I have a confession to make: When I first set up shop as a freelance web designer, I hated receiving feedback. It felt like clients were interfering with the perfection I had created. “They hired me to tell them what to do, and now they won’t listen,” I fumed.
As I got older and founded Cantilever, a web design and development studio, I realized something:
Nobody can improve your work like a client can.
While good design is governed by principles and taste that clients rarely possess, the client’s gut instincts are just as important to delivering good outcomes.
Acknowledging the power of this partnership, I started to think of Cantilever’s client relationships differently. Instead of seeing us as sage outsiders, I now see us as extensions of the client themselves.
When we design for others, we become their proxy. We are not acting for the client, but instead acting as them. We give them superpowers.
If you absorb this concept it will transform the way you look at service businesses. With this model, when you go to a restaurant, it’s as if you yourself have become an amazing cook — temporarily of course, and with the bonus of a professional kitchen. When a mechanic repairs your car, the outcome is as if you yourself were trained to do the work. In the wonderful book Badass: Making Users Awesome, author Kathy Sierra explains:
It’s not about our product, our company, our brand. It’s not about how the user feels about us. It’s about how the user feels about [themself], in the context of whatever it is our product, service, cause helps [them] do and be.
Designers lend clients the superpower of exceptional visual communication and domain knowledge. We are like an avatar, amplifying and refining the client’s vision to maximize its end effect.
We don’t design: We allow the client to design through us.
Yet we never compromise on quality or innovation. As the exterior partner of this hybrid team, our role is to filter and translate unrefined instincts into effective and considered visual solutions. Both parties bring sui generis knowledge, instincts, and experiences. The art of designing for others is maximizing the output of these collective resources.
Once we started learning this lesson at Cantilever, we became more collaborative. First, we dropped the pretense that client feedback is an inconvenience. There is no loss in establishing what the client thinks. If it is misguided, that’s fine — at least you know what myths to bust. And if it’s useful, you’ve struck gold. This attitude has decreased the frequency of emergency changes right before launch. Since clients feel comfortable speaking up earlier, we are able to address problems much sooner.
All human beings need to feel heard. When you provide an open environment for clients to voice their concerns, and you react with grace and respect, you will find them trusting you more. Ego battles are ones of attrition. The simple statement “that makes sense” goes a long way. When they know you’ve taken them seriously, they’re a lot more likely to follow your advice, even if it conflicts with their initial view.
Clients are afraid that if they don’t deliver the right feedback, the project can’t possibly turn out correctly. If you shut them down, they should rightly worry that their influence and knowledge has been wasted. If you obey their every request, they should worry that you’re not doing enough to make their project better.
Previously, we at Cantilever asked clients to avoid the terms “I like this” or “I dislike this” during client presentations. The way we saw it, personal preferences had little value to how a site should look.
We have abandoned that mentality. While it is important to identify when feedback is just noise, we now understand that personal preference matters in two powerful ways:
- The client is a part of the organization we are designing for. Organizations tend to attract and sell to people with similar mindsets, so it is often likely that the audience will react similarly to the client. Even if a given design direction is theoretically superior, an innate aversion from our target audience is hard to overcome. For example, people who love Lord of the Rings are likely to share some common taste, which is worth considering.
- The client’s own preferences are malleable and have been modified by the psychology of the organization. Their preferences are a window to the soul of the firm.
Once we became more collaborative, the quality of client feedback we received improved. We found that when clients spoke from the heart, we produced stronger design work. Explicit requests are less helpful, but if we can understand the underlying emotional reason behind such requests, we can usually divine superior solutions with our unique perspective and expertise.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman writes about the brain as a fusion of two parts. The first, System One, governs emotion and intuition — the “gut”. System Two, meanwhile, controls logical thought and consciousness. System One is fast and unvarnished. System Two is slow and wise.
In the fused hive mind that we create with our clients, we act as System Two. We monitor the outside world and how the client is to be perceived. We control the manner of outbound communication and ensure that the client is clear and compelling. They cede their agency for these things to us.
But we cannot replace them as System One. Clients tend to intuitively know when something is right or wrong. Sometimes their mental signals are calibrated incorrectly, based on noisy input from past experiences. In those cases, our job is to discern the effects of that noise and help them ‘reset’ so they can play their pivotal role.
The secret to delivering great design feedback is to trust and vocalize one’s gut reactions without overriding the designer’s expertise.
When we show design work to clients, we tell them that we take a collaborative approach and that we rely on their emotional, intuitive reactions to refine the design. We ask them first to identify problems (but not solutions). Identifying an issue is a perfect task for System One. Solving it rationally is best left to System Two. We ask…
- What do you feel when you initially see the page? (Don’t think about it.)
- What qualities about your brand come through for you? Which feel absent?
- Who could you see enjoying this design? Hating it?
- What feels comfortable about the page? Challenging?
- Do you have any questions? Is there anything confusing or off-putting about the page to you?
We are looking for how people feel, and how things seem. We want guesses, not full logical statements. Our revisions are aligned to these needs, not to specific solutions the client poses. When we show the work again, we gauge how their emotional responses have shifted.
Of course, we push back. But we always listen. If you are a client working with a design team, make sure that they are ready to truly hear you. Give them permission to disagree. Assert that you don’t expect your every word to become a change on the site. Ask the team to feel your fast feelings, and make a slow, smart decision about what to do next. Your relationship — and the resulting work — will never be stronger.