Simple ways to get clients and stakeholders to approve your designs

“Client: Shouldn’t these additional tasks have all been covered at the start of the project? 

Me: Yes, if you had told us about them. You gave us many new tasks during the project and we dealt with each one as they came. We had to work weekends.

Client: But how did you not know about them?

Me: How did we not know about tasks that you did not tell us about?

Client: I thought you were professionals.”

Source: clients from hell

Designers love making fun of bad clients and stakeholders. There are definitely some very unreasonable, disrespectful people out there — especially in those first two years of your career, when you’re just starting out and you’re working with businesses that have very small budgets and no exposure to what it’s like to work with designers.

But as a professional, it’s important to take responsibility for your part in managing a client relationship. The better you are at your managing clients, the less problems you’ll have, even with the more unreasonable clients.

Why designers struggle with this

A lot of designers don’t want to deal with the “people part”. They just want to show off their work and have it be signed off on. They communicate through their work, not with their words. But unfortunately, that’s not how the rest of the world works. Most people in the world communicate with words. For many people, words are the only output they have in their profession. If you want to reach those people, you need to learn to speak their language.

As a design professional, it’s important to take responsibility for your part in managing a client relationship. The better you are at your managing clients, the less problems you’ll have, even with the more unreasonable clients.

When I was younger, I dismissed those managers and clients that spent most of their time talking as people who “aren’t doing real work”. Us designers and engineers, WE were doing the real work. They weren’t doing anything. Why are they getting paid so much and why fo they keep getting placed in leadership positions?

Whenever I remember that time in my life, I feel ashamed to think that I was ever that foolish. Everything we’ve created in the last 10.000 years was built on words. An essay pinned to a wall disrupted the catholic church. Have you ever read a book that moved you emotionally? Words are one of the most powerful tools humans have to build consensus and connect with others.

Communicating well and being able to bring others along in your design process is the difference between being mediocre and being seen as a design leader.

Communication matters. Everything we’ve created in the last 10.000 years was built on words. Words are one of the most powerful tools humans have to build consensus and connect with others.

How do you do it?

Getting clients to listen to your feedback and to go with your design recommendations starts a long time before you show them any wireframes or mockups. Most laypeople still associate visual design — the pretty part — with “design” as a whole. But the best designers push visual design out for as long as possible, and get agreement on everything else first.

So if you’re in a client engagement, as you take them through the UX process, you make sure you…

Build up a storehouse of agreements and trust

After you’ve done your research and have a good idea of who you are designing for, you take those research insights, formulate goals and desired outcomes, and discuss your findings with the client to see if you are on the same page. If you are on the same page, that’s agreement #1.

If you want to go the extra mile, involve the client in the process of creating the customer personas. Once you’ve created them together, you have agreement #2.

If stakeholders have put their own time and energy into some of the early design work alongside you, they are much more likely to be an advocate of yours than if you are trying to play superstar designer and present your awesome finished results to them. By the way, the superstar designer approach only works if you already have a reputation as a superstar. And those superstars tend to be the most humble and grateful people, because they had to slug their way through tough client engagements just like everyone else.

After the research phase, the process varies depending on the complexity of the project. But say for example, you’re doing a user flow or a customer journey next. Create the user flow or journey, discuss it with the client, and see if you’re on the same page. If you find that you are on the same page, that’s agreement #3. You see where this is going, right?

Stakeholders are much more likely to be an advocate of yours if you involve them in the process, than if you are trying to play superstar designer and present your awesome finished results to them.

As you start creating low and medium fidelity wireframes, you have an opportunity to rapidly iterate together with the client, and build up a massive storehouse of micro-agreements with every iteration.

This series of interactions and agreements over time builds trust and familiarity. This is extremely powerful, because people are more likely to say “yes” to you again, after they’ve said “yes” to you in the past. It’s also useful because if the client decides to change their mind later on, you can refer back to that long list of written agreements you’ve gotten from them over the course of the project.

Communicating well and being able to bring others along in your design process is the difference between being mediocre and being seen as a design leader.

The moment of truth comes when you reach the visual design phase

When you introduce colors, shapes and images, people’s emotions are activated. Any type of logic flies out the window as soon as you introduce those emotionally charged elements into your design work. At this point, that storehouse of agreements and trust you’ve built in the previous design phases becomes critically important to keep the project from derailing.

For example, if you show off a visual design that doesn’t fit the client’s personal taste, you can tell them “Yeah, I agree, I’m not a huge fan of that color scheme personally as well(builds rapport and shows that you’re similar). But remember those personas that we created together(remind them of the agreements you’ve built)? Based on what we know about these people we’re trying to target with this, we can be reasonable confident that this color scheme will resonate with that audience, which will lead to the outcomes you’re trying to get for your business.”

In my experience, this approach of building agreement early on and involving the client in the process rather than just presenting results works at least 80% of the time.

It works particularly well as the clients you work with become larger. A one-person startup with delusions of grandeur may ignore any logic you throw at him or her, but larger companies respond very well to data and reason.

Assume positive intent

When I was younger, I had thinner skin and a more fragile ego. My sense of self-worth was tied closely to the design work I was doing. So if a client didn’t “get” my work, I saw it as an attack.

I see this behavior in a lot of designers. It’s another one of those things where I look back at myself and am like “I can’t believe I was ever that immature.”

You need to assume positive intent when you’re dealing with clients. Most people are nice and relatively reasonable if you approach them the right way.

Clients are nervous, too

When you show clients your work, they are often insecure because they don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they like and don’t like about it, so they resort to the handful of phrases they know, like “dropdown” and “three click rule”. And in the process, they sound awkward and possibly even a bit stupid to someone who is a native in that language. But everyone is a beginner at something. If you go to Russia and try to speak to a native Russian after taking Duolingo for two weeks, imagine how you’d sound.

When you show clients your work, they are often insecure because they don’t know how to talk about it. So be gracious and compassionate with them.

Yes, there are some terribly obnoxious, unreasonable, overly dramatic, borderline-narcissistic people out there. If you’re working in a bigger city, there will be a lot of them. I’ve encountered more narcissists and obnoxious buffoons in my six years in Silicon Valley than I encountered in 30 years of living in Germany. But even in Silicon Valley, I’d say at least 70% of people are nice. In most parts of the world, at least 90% of people are nice. 

If you’re dealing with that minority of people who are narcissistic, unreasonable, and don’t respect you, your best bet is to fight back, and if that doesn’t work, fire them as a client. Erik Spiekermann says “We don’t work with arseholes” and that’s a spot-on philosophy to live by. The pain those people cause is not worth any amount of money they pay you (and most of the time they are stingy on top of being terrible people).

Share your story

Tell me your most frustrating client story in the comments. What was it like and how did you deal with it?

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