Get Out from Behind the Curtain
Issue № 245

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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.

About the Author

Sarah B. Nelson

Sarah B. Nelson is a design strategist for Adaptive Path. She has ten years of experience in interaction design, working for clients in almost every industry you can think of, and is the author of Cartographies of Imagination.

26 Reader Comments

  1. When I read that you considered yourself an introvert, I was surprised! Extroverts aren’t always the best facilitators though, and this article helped remind me. Also an introvert, I’m responsible for cultivating ideas and sometimes facilitating sessions to help dig a way through ambiguous problems.

    You stressed a good point, that we need to honestly convey our belief in everyone’s ability to solve problems. My team needs to know how valuable their ideas are and a session with potential can descend into a boring, fruitless meeting when there’s lack of respect between everyone.


  2. Design sessions are great at solving design problems but using sessions to settle office politics sounds awfully expensive.

    With so many people attending one might fall to
    “A camel is a horse designed by committee” -trap.

    Luckily you gave sound advice how to properly plan and execute work sessions to get real benefits from them.

  3. Sarah I want to thank You for really great article it was great time reading! Now I know the basics so I can plan my first work session. Regards

  4. Sarah, you nicely emphasize how work sessions can avoid endless review cycles. I think that’s the biggest benefit of work sessions, especially when working on larger projects where there are many business “owners” involved. You’ve reminded me to use this approach in an upcoming site restructuring and you presented some great guidelines for work session success. Thanks for the article.

  5. The more you can include your client(s) in the process the better. If they have ideas you think are inappropriate to the project, work to turn those ideas into something positive rather than simply dismissing them. You, and the client, will be happier in the end.

  6. I think it’s best to agree upon the number of review cycles upfront. The better the client delivers the specification of what he wants, the more he can concentrate on the designers work within the reviews.

  7. Sarah, thanks for a great article on how to collaborate with clients during a web design process — really practical advice. I think failing to collaborate is a common reason for the dissatisfaction and frustration we see so often. We may think we’re experts in web design, but we’re definitely not experts in our clients’ businesses, so we can’t truly practice user-centered design without their help.

    I also think that including clients in the way you’ve described is one of the best ways of demonstrating what it is web designers do — something that many clients have difficultly with at first. (And I’ll have to find out whether “drafting dots” are available in the UK.)

  8. I though tthe internet was supposed to change everything 🙂 This sounds remarkably like a JAD (joint application development) pioneered by IBM In the 80’s

  9. Sarah:

    Great article. We tend to tailor our sessions based on the level of effort we see with the overall project. Let’s say, for example, we have experience in the industry and have some pre-determined examples from which we can gain immediate ground. Those clients seem to have a shorter discovery / strategy phase (this is obviously a generalization).

    It doesn’t always work, but your insight can be applied to both internal and external projects / teams.

    Great topic. Thanks for the article.

  10. Thank you very much for the great article.

    I think the benefits do outweigh the problems if managed and planned well prior to the sessions.

    Furthermore, I like the idea of putting faces with clients, and sometimes the ideas and conversations that happen during the “breaks” are just as valuable as the main content within the sessions.

    Take care and thanks again.

  11. Hi Sarah, this article couldn’t have come at a better time.

    I work at an award-winning design agency, and we have recently been suffering from these very problems you describe. We present fantastic (IMHO) designs to our clients, they approve, but then change their minds, and have there own internal “designers” make modifications, and we basically end up with a butchered design to put into production. This is disheartening.

    I understand that this is typically a miscommunication issue. We either are not articulating our design decisions in a way that helps them understand why we chose what we chose, or perhaps they feel that we don’t understand their needs well enough, and our designs are not translating their business goals to the web clearly.

    Whatever the case may be for us, your excellent article made me realize that a stronger relationship is in need on several accounts. Communication is certainly the key, and working sessions sound like a great idea. And as you pointed out, I want to feel like we are playing the role of partner for our clients instead of only vendor.

    Thanks again.

  12. Great article, I think it is important to involve your client more deeply than just showing them a first-draft when 90% of the decisions have already been made.

    It is especially important to understand when the client knows more than you in a particular area and you should defer to their judgment. This came up recently with a client of mine, that steered me in the direction of some bright bright gaudy colors for a project. This is not what I would I have chose, but they understood more than I did the placement of the advertisement and what it could be competing against visually. In the end, I think their call was better than what mine would have been without their input.

  13. It’s always the best to get as much information as you can from your clients since they are the expert on what they do – at least we hope so. But, there is good input and bad input. Such as one of my clients insisting on using Comic Sans as his font of choice for his website. I had to spend too much time convincing him that Comic Sans is not a good choice for a Financial Planner. In order to get good input, it really is up to us as designers/developers to interview our clients to find out exactly what they want and communicate what is a good idea and what isn’t.

  14. Yeah – I agree. Collaboration is key. Client input can sometimes seem like a hinderance but it’s always gonna be part of the design process. I do think as designers we need to stick up for our beliefs but I think we need to communicate the reasons behind them so that we provide the client with all the facts. If they then choose to ignore them then thats fine. We tried.

  15. Yeah – I agree. Collaboration is key. Client input can sometimes seem like a hinderance but it’s always gonna be part of the design process. I do think as designers we need to stick up for our beliefs but I think we need to communicate the reasons behind them so that we provide the client with all the facts. If they then choose to ignore them then thats fine. We tried.

  16. I agree with Lasse’s comment, that it’s potentially a recipe for disaster–herding cats. But I think you give us an adequate structure for these seemingly structure-less meetings.

  17. Thanks for the great article. I’m currently collaborating with a client on a new web-based product in worksessions, after several rounds of us doing iterations on our own and making formal design presentations to the client. Our designs were doing what they asked for, but were not gaining traction with the busy and distracted client team. We reduced the size of the team involved and started working in 3-4 hour chunks directly with the client (who is the VP of engineering). In two sessions we have made great progress. The client is fully engaged and having fun. The work is innovative. If we had taken this approach sooner it would have saved the client time and cost.

  18. This article perfectly provides for a solution to my team’s pain points. We have evolved into this type of workflow, but haven’t been good at creating the best goals. A map can only help you find a destination that has been chosen! This article serves as a nice map to also show the shortest path to creating satisfaction for all.

  19. Exactly sayin what im trying to do with my project teammates at the moment, like to read what experienced ppl have to say about collabortion and team management. Thank you for that

  20. How can these sessions work when you have teams in multiple locations? How can you alter this approach for global teams?

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