Getting to Flow

When design and client cultures truly come together, magical and memorable projects emerge. These magic projects aren’t random, though: I’ve come to understand that the conditions for creating good work aren’t a mystery, and that with a few thoughtful changes you can make those conditions more likely to occur on your next project.

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To get there, you’re going to have to challenge your clients to be a part of your creative process. This will be uncomfortable at first, and will introduce new frustrations to your process. But the upside is enormous, and has the potential to shift your role from vendor to trusted partner.

We want to do Good Work#section2

In the best partnerships, all parties have the space to do Good Work: “enjoy[ing] doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself,” as Coert Visser writes.

These magical projects don’t depend on a single culture dominating the partnership, though. They happen when everyone is working together in rhythm. They happen when you reach a state of flow.

Flow is a concept credited to Mihalyi Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychology professor, who described his observations in academic articles and in the popular book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Definitions of flow can seem New Age-inspired and fuzzy, but you probably recognize it in your work already. Flow is when you look up after eight hours of code to realize it’s dark outside. It’s when you say things like, “I was in the groove” or “in the zone.” It’s when you put on a pair of headphones to give yourself a distraction-free space and time to work.

My best projects have involved more time spent working in a state of flow, and I suspect yours have, too. The same holds true for your clients: more flow equals better projects. And when you’re both in flow at the same time? That’s magic.

The beautiful part is, you can get both yourself and your client into a flow state more often by doing three things: enabling immediate feedback, balancing capability and challenge, and setting clear goals with visible progress.

Enabling immediate feedback#section3

You’re familiar with feedback—otherwise known as breaking big problems into smaller ones and evaluating your results in short cycles of change and check. This is one of the conditions for flow and ought to be intuitive for designers; after all, most design tools allow for immediate feedback. Change a line of markup, see the results in another pane. Adjust a line of code, see the results on the console. The social tools of design culture support immediate feedback, too: post a fragment to Dribbble and rack up immediate views, likes, and rebounds.

This can be difficult for clients, though. Your client might be used to waiting a month or two before seeing and commenting on your work, which means long cycles. However, there are two feedback-rich parts of web development that are natural for clients: user research and testing.

Getting your client in the room with users and your work in progress on a weekly or biweekly basis will not only generate new insights, but also introduce your client to shorter feedback cycles. (This actually solves two problems: not only do you need a way to bring clients into your process, but clients tend to not want to spend a lot of money on research or testing, so sharing the burden will make these activities more feasible.) Simply establishing this shorter cycle will increase motivation, resulting in a higher quality of work from your client.

First condition: check!

Balancing capability and challenge#section4

Highly-developed skills aren’t enough to propel you into a state of flow: if the challenge is insufficient, you’ll feel control or relaxation, but not flow. Nor is it enough to have a big challenge ahead: if you’re not quite up to the task, you’ll feel anxiety or arousal, but not flow. Getting to flow requires a high skill level balanced against a difficult challenge, and it’s your job to set the bar high enough for your client.

For example, it is common to set content deadlines and simply wait for words and images to be provided. Rather than wait for deadlines to come and go, start the engagement assuming your client can do meaningful tasks leading the work of writing for the web and sourcing compelling imagery. Recruit some likely writers from the client side and run early training sessions to get them up to speed.

Tuning up your client’s skills in areas like content strategy, information architecture, and writing for the web will reduce their anxiety and push them into the “high skill/high challenge” zone you need. After you’ve invested some of your time in training and support, your client will be fielding extra-productive and extra-engaged project members, which is good for the flow of both teams.

Condition two: check!

Setting clear goals (and tracking your progress)#section5

Your client has certainly brought some goals and expectations to the relationship: perhaps they want to reach a new audience, or reduce customer service costs, or just have something fresh on the web. While these might help with overall direction, you need some specifics that you can measure day to day.

Your team may be tracking hours, pages, and money, which gives you regular feedback against your goal of getting paid. Help your client to break down their aspirations into similarly tangible chunks. If their goals are long term and will only be realized after the project ships, you’ll need to find shorter-term milestones. Think about setting goals for internal staff development of writing or technical skills, or the streamlining of content processes, or less pain with software releases.

You’ll also need some ways of making your progress transparent. Formal status reports are fine and useful, but letting the client into your daily process of discussing, experimenting, and testing your work will create a shared sense of progress. If you use a project management tool like Basecamp, add as many client staff as have an interest in following the project. It doesn’t cost you anything, and people are welcome to turn off email notifications for your project if it gets to be too much. It may seem too unpolished or informal, but listening in on your hourly and daily work will help your client share your sense of progress toward goals. You’ll still need more formal ways to report progress and get sign-offs at key points, but having access to the daily work will make your reports more accessible for your client.

