How to Successfully Work with Non-Designer Clients
Advice for providing your non-designer clients with the tools and opportunities to learn more about the design process.
One of my favorite projects that I've worked on as a Product Designer was for a nonprofit client that had never had the opportunity to work with a designer. When starting the project, I had a feeling that this might lead to some challenges, but along the way I discovered that it can be very rewarding to work with a client without a design background. I'd like to share some of my learnings from this client project and how you can make the design process the most productive and beneficial for both you and your client.
Understand That You'll be Working with Ambiguity
I found my client through Catchafire, an online pro bono marketplace that connects professionals with nonprofit organizations in need of certain skill sets. My client had an existing website but realized that there were opportunities to improve the user experience. The Catchafire team recommended that the organization find a pro bono User Experience Designer who would be able to make improvements to its website. Beyond this basic understanding of UX Design, my client didn't have any prior knowledge about what the design process entailed or how they could best work with a Designer.
After my first client meeting, I knew that I would need to get comfortable working with ambiguity related to high-level project goals, intended deliverables and timeline, and project success metrics. While this may seem like a stumbling block to a new UX Designer, it actually gave me the flexibility to determine each of those elements, which ultimately helped me grow as a designer. The sooner you learn to embrace ambiguity on any project, the faster you'll be able to dive into the meaningful work of improving your client's product.
Set a Realistic Timeline and Scope for the Project
I was fortunate that my client had considered the end goals for the website redesign prior to our first meeting. If your client needs help thinking through the high-level goals or scope for the project, it's helpful to ask some probing questions, like:
Who visits your website or uses your product?
Will those users benefit from this project?
How would you describe the project you have in mind?
What are your long-term priorities?
What challenges have you or your users encountered with your website or product?
What would success look like for this project?
To help define the project scope, make sure you understand the what and the why behind the project and think about how you would measure success in meeting high-level goals.
When thinking about the project timeline, be sure to assess any constraints and current assets - does your client have branding or style guidelines, a defined content strategy, or the right team in place for this project? Is there a budget? If working remotely, are there any timezone differences or technology constraints? Are these things that you may need to contribute to or that might slow down your process? Although circumstances may change, it's important to make a detailed assessment about the scope at the beginning of a project so that you can set a realistic timeline and stick to it.
When I began working with my client, I didn't realize that the organization was in the midst of redefining its strategic vision, mission, and branding. Project stakeholders also worked in a vastly different timezone than me, and due to their location, sometimes had issues with accessing reliable Internet. These elements affected my work, particularly in the high-fidelity stage, as there was a delay in receiving finalized text, images, and styling for my mockups. However, due to my flexible schedule, I was able to use this waiting period to run additional usability tests on the website, which ultimately helped me iterate towards a more effective and desirable product. For designers who don't have this flexibility (especially those working with clients without knowledge of the design process), it's even more critical to have a full understanding of the project's constraints and assets when setting the project scope and timeline and to be transparent with clients about how these elements could affect the delivery roadmap.
Be Transparent About Your Intended MVP
After setting the scope, timeline, and high-level goals for your project, be transparent with your client about your intended deliverables and minimum viable product (MVP). The MVP is the smallest version of a product that addresses the problem you're trying to solve. What can you realistically design within your defined scope and timeline that meets the goals of your client? What features can be saved for later projects or sprints?
As designers, we know that there's no such thing as a final product. Clients who haven't worked with designers in the past might naturally think that they'll receive the final version of their website or app at the conclusion of your project. It's helpful to manage client expectations at the beginning of the project to avoid later scope creep by explaining what an MVP is, building alignment on your intended MVP, and sharing what your design process looks like. Use open and honest communication throughout your project and if anything changes in relation to your MVP, scope, or timeline, be transparent with your client as soon as it happens.
Choose the Right Design Artifacts
As with any client, you need to choose the right design artifacts to help articulate your design thinking and convey your ideas. If your client has never worked with a designer or has trouble understanding the design process, I suggest using design artifacts that you think are the most effective in explaining your thought process. Consider creating slide decks with your design artifacts that clearly explain why you chose each tool and how it feeds into the overall design. Include the decks in your handoff documentation so your clients can refer back to them during later product iterations.
You can also alter design artifacts to fit your needs. For example, my client and his team were having trouble understanding the value of wireframes and couldn't quite envision the final product. To inspire them and provide a better sense of the intended product, I decided to use images and logos in my mid-fidelity wireframes. This generated an overall product feel and helped get stakeholder buy-in for design decisions and iterations because they could better understand what I was working towards.
Other artifacts that helped me secure stakeholder buy-in with a non-design client included:
Competitive analysis: To align with my client's vision and goals for the project, I did my own competitive analysis of similar websites but also asked the organization to provide a few websites that they admired, based on ease of use, impact and value, and branding.
Personas: Rather than using a tool like jobs to be done, it was more effective for me to create personas so that my client could visualize the target audience and sympathize with its needs and goals.
Storyboard: Another tool that helped my client empathize with target users was a storyboard that chronicled a user's experience with the organization's website.
Prototypes: During weekly client meetings, I presented interactive prototypes over Zoom, which was much more effective for my stakeholders than static wireframes.
Video walkthroughs: For sprints where I made a lot of iterations or changes to the design (typically in the mid-fidelity phase), I used video walkthroughs of my interactive prototypes to provide additional context behind my design decisions. I would typically send the videos a few days before check-in meetings to give my client time to process the iterations.
Ultimately, you know your client best, so use the design tools and artifacts that convey your ideas, build alignment, and get stakeholder buy-in. Working with a non-design client may even provide an opportunity for you to develop new skills or learn how to use a new design tool.
Working with a non-designer client made me a better designer. I gained practice with articulating my design decisions and explaining the intentionality and benefit of each design tool and artifact that I used; I learned new design tools; and, most importantly, I advocated for the importance of human-centered design. I hope your experiences with working with non-designer clients were just as rewarding! Please feel free to comment on this blog and share what worked best for you, what you learned, or what you would have changed.