Eliciting Useful Criticism From Your Clients

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| July 3, 2007

Don’t let criticism fall-out hold you back.

It’s hard enough to take negative feedback, but as a designer you have the even more difficult task of making sure a client’s criticism comes in a form you can use to produce a revision that hits the mark. We’ve all heard clients use hazy negative statements like “I hate it,” “It’s not working,” “That color is all wrong.” Amid the pain and letdown of not hearing words of praise, we actually have to try to elicit some useful information. It would be great if every client could be a great communicator, able to articulate why the design isn’t working, offer insights pegged to the target audience, and give suggestions on specific areas for change. But you can do a lot to steer the conversation towards the most intelligent, useful critique possible, so that you get to turn in a winning design.

Model good communication yourself. It’s easy to feel hurt, defensive, angry, or hopeless when you are receiving criticism and facing a seeming impasse: a design that does not meet your client’s wants or expectations. Acting on the defensive, whether angrily or overly apologetic, paints the client as the adversary or bad guy, when in fact you need to work as a team. Instead, listen to the client’s initial feedback, and then acknowledge and paraphrase his or her comments so it is clear you’ve understood. Without blaming the client, communicate the thought process or understanding of the clients’ needs that informed your design the first time. Then be ready to ask some follow-up questions so you can sort out where your understanding needs to change in order to do a successful revision.

Get your client to clarify the goals of the project.
The client may not be able to speak in aesthetic terms, but you can often gain useful design direction from clues in her description of what the project’s outcome needs to accomplish. If a client is putting money behind a project, it’s because the project is slated to return on its investment. So you need to be able to speak about the design not in aesthetic terms, but in terms of its purpose from the client’s perspective. Finding out why your client feels that your design won’t meet that purpose can usually lead you to some action steps for revisions.

Stay focused on the project’s target market. Your client may be a 50 year-old manager in charge of launching a product for teens – plenty of room for tastes to deviate, and plenty of historical generational resentment! No one likes to feel that their taste is not in line with what is hot or relevant right now. Frame your questions in terms of “the product’s target audience” to help steer your client’s thoughts to aesthetic matters. In addition to being what is actually relevant, it’s a way of viewing design that offers the client more opportunities for articulation than a purely aesthetic conversation might.

Acknowledge the perspective of the non-designer. There is value in hearing from the non-designer how he or she experiences your work, even if your client is not the targeted end-user. In fact, many designs go through rounds of user-testing to get necessary refinements before ever being launched. Plus, most clients like to feel they have some input into the designer’s creative process. Let the client know you consider his perspective as a user crucial to the design’s success, and that you are taking his opinion into account. A chasm in the designer/client relationship opens when the designer considers the client clueless, and the client views the designer as too remote and rarefied in his taste.

Set expectations and follow up. After meeting with the client, follow up via email to state the steps you will take based on your discussion in order to revise the design and resolve the situation. Make sure any miscommunications are resolved in writing then and there, before you go back to the drawing board. And finally, remember: every client knows what it is like to have revision requests and criticisms on a designer’s initial submission because it happens all the time. Your opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition is to make the process of arriving at those revisions as smooth and responsive as possible.

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