10 Tips to Manage Difficult Clients Who Have No Experience Working With Designers

10 tips to help deal with difficult clients
10 tips to help deal with difficult clients

If you are a designer, you know how difficult it can be to work with clients that do not understand what design is. Engineering-based businesses seem to think that designers only care about aesthetics. They fail to realize that design is a discipline that is based on user feedback, research, systems engineering, and behavioral science. More specifically, User Experience (UX) Design is more concerned about functionality than aesthetics.

It’s tricky to navigate these sometimes turbulent waters. I am here to help guide you through the storm with these 10 helpful tips that will have you working with difficult clients with ease.

1. Set Expectations Early and Often

It’s probably best if you can set expectations before the project even starts. However, don’t sweat it if that doesn’t happen! It’s best to reinforce your role as the designer several times throughout a project. It’s best to cover your responsibilities and role as a designer before the project starts and throughout the course of the project. If they do not understand what a designer does, then repetition becomes crucial for it all to soak in.

2. Explain the Importance of User-Centered Design

It’s very common that clients do not have experience with user-centered design (UCD) principles. I think it’s important to introduce them to the idea that the goal is to produce a product that users enjoy using. If the users do not like the product, they won’t want to use it. In a consumer world that provides tons of different options, users will choose the product that fits their needs best. By regularly checking in with your user base by conducting usability tests and user interviews, you ensure that you are on the right track. You can obtain data on what’s working well and what may need some improvement.

Sometimes users are forced to use products they do not enjoy using, but it doesn’t mean that product teams should take advantage of that. Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to know that the product you created made someone’s life easier?

In the long run, UCD can save a lot of time, money, and tail-chasing. Think of it as a regular check-in to make sure you are on the road to success.

3. Client Education about User Interviews

If your clients have zero experience working with designers, they probably have no concept about the value of user interviews, nor the synthesis of data that comes out of those interviews. Including them in your interview process can help educate them on your process and help everyone get on the same page.

Clients may have their own biases and strong opinions of what they think is best, but once they see the users disprove their assumptions, opinions, and biases they will start to realize that people think and behave differently than one would expect. No matter how experienced you are in a certain subject, you can never assume that all users will agree with your way of thinking.

The first time your clients see that the data is different from their initial hypotheses and opinions, they will start to realize why it’s important to ask the users even when you have your own assumptions. It’s imperative to keep track of your assumption and validate validate VALIDATE.

It’s super important to educate the clients prior to the first interview. Help them understand why it is important to have one person conduct the interview while others take notes. Explain the structure of interview questions and the reason why they are phrased as open-ended questions. Demonstrate the difference between leading and non-leading questions. Walk them through the flow of your interview script and your intentions of what information you are trying to obtain.

Hopefully, you will only have to do this once or twice before they recognize how much preparation and strategy that goes into user interviews.

4. Client Participation in User Interviews

Chances are that your clients that want to control the process, will want to participate in your user interviews. Although it’s ideal to have user interviews be as small and intimate as possible to prevent users from feeling like they are being interrogated, it doesn’t hurt to have client participation. I like to put my clients to work and participate as helpful note-takers. I teach them how to take notes on sticky notes (1 thought or observation per sticky note) so that we can synthesize the information post-interview.

If they are busy taking notes, they will not have time to interrupt your interview by interjecting with their own agenda of questions. It helps them feel involved and valued and now you have an extra note-taker!

5. Client Participation in User Interview Synthesis

This is an especially valuable tactic to win your difficult clients over. This works best if you have a few note-takers in your interview. I start by briefly explaining that the wonderful notes that were taken on sticky notes during the user interviews help us drive out valuable data about the current state of our product, potential features to include in the future to address painpoints, and could potentially illuminate where our priorities should be.

Everyone takes turns reading out their sticky notes one by one and the group tries to group them together by commonalities. It’s totally fine to have multiple stickies that say the same things because it confirms that more than one person heard the same piece of juicy information. Sticky notes get grouped together organically and you can pull out the main points of the interview. This exercise is very helpful because it allows the entire group to work together to be on the same page about what valuable information they took away from the interview.

6. Record Your User Interviews

I like to recorde my user interviews and get them transcribed whether the client is difficult or not. It’s great to have the ability to listen back if you aren’t quite sure if you heard a response right. For me, it’s a sanity check to make sure that I can always reference the source of truth. Notes can be injected with personal bias, people can interpret what people say in really weird ways at times, and our memories are never as good as we hope they are.

