Managing feedback

Paul Boag

Client centric design encourages clients to comment on the web design process. But how do you keep the client focused and encouraging the right type of feedback?

In my last post in this podcast season I wrote about the challenges of getting design approval. I explained that by taking the client through a process and giving them a sense of ownership you increase the chances of them approving a design.

However, what happens when they ask others to comment on the design? We may have the client onboard, but that doesn’t mean other stakeholders will be convinced. After all, they will not have taken the same journey of collaboration as the client.

Overcoming this problem begins with how we present the design.

Presenting design

The problem is that we often don’t get to present the design to all the people who are going to comment on it. Sure, we can present to the immediate point of contact, but what about the others that the client shows the design too?

The way we solve this problem at Headscape is by recording a video of our design presentations and circulating them to all decision makers.

An example video presentation

This approach has several advantages:

  • Presentation and design are inseparable. Because the design is only viewable as part of the video it cannot be shown without the accompanying presentation. We therefore can guarantee people will have all the information they require to provide constructive criticism.
  • Call quality is not an issue. Because the presentation is a video, the audio quality can be assured. Most video recording software allows for the presenter to appear in a small window. This better communicates our passion for the design than a phone call.
  • The presentation can be scripted. Not everybody finds it easy to present. By recording a video you can script the presentation ensuring the quality.
  • All those providing comments see the presentation. It is hard to arrange a meeting that all stakeholders can attend. A video allows people to view the presentation at their convenience.
  • The client has time to digest the presentation. Because the client can watch the presentation at their leisure they have time to formulate their comments. Unlike a face to face presentation, they do not need to provide an immediate response.
  • It allows interaction. Websites are becoming more dynamic with javascript elements and responsive design. A video allows you to demonstrate this kind of functionality without worrying about whether it will work on the client’s computer.

Whether you present using video or in person the most important part is what you say.

What to include in a design presentation

When presenting a design (whether a moodboard, wireframe or design) show that it is a natural progression of what has already been agreed. This will make the client more likely to accept it.

To achieve this, the presentation should heavily reference previous work and how that has influenced the design. For example, if you are presenting a moodboard you should explain how the personality agreed with the client is reflected in the design.

With wireframes, demonstrate how they reflect the sketches produced with the client. Also show how they accommodate calls to actions, business objectives and user tasks.

Finally, when presenting your proposed design, show the client how it brings together business objectives, moodboards and wireframes.

Examples of supporting material for design presentation

Where the design deviates from what has been agreed or introduces new elements, present a strong case to back up these changes.

I endeavour to support my designs in three ways:

  • Testing: If I am concerned the client will be unsure about my design choices, I will carry out testing to justify my approach. Testing is something I will discuss later in the chapter.
  • Reference material: Referencing expert opinion, studies and statistics are all powerful ways of improving your credibility. They are also excellent for justifying design decisions. For example, if there are numerous studies and experts who dispel the myth of the fold, then that justifies a design which requires scrolling.
  • Show examples: Nothing is more convincing than showing the client an example. If a major website like the BBC does something you are proposing for a design, it significantly strengthens your case.

It is also worth preempting common objections in your presentation.

Our experience of working with clients gives us a good insight into what changes they are likely to request. These include areas such as the use of whitespace, choice of colour, content above the fold or size of the logo.
We avoid mentioning these issues hoping the client doesn’t bring them up. However, it is more effective to preempt them by raising the subject yourself. There are two reasons for this.

First, it demonstrates that you have thought about these issues and are not just reacting to their criticism. This reinforces your experience and expertise.

Second, preempting issues has a psychological effect. Once we state a position (the logo needs to be bigger) we feel the need to be consistent and defend that position even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Post from boagworld that talks about whitespace

If we preempt the issue before the client raises their objection, they don’t have to defend a position they may no longer be convinced by.
Furthermore, clients feel foolish raising an issue which you have already tackled.

Finally, your presentation should suggest some guidelines for useful comments.

Gathering the right feedback

Never simply ask a client ‘what they think’ of a design as this focuses them on their personal opinion. Design is subjective so personal opinion is not always valid. Just because your client dislikes a design, does not make it wrong.

I worked on a university website when Myspace was popular. The target audience was undergraduate students so we produced a design that appealed to the Myspace generation. Both the client and I disliked the design. It was garish and busy, not at all what we looked for in a website. However, the design proved successful in testing. We had to set aside our personal opinions and implement what was right for the audience.

That is why we need to reconsider how we ask for feedback from clients. Instead of asking “what do you think” we need to ask “how will your users respond?”

By asking specific, structured questions, we focus the client’s attention on criteria by which a design should be judged.

Some example questions might be:

  • Do you believe the aesthetics will appeal to the target audience?
  • Does the website help the business achieve its objectives?
  • Will the target audience be able to easily complete their tasks?
  • Are the calls to action clearly visible and do they encourage action?

Questions like this teach the client how to judge the effectiveness or otherwise of a design and discourages comments such as “I don’t like the colour.”

You can also use structured questions to remind the client of what has been previously agreed. They can show how the design is the culmination of a collaborative process. For example you could ask:

  • Is the design in line with the aesthetics established in the moodboards?
  • Does the design communicate the brand values of your organisation?
  • Does the design reflect what was agreed in the wireframes?
  • Is the design consistent with the personality we chose for the site?

You will notice that these questions encourage a yes or no answer. If the answers are yes, then the client has little reason not to approve the design.

Of course they may personally not like the design. However, if you have warned them that their personal opinion could colour their judgement, most will be able to set those feelings aside if they can confidently answer yes to your questions.

If the client feels the design fails to meet the criteria outlined in your questions, things become more complicated and will require sensitive handling.

Dealing with disagreements

Handling disagreements with your clients is a crucial skill. We must balance the client’s happiness with producing the best website possible.
If we simply give the client whatever they ask for, we become demoralised and they do not receive our full expertise.

However, if we constantly argue with them they could end up with a website they do not like. If they do not like their site they will not invest in its long term future.

The answer to this problem is four fold:

  • Swallow your pride. We need to accept that clients have good ideas and we must not reject them simply because we did not think of them.
  • Pick your battles. It is fine to disagree with a client if you passionately believe in your position. However, on other occasions you will feel less strongly. When that happens, be willing to give their ideas a go.
  • Ask why. If a client is unhappy with the design, it is important to understand why. For example, it is not enough for a client to say the design doesn’t satisfy user needs. You need to understand exactly how they believe it is failing.
  • If in doubt, test. If you and the client disagree over an issue, test it with real users. This will inevitably break the deadlock and provide a clear way forward.

Next Actions

I have demonstrated how client centric design leads to better websites, happier clients and an easier life for you. Managing comments is a key component in that. Before you finish these season, make some small, yet significant, changes to how you present design and gathering comments. These are:

Record your presentations

Video presentations have transformed how we present work at Headscape. It has led to better presentations, improved comments and it always impresses the client.

Prepare the ground

Suggest the type of comment you want. Place the emphasis on identifying problems not finding solutions. Finally, deal with problems such as whitespace, colour and branding before they become an issue.

Provide structured questions

Stop asking open questions such as “what do you think of the design” and start leading the client through the feedback process.

I am aware this season may have challenged your preconceptions. I have suggested that your role is not just to produce websites, but to offer a service. You may feel this is not what you signed up for. However, I want to ensure you that, done right, client work can be both rewarding and satisfying. You get to build lasting, collaborative, relationships with people working across a range of disciplines and sectors. Client work is never dull and you will always be learning. Embrace the role and enjoy one hell of a ride. I know I have.

The transcription of this episode is available here.

The podcast is back in September! Speak to you then :)