, a project that no one is entirely happy with; at worst, it can lead to a catastrophic break-down in the relationship (which is a subject for a future post).
Dealing with imprecise customer feedback
I shall expand on this tendency, and how to counter it, at a later date; however, for now, the most immediate consequence to consider is that customers are often unable—or, through intimidation, unwilling—to articulate criticism properly.
Mike Monteiro has written a particularly good post on this.
When a client says, “I don’t like green”, most designers translate the sentence into “You must change the green.” But no one asked you to, did they? They merely made a statement about their subjective dislike of a particular color. Your job, as a designer, is first and foremost to listen. And then to gather data. Don’t jump the gun. How, if at all, does the client’s subjective taste enter into the success of the project?
Your role is to be a problem-solver, not a people pleaser. So beware the urge to change your work simply because someone voices a displeasure. You weren’t hired to be nice or to make friends. If you can do either of those while also doing good work, then go for it. But don’t do it at the expense of doing your job.
At the beginning of this post, I pointed out that you should always establish what the drivers are—for just about anything. So, when the customer says that they don’t like the green, don’t assume that you know what they mean—as Mike says, probe them for the real reasons behind this view.
Let’s also remember that clients aren’t trained at giving feedback. When they make a subjective statement like “I don’t like green”, they might actually be trying to tell you that they don’t think the green works. It’s on you to figure that out, though. Ask the right questions to steer them back from that subjective answer.
“Do you think the green decreases the likelihood of a user achieving their goal? If so, can you elaborate?” (Insert your own specific goal there.)
You’ll most likely get an answer like “I don’t know. I just don’t like it.” It’s at this point that you better have a non-subjective reason for why you used that green. And give that reasoning in an objective manner. You don’t want to fight their subjectivity with your own.
But, on the off-chance that the answer is “Yes!”, ask for specifics on how. The client may have a valid point that you hadn’t thought of.
It is extremely rare—even after you have been through the whole preparation process of Information Architecture meetings, mood boards and wireframes—that a customer will sign off that very first design concept.
As such, the design process is built on successive iterations. Whilst these will—in most cases—ensure that everyone (or, at least, the customer) is happy by the end of the process, each iteration takes time.
Design iterations cost money
The more iterations that you go through costs you or your company more money. Most design firms have their own particular stages in design presentation, and so iterations will cost more or less depending on your exact process. However, unless you are billing time and materials through the whole process (very unusual in the market sector that I work in), the main point is that every, single iteration eats into your profit margin.
In my experience, many designers are not particularly financially aware: to them, making sure that the end result is right is far more important. This is, of course, a recipe for bankruptcy.
Most outputs are not subjective and can be measured
Think back to the manager who wouldn’t manage designers because he “didn’t understand design”: he had fallen into the trap of thinking that design was purely subjective, and he was intimidated by the mystique surrounding design.
This manager felt that he couldn’t judge, subjectively, whether something was a good design or not.
However, what he could have done was to find some way of measuring my effectiveness in regards to what the company needs to do—make a profit.
There are a number of ways to approach this, including looking at how many other resources it takes to implement the design. However, in the context of what we have been talking about, there is one, simple way to understand whether your designers are providing good value for money through proper engagement with your clients.
Measuring a designer’s effectiveness
A good designer is not simply one who can judge spacing, or colour complements, or can use Photoshop or Fireworks, or whatever: a good designer is one who can communicate with the client, tease out their true drivers, and create designs in response to good, solid data.
So, I would like to propose that you start to judge your designers not simply on how whizzy or pretty their designs are, nor even how accurately those designs fulfil the customers’ goals.
Your really good, productive designers—the ones who know how to communicate with clients and understand their needs the best—are the ones who achieve all of the above in the fewest possible iterations.
Measure this, and you will have a good idea as to which of your designers are listening to the customer, communicating clearly, and then applying their own creativity in a focused, sensible manner.
Whilst monitoring iterations is far from being a silver bullet, it will give you a objective, measurable platform to start from; you can then start to look around at the other factors which might help to streamline your design processes, and deliver better solutions to your customers—whilst also increasing profitability.