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Get Out from Behind the Curtain

Get Out from Behind the Curtain

As designers, we are often thought of—and think of ourselves—as vendors, offering design services. Sometimes an adversarial relationship develops, with clients giving orders and designers taking them (cursing all the while). Including clients in the design process can change this relationship, facilitating knowledge transfer, building trust, and fostering a sense of partnership.

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“Including clients in the design process” may sound like death by a thousand paper cuts. I used to think that designing with clients was a really bad idea. I didn’t want them around me while I was “doing my work.” They just seemed to get in the way.

But as the design challenges I faced grew in complexity, I soon realized I truly needed the wisdom of the whole team—clients and all—to create a stellar experience. Furthermore, I’ve discovered that with practice, patience, and a healthy dose of planning, you can dramatically improve the quality of your work, the likelihood of its acceptance, and the integrity of its implementation.

At the company I work for, we use collaborative work sessions in almost every project. Work sessions—an immersive team experience where ideas are discovered and articulated—can be a powerful design tool. When used at critical points in the design process, these sessions build strong, respectful relationships. Since clients directly experience the design work, you don’t need to sell clients on an idea—they were with you the whole time.

A real-world example

Recently, our team took on a multi-channel design strategy project (phone, web, print) for a financial organization. We worked directly with a small client team—but that small team was connected to nearly 30 other people with a stake in the project. Our clients had deep domain knowledge and their experienced team of information architects, interaction designers, and business owners had come up with some great ideas over the years. Unfortunately, politics, bureaucracy, and endless negotiations had torpedoed, watered down, or otherwise compromised many of their ideas, and we had to remember that history as we considered how best to interact with the client.

Let’s say our team had tried a typical present-and-approve approach with this client. We would have interviewed stakeholders, presented our findings, and gotten buy-in on a specific direction. Along the way, we would have gone back to our studio, done some work, presented ideas at key points, sought more buy-in, and then progressed to the next step.

And with this client, we would have been dead in the water.

The buy-in process might have lasted forever. At each point, we would have had to persuade 30 people that our recommendation was a good one. Emotions, politics, and conflicting opinions would have arisen. Most likely, we would have been swamped with hundreds of small changes or had our ideas rejected outright.

Instead, we choreographed a series of structured work sessions that brought those 30 people directly into the design process. There, they could share ideas, debate openly, and air their concerns as we worked.  Additionally, the hands-on experience gave them a new respect for our work.

Each work session built on the previous session, and had clear objectives and a specific set of activities:

  • In the first session, small groups reviewed personas, created user scenarios, and then generated ideas to support the persona in each scenario.
  • In a second session, clients and designers organized the ideas into cohesive idea sets.
  • In a final session, groups reviewed idea sets (edited, augmented, and vetted by the design team) and built quick business cases for each.

Two weeks after the last session, our design team presented our final recommendations. Both the client and the design team felt our recommendations were viable from a business standpoint and desirable from a design perspective—and approved them almost immediately. For the client, there were no surprises. They knew what we did and why we made the choices we had—because they were there when it happened.

All that said, before you go out and invite your current client to live in your office, be aware that while work sessions are a great tool, they are not all created equally. It isn’t enough just to get your team in the same room. Most clients will have little experience doing the activities you suggest, so you will need to guide them through the process. Planning is your friend, and the first decision you need to make is what kind of session you want to run.

The unstructured work session

The most common kind of work session is an unstructured session. In a typical unstructured session, the team sequesters themselves in a room, possibly with a whiteboard, and starts hashing through the problem organically. One person may take the role of scribe, writing ideas on a whiteboard or flipchart.  The team stays in the room together until their time is up, they reach a conclusion, or—more commonly—they run out of steam.

These unstructured sessions (sometimes incorrectly called “brainstorming”) have a bad reputation—and deservedly so. They often lack focus. They generate lots of creative ideas but many ideas are wildly inappropriate. The vocal few may dominate, pushing the team in a direction not supported by quieter team members. The group dynamics get even more complex when you introduce new team members or clients—especially those unfamiliar to open-ended creative activities.

Unstructured sessions work best in two situations:

  • Your team has a small, well-defined problem to tackle, such as re-working a user’s path through a shopping cart.
  • Your team is faced with a large ambiguous problem and isn’t sure where to begin.

In almost every other situation, you will probably achieve better results by switching to a more structured interaction.

The structured session

Structured sessions have clearly articulated goals and desired outcomes, a clear set of planned activities, and a facilitator to shepherd the team through the process. Provided that they’re well planned and well facilitated, these sessions can be much more focused and efficient than their unstructured siblings.

