The story of the frustrated designer and the unhappy client: How to get a design project back on track

I’m sure the following story is familiar to many of you who have worked for a design agency. You spend weeks, even months creating your masterpiece. You sketch out pages, pull together content. You carefully consider every micro-interaction, every user journey. You devote your time to crafting the perfect solution. And when you’ve tweaked it to perfection, you’re ready to go and present it to the client.

You sit at the head of the conference table, with your screen projected to the entire room and start to walk through your wonderful designs… But two hours later you leave feeling deflated and defeated. The stakeholders have ripped your design apart, questioning and criticising every detail. A simple walk through quickly turned into a public execution.

How did it come to this? You did everything right. You answered the brief. Why has the client changed their mind at this stage? It must be them in the wrong.

In this situation it’s easy to blame the other party. It’s a natural human reaction to assume everyone else is wrong. You can get some satisfaction from complaining on the journey home — it’s good to let off some steam. But once the immediate frustration has dissipated, what next? You’re left in a situation where the client isn’t happy and you have more work to do to deliver something they’ll sign off.

You can huff and puff and begrudgingly do the minimum to get the design closer to what they want. You might present it again to a slightly warmer response, but you’ll still feel frustrated that you’ve had to compromise on your infallible work. The project will progress but both you and the client will be left feeling that they had to push to get their own way, and the end result will be a stale relationship that everyone will be relieved to move on from.

There is a famous quote, attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Einstein, which says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Once you’ve experienced a situation like this a couple of times two thoughts can run through your head. 1) Clients are a nightmare, they exist only to make your life difficult, and populate Clients from Hell, or 2) why did this happen, and how can we avoid it happening again?

Post-project reviews (PPRs) are a great way of retrospectively evaluating a project to understand what went well, what went not so well, and what you can learn to improve next time. But sometimes waiting until the end of the project is too late. If you want to keep the client happy and deliver a fantastic end-product you need to acknowledge the cause of this unhappiness and act on it immediately.

In my experience the underlying cause of the problem is always communication. To present a prototype or design that you thought was appropriate, but the client doesn’t clearly shows that one party has not understood the other. If you want to retain this relationship and turn the project around it is futile debating who’s fault this might be, your energy will be better spent opening up the communication channels.

One solution is to face the issue head on and call a meeting to address the misunderstandings openly and honestly. Work through the project piece by piece and question everything anew. Now you have designs or wireframes put them up on the wall and, as a team, walk through the user journeys. You will all be able to visualise how tasks are completed and see where the gaps are. Get the client to explain their concerns; you might learn something more about the business processes or technical feasibility that renders your designs inappropriate. Explain to the client how your approach takes user research into account; they might have difficulty thinking about how things could work differently to the live product. Going through the project in this detail will shine a light on where the main causes lie, whether that be the work itself, the process, or another unforeseen issue.

Where assumptions have been made, document them. There may be scope to validate these assumptions through more investigation, which will help you get to a decision. If not you will still have a list that can be proved or disproved when the product is launched, and can be addressed later on. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter too much what decision is reached. Until the product is tested no-one really knows what the correct route is. Getting to a decision quickly and testing it should be the priority.

If the client has multiple stakeholders and lacks a consensus explain to them what effect that has on the project. They may disagree on the design direction but they are unlikely to disagree on the deadline and budget. Work with them to nominate a spokesperson within the team to consolidate all feedback. Revisit the project brief and identify the key objectives. Evaluate each change against these objectives to see which will have the greatest impact. You can also provide time estimates for different options to help them make a decision when a consensus isn’t reached, especially if budget is running out.

It can be entirely possible to turn a project around by employing some of these tactics, but the one aspect that will determine how successful you are is your attitude.

You have to change your mindset and leave your ego at the door. The designs you create are not your property. You facilitate the design on behalf of the client. You need to distance yourself, getting personally attached will only add another biased opinion into the mix. Yes, you have been employed by the client as an expert in your field but they are an expert in their industry so you have to respect their input.

When you make the project about achieving objectives and meeting user requirements you become more focused on doing what is right, not what you prefer. It’s our job as designers to help the client understand this and give them the tools and skills to bring it to life.