Let’s Make It Pop! A Toolkit for Learning Client Design Language

Originally published at uxplanet.org and the Filament Blog. on May 1, 2017.

“We want something clean and fresh”
“Can it be more corporate?”
“It should really pop!’”
“I’m really just looking for simplicity”

Any of those sound familiar? If you’re a designer, I guarantee that at some point in your career you’ll have heard some of the comments above. In the early days of my design journey, that kind of feedback was met with stunned silence and an inner monologue of “what the hell does that even mean” followed by nodding and an emphatic “sure! we can do that”. I’d go back to my office, trying desperately to deliver more clean, corporate pop simplicity (clearly a new genre of music you should all be listening to right now). I was afraid to get clarification because I thought it made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing. Surely I knew how to make something look more corporate, or make it pop. If I didn’t, what kind of designer was I?

As the years went by, I got more comfortable with asking hard questions, and diving much deeper into the meaning behind the comments our clients made about design. Clients are smart, hard-working people, and they have great insight into their businesses that we don’t. What they don’t always have is the vocabulary to give effective design critique in the way we need so a project can be successful.

Both Daniel Burka and Jared M. Spool have recently written that everyone on your team is a designer, and I love that idea. In fact I’d take it a step further and say clients with a vested interest in creating compelling, pleasurable experiences for their customers are designers. The reality is, the vast majority of clients didn’t go to design school, or take a course entitled “fab feedback 101”, or even read anything loosely titled “working with design agencies”. At the very least, they learned the shit sandwich method of good-bad-good when giving feedback of any kind, but rarely are they well-versed in design critique, and they shouldn’t have to be. As designers, it’s our job to help them be the partner we know they can be, and at Filament we take that job seriously. Here’s how we help.

How to Set Feedback Expectations

We start by setting some context around the feedback process. Why do we give feedback? Is it so we can all feel good about putting our fingerprint on the project? Is it to show the other people in the room that we’re smarter than they are? Or maybe it’s a way to fulfill some unspoken criteria that validates the client/agency relationship (I have to say something or I’m not doing my job as the client, right?). Nope.

We help clients understand that giving feedback is about working together to widen our collective perspective — to find the best possible solution for the people who are actually going to be using what we’re making. And that, like most things in life, comes down to great communication.

“We expect feedback, but often designers don’t provide feedback expectations”

For all of you design school folks out there, you had weekly, sometimes gruelling critique sessions that thickened your skin and helped you learn the nuances of good feedback (or reduced you to tears and helped you learn how to weep silently in the bathroom, depending on your experience). Through those sessions you began to understand what your peers meant when they said “clean”, “quirky”, “corporate”, or “fun”, and how to deliver constructive feedback fuelled by research and rationale rather than opinion and subjectivity. We define great work as a solution to a real problem that has significant business impact, and makes users feel like geniuses. We need that kind of rapport with our clients for that kind of great work to materialize.

Over the past 15 years I’ve learned a lot about critique — how to deliver it, how to receive it, how to screw it up (big time), how to recover, how to ask the right questions, and how to educate the clients we work with. At Filament we take care in setting expectations with our clients so we can all get to an awesome solution without miscommunication or frustration. I don’t have all the answers (who does?) but including the client early and often in the design process, coupled with ways of interpreting their feedback has led to far more successful relationships, and ultimately, more great work. Here are a few tools and nuggets of wisdom we’ve collected over the years that have led to success.

Design Discovery

The Toronto Reference Library — just one of the many places we do design discovery research. Eyes away from screens FTW.

Most clients have a design vision for their project. Maybe it’s framed by their existing brand collateral, or maybe it’s framed by a gorgeous site or app they’ve recently seen. Either way, it’s important for us to know what a client considers “beautiful design” so we can work to ensure that they see that (and more) in our proposed design solution. From our perspective, we’re always looking for ways to push the limitations of our own capabilities, and make the next project more impactful than the last. To accomplish that, we’ve instituted a more intensive Design Discovery process that gets us away from our screens and into new environments we can draw inspiration from.

Design Discovery is where we experiment with new design techniques and ideas, collect inspiration, and get out of the office to explore relevant architecture, art installations, galleries, and public spaces. It’s an extension of our existing Discovery process, but rather than only conducting intensive UX research to uncover what users want, we’re now conducting much more purposeful UI research, slowly opening up possibilities around the design direction as the research unfolds.

This is a great time to get clients involved as well. They get an opportunity to lay all of their inspirations on the table, and we get an opportunity to understand why they gravitate towards certain styles. As the process moves forward, we can help them realize how their style vision may or may not align with the needs of their customers.

