About ten years ago, after throwing in my day job, I stepped into the world of freelance web design. I honestly had no idea what I was doing, but I’d thrown myself directly into the deep end so I had to learn fast.
At first, eager to please, I would start projects by simply chatting with clients about what they wanted, and offering a flat rate with an unlimited number of revisions so I could ensure I delivered something they loved.
However I soon discovered that the unlimited revisions approach almost always lead to projects dragging on far too long, as well as pressure to do free work: “Oh could you just add this extra thing please?”
It was clear I had to clamp down on never ending revision requests if I ever wanted to be adequately compensated for my time. I had to find out what people wanted up front. I started trying to probe more before a project started, but very often I would get the response:
“I don’t know what I want. You’re the designer, just do whatever you think is right”.
I’ll tell you one thing right now: if a client says that to you never ever believe them. They may honestly think they don’t know what they want, but it’s just not true.
When I first heard this response I thought, “Ok cool, you’re easy to please!” and got to work. But I soon discovered the easy going outlook typically lasts only until the client sees the design. When they do, they will suddenly be imbued with creativity and have a long list of instructions that usually involve you starting over with their new found influx of ideas.
Clients Know What They Want, But..
I came to realize clients really did know what they wanted, they just lacked the language to communicate it up front. Once they saw a design, that helped give them words to describe what they wanted, even if only to say “I don’t want that”.
This realization in turn lead me to understand it was my job to give clients the language they needed. When they say “I don’t know, you’re the designer”, what they really mean is “This is not my field so I don’t know how to tell you what I want”.
After some trial and error I developed a questionnaire I would give to every client at the start of each job, and I would not begin until it was completed. And crucially, I would include example answers to some of the questions. Sometimes, a person doesn’t know how to answer a question until they see examples, and on occasion I would actually see clients just pick an answer straight off the list I provided.
In this questionnaire I would ask several questions about layout and some other technical points, but what really laid the foundation was the questions I asked at the beginning of the questionnaire on two things: their purpose for the site, and the style they wanted.
Through this questionnaire I reached the point where all my projects ran exactly to schedule, and my clients were consistently very happy with their results. I offered a up to three revisions per design, but I would typically have only a single small revision request, if any at all.
It took just seven questions to make that happen, but don’t let the simplicity deceive you - these questions, in conjunction with a couple of other things, are what made my time as a freelance web designer successful.
These are those seven questions.
Section A: Ask About Purpose
As designers, we’re sometimes tempted to put the horse before the cart and prioritize how a site looks over its reason for existing in the first place. The reality is if you make a beautiful site that doesn’t achieve its goals, you’ll ultimately have unhappy clients. But even if you create a site that is horridly ugly but it gets new customers, new readers and so on the client will be ecstatic, come back to you for more work, and recommend you to others.
Q1: “Please briefly summarize your goals for the site”
This is the absolute most important thing you need to know on any site. Nothing else matters if you don’t know what the goals for the site are. Is it to spread information about a particular topic? Is it to raise advertising revenue? Is it to generate leads? Is it to provide entertainment?
Understanding the primary goals for a site is the foundation of everything you will do during a project.
Q2: “Describe your target audience / market”
This is the second most important question, because if you understand the type of people a client wants to reach you can intuit the kind of site that will best achieve this. An executive shopping for a yacht will respond to a totally different type of site than a parent shopping for kid’s birthday party supplies.
Q3: “What type of content will your site have?”
- News updates
- Review articles
- Product / service promotional content
- Personal / individual blogging
When you know what kind of content the client wants to have, you can structure your design around it, particularly the layout. The type of content will also help you to decide on the look and feel for your design as well.
Q4: “What action(s) do you want your visitors to take?”
- Purchase product / service
- Click advertising
- Request quote
- Download software
- Subscribe to newsletter
If you want to help your clients achieve the goals they described in question one, you absolutely must understand the actions they want site visitors to take. In essentially every project, your number one job as a web designer is to get visitors to take a certain action. Everything else facilitates this purpose.
Section B: Ask About Style
Style is important, after all that’s why we’re called web designers. However it is only important in so far as it supports a site’s purpose. You should aim to create styles that helps further a site’s goals, and while you do need to design something that appeals to your client personally, what you should really go for is a style that appeals to the people they are trying to reach.
Q5: “In two or three words, describe the feel you want”
- Slick and professional
- Bright and fun
- Grungy and underground
Style is a very woolly concept, so sometimes you need to encourage your clients to dip into some woolly descriptions. This is one question where having some example answers is really important, because otherwise a person will often come up short on describing what they want. Give them a couple of possibilities and you’ll find just about every client can give you a concise description of their preferred feel.
Q6: “List two or three colors you want”
- Navy blue and white
- Middle blue and orange
- Green, yellow and black
This question is very helpful if you can get an answer including two or more colors, as that’s all you really need for most designs. Even more helpful is if the client sees the differentiation between “Navy blue” and “middle blue” in the example answers, then tries to follow suit and be extra descriptive with their colors.
Sometimes you’ll get someone who just says, “Blue”, and nothing else. In this case you can draw from the other questions you’ve asked to make more detailed decisions on color scheme.
Q7. “What are some example sites you like?”
This is a great “if all else fails” question to ask, because even if a client struggles to answer other questions on style it can be much easier for them to recognize something they like and show it to you.
It’s likely a client won’t know a site they like off the top of their head, so I recommend suggesting a couple of places they can go to browse designs, like ThemeForest for example. This, of course, is not so you can duplicate designs they say they like, but so you can get a feel for what resonates strongly with the client.
Wrapping Up and General Tips
If you ask these seven questions at the start of every project, you’ll be giving your clients a great helping hand in communicating to you what they want. This in turn will help you keep your projects to a timely turnaround, and deliver results that make your clients happy.
I’ll leave you with a couple of additional general tips.
Always ask the client if they have, or plan to get, a logo. If so, make sure they send you that logo before you start work. The reason is this logo will already have a certain style and color palette, and you can often then design an entire site around it. Conversely, a site designed with a logo added later may clash.
Get Those Answers
And when it comes to getting your questions answered, you may occasionally find you have a client who is very busy, or doesn’t really want to think about their project much at the beginning, and sends you back a questionnaire with some empty answer boxes. Always remember that the chances are very high they will have answers to the questions after you’ve done the work if you say nothing and proceed.
If this happens, respectfully pressure clients to answer all questions and try to help them along a little bit if they are having trouble. If you have someone who really just will not answer questions, which is very rare in my experience, that is up to them and is totally fine. However you should then be very clear with the client that you will instead make the decision yourself, and changing it later will count as a revision.
Which brings me to my final tip on getting clients to communicate what they want: have a fair but strict cap on revisions and be sure the client is aware of it at the outset. When someone knows they have a maximum of three revisions before they have to pay extra, they will think very carefully about what they want instead of just improvising without regard for your time. This approach is part of why I typically had only one revision request per job, even though clients could have used three if they wanted.
I hope you can take these methods I used to go from struggling and overworked to happy and independent freelancer, and use them to the same effect in your own web design business. Good luck!
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