Client/Designer relationship

How the strongest design strategy starts with clear communication.

Being a freelance designer has its perks. You set your own schedule, advocate for yourself and your inherent value, and my personal favorite, being able to work on several very different projects at once. This alone justifies not ending up with a full-time role at a large company where you might fade into comfort and obscurity. I’m being dramatic, of course…

Those perks come with a trade-off because more often than not, you bear the full weight of responsibility when defining the UX research and design strategy for the smaller companies and startups that are your bread and butter clients. Rest assured you’ll find yourself working with clients who have vital knowledge gaps throughout their projects and business.

It’s also common for “more budding” client’s eyes to be bigger than their stomach when it comes to understanding what scope of work is considered feasible for a specific project. The burden of responsibility is on you, the designer, to educate and communicate your approach and thoroughly guide them through the structure and goals of the project.

In this article, I’m going to highlight the approach I take when communicating design strategies to clients to foster a healthy relationship and create a higher probability to create a long-term and sustainable impact on their business and project goals.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Transparent Communication

In the early stages of a project, how you communicate helps you truly understand how you can support your client. This is also where you can start to manage expectations, and use this as an opportunity to demonstrate your workflow. You might spend more time with them over the course of a project than your significant other, so I find it’s best to get a gauge of compatibility straight away.

Even in the bidding phase before you’re officially on the project, you want to gain a deeper understanding of how familiar your client is with the design process. That way, you can adjust how you communicate to suit their needs. They might not always be transparent and open about the limitations or familiarity of their knowledge, but if you’re actively listening, you can deduce their reals needs and intentions. Sometimes we don’t know, what we don’t know…

Regarding your own capabilities, being transparent about what you need to complete the job is key. If you’re honest about your own strengths and weaknesses, others are inclined to share theirs as well. No one expects you to be a gun for hire unless you sell yourself as one, and I think most people would find that highly suspect.

Get aligned on roles and responsibilities

As you’re learning about the client’s current business and product assumptions you want to find out where those insights came from. This is a good time to have clients run through their initial project objectives and why those were important and then help re-prioritize those goals as you start your synthesizing your research.

But, where design and business strategy overlap, boundaries can start to overlap as well. Your client should understand that design and business decisions work together, but the roles and responsibilities of the designer and stakeholder should be separate. (unless you have equity in the company.)

By clearly defining your purpose relative to the scope of the project, you’ll lessen the chance of getting caught in a messy situation regarding the expectations about your role and the scope of the work.

In my experience, goals and priorities on every project will inevitably shift. If you underpromise and over-deliver, having the re-prioritization conversation with the client is way easier. If you’re honest about what your needs are, clients will find a way to get it for you. All you have to do is ask and be prepared to justify why you’re proposing they stretch their resources.

Learn your client’s business

Try to understand what’s motivating their business decisions and the constraints they’re operating in. Are they seeded or pre-seed? If they’re seeded, what round are they in? If not, do they have a dev team or will they outsource MVP to launch V1? Having the deepest understanding of your client’s position allows you to make the most necessary design decisions that align with their own business interests.

typical project limitations:

  • Diverging stakeholder expectations
  • Restricted funds to commit research
  • Unrealistic deadlines and scope of the project
  • Restrictive resources like additional design or development team to collaborate with
Learn about Triple Constraint in Agile

All project constraints are interrelated. As you adjust for one, you adjust for the others, and your strategy will have to adjust as well.

Regardless of the cause of the limitations, don’t be afraid to pivot and re-prioritize the scope of the work in order to fit the needs of the business and project with considerations to the constraints. If your client has unrealistic expectations, be pragmatic in how you explain what you can accomplish relative to their goals and business needs. Define specifics of both proposed solutions by reverse-engineering what's necessary to get there so they understand what benchmarks need to be hit. That way, if you need more resources, they see the reasoning in real-time and can decide what framework makes the most sense going forward.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

In order to gain a clear and thorough understanding of what the client wants to achieve. I try to forget what I know or assume I know about a project or company. No matter how much time I spend conducting exploratory research, I still ask all the basic questions that might come across as obvious or daft at first pass. I use this as a way to involve the client in the process and to reinforce the value of good research and I do it in the form of a workshop.

Product Design Exercise

What workshop I choose to conduct really depends on the client and how developed their platform currently is. If I’m not given any assets to audit to set up the scope of the project, I’ll assume no research has been conducted and we need to start from scratch. Here’s my basic list of questions to get me started;

  • What type of contextual information is missing?
  • What are the goals and challenges outlined here? What research is currently supporting them?
  • What do we know about the target user audience at this point? What don’t we know?
  • What is the current functionality of the product? What is the desired state of functionality?
  • Based on the provided project context, what are potential metrics of success?

If I can’t answer all of the above in some regard, I start by asking the client questions and populating their answers on post-it notes.

Miro workshop based on Artiom Dashinsky’s Solving Product Design Exercises via Brendan Colarusso
  1. Why — Understand the goal.
  • Why is the product important?
  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • What impact does it have on the world?
  • How does this product benefit the customer?
  • What business opportunity does it create?

2. Who? — Define the audience.

3.When/Where? — Understand the customer context and needs

  • Where are they physically?
  • Is there a trigger event causing this need?
  • How much time do they have?
  • What emotions do they experience?
  • Customer's needs: What is there high-level motivation for solving the problem and how can they achieve it?

4.What? — List ideas A, B, C…

Basic Priority Matrix

This is generally where I jump into a Priority Matrix to demonstrate the value of having clear objectives in a project by walking through their own goals as well as business constraints to define an MVP solution that should be backed by research and user insights.

What do we gain by being this resourceful?

This can be a lot of extra work and rather exhausting, but the end results, in my opinion, usually positively impact the outcome of the product and build a deep and healthy relationship with that client for life.

Plus you’ll;

  1. Have more opportunities to be involved in research, business, and development considerations that may impact overall business strategies and priorities.
  2. Learn how to deal with ambiguity and to better assess what does and does not fit within a reasonable scope for the project.
  3. Practice your communication of the design process by guiding clients.
  4. Learn how to do more with less by producing significant outcomes despite limitations and constraints.

UX Designer w/ a background as a photographer and digital artist. I’m a visual storyteller dedicated to solving complex problems & producing creative solutions.

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