Keep in mind, though, that you can have too much structure. For example, you can kill your session by doing a “round robin,” asking each participant, one after the other, to share their ideas. This structure discourages conversation and prevents participants from riffing off each other. Instead, as facilitator, you should strive for a balance of structure and easy flow—your job is to keep the conversation moving, encourage quiet people, and temper dominant personalities.

Work sessions that work

A successful work session starts with planning, and planning starts with clear goals and desired outcomes. Are you striving to generate a set of 10-20 strong ideas? To select the most viable ideas from a previous session? You may need to work with your clients or other team members beforehand to make sure the goals and outcomes fit the overall project plan.

Guided activities

Once a work session’s goals have been set, I sometimes take a “design by numbers” approach, providing worksheets with questions and activities to guide the session. You might take a “mad-lib” approach to writing value propositions or articulating the value of an idea to customers. For a wireframing session, you might provide sheets of paper with browser windows or mobile device screens pre-printed on them, leaving space for a title and a description.

These guided activities may sound like child’s play, but they’re remarkably effective in guiding teams through an ambiguous or seemingly risky activity. Guided activities provide a shared foundation, put groups at ease, and set clear direction for the session. Once participants feel comfortable, you can allow them to deviate in small ways from the worksheet as their confidence grows.

Groups and group size

Group size and composition can make or break a session. Getting the right people and the right number of people in the room is critical.

Size—In my experience, groups with four to five people, including a facilitator, are optimal. The group is large enough to host a variety of viewpoints and expertise, but small enough that all voices can be heard. If you need to include larger groups of people, break the large group up into several groups of four to five people. If you use breakout groups, build in extra time for groups to share their work with each other.

Composition—The composition of groups is highly dependent on the situation—there is no formula for group composition. Strive for a balance of skill sets and knowledge. If you’re working on a shopping interaction, you might include a developer, a visual designer, an interaction designer, a representative of the business, and an expert on your users’ shopping behavior.

Setting the stage

The environment you create and the materials you provide are just as important as group composition. Though beanbags don’t necessarily make a creative environment, the choices you make about location, lighting, setup, and materials can influence the emotional tone and ultimate productivity of your session. Carefully consider the tone you want the session to take.

Working space—Groups should be able to get pretty intimate with each other. Small round, or rectangular tables work well, allowing the team to work closely with each other. This also gives participants easy access to materials. There should also be enough room for people to get up and move around as they need to.

Materials—Provide enough materials to create a sense of plenty. If participants perceive a lack of materials, they may tend to censor themselves, only using the paper for their “best” ideas. In addition to any session-specific materials, we always provide several stacks of sticky notes, scissors, double the pens you think you’ll need, and thick stacks of half-sheets of 8×11 paper.

Wall space—Getting work up on the walls for everyone to see adds to a sense of progress. Drafting dots can be really useful for this—they are essentially masking tape dispensed in small round circles. You can also use tack boards, but they can slow progress.

Energy—Plan for fluctuations in energy level and introduce snacks, beverages, and breaks periodically.

Being a good facilitator

Facilitating is as much an art as a science. Even introverts like myself can learn to deftly shepherd a group through a difficult session.

Start off on the right foot—Make sure everyone in the room shares the same knowledge by providing reference material from earlier work on the project (personas, research, business goals, design criteria, etc.). Start the session with a recap of the work to date, the goals of the session, and the mechanics of the planned activity.

Believe in your team—It is critical that you believe your group capable of completing the activity (or coming up with good ideas). You can’t fake this. If you don’t believe, do something different: change your team, change your structure, whatever—change something.

Be clear—Envision your desired outcome and communicate that to the group. Be as specific as possible but be prepared to adapt if there is strong group sentiment one way or another.

Be yourself—There’s no right way to facilitate. Know yourself and play to your strengths. For example, I find that a friendly, casual style puts people at ease, but I’m also willing to be disciplined when necessary. Find a style that suits you.

Speak with authority—As in public speaking, you need to be able to command a room. Get to know your speaking style by videotaping yourself or taking speaker-training classes. The more confident you are as a speaker, the better.

Listen—A good facilitator speaks well, but a great one listens. Pay attention to issues and concerns and regularly communicate them back to the group. You may need to adjust your session mid-flight based on something you’ve heard.

Start simply and be patient

You now have some of the basics you need to plan your next (or first!) work session. The best way to learn, though, is to get out there and try it. Pick a client who is willing to experiment with you, or one you think will be receptive. In my experience, many people are reticent at first—after all, this is often a new experience for designers and clients alike—but, once they try it, they’ll immediately see the benefits. Each client, design team, and project is a little different, so start simply and be patient.

As web designers (and developers and information architects, and so on), we have a lot more to offer than making pretty pictures or giant red buttons. Take the reins and change the relationship you have with your clients—become a partner, not a vendor. Including clients in your work can do more to build great working relationships than you might imagine.

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