Is it our duty to agree with the client’s feedback every time? Do we – as designers hired for a job – actually owe it to them?
I mean, there have been whole community websites launched only to cover various “client from hell” stories, so it’s not like designers collectively think that the client is always right.
On the one hand, our clients have trusted us with their hard-earned money, so they should have a lot of say in whatever we’re working on. But on the other, they’ve also hired us based on the belief that we know web design better than they do.
Where is the proper middle ground, then? Should we or should we not agree with all of their feedback?
This is one of the most common and difficult questions that web designers have to deal with, and especially designers who are new to the craft.
So what do you do if a client wants a different solution than what you’ve prepared, even though it might not be the most optimal one? Here’s our guide on how to proceed in situations like that:
Don’t Fall Victim to the Curse of Knowledge
The curse of knowledge is a rather peculiar problem. And it’s not just something that web designers suffer from. It’s, more or less, applicable to anyone who’s trying to explain “something” to another person.
Wikipedia defines it quite nicely:
“The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.”
Adapting this to our client scenario, the problem occurs when we try to explain the reasons behind a specific direction we took with the project, but we fail to put ourselves in the client’s position. As in, we don’t talk using their language, but rather expect them to already possess some specific knowledge regarding design itself.
The problem, of course, being that your client is not a designer. They don’t know what you know. And although it seems obvious enough right now, it’s very easy to overlook the fact in the midst of a conversation.
Putting yourself in the client’s position and trying to look at things through their eyes isn’t easy, and requires constant attention on our part.
There is, however, one trick you can use: As you’re explaining things, focus on asking the right questions rather than on giving the right answers.
For example, when the client disagrees with your vision/work, it’s your responsibility to understand what they really mean – what the underlying worry is that they’re trying to convey. You gain that understanding only by asking good questions.
Having the client doing most of the talking simply allows you to really get to the bottom of the problem, and address the client’s objections head on rather than trying to list random solutions that might not be optimal.
Focus on the Target Audience
Depending on your client’s own preferences, it can be easy for them to disagree with the choices you’ve made in the design purely because they “don’t like it.”
However, it will be much more difficult for them to disagree if you shift the conversation to the target audience’s point of view.
For example, everybody has their favorite color, and whether we like it or not, that basic preference can have an impact on the business decisions we make. This goes for web design more than anything else, perhaps. It is how people who love blue end up with blue color schemes on their sites, and etc.
For a professional designer, realizing the difference between “what I like” and “what’s good for the audience” is obvious. We’ve learned to do so. But for a client, it’s a tough challenge. So it’s always your job to shift the conversation onto that target audience rather than the client’s personal bias.
“I think we should go for a lighter color scheme, and a more hopeful one. Maybe green?” – the client says. “Why?” – the designer asks – “Do you think that green is going to resonate with the audience better?”
Guiding the conversation like that, you’re forcing the client to come to grasp with their own biases and giving them second thoughts regarding what seemed like a valid point at first.
Even though this won’t make the client agree with you right away, it’s a good way to help them understand why you’ve taken certain steps while working on their project, and why a solution that doesn’t seem perfect to them on a personal level, might, in fact, be the right one for their target audience.
(There’s a very similar scenario described by Lou Levit in one of her client stories. Worth a read.)
And since we’re on the topic of conversation:
Listen, Ask, Guide
The value of conversation between you and your client is often the difference between a successful project and a failure.
When you think about it, you basically have only three options when a client objects to your vision:
- you can say that they’re wrong, and then explain why you are right,
- you can admit that they’re right, and do everything they’re asking for, or
- you can ask “why” – as in why the client thinks that the solutions you’re proposing aren’t entirely good.
And out of the three, the latter approach is the only one that allows you to get to the bottom of the problem.
Again, maybe the client’s personal bias comes into play. Or maybe they simply want to replicate a website they’ve seen elsewhere. Or maybe the contrary, maybe they’ve seen a given solution multiple times on the web already, so they don’t want to replicate it.
It is only after you’ve listened to the client’s “why” that you can start guiding them through the ins and outs of your solution/vision.
For example, if you’re building an eCommerce store, some clients will want to make everything about that store unique. They will want to stand out completely, making the shopping experience 100% original.
They might even want to feature the shopping cart in another way than is commonly regarded as the standard. In cases like that, starting with “why” is a good way to get the client into a conversation and then show them why web standards are better left alone.
And when doing so, use data to your advantage. Shift the conversation from, “hey, I think that my solution is better” to “there are multiple studies indicating that this solution is better.” For instance, if you show the client a reliable case study about the impact of the shopping cart’s placement on store sales, they will be much more likely to agree with your point of view.
Shopping carts are just one simple example. There are multiple other things that are “common knowledge” among designers, yet are complete black magic to clients. Asking why, listening, and then explaining is the best way to make sure that you’re both on the same page.
Relating everything back to the design’s main goal is always a great exercise.
- “Should I do THIS or THAT? Well, let’s see how it enforces the site’s main goal.”
- “Will this content block fit HERE? Wait, how does it play along with the main goal?”
- “Should I add those social media icons THERE? Oh, wait, no, this would prevent the audience from taking the action that will further the main goal.”
And also: “The client says that they don’t like X, and that they would prefer Y. Hmm, let’s see what the impact on the main goal could be.”
Explaining to the client – while keeping in mind everything that’s been said above – that a change they’re requesting might have a negative impact on their main goal is perhaps the most powerful weapon in your arsenal.
After all, those site goals have been set either by the client themselves or with some help from your end. Either way, they identify with those goals. They want them achieved. Therefore, if you can articulate and explain (in an understandable way) why what they’re requesting can have an impact on those goals then you might just change your client’s mind on the spot.
The Client Might Just Be Right
Sorry for the tone, but I just wanted to emphasize something that not a lot of “dealing with clients from hell” guides focus on:
The client might just be right.
Think about it, after all, they do have all the expertise about their business, the market they’re in, the customers they have, the products they offer, etc. And even if all that expertise comes down to a simple, “Make the logo bigger,” you still need to think hard on it and, again, look for the reason why the client is saying what they’re saying.
At the same time, what I mean here isn’t that you should look at it through the lens of “how do I prove them wrong” but rather ponder “is it possible that they’re indeed right?”
A lot of times, they are.
Dealing with the client’s feedback isn’t the easiest aspect of a designer’s job. Sometimes, you find yourself in a full head-scratching mode, not knowing why a client would want things done a certain way. But that’s just part of the whole “being a designer” experience, and we all have to learn how to handle situations like that.
In the end, the best way to avoid any misconceptions or unexpected feedback is to talk with the client on a regular basis and keep educating them on the proper web design solutions that are / will be employed on their new site.
An educated client is always much happier with your whole service, and that’s even setting apart the overall quality of the design you’ve created.
And to answer the main question – do you have to agree with the client’s feedback or not – in a word, I’d say, no. But for you to do that, you need to build a lot of trust with the client beforehand, and you need to be able to explain exactly why you went for another approach, plus what makes it good.