The Mechanics of Bringing Clients Along the Design Process

I’m Katherine. I’m a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellow (DTI) for the City of Austin, using human-centered research and design, rapid prototyping, and field testing to positively impact city services. You can find our project website here. In this post, I’ll share how we’re engaging with our clients, Austin Resource Recovery, throughout the entire project.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — Anonymous

This proverb can apply to many things, but it is especially applicable when thinking about client relationships. From my experience, bringing the client along in the design process is extremely important for the success and longevity of the project. The main reason is to instill, in the client, a sense of ownership for the work. But this is not an easy task and can slow down the process. We’re often collaborating with clients who are not familiar with the way we work, so it takes time and effort to build knowledge and trust. Slowing the pace of the project to include the client might feel like a big sacrifice — since you’re giving up valuable design/research/development time — but it is well worth it in the grand scheme of things. In this post, I want to share some client relationship mechanics that have worked for us as we collaborated with Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) on a research and design project. You can learn more about the project here.

The ARR team is really open to trying new things and has a strong desire to experiment with us. This is a necessary quality for a successful collaboration. So with that sturdy foundation, we set out to perfect team mechanics to ensure that we maintain a good relationship.

With this in mind, I’ll set some context about our team set-up and mechanics, and then go into what has worked and not worked for us in executing on these mechanics.

Conceptual model of our team set-up and project mechanics.

This is how our team is set-up:

  • Core fellows team: our team is made up of 4 Fellows who have expertise in design, research, data analysis, content strategy, and project management. This team is responsible for running the project.
  • Main project owner: this person is the main decision maker from ARR.
  • Main project liaison: this person is the main point of contact and champion from ARR.
  • Advisory team: 15 members consisting of both internal ARR staff and external representatives from partner organizations. All advisory team members are subject matter experts and well connected to information and resources.

We employed these mechanics in our day to day project:

  • Embedded client liaison: this representative from ARR works with our design team 80% of their work time; this project is their primary focus.
  • Weekly check-ins: a 30–60 min meeting with project owner.
  • Sprint reviews: a 60–90 min meeting with the advisory team every other week, including project owner and liaison.
  • Advisory team rotations: 1–3 day rotations where advisory team members shadow and work with the design team. Advisory members can sign up for multiple rotations if they want to experience different parts of the process.

We have been integrating these mechanics for the past seven months and continue to iterate and refine our approach to make it work for our partnership. Here are some of the key learnings we want to pass on to you.


Touring a recycling facility with our liaison.

How to embed a liaison into your team:

  • Design knowledge preferred. Request a liaison who has some basic knowledge of your process or is interested in learning. Our liaison has expertise in architecture and qualitative research.
  • Invite into the inner circle. Treat your liaison as a member of your core team. Our liaison is in all of our planning meetings. Rain or shine, he is with us in the field doing research and testing. He is with us when we stumble through prototype iterations. He’s there to witness and participate in great team collaboration and heated conversations.
  • Some days aren’t obvious. Sometimes our liaison didn’t have an obvious part in the day’s tasks. Though we felt bad for not optimizing his time, we learned to be okay with that. He had plenty of other stuff to do (the other 20% of his job). When possible, he continued to sit in our space so that he can stay connected to the work.

Example of work-in-progress photo we send to the project owner during weekly check-in.

Optimize weekly check-ins with project owner:

  • Be visual. We always include photos or links to our work, even if it is rough and half-baked. Being able to show (not just tell) our progress has been extremely important, especially when meeting over the phone. It gives the project owner something concrete to respond to and allows her to give better feedback.
  • Meet often, at least weekly. By meeting more often, the meeting is more of a feedback session rather than a update session. The project owner can spot our struggles, recognize where we haven’t made much progress, or redirect us when we are headed in the wrong direction. The weekly meeting gives her confidence that we are on the right track.
  • No need to over prepare. We do not build slides or do anything formal. Emailing over some photos is often enough to walk her through the progress. Allocating our time to project work instead of building a presentation is preferred by everybody.
  • This is gut check time. Use this opportunity to review big decisions the team made during the week. A blessing from the project owner means we can move full steam ahead. We can also quickly address any questions or concerns from the project owner to avoid any miscommunication or progress in the wrong direction.

Sprint review meeting with advisory team at ARR offices.

Make the most of bi-weekly sprint reviews: :

  • Meet in person. We make that easier by meeting in the client’s space instead of our own office. This also give us the chance to learn about their environment and build empathy for their work styles and needs.
  • Treat it like show and tell. Whether that be photos from the field or the physical prototypes, we find by bringing visual artifacts, we can facilitate a more interactive meeting. The visuals also turn ideas into sometime tangible, something that everybody can rally around and nothing is a secret or a surprise.
  • Attendance fatigue is normal. Attendance numbers are lower than when we started these sprint reviews. We tried different tactics, like shortening the meeting time, but results were the same. However, we found that with a smaller group, we are able to have rich feedback sessions since people have more room to contribute.

Working through project prototypes with rotation member and liaison.

Make rotations more human-centered:

  • Build in time for explanation. Since most advisory team members are not familiar with the design and research process, we pause and build in education time. Usually we start with a progress update since the last sprint review, then move into what we’re doing that day, how we’re doing it, and a little bit of theory to help them understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. Building in this time for explanation yields better rotation contributors.
  • Be positive and encouraging. As a teacher or a coach, we have a natural tendency to correct people. But this rotation is not about perfection, it is about exposure. We refrain from providing too many corrections and instead allow the rotation member to experience the design process on their own terms.

“Go slow to go fast.” This is one of the mantras of the Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows program and this is the mentality we take as we go through these mechanics. On weeks when we have rotations, sprint reviews, and weekly check-ins, that can add up to 8–10 hours of work. But we know it is worth the effort. In fact, it has already proven its value even though we haven’t finished the project. Since the project owner has been checking in with us weekly, she sees the challenges we’re running into during the design phase and is able to help us re-scope work so we can be successful. Through rotations and sprint reviews, we’ve built strong relationships with the advisory team members and they have never once hesitated when we needed referrals, advice, or just an extra pair of hands.. By letting them into our world, by sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly, we’ve built not only a strong client relationship, but friends who want to help us succeed.

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