To the uninitiated and — heck! — the initiated, what does the design process look like? Without wanting to oversimplify, it looks something like this.
Brief → Design → Feedback → Design refinement → Feedback/Sign off → Production
That feedback, design refinement loop can go on (and everyone will start to lose the will to live), but each step has an interaction with the client and a ‘reveal’. But, experience has changed my mind. Don’t wait for a ‘ta-dah’.
Let’s look a little closer.
A client has identified that they need our help with some ‘design’ as — darn it — they have a problem which needs solving, and they can’t solve it. These problems can come in all shapes and sizes. From a buyer’s perspective, designers sell solutions — brands, identities, apps, websites, experiences etc. (The list can, and does, go on.)
From a designer’s perspective, a client has a problem that needs solving.
The understanding of that problem is key to the direction of travel both parties will take together. Sometimes a client has had a go at solving that problem for us by writing a brief, and laying out the solution for us in the guise of deliverables. (Note, we aren’t stopping you writing a brief—these are important and good things!)
Sometimes a client simply recognises a business opportunity, wants to grow, or wants to put a halt to stagnation and understands that design can help.
Note, these are interesting problems and interesting people to work with, because there is a mutual understanding of expertise and trust.
Also note, that when a ten page brief turns up on our desk for a six page A5 brochure, don’t assume all the questions have been asked and all the answers have been provided. We will still ask those questions like a brief hasn’t been written.
In ‘first contact’ meetings we will be ‘trying each other on for size’.
This is an important stage as we will be spending a lot of time together if all goes well, and we will need to ‘fit’, and the ‘fit’ needs to go both ways. We will have to be able to communicate well together, and share an equal footing (no parent-child relationships here please!). We will want to be able to express a difference of opinion and challenge long held beliefs.
The mistake some design agencies make is to talk about themselves. “Here’s a website we did for X. Here’s some UX we did for Y. And here’s some positioning we did for Z. Aren’t we smart!?”
At no point did our mythical self-centred agency ask what the actual problem was. Let’s face it, the fact that we have been invited in means we must have a certain level of competence.
We meet our clients and say, “we have come to listen”.
This exchange is all about what we can do for our client, not what we did for others, ohh, and all important personal chemistry. No one likes the bore at the party who drones on about themselves. Neither does our prospect.
No, the deal clincher is the grasp of your problem, and the fact that we actually paid attention, and listened.
This is where we get to articulate the problem and reflect back what we have understood. If we haven’t understood the problem, we won’t win the job. Simple. This is why we ask the questions in the first place.
We won the job! High fives. We aced it. Now, let’s crack on.
Let’s get designing
Whoah there! Before we fire up the engines, we ask ourselves “do we have all the answers to our questions, have we met everyone who will be involved in the project and do we know exactly what to do next?” No? We’ll get on the phone, or line up a meeting, and find out more.
Phew! Just helped navigated mistake number one.
Mistake number two is to go away and make preparations for a ‘ta-dah’ moment. (You were wondering when I was going to get to the point, weren’t you?)
Over the years we have found that the more you engage with a client and share ideas — and possibly even confusion — the less likely we are to go up a blind alley. More to the point, we have a greater chance of creating an effective outcome and arrive there a lot quicker. (Bare with me.)
When we have some ideas for a theme that is emerging in your communication, we’ll get on the phone and say, “I’ve got this idea.”
Same goes for working on a UX problem on paper. (Yes, we still do use paper and pens.) We scan it in and send it to our client. Start the conversation early. Share the thoughts and scribbles before opening up Sketch and Marvelapp, or (insert your favourite design and prototyping tool here).
What we have done here is validate an idea before we have collectively committed to anything concrete, or in a designer’s case, open up a tool and start crafting a ‘solution’ that might actually be wrong.
When it does come to that ‘ta-dah’ moment, when we have to share the work with a wider group, ‘buy in’ has already been achieved because the key stakeholders in your project joined you on your journey. They were involved in each micro-decision and, most importantly, this is what they expected. There were no surprises. If there are choices to be made, they knew they were coming. It wasn’t a ‘ta-dah’, it was a ‘yup, we made these decisions together — let’s discuss!’
Is this right, is this right, is this right?
This isn’t a call to arms to change how the industry does things. This is our way of saying that we don’t want to shroud ourselves in mystery. We want open up and expose the inner workings. We don’t wait for a ‘ta-dah’ moment, we instead keep asking ‘is this right, is this right, is this right?’
Now, I was going to end this right here, in a nice full-circle kind of way, but something happened this week that reaffirmed this.
A client happened to share a re-brand journey with me. This was carried out by another agency — not us. It was journey that he found very frustrating.
Thankfully, the work is solid and the solution is great, but how they got there seeded all kinds of doubt in our client’s mind. This was done by a highly reputable agency (read expensive) that did all those things a top flight agency should do— ask questions, research, share sketches, document progress, ask for specific feedback — but I think they omitted a very simple but important step.
This is where I think the subtle nuance comes in.
What they didn’t do was get on the phone, share thoughts in-between the ‘ta-dahs’ or even ask permission to explore new avenues. It’s small, but oh so big. With each new ‘ta-dah’ our client was asking himself “am I being listened to? This is not what I was expecting.”
So, once again, this mystical design process we shroud ourselves in boils down to being a human first, and a designer second.
So, if you are designer reading this, try it out. Explore new ways of engaging with your client. If you are a client reading this, we will share ideas — even if they are just verbal. We may even say, “I am confused.” We will open up.