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And the Customers Lived Happily Ever After

Spend enough time attending design conferences and you’ll start to fill up on client “horror stories.” We’re all familiar with this genre, which exists to some extent in every industry. It consists of tales peppered with the ridiculous things clients do or say. The gripe: Why are clients so hell-bent on spoiling our otherwise pristine design process?

Any design story starring the designer (with the client nowhere to be scene) is bound to be horrific.

In the typical design horror story, the designer is the protagonist and the client is the villain. (Cue: bloodcurdling scream.)

Obviously, these stories are surface treatments, and the characters in them are one-dimensional. Dig deeper and you’ll find complexity and a few common characteristics: unclear expectations, poor communication, lack of collaboration, and sporadic involvement.

I’ve seen it from both sides. I spent the last several years working “in-house,” as part of an internal product design team. Of course we were accountable to various stakeholders throughout the company, but we didn’t work with clients. The advantage to this approach is that over time we developed a deep understanding of the business, a high degree of domain knowledge, and benefited from frequent customer interaction. This, paired with our design expertise, allowed us to quickly identify and execute improvements to our products.

The drawback was that over time, it became more difficult to remain objective, and we lost the advantage of having an outsider’s perspective. Also missing was the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” — to take ideas from one domain and apply them to another — a key driver of innovation.

Returning to the world of consulting, you might think the advantages and disadvantages would now be reversed, and to an extent that’s true. But there’s a potent weapon that is often underleveraged: client engagement.

We’re All Experts

Some clients expect to play a bit part. They’ve got plenty of other things to do, and they’re relying on the design team to come up with a brilliant product experience. After all, that’s our job, and we’re the experts, right?

To some extent, that’s right — the client shouldn’t be expected to lead the design process. But what these busy clients and the snarky designers spreading horror stories don’t realize is that the best results come from close collaboration between both parties. At Bresslergroup, clients are considered key members of the design team, because their active involvement throughout the design process is so crucial.

In happier design stories, clients share top billing.

With proper engagement, the design consultant reaps the benefits enjoyed by the in-house designer — the client’s understanding of the business, robust domain knowledge, and customer interactions. All of this paired with objectivity, fresh perspective, and experience with a range of domains is a recipe for innovation, and for making great products. That’s what we all want, so how do we get it?

A Model for Client Engagement

No one should expect a client to “hit the mark” without proper stage direction. A client may not have much knowledge of the design process and certainly not the consultants’ particular flavor so they’ll need some help getting ramped up. A good design team will explain the overall process, and set expectations clearly. Then, they’ll likely ask all kinds of questions about the client’s business, domain, and customers.

Like water seeking the lowest point, knowledge will begin to seep into gaps until everyone shares a common baseline understanding. With good communication, this will continue to happen throughout the project, and the client and designers will traverse the following story arc together:

1. Finding the right problem to solve

The first important collaborative effort for the design team is discovering the right problem to solve. Odds are the client already has a good idea of the problem and may even have a solution in mind for the designers to execute. This may end up being the best solution, or it may not be. More fundamentally, the problem presented may not be the right one. Making sure the team is focused on the right problem is a prerequisite to designing the best solution.


It takes two.

Let me give you an example. A client came to us looking to solve some usability issues with their mobile app. Customers were complaining, and the general assumption was that the app needed to be more intuitive for their customers. But after some initial analysis and speaking to some users, it became clear that the workflows were generally easy to follow, and it was the performance of the app that was the main issue. It was slow, unstable, and would sometimes behave erratically. The user needed more feedback from the system, but only because things were taking too long. This wasn’t the fault of the design, but of the implementation and quality control.

This is why at the outset designers need clients to freely share information, rather than simply presenting assumed problems and solutions. Don’t just explain your conclusions; describe how you came to them. Sharing these back stories positions designers and clients as partners in an exploration, and invites designers to spend more time in discovery mode.


Clients should be fully engaged throughout the design process (as opposed to the typical, bumpier paradigm).

2. Agreeing on common (measurable) goals

Once the team settles on the correct problem to be solved — but before trying to find solutions — the next step is to define the goals and how they will be measured. This isn’t always easy, and if no baselines exist there may be additional work involved to establish them. When you’re dealing with an existing product, gathering data on the specific flows and behaviors you’d like to improve is a good place to start — if that data isn’t available already.

Outline your key performance indicators, and decide what success looks like. The best results come from starting a project with a shared understanding of what the right problem is, paired with clear, measureable goals. When the team can iterate on solutions to solve this problem and measure results, success follows.

3. Maintaining shared understanding

Once everyone’s collaborated to find the right problem and determined how to measure success, the process can start to break down. Clients assume it’s time for the designers to go off and “do their design thing,” leaving them free to get on with life and reduce their own involvement. Don’t do it!

If the clients do walk away — and stop communicating frequently — the shared understanding the team has built will quickly unravel. The designers will ideate, start to think about things differently, and develop new ideas and assumptions as they move forward. The client may also start to think differently.


A “lossy” process resembles lossy file compression — valuable data, focus, and quality are lost.

The more time elapses, the wider the gap of understanding grows. Then when you come back together, it becomes difficult to return to the utopian state of understanding you shared at the outset. I describe this as a “lossy” process; it devolves into a game of Whisper Down the Lane where details get lost, intentions become murky, and both parties are forced to make decisions with incomplete information. More time is spent crafting detailed deliverables, which are often reviewed once and never again.

Repeat this process a few times, and it ends up frustrating all parties, and can negatively affect the outcome. To avoid this, client and designers need to foster frequent communication.

4. Communicating effectively and often

Colocation is a popular concept among agile designers and developers, and for good reason. When teams are embedded together, face-to-face communication happens constantly, and effortless shared understanding is the result. Developers don’t need detailed documentation because they know what the designers know. I’m not suggesting clients hunker down at a desk with designers for the duration of the project, but the more frequent the communication the better.

The qualitative aspects of communication shouldn’t be ignored either: face-to-face is best, followed by video chat or phone conversations, with emails and documentation being the least efficient. Have you ever gotten an email or text message and had difficulty understanding it completely, or deciphering the tone or intent? Ever reviewed a deliverable that you felt warranted further explanation?

Communication is an improvisational exercise where both parties strive to reach a shared understanding; being in the same room with someone is the most effective way to do it.

My advice to clients: Find ways to interact in person with designers throughout the process. Agree upon points in the process where this is most crucial, particularly early on. And don’t limit this interaction to hour-long meetings. Observe ethnographic research and user testing. Participate in analysis and ideation. Lend your specific domain expertise to these areas, and absorb design thinking as it happens. When you can’t be there, be sure that frequent check-ins are in place.

Keep other lines of communication open as well — instant messaging, email, etc. Important questions arise and information is needed all the time. If communication is difficult, assumptions are made, especially if the question seems of small importance. Those small questions and assumptions add up, and things can get off track. This is when surprises happen. Avoiding surprises — by maintaining a shared understanding — is the ideal way to move through the design process together.

inline_end_credits4Living Happily Ever After

The most pitiable character in any of these “client horror stories” is unfortunately the end user. Simply put, delightful product experiences will never see the light of day unless everyone on the team is working together toward that end. The design process should never devolve into a tug-of-war between client and designer; but rather a free-flowing exchange of information where everyone does his or her part, working toward the same goal. That’s how success stories are written, and that’s how great products come to be.