How To Manage Your Website Design Projects
Image by Idle_Type.
Creating an efficient project management process, such as Leo’s Guide to Simple Project Management, provides the framework for freelance designers to deliver on time and make a profit. However, the biggest challenge for a designer is efficiently managing client feedback and communication. Profit margins are quickly eroded when clients drip-feed design feedback intermittently or request monster changes towards the completion of a project.
Without a very trusting working relationship these issues are difficult to manage once they occur. The best solution? Avoid them in the first place.
Rewrite the Brief
When clients are involved from the beginning of the design process changes will be minimized later. Client involvement requires more than communicating acceptance of a brief and providing regular status updates. The client needs to provide input into the design. The challenge for a designer is to maintain the position of the design director without becoming a design monkey following instruction, and this challenge is best overcome by restating the brief on your own terms.
As an expert and trusted advisor, a large part of any freelancing gig is helping the client to discover what they really need. Written briefs are typically bounced back and forth between freelancer and client until both parties agree the words identify the best solution for the client. While a written brief is important, a visual brief will allow you to set your design direction early and gain buy-in from the client from the beginning. It also allows you to fail fast: if the client dislikes your direction, sometimes it’s best to walk, and a visual brief provides the perfect fail-fast litmus test.
Brief Your Client Visually
In restating the client’s brief, you’re actually briefing the client on your intended direction and goals. This is a paid exercise and should be presented as your project understanding and direction. Some education may be required in order for the client to see value in this, and one tactic you can use is to articulate the importance of agreeing on direction early rather than delivering a design the client dislikes at the conclusion of the project.
Make your brief as visual as possible to establish your direction from the outset. In the context of website design projects, this can be done using a combination of mood boards, design description documents, sketch-boards, or even a comic strip. Your brief can be a combination of technical and lo-fi. For example, a digital mood board combined with paper sketch-boards is an efficient and effective means of setting a direction and communicating your understanding of the brief.
If the client dislikes your brief, discuss the aspects that require changing and if the changes fit with your direction, you should accommodate them with an amended brief. Alternatively if the client’s mindset is completely different to yours and the changes don’t fit with your vision, it’s time to fail fast. It’s best for everyone. If you persist with the project you’ll find it hard to love executing someone else’s ideas and your design is not likely to be your best. The client won’t receive value for money and you’ll be unhappy. Walk away.
If you’ve hit the sweet spot where both you and the client are happy, it’s time to move the project on based on your brief. The next challenge is collaborating with the client on work in progress so the end result appeases both parties.
Familiar with receiving feedback and changes via countless instant messages, email trails and project tasks? Not only is the feedback difficult to manage, it’s not visual, meaning it’s often ambiguous and can lead to subsequent changes. The solution is simply not to allow it. Instead, find a visual tool that works for you and your client, and mandate its use for all feedback and design communication.
Several desktop applications do a reasonable job of marking up designs with comments and basic design features, and this is certainly a better solution than IM or email. There are still a few issues with this approach; clients will need to learn how to use the application, and the numerous marked up files require version control.
Overcoming both of these issues, the recently launched ConceptShare is a web-based application for online design collaboration. Built for designers to collaborate on designs with multiple stakeholders, ConceptShare allows designers to upload their designs to a client-specific workspace and invite stakeholders to review the designs. The designer and client can then collaboratively markup the designs and comment on specific design elements, facilitating an efficient online feedback loop for ongoing design communication. The interface is intuitive and entirely browser based, providing a simple and efficient platform for managing design feedback.
If you’re not prepared to use yet another web application to manage clients but you’re already using the popular collaboration tool Campfire, see how the 37signals team uses Campfire internally to manage design.
The Best Is Yet to Come
Once you’ve developed enough trust with a client that a conversation is sufficient for managing feedback, you’re in a very happy place. After a number of successful projects with a client, nothing quite beats a chat over Skype video (except for a chat over coffee) as a means of managing design feedback. The spoken word between trusting parties will always be the most efficient and effective means of communication, but it can be difficult to manage without a successful business history.