When working with clients, there’s a process before the process.

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

Yes, we have the Design Thinking Process. Through 5 phases, it leads us through the steps of uncovering the user needs, generating ideas, building those ideas and then testing them with the user. It begins and ends with the user. This sounds right. It makes sense. After all, we are trying to solve user problems, right?

The thing is, a lot of times this doesn’t work. A lot of times we aren’t being introduced to a problem that needs to be solved. We are being tossed into a vortex of content that has been years in the making. We are talking about content on top of content, that has no clear direction, created by discussions filled with misalignment and built by numerous people. These people may have taken a “design class” in high school or they are managers with no experience at all but the deadline didn’t allow for proper delegation.

And as if that isn’t enough, these people also have meetings. Lots of them, where they talk about the website. Then they talk about the company. Then the leader of their pack stands up and talks about the company vision and the brand and the marketing and everyone understands that, or least pretends to, and so they all think they are aligned with their users because (weren’t you listening!) they just told you they have this persona and they want more sales from them!

So what just happened? I will tell you what happened. We started with the wrong process. We started with the Design Thinking Process. We should have started with another process. This process doesn’t start with the user. It starts with the client and it starts the conversation. This process is 4 phases and if you do use the Design Thinking Process, that ends up being a mini process inside step 3 of this one. Let’s take a closer look.

Phase 1: Start the conversation in Business Language.

Clients don’t speak User Experience. They may speak a variety of languages such as Business and Marketing, but UX is usually very foreign to them. They are trying to use their digital product to solve business needs. We know that meeting the user needs is the key to solving business needs but they do not. To understand why, we need to listen to the language they are speaking. It usually sounds like this:

“We want to pull in more leads.”

“We want to make more sales.”

They sound like this because these people have very different agendas. They have to meet the quarterly sales target, so they don’t get fired, so they can feed their family, and send their kids to good schools. They all sat in endless meetings making sure this happens. They want to talk about the company and all the work that has been put into it and the history behind it. They want to talk about their products because they put many many hours into those products. They want to talk about the specs and the tech and the awards they won because of all those specs and tech.

In come the UX Designers, and we say,

“We are going to talk to your users and find out what they want and then come up with lots of ideas on how to change what you did!”

That is what the clients hear because they don’t speak UX. They could only make out certain words or phrases that set off alarms such as “talk to users” and “change what you did.” They become resistant to suggestions and difficult to work with.

We ask ourselves, “Why is this client being so difficult?”

The first phase is all about disarming clients by first figuring out what they want to use the product for. These discoveries will become how you start your conversations in the next phase. The first phase is about asking what their goals are and what’s important to them and why. They want a 7 slide carousel on the homepage? Why? What is in those slides that they find so important they want it all to reside on the homepage? The answers to questions like that will not just gain the trust of the client but it will also help you communicate your recommendations further in the process. Starting off the conversation in their language disarms the client while arming you with knowledge.

Phase 2: Turn the conversation into Experience Language.

This is great! You began the conversation in their language and they are talking business and business goals and they are happy clients. Sooner or later, however, you have to talk about the user. Sure, you can run out the door and start doing interviews (I know you are dying to after all that business talk), but as soon as you try to talk about the results you will be speaking UX and they won’t understand you yet. You might even risk undoing all that groundwork you did talking business with them!

To remedy this, you must first introduce them to your language. How? Start by talking about the perceived user. This is who they think their user is. Give the perceived user a name as you would in a persona so it opens up a dialog. Talk about the problems this person has that brought them to the website. Talk about what the person needs to solve the problem. Remember, we aren’t looking for real answers here. We are teaching the client the language of UX. As a bonus, we gain insight into the client’s understanding of the user. In fact, the client may already have a persona. This does not mean they understand the persona from a UX standpoint. They most likely are using it as a marketing persona, but you can use it to start asking questions that are UX based.

How do you know the client is starting to adapt to UX language? Listen for statements that sound like this:

“The hardest part of Tom’s job is getting the cost right. Custom orders mean he can’t return the product if he ordered the wrong size.”

“Tom doesn’t want to be the first to use the product so he is going to just keep using what works and what he is familiar with.”

Phase 3: Make sure they are meeting the user needs.

Finally! This is a client we can work with! The client was able to tell you the business needs. We then were able to introduce the perceived user to the client. Finally, we transitioned the client from talking business and marketing to talking UX. The client will be much more open to actual UX testing at this point because they are now speaking the same language. Plus, we get to take some of those statements from the Phase 2 conversations and have something to go out and test. Here’s where the Design Thinking Process can come in. When we come back with the results of their hypothesis they will be open to changes and feedback because it’s now their problems to solve not just reasons to undo all their work.

Phase 4: Make sure they are meeting the business needs through the user needs.

At the end of the day, clients are still going to want to talk business. The UX research was interesting, even enlightening, but they are not going to change the goals of getting sales and leads. Nor should they, and it’s our job as UX Designers to make sure they meet those goals because we are not about making users happy at the cost of the business. We are about making users happy to ensure revenue for the business.

To do this, we need to design a website that uses elements and features that meet those goals through the needs of the user in Phase 4. If a goal is to get more leads, we don’t just throw in more forms and make the user trade info for info. We use the UX data we retrieved in Phase 3 and apply it. An example would look something like this:

“We want to pull in more leads.”

Client’s statement from perceived persona:

“The hardest part of Tom’s job is getting the cost right. Custom orders mean he can’t return the product if he ordered the wrong size.”

Through UX research surveys we discover that this is a true statement.

In response, we create a semi-live webinar that teaches how to measure for the right size product using an AR App we created as a measuring tool specific to our products. Because the webinar is semi-live, the busy users can watch it at a time best suited for them. The download link for the app is given at the end of the webinar.

How does this help the client with business goals?

The signups for the webinar create lead generation. The number of app downloads gives us an indication of success. Giving the user tools and instructions makes their job easier, takes away the fear of cost and increases the chances of a sale. Other website elements will help such as showing the features of the product and comparing those features to the competitor product. Combine this with marketing techniques to bring the intended user to the site and we start to create a user journey that will lead them to and through the sales funnel.

This may seem like a lot to go through just to do UX testing, but trying to do UX without a client’s true understanding of what UX is could create months of back and forth meetings, revisions, and client disappointments when users immediately bounce off their website. Doing the footwork and setting the stage puts things not just in motion but in the right direction.


UX’s Missing Manual was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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