On Consultation

Nov 19 2014


I was asked a while back by .net Mag­a­zine to write an arti­cle for issue 260 about any sub­ject that was on my mind a lot at the time. I chose to write about client con­sul­ta­tion as I some­times get the feel­ing it is an often over­looked yet essen­tial part of any web project. This arti­cle is only a brief overview of some of the main aspects of con­sul­ta­tion that play a part in my every­day work and shouldn’t be seen as a defin­i­tive guide to con­sult­ing, just a good place to start.

Con­sult­ing With Clients

Quite often when I start a new design project or meet new clients, I’m reminded of a very com­mon sce­nario from my time as a hair­dresser. At least once a day a client would come in to the salon, sit in my chair and pro­duce a pic­ture from a mag­a­zine of how he/she would like their hair to look. If I was lucky then the pic­ture they had selected was of a per­son with a sim­i­lar hair type, hair tex­ture, skin tone, face shape, lifestyle and so on.

But nine times out of 10 this wasn’t the case, so I devel­oped a method of con­sul­ta­tion that would allow me to let the client know that we should prob­a­bly look at a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, while still mak­ing them feel that they were in con­trol and with­out caus­ing any offence. Firstly I’d ask them to look at the pic­ture and describe the hair tex­ture, thick­ness, colour, length and then the face shape, skin tone and eye shape to build up an overview of the per­son in the photo. Then I’d ask them the same set of ques­tions about them­selves, at which stage the whole point of my ques­tion­ing would start to become apparent.

I’d then ask, “So why do you think this per­son looks good with that hair­cut?” to which the only log­i­cal reply would be along the lines of: “Because the styl­ist has con­sid­ered their hair type and face shape and lifestyle and cut the hair accord­ingly.” So what you’re say­ing is if I cut your hair with the same con­sid­er­a­tion to your own indi­vid­ual needs you’ll look good? “YES”.

Pass­ing On Knowledge

How does this relate to web design? Con­sul­ta­tion is an often-overlooked aspect of the design process (espe­cially by the less expe­ri­enced) but it is mas­sively impor­tant. How many times have you taken on a client and they’ve sent you a bunch of links to web­sites they like that are very well designed, easy to use and aes­thet­i­cally beau­ti­ful but are totally inap­pro­pri­ate for that par­tic­u­lar client’s needs? And I’m sure we all com­plain about our clients hav­ing silly requests like “make it pop” or “make the logo big­ger”, but who is to blame for that? Well surely it’s us. We are the ones with the knowl­edge of our indus­try, we need to pass that on to our clients and poten­tial clients. We need to give our clients an insight to how the design process really works and edu­cate them how to truly eval­u­ate the needs of their par­tic­u­lar project. This gives them the tools they need to com­mu­ni­cate with us effec­tively from an early stage and make the whole pro­ce­dure far more enjoy­able for everyone.

Build­ing Bridges

Through edu­cat­ing our clients about our design process we can also man­age expec­ta­tions, explain bud­get issues eas­ier and make the process work for us, rather than against us. We as design­ers need to remem­ber that for most clients, hir­ing a web designer is an intim­i­dat­ing expe­ri­ence, espe­cially if you’re not so tech savvy. Often clients just need a way of start­ing a dia­logue, and if you con­sult prop­erly with them you can quite quickly build up a rela­tion­ship of trust. Once clients trust you and feel com­fort­able talk­ing to you about their project, feed­back becomes some­thing col­lab­o­ra­tive and enjoy­able rather than painful and daunt­ing, and ideas and sug­ges­tions from both sides can be exchanged with­out fear of ridicule.

Design­ing For Users

Research is a fun­da­men­tally impor­tant phase of any web project and I believe that con­sul­ta­tion forms a large slice of this. If you really get to know your client’s busi­ness and cul­ture then you can start to under­stand why the web­site needs build­ing in the first place, why they have picked you to work on it (which helps you under­stand client expec­ta­tions), why users will be com­ing to the site (or app). Once you have a good under­stand­ing of the ‘why’ you can then start think­ing about the ‘how’. How will the users’ needs be met? How will you con­vey the client’s mes­sage? How will you build the site? How will the infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture be han­dled? How often will you iter­ate the design phase?

We shouldn’t for­get that we aren’t really design­ing for our clients, we are design­ing for their cus­tomers and users. A lot of clients have a hard time under­stand­ing that, but if you do your job prop­erly when you con­sult through­out the project, you should be able to steer your clients’ thoughts in that direc­tion and pro­duce a bet­ter prod­uct, together.