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How to Get the Right Creative Requirements From Your Client

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Getting the correct creative requirements from your client can often be one of the biggest hurdles in any creative project... but it seems to be an especially difficult task in the field of web design, where clients often know a lot less about their actual needs for a website than we tend to give them credit for. Today's article examines how to get accurate, meaningful, and actionable creative requirements from your clients.


A popular comic explaining just how confusing it can be to gather project requirements. Attribution unknown, so post a comment if you know who the original artist is!

Why Are the Elevators So Slow Around Here?

There is a classic case in which the tenants of a large office building complained about the increasingly poor elevator service. A consulting firm specializing in elevator-related problems was employed to deal with the situation. It first established that average waiting time for elevators was too long. It then evaluated the possibilities of adding elevators, replacing existing elevators with faster ones, and introducing computer controls to improve utilization of elevators. For various reasons, none of these turned out to be satisfactory. The engineers declared the problem to be unsolvable.

When exposed to the problem, a young psychologist employed in the building's personnel department made a simple suggestion that dissolved the problem. Unlike the engineers who saw the service as too slow, he saw the problem as one deriving from the boredom of those waiting for an elevator. So he decided they should be given something to do. He suggested putting mirrors in the elevator lobbies to occupy those waiting by enabling them to look at themselves and others without appearing to do so. The mirrors were put up and complaints stopped. In fact, some of the previously complaining tenants congratulated management on improvement of the elevator service.

Often there are significant differences between what a client needs, what they request, and what is understood and designed.

In nine cases out of ten, clients come to us with only partially formed ideas about what they want, and try to unconsciously suggest a solution within their requirements without really knowing the root problem they are trying to solve exactly as in the elevator case above, the client thought the problem was slow elevators (unconsciously suggesting the need for faster elevators as a solution) while the actual problem was the boredom of those waiting for the elevator.

Adding to this problem is that clients generally do not possess the imagination and creative background required to be able to successfully explain what they have in mind so it’s up to the designer to try and help get a full understanding of the actual requirements and not rely solely on what the client gives you as they will not be able to answer direct questions correctly.


Competitor Analysis

Creating your design should never be like sailing into uncharted territory. Before going to your client in your first “requirements gathering” meeting, you should do some homework by preparing a competitor analysis report.

Sometimes called peer analysis, this is basically a table listing all features and components of your client’s competitor websites and a screenshot of each. This might not seem directly related to design, but doing this research and providing your client with such a report will greatly minimize revisions later on due to forgotten components that need to be squeezed into your design.

You don't need to spend 50 hours on this though... Preparing even just a simple comparison chart will give you higher credibility by showing your client that you understand his market and know the strengths and weaknesses of his competitors. Clients don’t want you to reinvent the wheel or start from the very beginning, so having a baseline of where the market stands and trying to build on that giving your client something better is what they’re ultimately looking for.


Likes and Dislikes

One of the first and most important questions you should ask your client is which sites they like and which sites they dislike. This might seem like a silly exercise, it can be your best opportunity for getting a general impression of what styles and layouts a client seems to gravitate towards.

Obviously, you should have them do a little research before your visit... and request that they keep their answers limited to sites that actually relate in some way to their own project (hearing about how much they like homestarrunner.com won't help if they are building a Law website).

You should be particularly interested in knowing exactly what points they like or dislike in each example that they provide; As in one case they may just like the colors and in another a specific component, and in a third the fonts, …etc. Doing a quick analysis of such list will help you create a general idea of which direction to move in and what to avoid.


W5 Questions

Second in line are the W5 questions. They are called W5 because they all start with Who, What, Why, When or Where. The W5 questions will narrow down your options and help you focus on one or 2 design options max. Here is a sample of such W5 questions and a brief explanation of why you would ask them. You can add or remove to them as the situation requires, but keep in mind that they all have to start with one of the W5 words:


Who

Who is the target site audience? Identifying your audience and their demographics (age group, gender, education level,…etc.) can greatly influence your design decisions, for example designing for kids differs from designing for adults, even if it has more or less the same purpose or content. Take a look at the below examples: Yahoo and National Geographic websites, they both provide a kids version; note how it’s very different in design.


What

What is the purpose of the site? Too often a website lacks the focus of a clear purpose and visitors are quickly confused and click away. Internet users today are impatient. A website visitor will not spend their precious time trying to figure out what the site is about (or how it can benefit them). A website with a well-defined purpose stands out and a visitor should instantly recognize it without effort. Clearly defining the purpose of your website before its creation will ensure that your website is optimized to achieve the required purpose. After all, you can only meet your goals when you know what they are.


