Disarming loaded feedback

While I was off sipping Mojitos in a pool bar in Portugal, Laura Kalbag wrote a column for A List Apart about eliciting more effective feedback from clients. She shared her perspective and experience on the subject. Please read that before you read this. Her approach works for her, but that didn’t keep a couple of commenters from declaring that she was wrong.

She’s not wrong. There is no wrong in dealing with clients, unless you say or do something that jeopardizes the relationship or the end result.

Here’s a fact: every client is different. Every contractor is different. And every client/contractor relationship is different. Every unique combination of personality, chemistry, experience and expertise calls for an appropriate approach. And mine might not be Laura’s, and hers might not be yours.

I think that in addition to articles about shaving two bytes off of your JavaScript and demos of cartoon characters made with pure CSS, we should start sharing more of how we deal with clients (if you are fortunate enough—yes, I mean that—to be in that position). That would be a good thing.

Before starting my consultancy, I ran a design and development firm. I’m a schooled graphic designer, but selling was completely new to me and I eventually found myself in the position of having to do it, and with big and sometimes scary clients. While my previous experience pitching designs as a print art director was useful, selling websites (which design presentations are a part of) is not quite the same.

Stop getting defensive

I have a pretty thick skin about critics of my design, as long as they’re not me. I torture myself. But stuff others say, I (usually) handle pretty well. But, boy, do I have questions when they do.

What helps keep me from getting defensive—on good days—is a sort of detachment from the work. I mentally try and cut myself loose from it. Almost as if it’s someone else’s. And then I await the comments and don’t absorb them. I try and imagine that the comment or question is a physical thing. Something I can put on the table and examine. Because I’m going to do a sort of autopsy on this thing. And if I do end up having to implement the client’s will (it does happen), I can do so knowing I’ve done my best to handle the situation well.

There are three main ways I tend to deal with client comments on design work, or any work, for that matter (in no particular order):

  • Defer
  • Drill down
  • Disarm

(Yes, I did spend a minute or two trying to find synonyms for these words that start with a “D”. Have fun, Twitter.)

Defer

If I do happen to be feeling overly emotional or defensive on a particular day, or if I don’t know how to deal with it right at the moment, I’ll just hear the comment or listen to the question and make a note of it.

“Okay. we’ll look into that”, or “Thank you. I’ll discuss that with the team and we’ll get back to you”, are examples of how I might react. This tactic is particularly useful for larger clients in big meetings with lots of stakeholders. Trust me, there’s enough discussion, politics, and psychology going on in those meetings. I’ll regroup with my contact later by phone or in a separate meeting.

Drill down

In many cases (seriously), someone knowledgable on the client side gives useful and informed feedback, and all that needs to be done is to drill down to specifics:

Client: “Given the recent discussions about hamburger icons and our lack of data, I’m concerned about the use of solely the icon.”

Designer: “Are you thinking in terms of an alternative icon, or more in terms of text?”

Client: “I’m not sure. I like the clarity of text but I don’t want it to be boring.”

Designer: “There are ways we can design text so that it stands out visually, and so that customers know that they can click or tap on it. Would it be worth exploring that?”

Client: “Yes, that sounds great! Here’s lots of money.”

Okay, maybe not that last bit.

Disarm

This last one is what I do when I get feedback I can’t do anything useful with. I basically encourage the client to rephrase or reconsider their feedback. I want them to figure out what their problem is and then tell me. Or at least get close to it so that I can do a proper drill-down.

One thing I will not do is waste my time on discussions of taste. I’m only interested in someone else’s proposed solution if they are able to properly articulate the problem.

This is tough, because how you do it depends on your personality and your relationship with your client. If you want to be sarcastic or use some humor, you’d better know how that will pan out for you.

Some clients, if they were to say “make the logo bigger”, I could squint at the page, straining to see the obvious logo like a guy without his reading glasses. “Where—what? You can see that thing? You have great eyes. All I can see is your product.”

They get the point and have a laugh. Then we discuss the real problem.

