Tl;dr version

Applying empathy to client presentations

The below article is an adaptation of a talk I gave to the students of the Design Clinic at the School of Information, University of Michigan.

Through my years as a human-centered designer at Michigan Medicine, I have had the chance to both present design services to clients and also receive them from other designers. In my view, the role of a designer encompasses at least fifty percent communication, and client interactions like these are pivotal moments for both designers and their clients.

So, what is at the core of good client presentations? It’s the same thing that is at the core of good design — empathy. Empathy is what helps people-focussed designers come up with solutions that meet their users needs.

People-centered designers are adept at walking in their users shoes, understanding them as people, and coming up with solutions that meet their needs. However, we don’t always think about our clients in the same vein. We should.

We design our presentations for our clients, just as we design our products for our users. Just as we spend time knowing about our users, good client presentations need us to learn more about our clients. To know how best to communicate with our clients, we need to know who they are as people. What does their daily life look like? What are their motivations? Are they visual or are they textual? What is the context in which they live?

Some clients are visual and a team room like this really helps them be engaged
Some clients are visual and a team room like this really helps them be engaged
Some clients do better with a physical poster as compared to a Powerpoint

Depending on what you learn, you can decide on what your client interactions should be like. Should they be structured reports or would your client be more engaged in the weeds — maybe walking the affinity wall with you or looking at a user research highlights reel? If your client is very busy, he might not have time to read your 80 page report, but might be able to glance your 5 slide powerpoint. My most impactful presentations have been when they are real and engage the client as a whole person. Posters, team rooms, workshops or activities all do this well.

I don’t think there is one way to ace client presentations but I find this 3-step process extremely helpful: 1. Empathize. 2. Prioritize. 3. Communicate.