Presenting Design with Empathy

Snow shovel illustration

This past winter brought more snow than usual to North Carolina. As I was working from home one day, I watched my neighbor shoveling his driveway. I noticed that the shovel that he was using looked like it was making the job a lot harder. I was sure I could design a better shovel for him.

I went to work designing an amazing new shovel with the latest technology. It was sure to blow his mind. I walked over to my neighbor, handed him the shovel and said, “I made this shovel. You’re going to be able to shovel your driveway in half the time with half the effort. The design is nothing like you’ve ever seen before. Enjoy!” Standing there with a giant grin on my face, my neighbor looked at the shovel perplexed.

“What are these buttons and knobs? The handle is bent in a funny direction. I don’t understand this,” he said as he handed the shovel back to me. My grin quickly faded.

This story may be far-fetched, but this is exactly how many of us treat our clients when we present a design to them for the first time. In our case the shovel might be a mood board, design comp, wireframe, user-flow, or some other design deliverable. Many, if not most of our clients don’t work in our industry. They probably use web sites, just like my neighbor used other shovels in the past. But that doesn’t mean that even the most beautiful, well-thought-out design will make sense to them. It’s our job as designers to empathetically present our work to clients in a way they’ll understand.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else.

Taking an empathetic approach to presenting our work helps us establish trust. Taking time to think about our design through the eyes of the client establishes credibility that can’t be faked by using fancy terminology and buzzwords. And in Jedi mind trick fashion, we’re actually helping the client see the work through our eyes. I have yet to experience a client who tells me that I’ve explained too much, or wasted their time doing it.  

Educate Your Audience

When you started learning to read, your teacher didn’t give you a book and expect that you could read and understand it. That would have been overwhelming and frustrating. You first learned letters, then words, then sentences, and then you learned how they worked together to create a story. By the time you opened a book, you were ready for it.

Design deliverables are like the book, and our job is to help clients understand the elements of the design before they see the full execution. Try creating a short presentation that explains things like hierarchy, typographic decisions, color choices, and design personality. Don’t be afraid to use snippets of the final design mixed with some process artifacts (e.g. sketches or early designs) that led you to particular decisions. The client will then have foundational knowledge to evaluate the design instead of just relying on a gut reaction.

Get Better Feedback

If a chef asks a food aficionado how she enjoyed her meal, the chef would expect to hear a response about the food’s texture, flavor, aroma, and appearance. If the chef were to ask me about my meal, I would probably say “it’s good”. My response isn’t helpful, but the chef also hasn’t explained how I’m expected to respond. Even with further instruction I still may not respond as eloquently as the food aficionado, but I will give feedback that helps improve the food.

Getting good feedback can feel tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. You and your client are partners working toward the same goal of getting to the best design solution. If you don’t tell them what feedback you’re looking for, you probably won’t get it. Be specific about the type of feedback that you need. If you don’t have the right feedback to make the necessary changes, then in most cases you didn’t do your job. Drawing the right feedback out of clients takes practice. Every person is different, so learn with every opportunity.

Be Open

Go into every design presentation with confidence, but check your ego at the door. This may sound counterintuitive when you’re trying to earn the respect of a client, but more designs have died at the hands of bloated egos than clients. Remember that you and your client share something in common – you’re both people who excel at different things. You’re not better than them. They’re not better than you. Treat them that way. It’s too easy to assume that you’ve nailed a design the first time and blame the client if they don’t “get it”. It’s harder to open yourself up to honest feedback, listen to the client, and ask smart questions in a way that the client is able to understand. You might learn something that improves your next design.

I can hear it coming already. “But you don’t know (insert client name here)!” There will always be exceptions to any rule. That doesn’t change the fact that we, as professionals, have a responsibility to our clients: to educate them; to coach them to give better feedback; and to be humble throughout the whole process. These things take time, so plan it into your project schedule. You will ultimately save time and frustration while earning a greater level of trust and respect from the client.

Have you found other ways of approaching clients with empathy? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Mark Steinruck

Posted in Article Category: #Design & Content