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 let the client know that we should probably look at a different direction, while still making them feel they were in control, and without causing 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 things 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 totally inappropriate for that particular client's needs?
And I'm sure we all complain about our clients making 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, and we need to pass that on to our clients and potential clients. We need to give our clients an insight into how the design process really works and educate them how to evaluate the needs of their particular project.
This gives them the tools they need to communicate with us effectively from an early stage, and makes the whole procedure far more enjoyable for everyone.
Through educating our clients about our design process we can also manage expectations, explain budget issues 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.
When you've reached a point where the client trusts you and feels comfortable talking to you about their project, feedback becomes something collaborative and enjoyable rather than painful and daunting. Once you've built this relationship, ideas 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), and why users will be coming to the site.
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. A lot of clients have a hard time understanding that, but if you consult properly throughout the project, you should be able to steer your clients' thoughts in that direction, and produce a better product, together.
Words: Simon Foster
Simon Foster is a freelance frontend web designer, writer and lecturer based in London. He specialises in responsive design, HTML/CSS and web typography. Follow him on Twitter at @simonstretch. This article first appeared in net magazine issue 260.
Like this? Read this!