Illustration by Erica Fasoli
If you’re a designer, then chances are you have clients. Whether you work at an agency, on an in-house team, or as a freelancer, there are two very different ways to approach client relationships: either you take the project brief, go away for a few weeks, and come back with a finished design, or you work with the client to form a relationship built on trust. Even if deep down, you know that a collaborative, trust-based relationship is the best approach, it can be easy to forget that when deadlines loom and you don’t really want any more feedback on your work.
So, is it really worth the effort to build such a relationship with your client? The short answer is yes, but the process for doing so is a lot less straightforward. Let’s explore some of the benefits of this approach and how you can build a strong relationship that leads to more valuable work.
Trust unlocks opportunities
In my experience as a web and product designer, designers tend to do their best work when they are included in projects from kickoff to launch. This long-term commitment provides many benefits and also presents the perfect opportunity to create additional value by building a trust-based relationship with the client.
Trust unlocks the opportunity to be perceived not just as a contractor, but as a consultant – someone who wants to go the extra mile and provide value beyond the work they were contracted to do. Remember, your role is not to just make beautiful designs, your main obligation is to provide value and solve problems for the client. A trust-based relationship unlocks the opportunity to provide an outside perspective and do more valuable work while increasing the likelihood of building a long-term partnership.
An outside perspective
For digital designers, users provide the best feedback for your work. Although interviewing users and getting feedback on prototypes is ideal, true user testing is often cut due to budget and timeline constraints. In these scenarios as a consultant designer, you have the unique opportunity to be the voice of the user. Being a consultant as opposed to a member of the client’s team allows you to more easily view the design work from a new user’s perspective. Your fresh eyes can spot UX issues that the client’s team might have missed because they are so close to the product. Put your creative mindset on pause for a minute and go through the design with a problem-solving mindset. Look for language that is confusing or user flows that might be missing.
A heuristics evaluation can be a great tool for evaluating a web or product design from a user’s perspective. It’s a design review method that enables you to specifically look for violations of general user experience principles. If you have some extra time, run a heuristic review and share your findings with the client.
Going above and beyond what the client has asked for by offering a fresh perspective as a new user provides more value to your client and results in an even better final design solution. Don’t be afraid to at least have a conversation about what design changes you would make to improve the user experience.
More valuable work
In addition to making the experience better for users, a trust-based client relationship means that you and your work will be perceived as more valuable to the client — because it is. You’re no longer “one of the contractors,” you’re part of the team. Closer collaboration with the team allows you to work faster and smarter by focusing on the areas that will provide the most value.
A trust-based relationship allows you to stretch your design skills by thinking beyond the problems at hand. It allows you to voice ideas that go beyond the scope of your work. For example, discuss how a design system would help the client improve consistency or how hiring a UX researcher could give them better data on user needs. Your passion for the client’s needs and willingness to dig in and help will not go unnoticed, and it might even lead to more work with them in the future. If the client trusts you, they are more likely to want to work with you in the future. Trust puts you in a position that enables you to suggest future projects that would help them reach their goals.
The question now is, how do you build a trust-based relationship with your client that allows you to be free to bring an outside perspective and do more valuable work?
How to build a trust-based relationship with your clients
Immediately pointing out issues is probably not the best first step in building a collaborative, trust-based relationship. Instead, involve your client in the design process and treat the relationship like a partnership. Here are a few ways to do this:
Most projects start with a brief, but that’s only the beginning of the story. There is so much more information about a project that can’t be found in a brief. It’s important to meet with the client as much as possible to hear directly from them since they typically have the most head knowledge and historical information about the project.
Meeting frequently with the client also provides opportunities to build empathy and uncover useful information that didn’t make it into the brief. For example, does the CEO hate green or does the marketing team not get along with the product team? Information like this won’t be in the brief but it can be gathered through meeting with and listening carefully to the client.
By listening, you can be more confident that any suggestions you make will align with what the client values. The project brief and the client values provide the framework for your design creativity, so make sure you understand the boundaries. You don’t want to present an idea for a new feature that has already been rejected or suggest changing a font that the CEO loves unless you have strong reasoning and are already aware of the client’s position.
Meeting with the client is as much of a chance to ask questions as it is to listen. Asking questions and listening are tandem skills that allow you to dig deeper. The questions you ask should naturally build off what you learned by listening, and doing so shows the client that you are engaged. Asking questions is the perfect opportunity to cement your knowledge of how the client defines project success — which is something you should pay close attention to. Never miss an opportunity to link your work to their definition of project success.
Questions can also be used as an opportunity to clarify gray areas or raise any potential concerns you have. Items like user testing, browser support, and accessibility are often overlooked, and it’s important to discuss the client’s expectations to make sure you are on the same page. With a trust-based relationship you can also make recommendations if they are unsure what they should do. If you uncover something important that the client missed, they will thank you for it and you can both rest easier knowing the end product will be better because you spoke up.
At Sparkbox, we do a lot of this work during project kick offs or discoveries which take place at the beginning of every project. We like to spend a few days with the client and their team to discuss the brief, ask lots of questions, build a shared understanding, and share vulnerability. Oftentimes, the work we do ends up looking a lot different than what was originally proposed because new information or needs were uncovered during discovery. This process helps us set projects up for success by digging into root issues and opportunities.
By listening and asking questions you’re beginning to treat the client as a partner. Partners understand that they are both responsible for the final result and, therefore, must work together — with trust. An important aspect of building trust is open communication through design feedback. This means dropping the curtain we like to work behind and including the client in the design process.
Present your work early and often — even if it’s not polished. Get used to the feeling of showing something that your perfectionist design eye says isn’t ready. This opens the door for feedback and valuable input from others — especially the client — who probably has more knowledge about their users than you.
When presenting to client stakeholders, it’s important to mention how your work will directly impact their business objectives. Remember to restate the high level goal of your work along with any specific details about how you’re solving user needs. Use the knowledge you gained from listening and asking questions about the client’s business needs to show how you have also solved those needs with your design work.
Showing unpolished work often opens the door for more valuable feedback. Many clients are wary of giving feedback on “finished” design work, assuming that you’re the expert and their ideas would not be valuable. In reality, they are the expert on what their users need, so it’s important to listen to their ideas.
Inviting feedback early in the process also provides time to pivot if the design work is headed in the wrong direction. When sharing unfinished work, be sure to describe it as such and be specific about areas that you are still working on or have questions about. A culture of feedback and collaboration is healthy and will undoubtedly result in a better product in the end.
A tale of two projects
Imagine two projects. For one of them you don’t interact with the client much and only do the work asked of you. In the best case scenario, you finish the project on time, the client is happy, and you go your separate ways. However, without a relationship there’s no foundation of trust to fallback on when something goes wrong. If requirements change, and it takes you longer than expected, or you try something that doesn’t work, it is very easy to end up with a frustrated client who won’t want to work with you in the future — or vice versa.
Now imagine another project in which you apply what we discussed here. You listen closely, ask thoughtful questions, and gather feedback while working in the open and meeting regularly with the client. Now the client can see all your hard work. You can ask questions to get their input as you go and make changes that will go above and beyond their expectations. In doing so you’ve likely gained the client’s trust, provided a valuable outside perspective, done more valuable work, and hopefully won over a long-term client.