If you want clients to fall in love with your work, fall in love with your clients
At a UXPA Boston annual conference some years ago, Dana Chisnell once said, “If you want users to fall in love with your designs, fall in love with your users.” This simple statement has stuck with me for years. When I heard her say it, I thought, “Yes. It’s about love.” But we don’t often talk about the L Word in a work context, do we?
Just as we do for our users, we create an experience for our clients and project teams: the experience of design, in addition to experience designs. What will our clients’ experience of design be like? Will we focus only on process? Will we put ourselves above our clients as though we hold secret knowledge? Or will we facilitate their transformation to loving their customers ? What experience do we make for our clients that allows this transformation to occur? Above and beyond process, what does the transformation feel like and how do we address it during the client’s journey?
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a story pattern that Joseph Campbell identified across cultures, myths, religious ritual, drama, and even individual psychological development¹. While there’s a lot written about this story pattern, including writings by detractors, for our purposes of understanding our role in our clients’ transformation to loving their customers, the core elements are illustrated here:
While this looks like a process, Joseph Campbell indicated a deeper, more important meaning for us to understand:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.²
If we put our client in the center of the story, making them the Hero of their own Journey, what are the symbols, attitudes, behaviors, and meanings we can bring to their experience of design? Reflecting on a recent engagement that ended up in the client’s creative transformation, here are some ideas that worked for us. While we didn’t necessarily think about the work exactly in this way at the time, we can learn from the experience to bring it forward to the next engagement.
Use inflection points during design and development as more than project milestones. Think of them as though they are rituals to mark steps in the journey; use them to check in on emotions and attitudes, and address them with compassion. Understand at what step in the Hero’s Journey your client is, and understand what they’re facing in their context.
View ourselves not as all-knowing consultants, but instead as helpers along the journey. Consider what kind of helpers are needed at different steps in their journey. In the Lord of the Rings, each member of the Fellowship of the Ring brought different perspectives and skills to helping Frodo on his journey. Samwise Gamgee was humble in his service to the Hero (Frodo). Seemingly all-knowing, Gandalf made mistakes and learned along the journey: the guide travels with the Hero/client and can also be transformed because of the journey.
Understand and show compassion when things get tough. When a client wants to change, but doesn’t know how, first acknowledge the discomfort that comes from not knowing how it will turn out. In other words, it’s ok to say something like, “expect this part of the work to feel uncomfortable; it will get better once we understand customers’ needs better.” Adjust your approach to show through your behaviors that you empathize. Be cautious as you adjust not to compromise the quality of your work. You may not need to do what the client initially asks of you if you address the underlying fears (for example, address deadline fears by adjusting scope or approach but try not to cut all the user research if asked to).
Always keep in mind and convey the meaning behind the deliverables and why you’re creating them, even in the face of a deadline-focused client. Certainly make your deadlines! Also recognize that checking the box for deliverables is not the point, not the real value you bring. It’s the hard work of understanding and empathizing with people (both customers and clients) that really matters. Use all artifacts to convey meaning that can transform both the product you’re working on, as well as the client’s attitudes.
Of course, it doesn’t always go this way! Many times the client isn’t looking, or isn’t ready, for a transformation. Or maybe they’ve already returned from their transformation to becoming more human-centered in their relationships with their customers.
But when it does go this way — when your client loves your work and changes their own behaviors and attitudes as a result, even with significant bumps in the road — it’s time to pause for reflection, gratitude, and celebration.