The process of web design is sometimes downright exhaustive. Some projects runs flawlessly. Some go through multiple versions, iterations, tweaks. At worse, web designers even have to put up with being micro-managed by clients.
Is there a way to avoid these stressful situations? How can you get faster design sign-offs and at the same time be less painful for both you and your client?
First, let’s explore the reasons why you’re having this problem. Then we’ll talk about how having a web design methodology in place speeds things up:
Let’s just get one thing straight from the start. If you feel that the majority of your projects run into problems in design sign-offs the problem is not with your client. It’s with you. You have a broken web design methodology, or you don’t have a web design methodology at all. The reason are often variations on this:
- You’re putting too much emphasis on personal opinions. Both you and your client will have an opinion. Subjective opinions will eventually only lead to arguments because they’re discussions which are not based around real objectives.
- You’re being transparent enough when communicating with your client. If you’re not transparent your client will get anxious and feel like they’re not in control. This eventually leads to them trying to micro-manage you.
- You’re not involving the client enough. A lot of clients have very little experience in web projects. If you’re not proactive in asking for their help, they will start coming up with their own design solutions. You don’t want your client to design. You want them to present problems for you to solve.
- You’re not educating your client on the web design process. If you don’t tell them how your web design methodology works they will feel left out. They will not understand your design decisions. If things go really bad, they will not sign-off on your designs.
- You haven’t defined any clear business objectives. Any design decision needs a problem to solve or at least have a clear business objective. If you and your client are not aligned on the business objectives of the website you will have a hard time communicating.
The TL;DR answer to these questions is that you need to see your web design methodoogy as a collaborative experience led by you but which closely involves the client. You want your client to feel they have direct input in the project. Let’s explore some ways to make this happen.
Don’t set a limited amount of design versions.
This to me is a strange principle which has permeated the whole web industry. Telling the client that you will create three iterations of a design. This only puts stress on the client because now they feel like they have to “nail” the design. Because they’re feeling stressed, they start to comment on every little thing. Otherwise they’re afraid that things will not work out right.
A more sound way of doing this is doing away with the needs to “approve” a design altogether. To make this happen you will have to have a clear collaborative process in place:
You’re not Jony Ive, (so don’t work in isolation)
Don’t ever reject the idea of collaboration because you’ve been burned by clients in the past.
Closing the door and designing “on your own” is a huge mistake. It puts a great burden on you to “get it right”. As soon as your design hits reality (ie, the first design meeting with the client) your answers as to why you took certain decisions will be fundamentally flawed. Why? Because they’re probably taken based on instincts. You know what? Instincts are notoriously hard to communicate in a sensible way. You will most certainly sound like a aloof designer weirdo rather than a design consultant that took rational decisions.
You would do much better if you chose to work in a transparent and collaborative way with your client. If you don’t, your client will not understand and will not feel ownership.
So have do you involve the client and collaborate in a good way?
Establishing a web design methodology
Don’t do a “design dump”. Confronting the client with a final design. You want to embark on a journey together with your client where you incrementally educate them on the web design process. Helping them understand the decisions that will have to be taken.
The best way to do this is by having your own web design methodology. It is by far the most effective way for you to convey to your client that you’re the expert in the field. A methodology also puts you in the drivers seat.
Here are some pointers on how to develop a methodology for your web design business:
Present brand design & layout design separately
A web design process consists of so many parts you need to help your client take better decisions. You do this by letting them approve on anything related to brand separately from layout. Having the client approve on overall aesthetics first helps tremendously. Why? Because when you eventually present final designs the design will not be totally new to them, instead, it will feel familiar to them.
Start with establishing brand
At the start of any project you need to sit down and talk about your client’s brand and how it is currently represented. You will also need to find out how they really want it to be represented (at times clients are not happy with the current way their brand is presented). This discussion is important. Beware though because it’s also dangerously easy to very quickly start talking about colours, typography, graphical elements etc. Don’t do this.
Visualize the website as a real person
You’re much better off by doing something very simple. Talk about your client’s company as if it was a real person. What character traits would it have? This simple inquiry is very effective in kickstarting a debate. Why? Because it gives a very vivid representation on how this person behaves, how he would talk and how he would present himself.
Mood-boards are a collection of images, colors, typography, textures etc that is made in order to capture a certain mood and set a tone. They are very popular in the fashion world but are equally efficient tools in the web design process. In fact, they are a great starting point for any web project.
The basic process for creating a mood-board is:
- Create a collection of screenshots of websites that you feel represent the “website personality”. (Use a tool like Delicious or Evernote to save screenshots)
- Use these screenshots to design a series of mood-boards to present to your client.
When setting up the mood-board, make the canvas big. A great tool for creating online mood-boards is Murally which you should definitely check it out.
Also, don’t “design” your mood-boards. You want them to convey a feeling, not a final design. Spend max 1 hour on each board, it should be a quick process.
Iterate on these mood-boards together with your client until you reach a point where you feel like you’ve nailed the majority of the elements. Once you have reached a consensus it’s time to move on to the final design.
Collaborating on wireframes
Next logical step in designing collaboratively together with your client is to invite them to add input on the main templates of the new website. Run some simple workshops where you involve them in establishing a baseline. The groundwork on overall messaging, layouts and common elements for call-to-actions.
Why on earth would I want my client to help out on wireframes you might ask? Well, the answer is simple. Just like mood-boards helps you quickly get approval on the websites overall branding without really going through a formal approval process. Collaborative wire-framing helps your client get ownership of the design which in turn reduces the risk of the client rejecting your designs.
Here are some pointers on how to run collaborative wireframe sessions:
- Get the right people in the meeting (key stakeholders from your firm and the client)
- Set a clear agenda
- Communicate what main templates will be worked on and only work on these
- Have plenty of snacks, fruit, drinks available
- Stop in time. These sessions can get intense and tiresome. When you feel you’re taking most of the decisions it probably means that your client understands how you work and trusts your judgment.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide on the tools to use when running these session, but keeping it simple (ie pen and paper) goes a long way.
When finished, snap photos of the wireframes that was created and convert them as quickly as possible into real wireframes. There’s a bunch of ways you can do this, but I would recommend creating a HTML prototype. Make sure that you in some way reference the initial wireframes.
By creating mood-boards and collaborating on wireframes you’ll have done one important thing. You have minimised the risks of having your client wanting changing the designs. Why? Because they feel they already designed it!