Tips for Communicating Effectively with Clients Who Don’t ‘Speak Design’ from Filament Creative’s Matt Hryhorsky

Tips for Communicating Effectively with Clients Who Don’t ‘Speak Design’ from Filament Creative’s Matt Hryhorsky
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Dealing with clients can be difficult; understanding their initial needs, feedback, and communicating effectively with them can make the difference between a positive working relationship and a difficult one. So what’s the best way to communicate with clients who don’t have an understanding of design? Matt Hryhorsky, the Design Director at Filament Creative has some tips. Here’s his best advice for dealing with clients when it begins to feel like you’re speaking different languages.

What’s the biggest communication issue between designers and their non-design clients?

Clients are smart, hard-working people who are experts at what they do. So are designers, but there’s a big gap when it comes to the words we use when we talk about design, and in the case of a lot of clients, this may be the first time they’re actively involved in design conversations of any kind. In my experience, I’ve found that the biggest breakdowns happen when clients use language they think is crystal clear, like “I’d love this to be more corporate,” and designers rely on their interpretation of those words to move ahead without digging deeper into what those words actually mean to the people giving that feedback.

I’ll bet that if you threw out a few words people typically use to describe design, like clean, fun, quirky, slick, or minimal, the visuals we get in our heads are wildly different. Our frames of reference for design don’t typically come from a widely held standard of what ‘clean’ is, for example. More often, our understanding of ‘clean’ design is influenced by our exposure to the visuals we’ve encountered over time, and how we’ve subsequently filed those particular treatments in our minds.

So, when a client says they want something minimal, they may be drawing from experience with Scandinavian interiors, Japanese architecture, or even a basic interpretation that minimal means ‘less stuff.’ Designers also have visual frames of reference, and it’s crucial that you take the time to understand where those references crossover.

What’s the best strategy for solving these communication barriers early on?

All good designers know that asking the right questions is the best starting point.

As far as UX needs are concerned, clients will always have business metrics they’re trying to hit, but real UX comes from understanding customer needs. At Filament, we start there, and dive deep into what value existing customers or potential future customers are looking to get out of an interaction with that client’s brand. We spend time understanding where in a customer’s day they might need to use the product or service we’re building, and then remove the friction points that would stop them from accomplishing that goal.

It could be shopping for diapers, transferring funds to an investment account, or getting in a quick workout before heading to the office. In every case, it goes much deeper than just asking them what they like or don’t like.

What tools do you use to really make sure you’re delivering what the client wants?

  • The first tool for design critique is a detailed Design Discovery, where we encourage our client to bring pieces of inspiration to the table, and we do the same. It’s a fun exercise and, like I mentioned above, this helps us start to see what they consider to be quirky, minimal, sleek, or clean in order to build that common design language moving forward.
  • Our team uses that as a jumping off point to prepare The 20-Second Gut Test, which is a tool we use to further refine our understanding of a client’s likes and dislikes as it applies to the web or apps. In the test we show a client twenty pieces of work for twenty seconds each, and in each case we ask them to score the visuals based on a gut reaction where 5 is ‘give me more of that sweetness’ and 0 is ‘my eyes are burning.’ Once we finish, we tally up the scores and discuss. It’s that discussion afterwards where we get some real talk about what they loved or loathed, which arms us with even more insight about how design lands for our stakeholders.
  • Our final deliverable in the process is a Style Tile, a collection of elements designed with the context of the project in mind and informed by user research. At Filament, we define design as a combination of user research, content strategy, user experience design, style, and execution. Now that we have a solid idea of what users want, what our stakeholders want, and how to speak design with them, we have everything we need to determine a stylistic direction for the project. In all the years we’ve been using the above tools, we’ve yet to have a client completely reject the design direction. The bonus of doing it this way is that your client becomes a member of the design team really early on, which is a huge win for the rest of the process.

How do you make sure the feedback stage goes smoothly too?

In the absence of information, people make stuff up, so context is key. What’s feedback? Why do we do it? What are we as a design firm expecting of you, the client, at this stage? Setting your client up for success by clearly communicating your expectations at each phase goes a long way.

Knowing that you’ve done some excellent UX research, you have the ability to lean on your customers as a voice of truth. If client feedback seems like it’s leaning more towards personal preference rather than what’s best for the user, it’s really easy to lean on the insights and research to re-focus clients on what their users really want.

Finally, it’s been said a million times, but it’s worth repeating. We’re professionals, so act like one. Design feedback isn’t personal, and it’s your job to help the client understand the impact of their design feedback. If it serves the end customer, it serves the business.

What’s the biggest benefit of mastering client communication techniques as a designer?

Without being too dramatic here, literally everything. Being a great designer means being a great communicator, whether that’s when selling ideas to your team, or working out stylistic direction alongside your client.

Whether you believe it or not, everyone speaks design. We may not use the same words, or understand design in the same way, but everyone has the ability to evaluate whether a design works for them or not. Sometimes the language is ambiguous, and sometimes it’s based solely on subjective opinion, and that’s okay. It’s our job to deepen our client’s understanding of the role design plays, to broaden our own understanding of our client’s design language, and teach them how to deliver constructive feedback that’s focused on results, business strategy, and user goals.

Check out Matt Hryhorsky’s writings for more tips on mastering client design language.

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