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.
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:
- revealing and insightful, or
- in circles, with nothing useful arising
As Eris describes:
I used to ask them Ã¢â‚¬Å“What is it about this other siteÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s design that you like?Ã¢â‚¬Â But it never resulted in useful replies (Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what I like about it, just everythingÃ¢â‚¬Â) 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…