4 Tips For Reining In Client Expectations

Doug Hopkins of Isobar explains why decoding design feedback may be the most important skill you can master.

4 Tips For Reining In Client Expectations

Design–especially the early stages of a new project–can quickly turn from a smooth running machine with a clear destination into a white-knuckle thrill ride barreling into parts unknown. We’ve all been in that meeting where early design ideas are presented to a group of people from vastly different professional backgrounds. A client offers feedback, saying: “These concepts are interesting, but can you make a design that incorporates more of a tiles approach? I just got a new Windows phone over the weekend and I really like the tiles.”


This kind of refrain isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s completely understandable for non-designers to articulate solutions using references from their personal life. What already exists is easier to discuss than what has yet to be invented.

Image: Cowboy via manzrussali / Shutterstock

The trick is to decode a request like, “can it be simple like Google, easy to understand like TurboTax, and elegant like my iPad?” while educating clients in the actual needs they’re trying to address. Think of this as the “judo” of accepting and directing design feedback–the philosophy of taking the inertia, direction, and posture of any opposing force and channeling it elegantly into a new, more productive, and positive way forward.

Here are four techniques I have applied with my clients and design teams that have turned potentially frustrating situations around and made the overall product and experience great.

Keep Comments in Perspective

The first step in dealing with feedback is to remind yourself–as well the team you are leading–where comments are coming from. Many people on the client side lack a design background or formal design training. They are business leaders, marketers, managers, and experts in their own right. Yet here they are presented with sketches, mock-ups, or prototypes and asked to give input. It’s valuable to remember that design is a highly democratic and personal process, where everyone has an opinion and they are more than willing to share it, regardless of how subjective it may be.

It should therefore come as no surprise when clients employ their own experiences as consumers to put voice to an opinion. Be prepared for these kinds of reactions and, instead of becoming flummoxed, learn to extract the essence behind them as quickly as possible. This prevents input from derailing progress–a task that will not only result in a wholly compromised design product, but a demoralized design team.


Ask A lot of Questions

Once this client feedback is formally on the table, understand what is really being addressed. If TurboTax is consistently arising as a model, why is that? Because it is so structured in how it progresses people step-by-step through a complex process? Or is it because it translates the tax code into an experience with very high “guard rails” to quickly inform people when they make a mistake that doesn’t meet the tax regulation?

Start asking questions that “peel the onion” and help illuminate the key two-to-four attributes about “brand X” that compel your client to bring that example to the table as input.

Make Feedback Visual

Next, translate those identified attributes by coding them in a simple and understandable way. I break down the feedback into the most common themes–those key points that are really in play.

These will vary based on the specific design problem you are trying to solve, but here’s an example of what happened when we worked with a large financial services client on conceptual designs for a consumer financial savings tool. Our team received lots of feedback from a broad group of product managers to develop concepts that would be similar to Mint, LearnVest, Squared Away, and the Windows Metro design system. After additional probing, we were able to narrow down the client’s needs into three things.

First was UX orientation, or the extent to which the user interface and editorial would work together to position the experience in the mind of the user. Second, was the use of visuals–graphs, charts, etc.–to create a mood or tone. And last, was user-determined configurability, which was the question of how much or how little the user could directly change or manipulate his or her experience.


The benefit of this step is moving the conversation away from the loaded language of other brands being the reference point. The short hand of “make it more like X” can be terribly confusing and send design and product teams off on any number of irrelevant tangents as they attempt to figure out what exactly that direction means. So this is the first step in unpacking that language, and moving towards clearer, more concise direction for future conceptual designs.

Connect the Dots

The next step is to bring back the client’s points of reference and map them to the identified attributes on a sliding scale. This may sound counter intuitive, but it is important to demonstrate to your audience that feedback has been heard, and to have them weigh in and ultimately agree that the logical mapping and “plotting” of the brands/products they referred to are in alignment. Here is an example of what that looks like (using the financial planning tool situation):

This is also the opportunity to introduce your own specific language for the design direction you’d like to take the product, such as “app centric.” Whatever the vernacular would be in your own situation, it is important that the language is descriptive of the very essence of the direction you want to take the client. Then, when you share your next round of designs based on this initial conversation and deconstruction of feedback, you can completely move the conversation away from things like Mint, Microsoft Metro, etc. The business and product teams will talk, instead, in terms of the design concepts you’ve helped the client identify and articulate.

So what did we accomplish here?

For business stakeholders and product teams, clients feel heard and that their input has been validated and incorporated. We also have helped to educate them on how to provide feedback in the future. For design teams, this process provides clarity and focus by clearly defining what is being asked for. It also allows for a more creative atmosphere. Instead of encouraging copycat experiences, it more accurately aligns the design direction on the basis of the existing business problem.

About the author

Doug Hopkins leads and directs user experience design, research, design validation, and design strategy efforts for Fortune 500 clients at Isobar US. Doug has more than 23 years of experience in digital product design and development, leading efforts across numerous industries and applications including digital marketing, e-commerce, large scale B2B systems, consumer packaged goods, financial services, and more.