Your third and final flow condition: check.


While you should accept as an axiom that your clients truly do want engagement and flow in their work, you will see various levels of pushback if you ask for a more active role on a project. For example, when you assign research and testing tasks back to your client, you’ll see resistance from some very busy people who don’t understand what you’re asking, or why it’s a good idea for them to be involved.

The trick here is to describe user research and testing using concepts clients are familiar with. The more senior people in an organization will recognize an opportunity to develop new skills in-house and they will support you when you talk to unit heads about the specifics of the work you need.

Communications or marketing people are probably familiar with personas and segments, so lead a morning workshop to train them in user research or informal user testing. Then let them put their new skills into practice by helping with the web project and offer feedback as you go. They develop new skills, you get useful research done, and everyone works more closely together.

The vision thing#section7

This shift from vendorship to partnership also brings the need for shared vision to the fore. Your client needs to trust that you really understand their concerns, and you’ll need to constantly demonstrate that you understand the constraints of the business. If you’re going to be a transformative partner, doing good stakeholder interviews at the very start will close the loop for both of you. The website you build will certainly be better, but you’ll need this knowledge whenever you discuss the content and audience of the project.

Do interviews with a wide variety of people in the client organization, and ask questions that naturally fit their worldview. In one classic model, organizational goals will often relate directly to their customers’ needs, the financial impact of the site, internal capability development, and changes to processes. So start there with your questions, developing success criteria that relate to each area. This exercise will develop a shared sense of scope: there’s no point implementing a page or feature if it’s not important to anyone. It also gives you the inputs you need to articulate strong project goals and lets you agree with your client how to measure progress against them.

Working with small organizations#section8

For a small organization, the problem will be time: no one has any. To make this work, you will need to show that what you’re asking will contribute to the medium-term goals of the organization.

Writing better web copy will help the next time there’s a trade fair or conference to attend. Doing better user research will help to refine the services and products they offer. Building in a habit of shorter feedback loops will help them iterate their own market offerings more quickly. Developing written, clear goals will make it easier to attract funding and talent. Aligning the web project with where the organization wants to be in a year or so will help build the support you need.

Working with large organizations#section9

For a big organization, the problem may be management by committee. When there are a lot of stakeholders, it may seem impossible to assign work back to any one person. In this case, you need two allies: the primary point of contact (usually a project manager of some kind) and a senior manager. You need to convince the manager that your blended approach is less risky and will create a competitive advantage.

Fortunately, these things are both true. Involving more people earlier in the project will surface more issues, circumvent more implementation pain points, and make deployment and maintenance of the new site far more straightforward. This reduction in deployment and operational risk is worth the investment. Secondly, the skills you are proposing to transfer will strengthen the internal team in a cost-effective way, allowing subsequent projects to be done more efficiently and effectively.

For your primary contact in a big organization, the hard part will be in marshaling the internal resources. You’ll need to convince this person that they do, in fact, have the authority to call on resources in the context of the web project (which is where that senior manager comes in). Also, because you’re asking for these new client-side activities (user research, user testing, content development, etc.) to be done alongside your own team, you will need to insist on certain tools and feedback loops that might be unusual for the organizational culture.

Your way in is really to make your contact feel like more of an “insider” on your own team, so that they develop a gut feel that these techniques are working. Invite them over to your shop as much as you can, giving you the chance to demonstrate your own team culture while cementing the sense of working together. And for your contact, taking out-of-office meetings will actually boost their prestige in the organization, which helps you to get things done.

Why this matters#section10

We want to show our clients not only that design is a job, but also that thoughtful web design projects can bring tangible benefits to the products, services, and cultures of the organizations with whom we work. Clients don’t expect to have a transformative experience with the guy who sells them paper clips, but participating in a strong web project does have that potential.

If you create these three flow conditions on your projects, both your team and your client’s team will spend more time productively engaged. Both teams will be more invested in the project, learning as they go and increasing their skill levels. Both will have the chance to experience the spontaneous joy of creating. This isn’t only good for the quality of the website: these changes will also make both teams happier as they collaborate on something that neither could do alone.

If you’re serious about making magical products, enable your clients to build their own productivity and match challenges with skill. Don’t just be another vendor. Be a partner in getting projects to flow.

5 Reader Comments

  1. Hi Brendan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a company trying to work with bigger companies and manage relationships it’s always important to remember the process of product development and what really matters.

  2. Great article. I ran across the idea of Flow while reading about motivation and studying Dan Pink. I enjoy the way that you have incorporated it into real workplace application. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for your time and for sharing such valuable information! I find that I have a much more broad focus on my marketing approach instead of narrowing the focus of those efforts. It’s a refreshing change to other marketing gurus promoting one strategy or marketing channel.

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