If ‘Everyone is a Designer’ then why am I here? (1)

Darian O'Reilly / Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Part 1: Setting Expectations

Whether you are a freelance consultant, work at an agency, or are in-house, you work with stakeholders. They might be clients you are meeting for the first time, they might be returning customers, or they might even be your co-workers. The bottom line is that if you have ever designed something for anyone but yourself, you have experienced the push and pull of creative control that exists in most design projects.

Before the project even starts, most of the team will have some ideas about what they are expecting. They might even have a few examples of websites or software that they like or be extremely keen on including green in the color palette. Or maybe they hate green. Regardless of the specifics, expectations and opinions will be plentiful.

Finding the delicate balance between fostering productive stakeholder input and ending up with too many cooks in the design kitchen is a challenge UX designers regularly face. It is impossible to create a useful and elegant product solution without adequate information from our clients but is equally difficult to do so while having personal opinions thrust upon you about which shade of blue to use for the submit button and where to put it. Short of jumping on top of the conference table and telling your stakeholders what you REALLY think, how can you navigate this project minefield riddled with often misguided artistic opinions?

There are four important elements of the design process that when utilized properly, will create structure, provide predictability, and establish boundaries for clients while still encouraging them to make valuable project contributions.

Step 1 - DEFINE - Understand what the user wants and needs.

We need to get a lot of basic information up front in the requirements gathering stage of the project and this is also the time for us to give information to our stakeholders as well. Project teams usually have lots of ideas about what they want, and it is our responsibility to provide a framework for their ideas. So how do we harvest this information, and just as importantly, how do we curate it in a way that will fully acknowledge the wants and needs of our stakeholders while ultimately resulting in the best project solution that we as designers can devise? Your goal should be at a bare minimum, to cover the following by the end of your kick-off meeting:



Introduction of Project Team

Introduction of Design Team

Functional and Usability Requirements

High Level Description of the Design Process

Technical Requirements
(platform, screen size, code base)

Project Timeline

Visual Design Requirements
(existing style guide, logo specifications)

Highlight Major Project Milestones

Target User Demographics

Tools to Establish Design Direction

One mistake that designers often make at the beginning of a project is to ask for examples of things that the stakeholders like. This is harmful in a couple of ways; not only do you want to keep the door closed on all potential ‘terrible’ ideas that the project team might find compelling, you don’t want to set expectations that your design will mimic something else that already exists no matter how bad or good you think it is.

If you run into a situation where you are offered examples without requesting them, you can politely say that the work you and your team will be doing is completely custom and that looking at visual examples of other websites or software might subconsciously prevent out-of-the-box thinking with only their unique wants and needs in mind. Stakeholders will love that because you are telling them how special they are and as a side benefit, you will not be subjected to seeing screenshots of the new iPhone release page or Snapchat for the 47th time.

Step 1 Recap

DO ask your stakeholders for technology requirements, existing style guide, logo(s), marketing goals, target user groups, and accessibility requirements.

DO NOT ask for examples of things they like.

Step 2 - DISCOVER - Find out more about the ‘personality’ of the project. Gain valuable information to inform design direction.

A Design Workshop is a fun way to break the ice in the client/design team relationship and I like to include one in every project kickoff meeting if possible. It works like this:

  • Each member of the project team reviews 100 images
  • Give them ten green stickers for images that best communicate the brand and project goals.
  • Give them two red stickers for images that are the farthest off track.
  • Ask the team to think about adjectives that describe each choice that they make.
  • Review selections with the group to get a list of design adjectives.

Once you have a nice meaty list of adjectives that the stakeholders used to describe their green sticker choices, you have a tangible place to start your design and a clear sense of what will be likely to appeal to them.

It is important to stress to participants that their selections should be based on their perception of the brand or project vision and not their personal preferences. When reviewing their choices, you also need to be careful to refrain from voicing your own opinions. After all, this is the time to listen the stakeholders. They are giving you very valuable information and any expert opinion that you contribute may alter the input that they contribute.

Step 2 Recap

DO hold a Design Workshop that is framed from the perspective of project and company goals.

DO NOT ask for personal opinions – or voice your own.

Read Part 2 where we will talk about how to use the design adjectives uncovered in your design workshop to define possible design directions for the project and ultimately to create stunning designs which can be seamlessly implemented by a development team.