Why it Works

Through this initial discovery exercise, we begin to have really great discussions around design approach, and we start to learn how our clients speak when they talk about style. It’s also a great way to get them more ingrained in our process that focuses less on presentations and more on continuous iteration.

The Gut Test

A gut test collection on Dropmark.

At Filament, we’ve spent a lot of time tweaking our process. One of the biggest design improvements in recent memory is an exercise called the 20 Second Gut Test, originally created by Chris Cashdollar (yes, that’s his real name). For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, you present a series of pre-selected websites for twenty seconds each and ask clients to score them on a piece of paper (or app… coming soon.) from zero to five. A score of five is amazing and zero is OH GOD WHY. Once you’ve shown off every site, the scores are tallied, and you identify the best and worst three sites according to your stakeholder group. What follows is typically some excellent discussion around preferences that can help you understand how they communicate design feedback.

Why it works

In these Gut Test feedback sessions, we typically hear things like “I love how clean it is”, “It’s so bold”, or “It’s too swoopy” which was a personal favourite from a recent project. By diving a little deeper into the meaning behind those terms, we’ll start to associate design treatments with words our clients are using. In the case of “swoopy”, our client was referring to sites with excessive motion triggered by scroll position, rather than fluid, purposeful motion that was controlled by the user on hover or motion bound to scroll. So, now we know two things — what “swoopy” means to our client, and that her preference is to use motion as feedback for a purposeful user action. Got it. Win. We can work with that.

Style Tiles

In the early days, when a client hired us to do a project we’d always present three beautifully perfected design directions. We’d sign the contract, do our discovery and then lock ourselves away, toiling over three of the most magnificent home page designs we’ve ever conceived. We’d present them with all the magic that we thought clients wanted, like Mad Men, with a lot less smoking and way too many concepts.

Inevitably, between those three concepts, clients would point out pieces of each one they liked, and ask us to combine them. Palm, meet face.

“I really love the font from concept 1, the colour in concept 2, and the layout thingy from concept 3. Can we put those together?”

Well…. “no” we’d say. “Those are each their own design system” and it fell on deaf ears. And this went on for a year or two until we decided that we’d simply present one concept as our best foot forward. It was an improvement, but we were still spending 20–30 hours on a concept. Then came the Style Tile.

Originally introduced to us by Samantha Warren, the idea of the Style Tile has evolved for us over the years and taken on some additional characteristics, but at the base level, it’s a collection of elements designed with the context of the project in mind and informed by user research. It’s more detailed and contextual than a mood board, and less time consuming than a full comp. It includes type treatments, colours, imagery, user interface elements like forms and buttons, iconography, and a collection of key module mockups to give clients a sense of how all the unique pieces could be applied as a design system telling the story of their brand moving forward.

Why they work

The Style Tile opens up a deeper discussion on visual preferences, and gives us another great opportunity to refine our understanding of a client’s design language before we move ahead into execution on full pages. It also gives everyone an opportunity to iterate quickly and further engrain the client in our design process. For us, it’s a 8–10 hour investment, and when it’s presented it’s still very low risk. If a client hates a particular shade of grey, or type treatment, that’s cool. We’ll uncover why, and then move forward with quick iterations until we get to a place where everyone feels like we’ve nailed it. Doing it this way means we get buy-in on design far earlier than we would if we were waiting to do final comps, and allows for more frequent design checkpoints along the way. Since we’ve been doing these, we’ve yet to have a client shit all over the direction, or request that we go back to the drawing board. Big win.

It’s important to note that these Style Tiles are typically presented about a month into our process, after we’ve exposed our clients to our research process, the results of that research, and had informed discussions around why we design for users, and not stakeholders. All of those things help make this process even more seamless.

Everyone Speaks Design

Whether you believe it or not, everyone speaks design. We may not use the same words, or understand design in the same way, but everyone has the ability to evaluate whether a design works for them or not. Sometimes the language is ambiguous, and sometimes it’s based solely on subjective opinion, and that’s okay. It’s our job to deepen our client’s understanding of the role design plays, to broaden our own understanding of our client’s design language, and teach them how to deliver constructive feedback that’s focused on results, business strategy and user goals.

You’ve all heard about clients that “get it”. They’re easy to work with, they’re wonderfully collaborative, they give you space to do your best work, they give you all the monies, etc. We all want these clients, but the reality is that most clients don’t review design on a regular basis, or in some cases, at all. Clients are experts in their own industries, whether that’s marketing, fitness, data centres or hospitality. A deeper understanding of their design language can help get us on the same page and tap into each other’s expertise more quickly.

So, next time a client says “it’s too moody” or “I want it to be more punchy”, make sure you work hard, and use some of the methods above to figure out what the hell that means. It’ll do everyone a whole lot of good, and in the end, your work and your client relationship will be far better for it.

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