With other clients, you can still disarm loaded feedback without humor:

Client: “The text is too large.”

Designer: “Okay. Too large compared to what, exactly?”

Or this dangerous one:

Client: “We want a carousel. Users like carousels.”

Designer (delivered sincerely and without any sarcasm): “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had user data.” (implied question)

Client: “We don’t.”

Designer: “Oh. You said, ‘Users like carousels.’ I’m curious which users you were referring to?” (question)

Et cetera. This is a slightly obnoxious example, but you get the point. You also have to be very, very careful. The point is not to jab or insult, but to encourage deeper thinking about the problem and more useful feedback. Disarming is generally asking questions about their feedback. And then questions about their answers. Do not state your knowledge or opinion on any matter at this point. You must latch onto everything the say without giving them anything to argue with.

The key to disarming is to focus on what the person said, and return it to them, as a question, in such a way that they must reconsider and return more refined feedback or information to you. So that you can do your job.

That’s how I tend to deal with feedback, in a very small nutshell. I enjoyed reading Laura’s, and I’d certainly enjoy reading how more people approach client feedback.

Hint, hint.

Responsive Design Sameness

Sometimes, when discussions are really interesting, I find it hard not to chime in.

Mark Boulton tweeted:

I wonder if #RWD looks the way it does because so many projects aren’t being run by designers, but by front-end dev teams.

Then the fine Mr. Tim Kadlec wrote a great post, followed by observations from Susan Jean Robertson. There were also a few thought-provoking responses to Mark’s tweet.

Tim and Susan (and others on Twitter) seem to agree that workflow/process—specifically lack of communication between designers and developers—tends to lead to the type of design sameness we’re observing today. I agree that this is a problem for many aspects of the design process; in fact, I wrote a book about it. And with the utmost respect for Mark, Tim and others, I tend to be skeptical that getting designers and developers to work together will solve the design sameness problem. That’s not to say it doesn’t need to happen; it certainly does.

In my experience, most projects are not run by front-end developers, as Mark suggests might be the case. Of course, that’s just my experience. In fact, I observe that front-end devs often get the short end of the stick, basically forced to implement whatever gets thrown on their plate by designers and requirements. In the same way, the visual designers before them in the waterfall process must implement that which has been handed to them by interaction designers, UX designers, or whoever might be in front of them. A slightly longer stick, but still pretty short. This is a workflow problem, and one of the main things I’ve spoken and written about for the past few years.

But this doesn’t necessarily explain why responsive sites share similar visual characteristics.

At the moment I can think of three things that I theorize might be at least as important as workflow, in regards to RWD design sameness:

  • Lack of a solid graphic design foundation
  • Excessive reliance on tools
  • Lack of critical design thinking when copying the work of other designers

Lack of a solid graphic design foundation

Now that design education has fragmented somewhat between “traditional” graphic design and web/digital/whatever design (even though students are often required to take both), I get the feeling that many designers live with the assumption that these are two separate worlds. It’s probably our fault (I know I’m guilty of it): we keep hammering on the differences between design for web and design for print.

But web and print are simply media. Design is problem-solving. Design is—and for the umpteenth time I quote Paul Rand—”the method of putting form and content together”. Contrary to popular web-belief, good web design is not only typography. Web designers need to know how to design. They need a solid foundation in the principles of design. And when they choose their preferred medium, of course there are always specifics that are only relevant to that medium.

A problem arises when designers lack a basic design foundation, yet have a working knowledge of medium-specific design concerns. Lacking the foundation, their creative potential has a fence around it. And, if what Mark says is true and devs are designing, that foundation might be lacking as well. And, no, I don’t mean go read The Elements of Typographic Style and you’re off to the races. Graphic design is a formal, legitimate field of study.

Judging by what I’ve observed while guest-lecturing to web design students, I suspect that tool-based education and reliance on tools and frameworks is partly to blame.

