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8 Ways to Establish and Maintain a Successful Client-Designer Relationship

I’ve been working as a product designer for a while, met dozens of clients and learned a lot. One of the things that I came to understand during the process is that clients and designers sometimes suffer from communication problems, because they have misunderstood their roles. As a consequence, projects cost more than expected, take more time, and their quality is inferior. There is a way to avoid it, though! Read on and learn how to establish and maintain an effective client-designer relationship that will translate into your product’s success.

1. Learn that design is fundamentally about solving problems  

Many people think that design is only about making things visually appealing. Wrong. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The visual is the first layer, and the most obvious one. You can see it with your naked eye – it is superficial. That’s why the myth about making things visually appealing exists. This myth is very dangerous, because it leads to the “move it two pixels to the left” attitude. What people don’t see is the process underneath. The process of solving problems that they didn’t realise were being solved. To address a problem, you need to understand it first. To be able to understand it you have to define it first. These are all tasks of a designer, and at this stage there are usually no beautiful pictures involved, just an enormous amount of time spent on conceptual thinking.

2. Know that designing the obvious solution is hard and time-consuming

You are discussing long hours with a designer, you are waiting long days or even weeks for the results of their work, and what they show you is a single form. You’re shocked. But you shouldn’t be. The most important part is to come up with solutions that will be invisible and transparent for the end user.

“Good design is as little design as possible”. Dieter Rams

We tend to notice only the bad design as it disturbs us. Good design is invisible – you don’t see the problem that has already been solved. When you drive a car, you are not aware of the thousands of challenges that the generations of inventors, engineers and designers overcame one by one. And this is what design is about – making your life easier, because you won’t need to deal with problems in the end product. We don’t want the user to notice the designed elements but to perceive that product as useful.

3. Understand that the design is not a beautiful picture but a system  

A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate whole. Wikipedia

In a system, all parts are connected – they work with each other and in a certain context. Keep in mind that changing one part will influence how the other parts work. Whenever a change is introduced, its context must also be taken into account. Every element, button, section, widget must be analysed for user roles, technical requirements, input methods, specific devices, etc. Next time you want to change an element, please consider that it is not only “what you see”, but also what is underneath.

4. Treat your designer as your business partner

Imagine that you have a business partner and not only do they have a great understanding of your product, but great problem-solving and design skills! Amazing, right? Guess what – you can achieve the same by applying to the designer you hired the same approach as to your business partners. A designer is here to help you and your product grow.

“If a designer has no say about the future shape of the product and its business model, we can’t expect they will be able to really help in the development of the business itself.” Maciej Lipiec

5. Always communicate your business goals and intentions

The more a designer knows about the product, your intentions, your goals, your obstacles and your fears, the better they can address them. (Read more: How to Talk to Designers About Design: Tips for Non-Designers). The worst thing you can demand from a designer is to make a blind guess about your needs. Imagine you are an archer and you have to shoot a target 30 feet away. Seems straightforward, right? Now imagine that you are surrounded by a complete darkness and you don’t know where the target is – seems harder now, doesn’t it? The designer is the archer, the user’s needs are the target and the arrow is the solution. Don’t force the designer to take a blind shot. Treat the designer as a teammate, or a business partner. It’s the only way to reach your target.

6. Trust your designer

If you don’t trust your designer, then they will spend most of their time trying to convince you that they make right decisions. A designer will always follow their best knowledge and intuition to serve the goals of your users. By dint of their education and experience, a designer will know more guidelines, benchmarks, more patterns, more case studies of good implementations, so the range of possible solutions in a designer’s head is wider than in the typical client. A designer is here to share their experience and expertise. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of it.

7. Ask “why?”

In the design process, asking the right questions is crucial if you want to get the right answers. The question investigates options that you might not have considered before. Why do we want this feature? What if the user will want to close that modal? What if the user will make a mistake?

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The questions help both parties understand the solutions. Albert Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems on the level that we made them. The questions help us to get to a higher level of thinking.

For many client’s requests, the designer will ask  “why?” They are asking this question all the time not because they hate your idea but because there can be multiple reasons behind a particular request.

Imagine that you ask a designer: "Can we try some other options for these?” The designer needs to know the reason for the request to do their job properly:

– "we think that the user will not understand the buttons",

– "we think that the user will not notice the buttons",

– "I was trying to use this form and I didn't know what these buttons do",

– "they are ugly!”

By knowing the concerns (that designer might not even think about) it is easier for them to address them. Next time after you ask the designer to change the colour of a button ask yourself: "why?" and share the answer with the designer. Changing the colour of the button might not be the best solution. A designer will come up with their own solution and they should be able to defend all of their decisions so that the client can easily understand why they were made.

8. Think in terms of problems

Basically, think in terms of problems first (the designer is here for the solutions). You can also contribute to the solutions to a great extent, but please don’t exclude the designer from the process. You will then be able to think in terms of problem->solution, rather than let’s implement that (without specifying the problem). And yes, sometimes defining problems (challenges) is harder that coming up with the solutions.

Summing up

Design is a rational and time-consuming process which involves massive amounts of thinking and effort, as it depends on the characteristics of the product, your business goals and your target group. What you see is only the final phase of it, presented visually. Don’t let the misconceptions about design and wrong attitudes have a detrimental effect on your project. By understanding the role of the designers, the real essence of their job and the challenges they have to face, and by trusting them, you will increase your own chances for success.

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