My Design Process — Communicating And Collaborating With Clients

Your design process impacts your business and it does so beyond helping you design and develop websites. One of those ways is how it impacts your relationship with your client and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

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I’ve talked about my design process before. When I do I usually mention one benefit of the process is it involves clients early and often. This helps bring a good working relationship and a collaborative spirit to projects.

I don’t speak about this collaborative aspect enough, important as it is. I’m sure you’ve had clients you didn’t work well with. Sometimes you’re both so different little would help you work together better. Other times you might have gotten along, except for some early miscommunication.

Communication is important and I try to build as much in to my process as I can. From the moment a project starts, a dialog begins between client and myself. That dialog leads to a good working relationship and helps shape the finished site.

If You Want Happier Clients, Let Your Clients Decide

Designing a website is a series of decisions. You have goals for a site and there are many choices along the way to reaching those goals. I want my clients to be involved in as many of those decisions as possible and give them the opportunity to make as many of those decisions as they want.

I do guide their decision-making. My clients might be making the final decision, but I’m the one who decides which options are acceptable choices in that final decision. I do my best to provide clients with good choices.

My clients feel more involved in the project, because they are more involved in the project. Because they make many of the decisions that led to their completed site, they feel a greater ownership of the site. Because they make many of the decisions, they end up happier with the finished product and the process that produced it.

Throughout the process I ask a lot of questions. I ask questions to gather information and to get my clients thinking about things they may not have considered. I want them to understand the pros and cons of the different decisions that need to be made and let them make the ones they want.

In a sense I provide constraints for my client’s decisions. I narrow down the possible options to a few I think will work. My goal is to guide them to what they want. I present my decisions and explain why I made them, before leaving the final decision to my clients. Ideally I’ve shared what they should be thinking about when making these decisions and I’ve given them multiple good options help prevent something poor being chosen.

A Feedback Loop Improves Design and Development

Early communication sets up a feedback loop from the start of the project. I design and develop in a modular way, where the modules are how I separate parts of the design process. I take individual layers and work them one at a time.

My client and I have several rounds of feedback about a layer and refine it until they approve and ideally we both like the result. At the least we understand why certain decisions were made and have confidence in those decisions.

For the process I prefer a top-down or big picture to the details approach. You may prefer the opposite, which is fine. For me it helps to start with the abstract concepts. I want to take the client’s descriptive words and think about how to express them visually before moving into the specific details.

It starts with questions and information gathering. The questions require communication and set up the feedback loop. Sometimes what I’m asking gets clients thinking about things they hadn’t considered. These questions help set the context for everything that follows in the relationship. Done well and most of what follows happens smoothly.

With information in hand I’ll work out a concept for the site. I’ll present my idea of what story the site wants to tell visitors. My client will agree and we’ll move on or my client will disagree and we’ll discuss further to ensure we’re on the same page.

From there I’ll get into some aesthetic details. This helps me get a sense of my client’s tastes and preferences. I have them send me sites they like and don’t like. I’ll look through them for patterns of what they really like and don’t like. I’ll present artifacts to them as well with my ideas for aesthetics.

I build a very simple web pages presenting options for type, color and imagery. As they choose, I start to build a structure around their choices. For whatever reason my clients have less to say about the structure than anything else. Perhaps it’s a part of this process I should revisit and improve.

Once the structure is agreed upon and the aesthetic choices made, I’ll start building some of the content modules inside the structure. We’ll work one at a time and get it right before moving on to the next one. We’re usually good about getting back to each other quickly at this point, but I’ll send out an occasional reminder when necessary.

We keep iterating and refining each part of the site until we reach the point where we both agree the site is done and it’s time to launch.

How a Design Process Helps You Bottom Line

The process seems to go over well with clients. It has some nice benefits for my business as well.

This process saves time and effort because there are less wrong turns. Rather you don’t travel too far down any wrong turn. Because of the feedback loop, you don’t get very far down one path before discovering it’s the wrong path. You might lose a couple days work at times, but not a couple weeks of work.

You get to work out problems early and often. Each layer or stage can be worked independently of others and so making changes doesn’t require as much work on all the other layers.

Since the process is more efficient it helps cut my costs. What I’ve noticed is more actual time might pass between the start and end dates of the project, but the amount of time I spend working on the sites is less.

This happens because at many points during the project you’re waiting on client feedback before proceeding further. It might only be a day or two of waiting, but it gives you some free time during the project.

I’m sure you’ve discovered how projects come in waves. No one will need your services for a few weeks or even a few months and then 5 new people will get in touch on the same day. There’s only so much time in any week you can give to a client, though.

Since this process has natural gaps in each project I can schedule more of them at the same time as I could before. I’ve found that some of the layers or stages of the product require more of my time and focus, while other stages hardly need much. As long as I don’t schedule the focus times of multiple projects to overlap, I can work on them in tandem.

Closing Thoughts

That’s my process in regards to client collaboration. Through early communication and a feedback loop my clients and I learn to cooperate with each other and work together from the start. This helps build a good working relationship and ultimately leaves clients happier with the end result.

My clients feel more involved in the project, because they are literally more involved in the project. More client involvement increases the odds they’ll be happier with the results and the process itself. That it contributes to my bottom line as well is a nice bonus.

With early and often communication, my clients and I quickly learn to trust one another. When the site is done we’ve both come out of the process feeling better about the final product and the way we got there.

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