I had a really great afternoon. I heard from a favorite client that she has picked up some of my collaboration tactics because they "make people feel that you're really listening."
For me, this was so cool to hear. Because I am listening. And because I suspect that I haven't always made people feel that way.
It didn't come naturally to me, and I've learned a lot along the way about how to get there. The ability to drive true collaboration is an art that every designer must hone over time. It's part of the job, and it's part of what separates a junior designer from a director. Here are a few of my hard-fought tips.
1. Clarify what you're looking for upfront.
Jumping right in a review of design work without setting the stage can leave less experienced stakeholders overwhelmed and can allow bad habits to fester with the more seasoned. Either of these issues can can result in the type of granular, prescriptive feedback that makes most designers cringe.
That's why it helps to regularly summarize, before wireframes or comps start flying, what exactly we're here to do.
“Most clients have absolutely no idea what kind of feedback you’re looking for. And there’s no reason why they would. They do not do this every day. They don’t have the training that you do. Nor do they need it, because guiding them towards the right type of feedback is part of your job.”
— Mike Montiero, 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations
At Slide UX, there are two ways we do this. First, by providing an agenda that covers:
Goals of the meeting
What we'll review today (wireframes, prototypes, comps)
The types of feedback we need at this stage
Where we are in the overall project timeline (so everyone understands when their feedback is due and what it's building toward)
Next, as we get into actual designs, we normally explain that while we're clear on a lot of things, there are a few key areas that could really use the business' expertise -- which leads me to the next point.
2. Plan the "tour" in advance.
Imagine that you're touring a friend's house for the first time. But instead of stopping every so often for a quick story or question, she just focuses only on the obvious - "There's the bathroom -it's painted blue. There's the kitchen, with tile floors. And there's the study - big window on that wall."
Painfully awkward, right? Yet designers do this exact tour every day.
It's far more natural to point out features one likes and why, what changes one has made, areas one is not quite settled on, or parts one had described in previous conversations.
But for designers, these things get muddled in our heads as we sit for hours noodling and re-noodling on all the details. We must reserve a few moments before every presentation to prepare simple plans for how we'll lead reviewers through the work.
Bullets or chicken scratch are fine. Time is often limited, and we can't discuss everything, so our high-level outline should focus attention on areas that the client is most concerned with and answer specific questions that will enable us to move forward.
3. Ask the right questions.
Although many clients may not be able to put their finger on what happened, something feels inherently wrong the moment a designer stops from selling their concept and begins asking what the clients themselves prefer. From that very instant, the designer is no longer an expert. He is now the pair hands executing his client's (potentially uninformed) hypotheses.
So what, then, is there to ask? Plenty.
Many design decisions should hinge on your client's business - their goals, sales process, technical product details, and strategic decisions. You can stay the expert on design while respecting your client's role as an expert in their business.
If you do this right, you may even avoid some all the granular hoorah that can bog down the design workflow. People are less likely to start doing your job when they're on the hook to answer strategic questions.
4. Have a well-informed point-of-view - and articulate it.
Early in my career, I was often surprised by the vast differences in where clients drew the line between my team's responsibilities and their own. It's hard to ignore the irony when one client expects guidance on mission-critical business strategy while another responds with skepticism to every hex value you propose.
One of our secrets to successfully cultivating happy clients is to try and give more consideration to every aspect of our work than clients expect - especially at the beginning of that working relationship, as we gain a feel for the client's expectations. That means secondary best-practice research, best-in-breed analysis, peer review, iteration, and good old-fashioned experience.
5. Phrase it just right.
As a designer, learning what your clients' know is how you become their trusted go-to. It's how you earn praise and promotions (as an internal designer) or repeat business (as an external designer). And assuming you continue to work together, it makes it far easier for you to nail future assignments.
But are you truly inviting that commentary? One of my rookie tendencies was after having designed meticulously, I'd explain all my rationale in a deluge, capping it with a simple, "Right?" or "Do you disagree?"
The truth is, there are few things most humans generally don't like:
Disagreeing with other humans.
Being preached to.
Lawyers, or people who argue like them.
At the end of the day, you want to be hired for your expertise. Although clients will often test you, you'll only pass that test if you have an informed point of view for every design decision you advocate. But to win hearts, your point of view should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
Design is a career of lifelong learning. And listening to our clients is an important way to learn. What are your tips for getting the right kind of client feedback?
Cover Image by Breather: https://unsplash.com/breather