Does design sign off causes more harm than good?

Paul Boag

Most web designers insist that a client signs off a design for their site before site built commences, but is that really the best approach?

We have all been there – a week before a client’s website is launched they suddenly decide they don’t like some aspect of the design. The whole project grinds to a halt as arguments commence about whether these changes are in scope or not.

The solution to this problem, adopted by most web designers, is to build into their processes a sign off point where the client commits to the design. Any changes made to the design after this point will be chargeable. But is this really the right approach? For a start, I am not convinced that it really works.

Does design sign off work?

Think about it for a minute. Since introducing the idea of signing off design, have clients stopped asking for design changes after sign off? I bet they haven’t.

Admittedly you now have a bit of paper that says they are not allowed to, but what good is that really? Saying no is just as awkward and damaging to the relationship. If they dig their heels in, refusing to pay until the change is made, are you really much better off? Will that piece of paper make taking them to court any less painful or expensive?

It’s also a very blunt instrument. By asking clients to sign off a design you are asking them to sign off the whole thing because changing it later will be time consuming and expensive. Except that is not true. Making some design changes is time consuming and expensive (e.g. changing layout) but others are straightforward (e.g. changing colours). The chances are that you wouldn’t mind making minor tweaks to the design later, but with design sign off you have locked yourself in.

This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, if it wasn’t for the fact that you might actually want to change the design after sign off.

A double edged sword

Design sign off goes both ways. It also means you commit to a design as well. Unfortunately there are good reasons why you might wish to tweak the design after sign off. User testing might suggest alterations. You might find elements of the design don’t work on some pages. Something might turn out to be considerably harder to build than you anticipated. The list could go on.

The point is that design sign off is as much a commitment on your part as it is for the client. It sets rigid boundaries on the project and prevents flexibility. It undermines any agile adaptation in design. The result of this is that a design has to be perfect, before sign off can be given.

The problem with perfection

Of course as web designers we know that a design will never be perfect. However, try telling that to a client who you are asking to sign off on a design. When faced with this one moment of sign off, they become hyper critical. They pick over every detail, show the design to every colleague, endlessly discuss and revise every nuance. They often become paralysed by the commitment of signing off.

This is where we enter iteration hell. Endlessly revising the same design and refining details that actually don’t matter. You want to say “lets just leave it and see how it does when live” but you cannot because you are asking the client to commit to one path, one approach, one design.

Surely there is a better way?

An alternative to sign off

I have become convinced that design sign off doesn’t help anybody. I prefer the idea of guiding the client step by step towards the final solution. Instead of one major sign off point, they verbally commit to a series of smaller steps. They review the moodboards, stile tiles, wireframes, prototypes and design comps.

At each step you discuss, collaborate, test and revise. By the time they see the final design, they already feel committed to it, because they were instrumental in bringing it together. What is more they understand where the design has come from because they have seen each stage evolve.

Don’t under estimate the power of feeling committed to a design. People like to be consistent. If they have approved the various elements that make up the design, they will feel committed to the final result. This feeling is more powerful than a piece of paper. They will fight sign off is they feel unhappy, but if they feel committed you will encounter little resistance.

Instead of getting them to sign off in blood, you discuss what could be changed later and what will be difficult. You educate the client, rather than restrict them. You actually suggest that maybe some elements could be tweaked post launch once you have seen real users interact with the site.

Nothing makes a client relax more than a willingness to fix things if users respond badly to some element of design post launch. Sure there might be a bit of extra work later, but that is better than endless revisions to achieve design sign off.

It also creates a more healthy relationship. It says to the client “I trust you”. It treats them as a partner and removes the barriers in your working relationship. It treats them as reasonable human beings and in my experience when you do that, most people live up to your expectations.

The debate

I recognise some of you reading this think I am mad. This approach is far from universally accepted and even Marcus thinks we need design sign off. I therefore thought it would be a good debate topic for the podcast.

This house proposes that we should no longer ask clients to sign off a design before we build it.

After all the approach is not without its risks.

The risks

Yes, some people will abuse your trust. However, that is not the biggest risk in my mind. After all, people like this will take the piss whether or not they have signed off a design. These are problem clients and no amount of paperwork will prevent that.

To my mind the real risk is “swoop and poop” managers. We work with a lot of large organisations and so the person with whom you are working is rarely the final authority. They often need to go to other stakeholders higher in the organisational structure for sign off. Because these people are not involved in the process, they don’t have the relationship or understanding of the design. This increases the chance of them swooping in and pooping all over the project by insisting that some element of the design is changed. Without paperwork to say that the design has been approved and that changes will cost, it is hard to stop them interfering.

The question is whether this scenario is too big a risk? Is it worth taking a risk to minimise iterations and establish a more healthy relationship with the client?

What do you think? Do you agree with me over this? Is that how you work already or do you share Marcus’ concerns and would prefer to keep design sign off? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.