Excessive reliance on tools, frameworks and pattern libraries

Similar to Mark, I’ve often quipped that 50% of the web looks like Twitter Bootstrap. And it shouldn’t be surprising when a good portion of web design education is tool-focused. Photoshop. Illustrator. Web-based answers to Dreamweaver (“but they generate better code!”) that use frameworks as a Foundation for the generated code. (See what I did there?)

No matter how you look at it, tools are just tools. In my book, I present the Tool Rule: it’s not about the tools. Frameworks are prefab. These tools are about execution, not design. Design involves first thinking, then execution. And when one designs for a particular medium, they need not be shielded from the inner workings of that medium. Designers who want to know how to change Bootstrap need to know the inner workings of Bootstrap; have fun switching frameworks down the road. But why hide the web from them behind an abstraction layer? Would designers come up with more appropriate visual patterns if they knew more about what was possible outside the confines of a framework?

Yes, designers must learn tools. Which tools would make them more effective at being able to effectively design for the web: those that teach them about the web, or those that teach them a particular framework? I don’t know the answer; I just have my opinion.

Lack of critical design thinking when copying the work of other designers

Designers copy/steal trends all the time. Sometimes this is mandated by bad clients (“my competitor does this so it must be good”—oh, the logic), and often designers emulate the bits they like from others’ work into their own projects. It’s not only graphic designers doing this, but interaction/UX designers and developers as well. We copy patterns we like. We have pattern libraries. Prefab building blocks to help us work faster. Faster perhaps, but not always better.

Emulation is a part of the evolution of design. And the web, for that matter. But design sameness tends to fade when one forgets all of the existing patterns, all of the Bootstraps, all of the preconceived design solutions. Design sameness fades when designers stop focusing on which solutions for their problem are out there and start focusing on the problem at hand.

Solve that problem, and maybe the solution is exactly what your peer implemented, in the exact same way. But maybe not.

(Thanks to Mark Boulton for reviewing this post.)

Responsive Design Workflow Workshop in Berlin

With Smashing Magazine, I’ll be doing a workshop on Responsive Design Workflow in Berlin on November 11. Here’s why.

My book, Responsive Design Workflow, has been available since mid-April. The content of the book (as the workflow described within it) is not difficult, but the concepts and techniques presented do become more complex as the chapters progress. For those without coding experience, the later chapters require an openness to new approaches and a certain amount of patience. While the reader is practically hand-held through every step, it can take some time and practice to get used to my approach.

The point of the book is not to say, “this is the workflow you should adopt”, but rather to get readers to think critically about their own responsive design workflow and inspire them to change as needed. I do this by describing my own workflow, which while “different”, has been heavily battle-tested in real projects. I simply can’t describe every workflow out there. I also can’t simply write a book about new workflow theory and not give any examples of a workflow that works. So that’s what I did, and readers can choose whether or not my particular workflow is for them.

Some people have been intrigued by what they’ve read in the book, and I generally receive positive reactions about it. That said, I’ve noticed that for some it’s a lot like cookbook: you read it, you understand what’s there, but watching someone cook from it adds a lot to the understanding of it.

Reading something is one thing, but seeing it done and trying it out yourself adds insight and can be the difference between learning and not learning.

To this end, the Smashing Magazine folks and I have teamed up; I’m hosting a workshop on the content of the book. The first one will be held in just a couple of weeks, on November 11, in Berlin. We’ll have a fun and busy day working through things like:

  • Doing content inventories for design comps
  • Making simple and effective responsive wireframes in the browser
  • Gaining insight into content and design by “designing in text”
  • Ease into the responsive design process by making a linear design first
  • Planning and documenting breakpoints by drawing breakpoint graphs
  • How to make web-based design mockups (and replace PSDs as deliverables)
  • How to present your designs to stakeholders
  • How to create self-updating style guides

It’s going to be a fun-filled day! There may be new dates and locations for this workshop in 2014, but this is the only one I’m doing for the rest of this year.

Smashing is putting on a bunch of other workshops in November and December, hosted by the likes of Dan Rubin, Remy Sharp, Andrew Clarke, and more. Be sure to check them out.

So if you’re able, come join me in Berlin!