Why

Why are you redesigning your website? In some cases your task will be to redesign a website rather than create a new one, and in this case it’s very important to understand the reason for this redesign, are they adding new features? Have they changed branding? Knowing the reason will help you avoid any mistakes you might fall in such as removing a feature that may be actually the reason for the design facelift.


When

When will the site content be ready? Always keep in mind that using real content could save a lot of time. Understanding the amount and nature of the content will give you clues on how to arrange your components and use your colors. If content is mostly dynamic as in news sites or blogs, then try to use more neutral colors that will not clash with your site’s images or contrast with the context. If possible always try to have your client provide you with some sample content to use in your design instead of generic images or Lorem Ipsum text.


Where

Where will the site services be offered? (local, regional or international). You would never imagine how critical this point can be; various cultures interpret symbols, shapes and colors differently. Understanding where the site will be used will help you tailor your design to match such cultures.

For example most cultures perceive white as a pure and happy color used at weddings for the bride, but in India white symbolizes the absence of color, and is the only color widows are allowed to wear. It is the acceptable color at funerals. It reflects the basic quality of the color itself, in principle; white, as a color, repels all light and colors and therefore, when a widow wears white, she disconnects herself from the pleasures and luxuries of active and normal participation in society and life around her.

Another example is if you’re designing for RTL (Right-to-Left reading) languages, you should probably position the logo at the top right instead of the usual top left for most sites targeted for western audiences.

But you must always take care not to box yourself in and squeeze yourself out of options. Always give yourself space to be creative, so the questions you ask should always guide you in a specific direction without giving a defined answer that you can’t work around. In other words getting the client to tell you which style they prefer is good, however don’t go into too much details that the client ends up telling you I want this exact component as is.


Meet in Person

Unless your client is in a different location geographically, try to meet up with them in person - preferably at their location (office or home). Don’t rely on emails or phone calls alone to communicate. Meeting in person provides you with valuable insight into their personality which in turn can be translated into design preferences.

Meeting in person also allows you to see their body language and demeanor when talking about the website, and more importantly, their business. Often, much can be communicated through these subtleties that would otherwise go unnoticed if you are relying 100% on phone or email. Save the phone calls and emails for when you're strictly looking to be efficient - deciding on creative requirements and the initial communication between yourself and a client are not a time to place efficiency above efficacy.


Malachite, Fuchsia or Azure?

When discussing colors, don’t use fancy color names that no one else would understand. Either show your client samples of each color on the screen or use plain names that everyone understands like Green, Pink or Blue instead of Malachite, Fuchsia or Azure. Knowledge of such name may impress your client at first, but when it comes to discussing requirements, use a language everyone understands and minimizes interpretation.

When it comes time to become specific on a color, take the time to show your client a sample on a couple different screens (for a complete list of color names check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_colors ). Often, a color can look different on different monitors... so be sure to not only show them a screen-color over email, but to actually see that color on the screen that they are viewing it on so that everyone is on the same page.

No matter what, NEVER rely on a print-out of a website design as a reliable means of dictating color requirements. Print and Screen colors are vastly different and should be treated as such. Most brand guidelines (below) will dictate not only a print color (CMYK), but also precise details about screen colors (hexadecimal or RGB).


Branding Guidelines


The Skype Brand Guidelines book is an excellent example of a clear set of branding rules.

Finally, always remember to ask for a copy of the client’s branding documents (if they have one). This should also include their logo in vector or hi-res format, the logo usage guidelines and ask them to give you a copy of any fonts they use as it may be hard to obtain freely if they bought or had it customized for them (but note that you should not use it for anything else other than their design as many fonts are copyrighted)


Tips for the Most Difficult Clients

You should also keep in mind that some clients may not be ready with answers to the questions that we've discussed in this article (or worse, they change what their answers are from one meeting to the next). Dealing with clients like this can often feeling like pulling teeth just to get a clear answer out of them. These last little tips should help you out when dealing with even the most vague clients:

  • Have them prepare their answers before your meeting together.
  • Tell them to state their requests in terms of "business goals" first, and to only make creative suggestions after the business goals are clear.
  • If there is a group making the decisions, have them agree together before meeting with you.
  • If there is a group making decisions, ask that ONE person become the main decision maker and contact person.
  • Get it in writing (use a contract!) that if they change their minds halfway through, they are the ones paying for revisions, not you.

Conclusions

There are entire websites devoted to the horrors that happen while dealing with "problem child" clients... but it's important to remember that we, web designers, play as much a role in the problem as they do. Often, not taking the time to truly find out what a client needs (not just what they say they want) can make the difference between a complete disaster of a project and a successful one. Sure, the tips here won't help if you really have a nightmare client (that's what breach of contract clauses are for!), but by following these guidelines, you should be well on your way to better client relations in no time.

Good luck and post your feedback (and horror stories) below!

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