Make Good Design Choices

How to Make Good Design Choices

This was for a talk I gave at the OKC WordPress Users Group on Monday, March 27th, 2017. In hindsight I should have called this talk, Unicorns, Cake, and Clients.

At some point in your career, you might ask: Who is my client?

Imagine you’re out hunting in a misty forrest early one morning. It’s still dark outside, the air is crisp an cool. You’re gently treading your way along deep horse tracks. You’ve been up for hours and you’re beginning to think that this hunt will prove to be fruitless.

Suddenly you hear a healthy snort. It’s close. You crouch down in the underbrush of the forrest floor as the sun slowly starts to peak through the mist and clouds. They break for a moment letting a ray of bright orange sunshine pierce the densely packed tree trunks. And then you see it.

In a clearing about twenty feet in front of you there stands a magical unicorn. It’s mane glittering in the morning sun. Looking through the branches, you have to squint your eyes at the glint of its golden horn.

The time has come. So, you quietly slip an arrow from your quiver and place it across your bow. Slowly, you draw the arrow back and align it perfectly. You aim just behind the front shoulder of the magical beast. That’s when you remember…UNICORNS AREN’T REAL.

The “Ideal Client Profile” or ICP, is a wish list of client attributes. Fun to think about except for the fact that they have one glaring flaw. That person you just described doesn’t exist. So, who do you already know that most closely fits the profile?

Instead of imagining an ideal client, talk to one. Which one do you LOVE working with? Take em out to lunch and interview them. Study them, where do they go and why, what do they read and why, what was their last major purchase and why did they make it, how did they make that particular purchasing decision, what’s their favorite brand of clothes, cars, and cans, and why. All this information will reveal to you insights that your competitors don’t have and will never get.

Now that we know who we’re helping, how can design help? A good question to start with is: How do I make good design choices?

The answer to that question, involves a cake.

My friend John wanted to impress his wife for her birthday. I’ve only ever seen him use the microwave. But, he wanted to bake her a delicious and impressively detailed cake. So, he researched all the best cake recipes and found the perfect one for a carrot cake. He worked and worked on this carrot cake to make it just right. And he did a great job.

At the big party, he presented the detailed carrot cake to his wife. We all said Wow! Everyone took a selfie with the cake, it was wonderful! Hashtag jealous, Hashtag yum. That’s when I noticed the look on his wife’s face.

She looked confused and said, “Thank you for your hard work but…I don’t like carrot cake.” One of my friends made an airplane crashing noise and we all laughed. She went on, “I thought you were going to make me a Dutch Apple Pie for my birthday. The one I rave about every Thanksgiving. The one my Grandma always makes.”

More than a little deflated, John set the amazing carrot cake on the table. And said,“Does anyone here like carrot cake?” We cut it up and ate it and it was amazing. He handed some cash to one of his wife’s friends and ten minutes later she walks through the door with a grocery store apple pie. We warmed it in the oven and it tasted really good too. Birthday party saved!

The mistake John made is the very same mistake we may have all made at some point in our career.

I’ve learned that design has the power to make amazing things, that no one wants. That’s why it’s so important that we get this first step right.

The first step in every successful design process I’ve undertaken is filling out a creative brief. You can call it a client questionnaire, you can call it a game plan, you can call it a treasure map for all I care but you will not be successful making websites without one. It is the lens through which all design decisions are judged.

Otherwise you’ll end up making a very pretty website that’s also very useless…or one that’s pretty useless. I see that you see what I did there!

How can a creative brief help me design a website? I’m glad you asked.

Ask you client what their favorite things are and why. Their answers may take your design a surprising direction. One that connects with them in a way you could have never known otherwise.

Ask your client what their customers care about. If you wanna get really crazy, ask to interview your clients best customers. Having their feedback is key to moving your clients closer to their goals.

ASK: If your website were only able to do one thing, what would you want it to do?

Ask them what’s missing from their current website? What do they wish their current website could do?

Design choices are less about “good vs. bad” and more “effective vs. ineffective.” The bigger the pile of effective design choices, the better it works, the faster your client will reach their goals, and the happier their customers will be.

Have you ever experienced poor design? I sure have. Just visit any state agencies website. Stack enough non effective design choices up and you’ll end up with a fine work of Modern Art. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t help move your client closer to their goals.

By figuring out what your client wants, you can avoid delivering something that doesn’t fit the direction they want to take their website.

Ask: What do you want your site to do best? Then, get rid of everything that does not help their site do that thing.

Don’t let your website get in the way of helping your client serve their customers. The easier you make it for their customers to do what your client wants, the bigger the hero you’ll be to your client.

Make the brief the “bad cop” to keep the project on track and to keep all the design choices pointed toward the same goal.

TIP: For some excellent client information, show them five to ten websites and ask them what they like and dislike about each. Don’t just send them a link to the web form. Talk them through your brief in person if possible or on the phone at the very least. So much is communicated through body language and tone that you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage to rely on a web form.

Study the things your client positively responds to on the websites they choose. The things they focus on are the things they’ll look for on their site when it’s launch time.

Your challenge is to find the best way to use those things to help them reach their stated goals.

There are tons of Ideal Client Profile PDFs and Creative Brief templates online. But I’ve made a list of good questions to keep in mind specifically for this talk tonight. It’s available on my blog for you to download and use, right now. I hope our brief time together has proven helpful to you as you continue to serve your clients.

Helpful resources/books:

45 Incredibly Useful Web Design Checklists and Questionnaires

Design for Hackers

Hack Design

Don’t Make Me Think

A Book Apart

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