Involving the client for a smoother design delivery

Involving the client and managing organizational resistance to change to ensure happier design project outcomes.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

Does your project go smoothly early on, only to hit a brick wall of bureaucracy within the client’s organization late in the process? Does the design change in strange and unexpected ways that don’t support the project’s business goals after you’ve delivered your finished design?

Whether it’s a website launch gone wrong or a content strategy change misunderstood, maybe the client hasn’t been sufficiently involved in the actual design work — or maybe they don’t feel confident enough that they understand the design choices made in order to effectively carry the torch within their organization.

Design is about change, and change is intimidating

Many design projects boil down to changing things — hopefully for the better — and such changes can be relatively minor, like changing the client company’s logo font, or they can be quite major, for instance a wholesale change in content strategy.

For us designers, our jobs are often made more complicated by the fact that people are naturally inclined to resist change. It’s easy to cling to the status quo and it’s natural to reject the new, be it a new arrangement of buttons in a person’s favorite smartphone app, or entirely new workflows to learn.

Anything that necessitates broad cultural or behavioral change — for example the way a multichannel content strategy might affect everyday workflow for a journalist, or the way online sales might affect how bonuses are issued for sales staff — will unavoidably face opposition within your client’s organization. The larger the organization, the larger the proportion of employees who come into work every morning dreading things might change.

Anything that necessitates broader cultural change will face opposition.

Understand and involve the client’s organization

Typically your client represents some part of a larger organization, and other parts of that organization can have goals that are different from your client’s. This kind of organizational strife can be a real project killer.

Other business units within the client’s organization may have goals and directions that don’t align with your client’s — or the broader company strategy.

To better align the design with broader organizational goals it’s crucial to understand the current state of the client’s organization and to know who might feel threatened if the project proceeds as planned. For example sales representatives at the company might be afraid they’ll miss out on sales bonuses if the company launches a online store. Often these concerns can be addressed through design, but only if you‘re aware of them.

Invite and encourage participation

If you take the time to involve employees at various levels of the organization and seek to understand their perspective, you’ll gain a lot of insight into the company culture and the employees’ views on both the design and implementation of intended changes. Once you have those perspectives at your disposal you’ll be better able to maneuver around potential conflicts of interest.

It’s often easiest to convert employees from opponents to participants if you give them an actual problem to solve.

Encouraging design participation and discussion might mean something as simple as hanging sketches next to the water cooler and asking for feedback, but it’s often easiest to convert employees from opponents to participants if you give them an actual problem to think about and solve rather than just asking for feedback on a readily-made solutions to those problems.

Foster a user-centered design mentality

Above all, try to involve people from multiple levels of the organization in user testing and customer interviews to impress on them what their actual customers and end users truly want. This helps emphasize a user-centered approach over viewpoints colored by internal politics or power plays between organizational silos.

It’s easy for any business unit to fall into the trap of presuming they know best what the customer wants, when in reality the only way of knowing is to test those ideas against real customers. For example, it’s rare for a website front page design score well in user testing if every department of the company has left its mark on it just to appear relevant. User testing is a good blunt instrument for preventing design changes that only serve egos rather than customer or company goals.

Sometimes the cultural differences between organizational silos are so entrenched that you’ll have no choice but to try to convince higher level management to steamroll the views of individual business units to keep the project moving. Having concrete user testing data on hand that you can present to high level management will improve your chances of success if you have to go down that route.

Promote a common truth

When employees with varying backgrounds look at design explorations, in-progress mockups or concept documents they’ll interpret what they’re seeing in all sorts of different ways. To get everyone on the same page and to prevent the wrong first impressions it’s critical to ensure people understand that what they’re seeing is not final design and might undergo several revisions.

The employees you’re bringing in to participate in the design are generally participating in addition to the tasks usually associated with their jobs. Therefore it’s natural that participants may come and go over the course of a long project, and this can lead to diverging ideas of what the design is at any given time, sometimes leading to unnecessary conflicts over what the design should be. To promote one common truth among participants, ensure that your product owner is involving everyone when communicating major design changes or milestones.


Enable your client to own the design

Technical specifics or other reasons might lead to the need to compromise on your design during implementation. People and departments may want to leave their mark. And design changes can also happen unintentionally — maybe something gets lost in translation from the concept document, or maybe the front-end coding just isn’t up to par.

For these reasons it’s vital that the client-end product owner is involved in the design enough to be attached to it. You should make sure they’re familiar with the methods you’ve used to reach your design conclusions — e.g. user testing, user profiles, analytics — as well as with all of the ideas you’ve rejected (and why). This way they’ll be able to choose the right compromises, should the need arise.

Your goal should be to gradually ease the product owner into your role in the project.

Collaborating on design directly with the client-end product owner will give them a sense of control and ownership while converting them from a potential critic into an advocate of your design and methodology.

You should strive towards having the product owner be the client company’s main point of contact for the project as early on as possible instead of yourself — having them explain the reasoning and intent behind the project will go a long way towards getting them to truly take ownership. At the same time the rest of the organization will be hearing about the design and goals from someone from within rather than someone from outside the organization.

If your client feels they own the design and underlying business goals, they’ll be in a better position to protect the design from changes or compromises that jeopardize its success. Ultimately, your goal should be to gradually ease the product owner into your role in the project.


Thanks to Mikko Jäppinen, Esa Rauhala and the rest of Palmu.