5 Questions Designers Should Ask Their Clients

From a client/designer relationship perspective, questioning provides opportunities for designers to position themselves as partners who are not solely focused on aesthetics, but see their work as an integral part of moving the organization’s strategy forward. By doing this, they build respect and trust in the relationship by showing interest in the goal of the client and by providing a rationale for their design decisions. Ultimately, these questions ensure that designers are providing design solutions that are aligned with the organization’s overall strategy.

It’s important to remember that designers are not expected to be business analysts, but that by asking the right questions they provide an added level of value to their clients and ensure that their work is on target to meet specific business needs. Below are five questions you need to ask to help define the client’s strategic goals.

Question 1: Why are you in business?

Seems like a no brainer, but for many organizations this can be a difficult question, and the answer is particularly important, because it acts as a touchstone for all the answers that follow.  If you were a strategy geek, you might call this the vision & mission question, but let’s just pretend we’ve never heard of that phrase before.

One way to quickly get to the reason for of a company’s existence is to ask the “Random Corporate Serial Killer” question. The question asks this: If someone would buy the company at a generous price, guarantee that the employees would maintain their salaries, albeit in a different industry, and that the buying company would destroy the firm and eliminate all its offerings, causing the company to no longer exist, would the business owners accept the offer? The question gets to the heart of why the business owners want and need the company to exist.

Question 2: Given your resources, what should the business focus on?

Ever meet with a client who you thought might have multiple personality disorder? Often organizations have a number of goals, departments and initiatives that vie for resources and attention. Unfortunately one of the first casualties of an unfocused business direction is communication. Consider the company website that gives equal space to all of its various departments and initiatives. Communications like these lack purpose and are more likely to reflect internal politics than the needs of customers. Ultimately trying to be all things to all people is a bad communication strategy and an even worse business strategy.

A way to get around this situation is to create some parameters for deciding what will get communicated. This can be done in a simple two-step exercise. First, have clients list their top five goals. Then have them rank each goal based on the feasibility of achieving the goal given their resources, and the importance of the goal to their overall success. Each goal can be ranked from 1-5, with a total of 24 points distributed for feasibility and 24 points distributed for importance. The results can be charted on graph. Goals that fall into the top right quadrant of the matrix should be given priority. This exercise reinforces the idea that strategic differentiation is based on being able to say “No.”

Question 3: Who is your most valuable customer? 

Some clients just can’t help but love “everyone.” They believe that “everyone” should buy their product, join their organization and sign up for their newsletter. Unfortunately, the cold reality is that even though you may want everyone, everyone isn’t going to want you back. Instead of pining for that big group hug, it’s much more effective to single out customers who provide the most value. The question that needs to be asked is this: What customers will provide the most value over time? A simple rule to follow is the 80/20 rule, which states that 20% of customers contribute 80% of the client’s sales and income. Just remember (with apologies to George Orwell), all customers are equal, but some customers are more equal than others.

Once these most valued customers are identified, then a composite of their traits can be created. Creating personas is one way to do this. It helps a designer envision the type of person for whom she is designing. Personas are fictitious people who represent the needs and characteristics of a broad range of audience members. They help designers understand an audience’s goals and expectations, based on relevant research and interviews. Personas are made up of several key parts including:

  • Customer profile: A description of the person, complete with photo, name, some personal background and a personality type.
  • Customer commentary: The commentary asks, “What type of information do they need? How do they need it delivered? How do they make buying decisions? What do they need to understand about the company to make them feel comfortable enough to work with them?”
  • Conversion beacons: Conversion beacons are actions that the persona might want to take once on the site. For example, if the persona is interested in information about the service or product, they might be able to download a brochure or a white paper.

Question 4: What unique value do you provide your most valuable customer?

This is the BIG question. If you can answer this, then you can take a victory lap around the conference room table. Not only does this question identify who your targeting, but it also answers one of the most important strategic questions —how do we differentiate. Differentiation strategy, in which a business promotes a unique value that they can provide customers, is the basis of all competitive strategy and is often expressed through the design of products, services and the brand. A common tool for understanding differentiation is a unique selling proposition analysis, in which the needs of target audiences are listed along a horizontal axis, and on a vertical axis a number rating based on how well the organization and its competitors meet each need. Once plotted, areas of differentiation can be identified and built upon.

Question 5: What does the big picture look like?

Ever look up in the sky and think, today is going to be a beautiful day, only to find yourself getting caught in a torrential rainstorm? Being able to accurately forecast trends in the business environment where the organization is competing is critical to design decision-making. For designers, cultural mores, trends, the political atmosphere, environmental and sustainability issues and technological trends should all be considered when developing design solutions. A simple framework for accounting for all of these factors is PEST (Political, Environmental, Social and Technological) analysis, which provides a simple and accessible tool to consider these outside influences.

2 thoughts on “5 Questions Designers Should Ask Their Clients

  1. RustyBorkin

    These are very good questions to ask clients. In addition, it would be great to know how READY your client is to engage in any design or marketing initiative. What is their skill level (experience, knowledge, education)? And what is there emotional state or will to engage (feelings, safety, incentive)? Knowing these will help you apply the right leadership style and help your clients achieve a successful outcome.

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