When it Comes to Design Research, Clients Aren’t Really Our Clients

Mark Busse – No Comments

Seriously, they’re not. Not really. Think about it. Our clients’ clients are our clients.

Before any fellow design instructors flip out, insisting they spend a good deal of time teaching their students how to interview clients, develop target audience personas or write project creative briefs, ask yourself honestly how often this is really done. How frequently are young designers actually speaking with those for whom their identities, marketing pieces or websites are actually created? Not often enough.

Over the past decade, I’ve seen more design portfolios than you can probably imagine. Some (shockingly few to be honest) go beyond pretty pictures, providing case study descriptions outlining context, objectives, or approach — and virtually none demonstrating results. But when I ask how many end users they actually interviewed that led to their solutions, I can count on one hand those who have actually engaged directly in this crucial research.

The industry is saturated with talk about target audience research, demographics, ethnographics, personas, etc. But let’s be honest here — it’s mostly a bunch of bullshit. Proposal questionnaires sent to inexperienced clients including the question “Who is your target market” often results in a cursory list of gender, age, education, profession, income, etc. Extrapolating a myriad of audience attributes may impress an inexperienced client, but offer little useful insight compared with actually spending time with, talking to and observing real people.

One difficulty with this situation that I’ve observed firsthand, is that our clients themselves are frequently in our way, obfuscating the real problems and opportunities with their nervous hesitation to let us speak privately to staff, partners, clients, and prospects. But isn’t it our responsibility as design professionals to show confidence as experts and insist that we’re granted access to those we’re designing for?

As a brand strategy and identity designer, I am convinced that the first step in creating a successful brand is not only asking the right questions of our clients, but of those they wish to serve, thus getting to the heart of the issues that are driving the change. And by declaring this as a mandatory step in your process, you demonstrate that you are a designer who is concerned about results and helping them achieve their goals — not just doing the work. They’ll get out of your way.

Another issue can be a designer’s lack of time and budget leading them to skip this vital step. Fearing they won’t be able to engage in meaningful interviews with end users, they zip through a cursory research effort (often little more than a quick Google search unfortunately), and end up producing solutions rooted more in assumption or guesses than fact. It’s upsetting to me how often a young designer admits to not even visiting a company’s office or using their product, let alone interview their client’s clients. This laziness has to stop if we want to demand the respect we claim we deserve.

Identifying and interviewing our clients’ clients — real, living, breathing human beings — takes time and requires analysis. But it is this important step in any true design process that leads to understanding, discovery and opportunity. And it doesn’t have to be super complicated either. Depending on the context, goals and objectives of the client, interview questions need not be more than explorations using simple language into their experiences, needs, desires, pet peeves, aesthetic preferences, etc.

In my studio, we often do client surveys via email, interviews via telephone, and recently even sent our design team out into the neighbourhood where one of our clients was planning to construct a new residential building complex. We literally uncovered so many insights by just wandering the streets with clipboards that we were able to construct a brand identity so in tune with the client’s audience that it modified the building design to suit. That project sold out in two weeks!

I think it’s important to remember that many clients are often motivated to hire communication designers because they lack the ability to adequately express their problem and form solutions. So why do so many of us take their rudimentary project briefs at face value and not convince them of the value in getting out of our way? By allowing us to test their hypothesis on their own staff, partners, and especially customers, we can provide real value in their business.

Most of us have heard a business person bitching about his previous designer or firm, how the designer “didn’t get it” or “didn’t understand the problem.” If you haven’t yet, trust me, you will. And if it comes from a prospective client, I caution you to slow down and insist on having access to her clients. Otherwise you’re risking taking on a client who either doesn’t understand the situation herself, or is unable to clearly express herself, and ultimately running the risk of failure because you didn’t thoroughly understand her situation, goals or customers.

So for those of you who regularly make this a part of your design process, keep at it. But those of you who gloss over this important step, ask yourself how authentic your solutions are. I challenge you to, on your next new project, insist your client give you access to his staff, vendors, and ultimately his final clients. And if he refuses? Decline the work.

This article was originally published in Design Edge Magazine and can be viewed on their website here.