As a designer, your job is to understand your client’s needs. Listening to what they tell you is a good place to start, but it doesn’t end there. You gain much more insight by asking the right questions. Of course, it also helps to ask the right people and ask in the right way.
It’s a designer’s job to ask good questions
You want to do your best work and meet your client’s needs, so playing an active role in the conversation is vital. To extract the most information you can from your client, you must ask questions. Lots of questions. Think of it like playing detective, gathering clues and working to understand the players in the game.
“As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback.”
They are looking to you as the professional to not only listen to their needs, but to also be able to identify and understand their unexpressed needs.
It is not the client’s job to know exactly what their logo should be or how their website should function. That’s your job. They are coming to you to share ideas, to express concerns, likes, and dislikes. They are looking to you to help guide them to a solution.
First, understand the end users’ needs
It’s pretty likely that your client isn’t the main user of the website or product you are designing. Even if they are amazing at articulating exactly their tastes and preferences, it’s beside the point because they are not the target audience.
If you are fortunate enough to be on a project that dedicates resources to user research, familiarize yourself with its findings. If you do not have access to this information, ask a few questions about who the end user is and what their needs are to better understand the target audience you are actually designing for:
Who exactly do you anticipate will be using this website?
What problem is this website solving for them? Or
What will they accomplish by using this website?
What are their pain points?
Once you establish who the end user is, try to phrase your upcoming questions in a way that encourages the client to see through the eyes of the end user, not their own. User experience consultant and writer Paul Boag simplifies this on 24ways.org: “A client’s natural inclination will be to give you his personal opinion on the design. This is reinforced because you ask them what they think of the design. Instead ask them what their users will think of the design.”
Make sure you are asking the right people
The kickoff meeting is a great place to ask questions because, more than likely, the right people will be in the room.
If you have any control over who is required to attend, make sure the meeting includes everyone who has decision-making power, is assumed to have power, or is an opinion leader inside the organization.
I find that a lot gets lost in translation when a question filters up three levels of management and then trickles back down to you. When you hear information from the source, you get the original version and you also have the chance to ask for more clarity.
If you are not sure who the key players are, here are a few preparatory questions you can ask to get that information:
Who initiated this project?
Who will have the final decision with this project?
Who has the ability to cancel or postpone this project?
Read between the lines
In one person’s mind, “add more pictures” could mean a photo gallery of thumbnails at the bottom on the page. Another person might imagine this as the giant background image that they saw on someone else site and they want exactly what that person has. And yet a third person is picturing replacing most of the text on the page with info graphics.
Here’s an example: you are working on a web design and the client doesn’t think there are enough images on the mock-up you provided. Ask:
What value will adding more images provide? For whom?
Are images available?
Does a photographer need to be hired?
If you find out their solution was to purchase stock photography, dig a little deeper.
Is stock photography genuine enough for their audience?
Will it convey the value they were hoping for?
If a visitor to the website found out it was stock photography, would that affect their perception of the company?
These are likely questions they have not yet thought through. By asking these questions, you are helping the client see the bigger picture and preserve the value of the brand or message.
Try generic questions
If you’re not sure what the right question is, you can keep it really simple by using one of the following go-to phrases:
Could you elaborate?
Would you describe that for me?
What does that look like to you?
Make sure you are clear and concise. Do not muddy up your question with “ummm,” “er,” “like,” “whatever,” or “you know.” A clear question has a better chance of getting a clear answer.
You’re going to annoy someone
Truth is, it is possible that some people may get annoyed with the questions. Don’t let this deter you. It isn’t personal. You have a job to do and clues you need to gather. Explain why it is necessary that you truly understand the problem you are all here to solve together, and explain that in the long run it will likely save a lot of time. Thank them for their understanding and cooperation (even if they are being quite the opposite of cooperative).
If a client appears frustrated or annoyed that you are asking so many questions, it may be because they thought they had it all figured out. You just made them realize that they haven’t even begun to figure it out.
What was supposed to be a “quick” web design has become a bigger project, one that requires real thought and effort. They may feel frustrated that it won’t be the quick fix they initially expected. That’s not your fault! You’re doing the client a favor in the long run by ensuring that all parties are on the same page and making the best decisions together.
READ THE ROOM
If your client comes across as agitated by speaking more loudly, constantly interrupting, or suddenly becoming very short with responses, try to assess how you are coming off in this meeting. Are you talking more loudly or interrupting? Do you think he feels like his answers are being heard?
In that scenario, taking a more laid-back approach by leaning back in your chair a little, speaking somewhat more slowly and softly, and relaxing your face may help the meeting move in a more productive direction.
You need your clients to be engaged to get the most information. If they are not making eye contact, not participating in the conversation, or are busy on their phones, they may not be engaged.
By simply pausing and allowing silence, you may be able reengage the client. Or test their engagement by asking a couple of questions:
Are we discussing what you had hoped we would?
Is there anything we haven’t covered that you hoped we would?
TAKE A BREAK
Stepping away for a few minutes can clear the mind and calm the nerves.
A five-minute break will keep your client engaged by allowing them to check their emails, text, and get a few seconds of relief from their FOMO. Use this time to assess the situation and formulate your next questions.
Don’t give the impression that you are trying to prove them wrong; this isn’t a pissing contest. Approach the conversation with genuine curiosity and a lot of empathy. You are both working toward the same goals here.
When you ask a question, really take time to listen to the response.
Do not interrupt.
Be supportive as they give their answers and thank them for giving you the additional information.
Don’t be afraid to use an awkward silence to your benefit. Chances are the client feels awkward, too, and will start talking, giving you even more information.
Your work reflects your level of understanding
Until we have the ability to project images with our minds (why don’t we have this yet?), or unless your client is an amazing sketch artist, asking questions and piecing the clues together is our most effective tool to understand their expectations, and help them see the bigger picture along the way.
If you leave the room without asking any questions, there is no way you can really understand what is being asked of you. You might annoy someone along the way, but your work will have so much more meaning and, in the end, your clients and their end users will see the added value in your work.