Designers: stop saying “yes”, start asking “why”

Summary: Clients don’t want you to do what they tell you — they want you to listen to what they say, then use an insight-driven design approach to give them what they really need.

Something I hear new UX designers say over and over when I dissect their designs, is “The client asked for this” or “It said so in the brief”.

This is a phenomenon you don’t just see among fledgling designers. It usually goes like this:

  • Designer meets with client.
  • Client asks for a specific solution— an app, a specific layout, to please “make it look like Apple “.
  • Designer nods and does what the client asks. No research insights, no talking to users, just following the client’s wishes.

It’s the wrong approach. Clients don’t want you to do what they tell you — they want you to listen to what they say and then give them what they really need.

The best designers understand the real problem

Imagine you’re remodeling your kitchen. You know you frequently spill drinks. So you tell the design firm that you’d like to have the countertop at a slight angle, so that the fluids roll in one direction. If the design firm just does what you say, you’ll be happy, because you got what you asked for.

Clients don’t want you to do what they tell you — they want you to listen to what they say, and then give them what they really need.

But what if the design firm comes back and says “We’ve done some research into different ways of solving this problem you have of fluids spilling. We’ve found that the best solution is to use a custom-made countertop, with grooves that collect fluid. That way, you’re protected from spills, and you won’t have to struggle with eggs rolling off of your countertop because it’s at an angle”.

If they do that, you’ll not just be happy, you’ll be ecstatic, because the design firm understood what your problem was, and with the expertise they have in their field, were able to give you a solution that was better than what you could have come up with yourself.

That’s the job of designers — to understand what the real problem is, and solve for that. That’s the type of thinking that separates the $20/hour hired-gun-designer, fighting for scraps on, from the designer who is a trusted advisor to his clients and can charge much higher rates.

Clients aren’t experts at design — if they were, they wouldn’t need you!

Clients may even be intimidated by you, because in laypeople’s circles, “design” still is associated with “magic” or “art”, rather than “craft”. That lack of understanding may make them feel insecure, and they may try to overcompensate by throwing out buzzwords like “flat design” or “responsive web app” for what they think they need. Rather than rolling your eyes internally at their incorrect use of terminology, it’s your job to translate what they are saying into design solutions that make sense for their real problem.

Even if you’re working with bad clients, who have a mindset of “I paid for this so I want what I’m asking for”, it’s your duty to lay out your thought process and recommend the solution you know makes the most sense.

Early on in my career, when I wasn’t very good at articulating this dynamic, I still understood it intuitively. I would listen to what they asked me to do, politely nod, leave the meeting, create the solution in the way I knew made the most sense, show it to the client, talk about why I did what I did, and they would almost always say “great, that’s exactly what I wanted”.

Even if you’re working with bad clients, who have a mindset of “I paid for this so I want what I’m asking for”, it’s your duty as a designer to lay out your thought process and make a recommendation for the solution that you think makes the most sense — based on research and solid design process. In my experience, clients just want the solution that solves their business problem in the best way. If you can explain why what you’re recommending will make/save them more money, 8 out of 10 times they will agree with it.

If you can explain why what you’re recommending will make/save them more money, 8 out of 10 times the client will agree with your proposal.

Two examples of how to do this in practice

Example 1: a site redesign

Early in my career, I had a client that really wanted a site that looked just like Apple’s. The problem is, the client didn’t have an enticing physical product — they were in the eProcurement sector and dealt almost exclusively with tabular data. If you look at what Apple does with their site, most of their sales pages are 75% product photos and 25% animations and text.

I explained this to the client, and I translated what the client asked for into what they really needed: a site that had the minimum amount of elements required to get the point across, a focus on strong typography and hierarchy, and a muted color palette we created together. This is what we ended up with:

Not quite Apple, but the users loved it. What’s also cool about this design from 2009 is that it’s aged remarkably well, because it focuses on the fundamentals of what makes designs usable.

Example 2: Rejecting a client outright

More recently, there was a client in Silicon Valley who asked me to sync up with them and please brainstorm some ideas for products we could create for users in India, Indonesia, Brazil and China. The only source of information the client gave me was two 50-page presentations with generic statistics on technology usage, and 4 professionally produced 6-minute videos, documenting the life of one user from each country.

In this case, I told the client that I can’t solve this problem. More than that, the company as a whole can’t expect to solve this problem in any meaningful way, without immersing themselves deeply in the culture of these countries. These are cultures that are literally foreign to them — and they think they can solve those cultures’ problems from their offices in California, in between foosball sessions and kombucha breaks?

I recommended that they either:

  1. Send an interdisciplinary team of people to those countries for at least two years and have them document their experiences along the way, or
  2. Buy the top 5 product design & research firms in those countries and turn them into satellite offices.

The best we could do from our offices in Mountain View was look at general trends of industrialization and see if we can extrapolate anything from the way previously industrialized countries progressed through technology adaptation and wealth creation.

It’s okay to push back

So the next time a client tells you “I need an app”, don’t say “Yes, what kind of app and by when”. Ask, “why do you need an app?” or “Do you think an app would help your business grow?” The goal for a business that’s hiring you is always to either make more money, or save money, thanks to the solution you created for them. That’s hard for a lot of designers to understand, because we’re so tied up in our skill-set, and also because we like to make money! But if you focus on the client’s business needs, and work hard to understand the real problem underlying their request, it gives a much larger return in the long run.

Give them what they really need, not necessarily what they are asking for.

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