However, recording interviews is great with difficult clients because sometimes they forget about what was said by users about certain important topics. Oddly enough, some clients still try to make changes based on their assumptions alone even if it contradicts the data.

A great strategy to gently remind them of user interview findings, is to present them with direct quotes from the interview. Research data is your best friend in situations like this. There is no use in arguing with people based on the memory of what people think they heard. Use the data to remind them that UCD will ensure success and that the user’s feedback should outweigh all personal opinions.

Recording can also prove that you utilized non-leading questions and that there were no attempts to sway users toward your bias or assumption.

7. Try to Understand the Reasoning Behind Their Suggested Solutions

Let’s face it. Everyone seems to think that they can do our job better than us. HAHA

Everyone tries to advocate for their brilliant solution that will solve all problems. Instead of being annoyed by their solutions that utilize anti-patterns and goes against common good practice, try to understand the motivations behind their solution. Maybe the reason they want to put a button in a weird place is because of their fear that users will accidentally press the button. Maybe it’s because of a factor that you haven’t considered.

Instead of shooting them down, tell them “I want to understand why you think this is the best solution. Is there a particular reason why you want it this way? What details of the current solution make you uncomfortable?”

Once you figure out the underlying issue, tell them that you understand their motivations/concerns and that you would like to consider this information while brainstorming a solution that incorporates this information. This lets them know that you listened to them, you understand their concerns, and that you are willing to consider this information in your solutions.

8. Try To Compromise With Their Need For Control

Sometimes we have to deal with a know-it-all control freak client. They have a ton of ideas and they want you to implement all of them yesterday with absolutely no mistakes! Talk about demanding and no sense of reasonable expectations! They tend to ignore expert advice when it conflicts with their internal logic. Although this is an extreme case, we will all inevitably deal with a person like this in our careers and it’s unfortunate that they can make our lives more challenging during that time.

The key is to manage their expectations to the best of your ability, give them a strict schedule of deadlines, communication times and feedback, and give them a ton of advance notice when you run into problems. The most important part is to give them ownership and control over a small piece of the project, but create clear boundaries of where that ownership ends. This lets them feel like they are contributing, keeps them busy controlling certain aspects, and makes them feel like their opinions are getting incorporated.

9. Try to Defuse Emotional Situations

Sometimes clients can get frustrated and emotional because they feel that design is subjective. These types of clients wonder why the designer doesn’t implement what they think is best if it’s just a matter of differences in opinion. They would rather go with their gut feeling than rely on testing and data… and when you try to gently guide them to data-driven decisions, their emotions can bubble over.

“Difficult feedback is rarely about getting the facts right. It’s about conflicting views, feelings, and values. Reasonable people differ in all these things.”

ROBERT WITHERSPOON IN “HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW”

The first step is to acknowledge their feelings. This doesn’t mean that you agree with their actions, but it’s important to help them uncover the root cause of their outburst so that you work together to find a reasonable solution. Although it is super difficult when emotions are running high, it is super imperative to not let your own emotions spiral out of control. Just remember that a little bit of empathy and communication can go a long way. Tell them you can understand why they might be frustrated, but that you hope to find a way forward that prevents them from feeling that way in the future.

Help them understand how to give more effective design feedback and remind them that data-driven decisions have a track record of being more successful than personal logic because everyone thinks differently and has different logic.

TAKE DEEP BREATHS as your client expresses their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This will help your overwhelmed client feel like they are being heard and valued. Once calmer heads prevail, it’s okay to take some time to think about everything instead of offering an immediate solution.

If you are finding it difficult to diffuse the situation, it is always a better idea to walk away to let the dust settle instead of losing your temper. Losing your cool tarnish your reputation and may affect future business for your company.

10. Don’t Take It Personally & Be the Bigger Person

Try to remember that there are always other outside factors at play when people get emotional. We can never know what a person is going through. We don’t always know about their home and work situations. It’s always good to remember that everyone has their personal struggles and that life isn’t always kind.

Actively listen without defending and waiting for an opportunity for a rebuttal. Even if they treat you unfairly, be the bigger person and let it roll off of you. Being the bigger person will only strengthen your working relationship.

What do you do to deal with your most challenging clients? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below. Can’t wait to read your tips.

XOXO,

Hannah Coley

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