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The Art of Questioning your Clients

June 30, 2004

The type of questions you ask a client have an influence on the type of answer you’ll get, and are influenced by the comfort level of the client. This applies on many levels, but here, I want to focus exclusively on questions as part of the initial discovery phase as part of a design process.

Eris Free makes some interesting statements in her latest post “Designer != Psychic“. She outlines a bit of frustration in dealing with clients – in particular with their contribution to the design process – no doubt, this is something many desigers face in their work.

Discovery

Most designers start by asking the client general discovery type questions about the design – what kind of mood are we trying to convey with the site? what is the general feel for the company/organization? what tone are we trying to set with the copy? During this process we start to get a better idea of where the client sits on the spectrum – do they have initial ideas? can they articulate the tone and mood they are hoping to achieve? Do they know their target audience? Most times this discovery process “works” and the answers to these questions provide you with the knowledge and ideas you were seeking.

But what happens in the situation where the client doesn’t know what tone or mood they want to set? Quite often as a last resort we ask for examples of sites that they like, or the prospective client offers to provide these examples.

Then a curious unpacking process begins: What, exactly, is it about the example sites that the client likes? This usually goes one of two ways:

  1. revealing and insightful, or
  2. in circles, with nothing useful arising

As Eris describes:

I used to ask them “What is it about this other site’s design that you like?” But it never resulted in useful replies (“I don’t know what I like about it, just everything”) so I quit asking it and quit accepting other sites as design examples from clients.

Perhaps, when we are asking them what they like about it, we are asking them the wrong questions?

Convergence vs. Divergence

Asking a question like “What is it about this other site’s design that you like?” is very open-ended – a divergent question. Some (most?) people will have no problem answering this type of question. As Eris writes, and I’m sure many will agree, other clients will struggle answering this type of question.

Maybe we aren’t asking the right questions.

Call it what you like – right-brain vs. left-brain, creative vs. logical, divergent vs. convergent, abstract vs. concrete, linear thinking vs. interconnected thinking – it doesn’t matter. The point is, certain clients will not be comfortable at all with open-ended questions and others will not be comfortable at all with closed questions, and many will fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

Reading the Client

If a client is asked an open-ended question, they may not like that “freedom” to answer in anyway they see fit. They may prefer knowing that there is a logical, well-defined answer. If you can read that, based on the other questions you’ve asked them, switch gears. Do they squirm when you ask open ended questions? Do they answer open ended questions with logical, linear answers? Where do they fit in the continuum?

If you aren’t getting anywhere but frustrated with divergent questions, consider stepping back and get them warmed up with some simple questions to which they can provide a concrete answer on some very specific parts of the design:

  • What do you think about this site’s colour scheme? Of these three sites, which colour scheme might be appropriate for your site?
  • This site’s imagery is very (insert descriptor here) in nature. Is that appropriate for your site?
  • This site makes use of very prominent headings with a powerful font. Would you be comfortable with that font, or would you prefer this font from this other site?

I’ve tried some of these types of questions before and they seem to have gotten the ball rolling, though I’ll admit I don’t have to get to this level of direct questioning with most clients. And of course, we all have to remember that while our client’s comfort level may be on a continuum, so too is ours… and I’d say we need to be willing to help the clients get out of their comfort zone any way we can to get the answers we need…

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6 Responses

Pingback by A Passion for 'Puters » Questions — Jul 01 2004 @ 8:29 pm

[...] t they are, but won’t define them. In a related post at Box of Chocolates, entitled The Art Of Questioning Your Clients, Derek Featherstone respond [...]

Comment by Eris — Jun 30 2004 @ 10:26 am

For me, personally, I ask open-ended questions because I don’t want to pigeonhole their responses. If I were interested in doing cookie-cutter sites that don’t bother getting to the root of that client’s individuality, then sure, multiple-choice all the way.

