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Why Aren’t You Asking Questions?

byby Janice Gervais

It’s the kickoff meeting. You are the lead designer on the project, and this is the first meeting with everyone in the room. Your client is reciting her wish list, and you’re taking diligent notes—probably with cute, relatable doodles.

An hour passes, and you’ve barely said a sentence. You’re nodding your head, scarcely making eye contact. You have some thoughts, but you aren’t speaking up. Why aren’t you speaking up?

You’ve likely been burned in the past. Perhaps you’ve shared some ideas and they were turned down. You have felt embarrassed in meetings. Projects that you put your heart and soul into were changed at the last minute without your consultation or discarded, apparently without a second thought.

Now, while it’s admirable to be an agreeable, easy-to-work-with colleague, being quiet and keeping your head down isn’t the answer because this is not a production line. You are a designer, and part of your job is contributing to the conversation.

It’s a designer’s job to ask good questions

You want to do your best work and meet your client’s needs, so playing an active role in the conversation is vital. To extract the most information you can from your client, you must ask questions. Lots of questions. Think of it like playing detective, gathering clues and working to understand the players in the game.

Laura Kalbag writes, “As designers, we can’t expect other people to know the right language to describe exactly why they think something doesn’t work. We need to know the right questions that prompt a client to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback.”

They are looking to you as the professional to not only listen to their needs, but to also be able to identify and understand their unexpressed needs.

It is not the client’s job to know exactly what their logo should be or how their website should function. That’s your job. They are coming to you to share ideas, to express concerns, likes, and dislikes. They are looking to you to help guide them to a solution.

Clients will always ask you to make their logo bigger, prescribe solutions, and ask you to do things that will make you smack your forehead. You can roll your eyes at how much they don’t understand about design or you can roll up your sleeves and begin practicing your craft by helping them clarify what they need.
Mike Monteiro from his brilliant and on point book Design is a Job

First, understand the end users’ needs

It’s pretty likely that your client isn’t the main user of the website or product you are designing. Even if they are amazing at articulating exactly their tastes and preferences, it’s beside the point because they are not the target audience.

If you are fortunate enough to be on a project that dedicates resources to user research, familiarize yourself with its findings. If you do not have access to this information, ask a few questions about who the end user is and what their needs are to better understand the target audience you are actually designing for:

  • Who exactly do you anticipate will be using this website?
  • What problem is this website solving for them? Or
  • What will they accomplish by using this website?
  • What are their pain points?

Once you establish who the end user is, try to phrase your upcoming questions in a way that encourages the client to see through the eyes of the end user, not their own. User experience consultant and writer Paul Boag simplifies this on 24ways.org: “A client’s natural inclination will be to give you his personal opinion on the design. This is reinforced because you ask them what they think of the design. Instead ask them what their users will think of the design.”

It is also possible that the client thinks they understand what the end user needs, but they are only working from assumptions. This is apparent when sweeping generalizations and blanket statements are made. As Laura Kalbag says, “Throughout the design process, we need to check our hidden assumptions about our users. We should also ensure any feedback we get isn’t based upon an unfounded assumption. If the client says the users won’t like it, ask why. Uncover the assumption—maybe it’s worth testing with real users?”

Establish attainable business goals

This is a conversation that I still struggle with. A lot of companies are good at coming up with lofty business goals that can be interpreted into almost anything, and are usually difficult to measure.

The conversation may start out up in the clouds, but by talking about business goals you are helping to break down assumptions, learn about your client’s current expectations, and set their expectations going forward.

For example, if the assumption is that by redesigning their website they will generate more leads, you need to establish clear language around what that means and what success looks like to them.

Daniel Ritzenthaler suggests “Taking the Guesswork Out of Design” by using “a modified acceptance criteria exercise [to set] clear and powerful goals.”

<!-- Example goal template:

We want to X because Y so that Z.

Example goal:

We want to increase traffic by 20 percent because we need more exposure so that we can generate eight more leads per month. -->

Ritzenthaler says, “Acceptance criteria for design is a great way to [flesh] out deeper, possibly unknown, intentions that will help the designer and project owner make better decisions and dodge surprises later in the process.”

Make sure you are asking the right people

The kickoff meeting is a great place to ask questions because, more than likely, the right people will be in the room.

If you have any control over who is required to attend, make sure the meeting includes everyone who has decision-making power, is assumed to have power, or is an opinion leader inside the organization.

I find that a lot gets lost in translation when a question filters up three levels of management and then trickles back down to you. When you hear information from the source, you get the original version and you also have the chance to ask for more clarity.

