Reading the Client’s Mind: Successful Project Discovery

January 07, 2007

Posted in Web Industry.

Reading the Client’s MindMany of my web projects start off the same: “We need a website.” The customer lays out the project requirements (a new design, n pages, a flash element on the homepage, and a contact form). Or, there are no requirements and they make it up as they go along. And we, the web vendor, provide our estimates for timeline and budget.

This is a mistake.

These requirements often change in the middle of the project. Pages are added. Navigation items are removed. Entire design elements are restructured. The client changes their mind and you end up dealing with it.

Most customers don’t have any idea what they’re doing. They’re not web experts. They’re experts at their own particular business, product, or organization. So why do we let them plan the projects?

We do it because they’re signing the checks. Because we mistakenly equate customer satisfaction with “you get what you want.” In reality, customers don’t know what they want (or why). So it’s up to us to help them.

You start by following the correct process for a creative project. There are three parts to project discovery: goals, strategy, and tactics. Each of these helps set the stage for the project responsibilities-when is the client the expert and when is the vendor the expert. They give you the information you need to make educated decisions down the line.



Who is responsible: Client

Goals are the endgame. These are business objectives of the client, such as increasing sales or disseminating information. If a website is the answer, these are the questions. The client is the expert at his business, so he gets to tell you what he wants to accomplish. The more detailed these goals are, the better (e.g., increase revenue 15%).


Who is responsible: Both client and vendor

This is your chance to collaborate with your client and decide how your client will achieve his goals. This will read like a project brief or summary. Everything you recommend in the strategy should work toward the stated goals. This where you decide whether a website (or print, or television ads, etc.) will meet his needs and why.


Who is responsible: Vendor

Here’s where you’re the expert. This is where you decide on the best way to follow through on your strategy. The design, code, and technology are all tactics that you should be deciding. That’s not to say the client can’t have some hand in this, but unless the client knows what he’s doing he should defer to you on all of these aspects. Every decision you make regarding tactics should, ideally, trace back to the project strategy and goals.

A note about technology: I realize that some projects have technology constraints that aren’t ideal. You may not be able to abandon the client’s hosting infrastructure simply to use a certain programming language. If there are real constraints, this becomes part of the strategy stage (e.g., keeping aligned with current infrastructure).

The Real World

Sometimes things don’t work this way. Everyone fancies himself a designer. Clients spit out ridiculous demands like “no CSS” or offer to help code the site. The key to keeping the customer happy isn’t handing over control. It’s keeping them on the right path. Yes, they make the final call because they’re paying for the work. But it’s your job to help them make the best final call.