Why's it so hard to get the cool stuff approved?

Blair Culbreth, Director of Visual Design, and

Mai anh Nguyen, Former Product Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Just because a design is awesome doesn't mean it'll get approved. Lo-fidelity prototypes help us build trust, educate, and empower clients to approve the best possible work.

The classic adage is “good design speaks for itself.” Which would mean that if something’s as good of an idea as you think it is, a client will instantly see that it’s good too, right?

Here at Viget, we’re always working with new and different clients. Each with their own challenges and sensibilities. But after ten years of client work, I can’t help but notice a pattern emerge when we’re trying to get approval on especially cool, unconventional parts of a design.

So let’s break down some of those patterns to hopefully better understand why clients hesitate, and what strategies we’ve been using lately to help get the work we’re excited about approved.

Imagine this: the parallax homepage with elements that move around in surprising ways or a unique navigation menu that conceptually reinforces a site’s message. The way the content cards on a page will, like, be literal cards that will shuffle and move around. Basically, any design that feels like an exciting, novel challenge, will need the client to “get it.” And that often turns out to be the biggest challenge of all.

There are plenty of practical reasons cool designs get shot down. A client is usually more than one stakeholder, and more than the team of people you’re working with directly. On any project, there’s an amount of telephone you end up playing. Or, there’s always the classic foes: budgets and deadlines. Any idea should fit in those predetermined constraints. But as a project goes along, budgets and deadlines find a way to get tighter than you planned.

But innovative designs and interactions can seem especially scary for clients to approve. There’s three fears that often pop up on projects:

The fear of change. 

Maybe the client expected something simple, a light refresh. Something that doesn’t challenge their design expectations or require more time and effort to understand. And on our side, maybe we didn’t sufficiently ease them into our way of thinking and open them up to why we think something bigger and bolder is the right solution for them. Baby steps, y’all.

The fear of the unknown. 

Or, less dramatically, a lack of understanding of the medium. In the past, we have struggled with how to present an interactive, animated design to a client before it’s actually built. Looking at a site that does something conceptually similar as an example can be tough. It’s asking a lot of a client’s imagination to show them a site about boots that has a cool spinning animation and get meaningful feedback about how a spinning animation would work on their site about after-school tutoring. Or maybe we’ve created static designs, then talked around what we envision happening. Again, what seems so clear in our minds as professionals entrenched in this stuff every day can be tough for someone outside the tech world to clearly understand.

    The fear of losing control. 

    We’re all about learning from past mistakes. So lets say, after dealing with that fear of the unknown on a project, next time you go in the opposite direction. You invest time up front creating something polished. Maybe you even get the developer to build a prototype that moves and looks like the real thing. You’ve taken all the vague mystery out of the process, so a client will be thrilled, right? Surprise, probably not! Most clients are working with you because they want to conquer the noble quest that is their redesign together. When we jump straight to showing something that looks polished, even if it’s not really, it can feel like we jumped ahead without keeping them involved. Like we took away their input. They can also feel demotivated to give good, meaningful feedback on a polished prototype because it looks “done.”

    So what to do? Lately we have found low-fidelity prototypes to be a great tool for combating these fears and better communicating our ideas.

    What are low-fidelity prototypes?

    Low fidelity prototypes are a tool that designers can create quickly to illustrate an idea, without sinking time into making it pixel-perfect. Some recent examples of prototypes we've created include a clickable Figma or Invision prototype put together with Whimsical wireframes:

    A rough animation created in Principle illustrating less programatic animation:

    And even creating an animated storyboard in Photoshop:

    They’re rough enough that there’s no way they could be confused for a final product. But customized so that a client can immediately understand what they’re looking at and what they need to respond to. Low-fidelity prototypes hit a sweet spot that addresses those client fears head on.

    That fear of change? A lo-fi prototype starts rough and small, so it can ease a client into a dramatic change without overwhelming them. It’s just a first step. It gives them time to react and warm up to something that’ll ultimately be a big change.

    It also cuts out the fear of the unknown. Seeing something moving around, even if it’s rough, can be so much more clear than talking ourselves in circles about how we think it will move, and hoping the client can imagine it. The feature is no longer an enigma cloaked in mystery and big talk, but something tangible they can point at and ask concrete questions about.

    And finally, a lo-fi prototype doesn’t threaten a client’s sense of control. Low-fidelity means it’s clearly still a work in progress! It’s just an early step in the creative process, and therefore communicates that we’re still in the middle of that process together. There’s still plenty of room for their ideas and feedback.

    Lo-fi prototypes: client-tested, internal team-approved

    There are a lot of reasons to love lo-fi prototypes internally, too!

    They’re quick and easy. 

    We can whip up multiple ideas within a few hours, without sinking the time into getting our hearts set on any one thing. In an agency setting especially, time is limited, so the faster we can get an idea out of our own heads, the better.

    They’re great to share with developers. 

    Ideally, the whole team is working together simultaneously, collaborating every step of the way. Realistically, a developer often doesn’t have time during a project’s early design phase. Lo-fi prototypes are concrete enough that a developer can quickly tell if building an idea will be within scope. It helps us catch impractical ideas early and helps us all collaborate to create something that’s both cool and feasible.

      Stay tuned for posts in the near future diving into some of our favorite processes for creating lo-fi prototypes!

      Blair Culbreth

      Blair is a visual design director in our Boulder, CO, office. She crafts intuitive, emotionally driven design for our clients including VolunteerMatch, the Lupus Foundation of America, and other national non-profits.

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