Don’t Confuse Your Client’s Goals with Your Own
I read a series of great articles by Jaan Orvet and Andreas Carlson (“Strategy Basics: It’s Really About Having A Plan” and its follow-up, “Strategy Basics: Getting Your Clients Ducks In A Row“) on Carsonified’s Blog called “Think Vitamin” and on the importance of having a sound plan for a successful project. This is basic project management logic, but so often when we start a project the client has not fully developed what they want to do as well as many of the details of how to accomplish it.
I design websites for a living, so I’m going to use this type of project as an example, but I know from talking to my print-oriented graphic artist friends as well as my writer friends, that the situation I’m going to describe and suggest fixes for, is the same. It’s the situation where your client sets deadlines but dos not take into account their approval structure, change management, and so forth into account and then expects you, the designer, to meet a set of milestones that are unrealistic.
The deadlines aren’t real and it is difficult to keep the scope of work set as defined because of poor comprehension of the technology and/or trouble conceptualizing how to get to their goal (which leads to major changes to the design during later states of the project as it becomes clear that what was agreed upon doesn’t fit newly determined purpose definitions) and a poor reviewing process (editorial changes and delays in approval that occur because your project manager did not include his/her superiors in the process and get their buy in). Then, we get stuck working overtime to fulfill our obligations or loose the contract because of misunderstandings in communications.
We can do a lot in our proposals and contracts to assist our clients in understanding and holding to their goals.
Define and Stick to a Goal
The most important thing you and your client have to determine and keep hold of during the entire project is the answer to the following question:
What is the Project Supposed to Do?
In other words, why is the client doing this thing? How does it fit into their universal business goals? The answer to this question is so important to the success of the project and whether the client likes what you have done. Even if the relationship of the project is never verbally defined, the client who knows why their organization exists will always compare the results of your work to this unspoken mission statement. Get them to put it in writing.
The client should be able to answer the following five questions suggested on Carsonified’s Blog. The answers will be your guide for staying on task and on goal:
- What you are doing
- Who you are doing it for
- Why you are doing it
- How you are doing it
- When you are doing it
When you write your proposal, you should have already had a conversation with your client and gotten a statement that defines why they want the website, brochure, newsletter, and so forth. Then, determine how your creation will help them further these goals. This is your Scope of Work.
Thus, if your client’s organization is a non-profit who helps clergy understand how to provide counseling services to families where there has been domestic abuse, then the website has to support these educational goals to the max. It has to sell or market what the organization does. The audience, products, and service vehicle are all defined by the Scope of Work. It should never vary.
Truly Understanding Your Client
The most difficult part of the process of collecting requirements for a project is translating your technical jargon and related needs into “client speak”. I define “client speak” as the technical and business language of your client. For example, in the content management system Joomla!, every article, piece of software, snippet of code, and any other content has to be labeled with two keywords — a “section” and a “category”.
This means absolutely nothing to the regular person who is in need of your services, such as a client in need of a site for a religious organization. In fact, it recently got me in a lot of difficulty because I failed to recognize how the audience would search for articles when it was patiently explained to me by the client. Most non-computer literate users go to a website and look for specific articles that are mentioned in online classes, real-life sermons or lectures, and/or blogs they read. They also could care less about an elegant organization whose goal is to streamline and limit menu items — they want the specific article cited how they heard of it. The client had been posting hundreds of articles to the old site quite literally because that is the way he also remembered them. Thus, there were hundreds of categories for specific holidays, Bible quotes, titles, and authors.
The client’s goal for the new site was not to streamline searches, but to enable his audience to have a website that wouldn’t fail as the old one was doing due to old software. I made a drastic error in not listening to the goal and defining the steps to meet his goal of simply upgrading vs. my goal of updating the entire site’s organization. It was a deadly mistake.
Always listen carefully to the business goal and do not let your designer’s goal get in the way.
After meeting the business goal, you can open discussions on how to enhance the aesthetics and layout of the site always keeping in mind the audience.
If you can help your client formulate why he/she wants to do the project and what they ultimately want it to do and look like, this statement provides a powerful guide for you as the designer/implementer. Use it to stay on track and not stray into your own sense of aesthetics. It is difficult to put aside how YOU would create the product and YOUR goals and truly listen to the client who knows their audience.
If you find that your client is having trouble answering the five questions, you can help them understand their audience better by providing a sounding board and structure. Here is where you can use your knowledge of design, usability, user interface design, and so forth to guide them to a better product. But always listen first.