updated: September 23rd, 2009 / Ross Johnson / 12 Comments

Don’t Design for your Client, or Yourself

I recently did a presentation called “It doesn’t matter if you like it…” in which I talked to marketing professionals about how their is a fundamental flaw in the way many people go about designing, or having something design.

I often talk about how a large part of design is communication. With so many CSS Galleries it is easy to get stuck in a mindset where you simply want to create the “coolest” looking website rather than “the most effective” website.

The truth is that even beautiful design can be damaging to a site/brand/company if it is not “correct” design. Studies have shown that you have 10 – 15 seconds before a user has an impression about your website. Ten to fifteen seconds is not enough time for them to fully read and understand the history of your company, it is long enough for them to make some very detailed conclusions based on what your design communicates.

Why Our Approval and Design Processes are Often Wrong

What I am ultimately leading up too is that in most cases the design / approval process that we go through leads to work that does not communicate what it should to the end users.

This is a typical creative process of a sizable firm:

  • Creative director to graphic designer: “It should say this”
  • Graphic Designer: “Hmmm, I like it when it looks like this”
  • Manager: “This looks off, why don’t you tweak that?”
  • Creative director: “I don’t like this portion, fix it”
  • Client: “I like the color red, use red”
  • User: “I am looking for something high end, this looks cheesy. Goodbye.”

We often have people who are a part of the design process that alter the end work based on their own personal preference, and guess what… as designers we are one of them.

Now let’s look at it from a smaller firm / freelancer

  • “Lets make a great looking interface!”
  • “How do you like it?”
  • “Lets make it POP!”
  • “There we go, it looks really cool!”
  • “Aghhh, I don’t want to go to a coffee shop that is this nutty”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you like the design, if you are serious about your profession than you shouldn’t be creating sites so that you can have another great looking portfolio piece.

As a client or website owner it doesn’t matter if you like design. If you are serious about your company or website then you should have the site created so the users like it, not so that you can brag to your friends about how cool your site is.

How can you change this?

There really are a few approaches to the process that can greatly alter the outcome in a positive way. The first step is our great friend… research.

RESEARCH

Anything you can do to get into the minds of the end users will result in a much more successful design. This can take the shape of client interviews, researching competitors, attending events that users may attend, or other forms of traditional market research (surveys, demographics, etc)

Research should be compiled and decimated into a few deliverables such as a competitive analysis, user personas, and a creative brief.

These deliverables will be key in the design approval process, especially if someone on the design committee says “Why don’t we make it blue?” With the documents you can now say “our research shows that red will make users feel how we want them.”

TESTING

Actually testing designs can be a great way to find out what works best for different users. A lot of projects don’t have the budget for this, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly high cost.

I will go into ways to test in future blog posts, but for now consider showing a user a design and asking 3 – 4 questions about how they would describe that design. You are not looking for feedback in terms of “use a different picture, color, etc” rather it is important to understand what messages does the design give off. Does it feel affordable? high price? exciting? calming? interesting? sturdy?

Additionally you can show a user a design for 3 – 5 seconds, then ask them to tell you what they remember from it. It will give you a clear idea as to what are the most prominent items on the page.

LARGE SCALE SURVEY

This is currently being done with the Drupal project. Designer Mark Boulton is getting feedback from a community of tens of thousands. What he has found is that over the personal preferences trends emerge, and those trends provide a huge amount of insight and value that can be worked into the next design iteration.

IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU LIKE IT

Yes it doesn’t matter. Some of my most effective and successful designs from an analytics/statistics standpoint are not ones that I particularly like. That is because I am not the user, and I think and interpret visuals differently than psychology scholars (or any other given user base)

12 thoughts Don’t Design for your Client, or Yourself

  1. Ross, you bring up some really great points, and I totally agree with what you are saying. The one statement that really stood out to me was ‘As a client or website owner it doesn’t matter if you like design’, leave it to the experts, they hired a designer for a reason.

    Good food for further discussion. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the response Jason, and I agree completely. They are paying for expertise.

    I think the disconnect is that if you don’t know about design and how it functions you don’t realize that it is subjective and their is meaning and reasoning behind good design.

    I ran into a lot of clients that simply thought ‘Well I know what looks good, I just can’t come up with it’ when the reality is they only know what looks good to them…

    That is why part of our job becomes educating the client about design and what design decisions will be in their best interest.

    Ross Johnson
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  5. Ross

    Really useful post, thanks. I’m designing a ‘cheesy’ website right this minute because I’m listening to what the client wants and thinking “well if that’s what she wants…”

    In fairness, it’s a cheesy subject (dogs) and cheesy target market (dog lovers) but reading your post (found via a Twitter trail FYI) has boosted my confidence to remind her we need the site to be what her visitors are looking for, rather than just one that we love.

    Thanks

    Marion

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  7. In today’s web, sometimes you need a good designer with a spider sense of what someone needs. What I mean is that in essence what you say is correct for a certain group of websites, but sometimes someone needs a website that shows the personality of the person it belongs to. Because lets face it: of all the text and design published today, nothing is personal, it is all about trying to get the best marketing edge and trying to establish a brand.

    There is to much meaningless text and there are to many meaningless websites floating around the web. Try bla.com, then blabla.com and so on (I got to 13x or something). It is not just marketing that counts.

  8. Hi,

    great post about don’t design for your client, or yourself.
    I do agree with you when you say ‘Some of my most effective and successful designs from an analytics/statistics standpoint are not ones that I particularly like’

  9. Hi!….
    I was searching on internet and I found your web design blog…..it is really intresting…keep it up….look forward to read more from you

  10. I think the disconnect is that if you don’t know about design and how it functions you don’t realize that it is subjective and their is meaning and reasoning behind good design. you can get more information about designing from this,
    http://www.cyberdesignz.com/

  11. The title of this article alone made me want to stand up and clap. It’s so rare in any business service now that people take the right approach – USE EVIDENCE. I think, when possible, this is where using any and all web analytics data is vital. If you have an existing website, you can use some past numbers as a basis of weighting and placement of content, for example. Will this give you all the answers? No. But starting with a research approach (particularly quantitatively) makes selling the next steps of further testing/research that much easier.

    Great post!

  12. To avoid any problems with the clients you should send them the materials for approval on every development and design stage.

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