If you are not sure who the key players are, here are a few preparatory questions you can ask to get that information:

  • Who initiated this project?
  • Who will have the final decision with this project?
  • Who has the ability to cancel or postpone this project?

Ask a lot of open-ended questions

Once you understand who you are designing for, what the major goals are, and who the key players are, you will be ready to start discussing the details of the actual project.

Avoid simple yes or no questions—stick with something open-ended so you will get more information. Ask any question that comes to mind that will help you better understand the issue at hand.

Ask follow-up questions if there is something that still isn’t clear to you. You may have to ask the same question a few different ways before getting a response that gives you the information you’re looking for.

Read between the lines

In one person’s mind, “add more pictures” could mean a photo gallery of thumbnails at the bottom on the page. Another person might imagine this as the giant background image that they saw on someone else’s site and they want exactly what that person has. And yet a third person is picturing replacing most of the text on the page with infographics.

Here’s an example: you are working on a web design and the client doesn’t think there are enough images on the mockup you provided. Ask:

  • What value will adding more images provide? For whom?
  • Are images available?
  • Does a photographer need to be hired?

If you find out their solution was to purchase stock photography, dig a little deeper.

  • Is stock photography genuine enough for their audience?
  • Will it convey the value they were hoping for?
  • If a visitor to the website found out it was stock photography, would that affect their perception of the company?

These are likely questions they have not yet thought through. By asking these questions, you are helping the client see the bigger picture and preserve the value of the brand or message.

Try generic questions

If you’re not sure what the right question is, you can keep it really simple by using one of the following go-to phrases:

  • Why?
  • Could you elaborate?
  • Would you describe that for me?
  • What does that look like to you?

Make sure you are clear and concise. Do not muddy up your question with “ummm,” “er,” “like,” “whatever,” or “you know.” A clear question has a better chance of getting a clear answer.

You’re going to annoy someone

Truth is, it is possible that some people may get annoyed with the questions. Don’t let this deter you. It isn’t personal. You have a job to do and clues you need to gather. Explain why it is necessary that you truly understand the problem you are all here to solve together, and explain that in the long run it will likely save a lot of time. Thank them for their understanding and cooperation (even if they are being quite the opposite of cooperative).

If a client appears frustrated or annoyed that you are asking so many questions, it may be because they thought they had it all figured out. You just made them realize that they haven’t even begun to figure it out.

What was supposed to be a “quick” web design has become a bigger project, one that requires real thought and effort. They may feel frustrated that it won’t be the quick fix they initially expected. That’s not your fault! You’re doing the client a favor in the long run by ensuring that all parties are on the same page and making the best decisions together.

Read the room

If your client comes across as agitated by speaking more loudly, constantly interrupting, or suddenly becoming very short with responses, try to assess how you are coming off in this meeting. Are you talking more loudly or interrupting? Do you think he feels like his answers are being heard?

In that scenario, taking a more laid-back approach by leaning back in your chair a little, speaking somewhat more slowly and softly, and relaxing your face may help the meeting move in a more productive direction.

Test engagement

You need your clients to be engaged to get the most information. If they are not making eye contact, not participating in the conversation, or are busy on their phones, they may not be engaged.

By simply pausing and allowing silence, you may be able reengage the client. Or test their engagement by asking a couple of questions:

  • Are we discussing what you had hoped we would?
  • Is there anything we haven’t covered that you hoped we would?

Take a break

Stepping away for a few minutes can clear the mind and calm the nerves.

A five-minute break will keep your client engaged by allowing them to check their emails, text, and get a few seconds of relief from their FOMO. Use this time to assess the situation and formulate your next questions.

Play nice

Don’t give the impression that you are trying to prove them wrong; this isn’t a pissing contest. Approach the conversation with genuine curiosity and a lot of empathy. You are both working toward the same goals here.

  • When you ask a question, really take time to listen to the response.
  • Do not interrupt.
  • Be supportive as they give their answers and thank them for giving you the additional information.
  • Don’t be afraid to use an awkward silence to your benefit. Chances are the client feels awkward, too, and will start talking, giving you even more information.

Asking great questions takes practice. Lifehack has some tips worth reading on how to be amazingly good at asking questions.

Your work reflects your level of understanding

Until we have the ability to project images with our minds (why don’t we have this yet?), or unless your client is an amazing sketch artist, asking questions and piecing the clues together is our most effective tool to understand their expectations, and help them see the bigger picture along the way.

If you leave the room without asking any questions, there is no way you can really understand what is being asked of you. You might annoy someone along the way, but your work will have so much more meaning and, in the end, your clients and their end users will see the added value in your work.

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