I understand what you’re talking about in regards to taking a different approach with the questioning (it is a good thing to keep in mind), some of those example questions you’ve got posted there seem really condescending. If I were a client and was talked to like that, I dont know how long I would tolerate it. If you want to help the client get comfortable with the proccess, talking down to them and treating them like mild idiots is probably not the way to go.

If I ask them, “How do you want your users to feel when they visit your site?” and the client can’t answer that question or the client doesn’t know, I usually tell them to think more about what they’re looking for and email me again in about a month. Because chances are, they understand the question, they just weren’t prepared for the fact that they’d have to answer questions like that at all.

Some of my best responses happened when I posted the preliminary questions on my site in a quick email form. Potential clients saw the questions they were expected to answer, but they didn’t feel rushed in answering them. They could come to the site, read the questions, think on them for a few weeks or less or more and then submit their answers.

:)

Comment by feather — Jun 30 2004 @ 10:47 am

For me, personally, I ask open-ended questions because I don’t want to pigeonhole their responses. If I were interested in doing cookie-cutter sites that don’t bother getting to the root of that client’s individuality, then sure, multiple-choice all the way.

Don’t get me wrong — I ask open-ended questions all the time. I don’t want to pigeonhole people either, and I’m not interested in doing cookie-cutter sites. And I’m not suggesting a multiple choice approach either – far from it. I’m suggesting that as designers/consultants/whatever we need to read the client and adjust accordingly. If their comfort zone means that they aren’t as “creative” or able to easily articulate an answer to an open ended question, then all I’m suggesting is read the situation, and ask a different type of question that may eventually get them talking about what they really envision…

some of those example questions you’ve got posted there seem really condescending. If I were a client and was talked to like that, I dont know how long I would tolerate it. If you want to help the client get comfortable with the proccess, talking down to them and treating them like mild idiots is probably not the way to go.

I certainly don’t talk down to clients… the questioning is all in the delivery. And those questions I listed aren’t questions to be asked of everyone — only when open-ended questioning certainly isn’t working. If I am not getting anywhere, I try to take it a step back, and ask different types of questions that lead to the same point — that’s all.

My post is more in response to you saying that when you asked the question, it never resulted in productive replies, and so you’ve quit asking the question. That particular question may be a last resort, and not a question that you normally like to deal with.

If we are asking our clients to step outside of their comfort zone, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same with the types of questions we ask? Just because we want to ask open-ended questions does that mean it should be the only kinds of questions that we actually end up asking?

Comment by Lea — Jun 30 2004 @ 7:01 pm

I believe maybe a better method would start off with as many open questions as possible, and then hone in with closed questions to verify that you both understand what each other is saying. That way, things are clarified and outlined. Best of both worlds.

feather, you hit it right on the head by mentioning we have to step out of our own comfort zone. That’s BUSINESS. That’s life. You can’t always dismiss a potential client because they don’t fit in your business model or your “process.”

Negotiation skills, anyone? :-)

Comment by Eris — Jul 02 2004 @ 3:23 pm

You can’t always dismiss a potential client because they don’t fit in your business model or your “process.”

I am very fortunate enough to be in a position right now where I can do that. I don’t work for a company where I’m forced to deal with clients, and I have enough potential clients emailing me that I can pick and choose who to work with.

And, for me, the best projects happen when my clients and I understand one another. It wouldn’t be fair to the end product or the client if I accepted a project I knew would cause problems. So the questions also tend to act as a filtering process.

Maybe all that means I do business badly since I don’t work with clients who don’t “mesh with my process”. But it keeps me sane, keeps my work at a quality level and it keeps my clients happy and coming back.

Comment by feather — Jul 02 2004 @ 3:36 pm

Maybe all that means I do business badly since I don’t work with clients who don’t “mesh with my process”

I would hardly say badly — more like differently. It is obviously working for you, and if it is keeping you sane, then that is great…

For me, though, I need to keep bringing in more clients, even if I know it may be a tough ride