Monday, August 03, 2015

Five Client Games Designers Don't Want to Play

Most clients are decent. It's true that some clients are not great. And some can be bad. But, that doesn't mean they are unscrupulous. However, there are a few that come to you with ulterior motives, which can hurt designers. And those clients aren't always aware of the harm they cause.

To be fair, the harm is not always caused by the client's agenda. But before I get to that, here are five of the top games designers experience most:

1. Guess what I'm thinking. (Mind reading.)

This is the game where the client expects you, the designer, to magically understand what they want without telling you. The client expects you to have such insight that you just "get it" with only a hint of information. And the client gets annoyed when you dare ask questions for clarification.

Usually this happens because the client is not sure of what they really need, or they may be working for someone who's too busy to articulate the details. As a result, they want the designer to help them figure this out. On the other side, the designer simply isn't aware of what the client expects. So, designers assume the client knows what they want and just isn't telling them. This leaves the designer playing "guessing games" while the client expects the designer to use their talent to help them chart a design strategy.

In some cases, the client doesn't fully trust the designer to help them. Which leads us to the next game.

2. Hey, you're the designer!

This is the game where the client expresses their annoyance with designers — often using this remark. They want you, as the designer, to step up and be the expert — even if they aren't interested in answering your questions. And if they get any hint that you may be a problem, they will let you know they don't really respect you.

The usual reason this happens is because these clients are under pressure to produce. And they expect the designer to be able to give them assurance and relief. They are looking to place their trust in the designer, but the designer has to demonstrate some trustworthiness — especially when the client doesn't know the designer well.

3. The surprise attack.

Have you ever dealt with a client who's nice and pleasant one moment, and flies off the handle at the drop of a hat? Or have you ever been in the situation where everything seems to be going well, and, all of a sudden, the client thinks everything is all wrong? What happened? This is the game of the surprise attack.

This happens when the client isn't always in control. They may be working on someone's behalf, or they really aren't the client. Sometimes the client simply doesn't remember past decisions or changes the scope midway through the project. This can be frustrating for designers.

4. My way or the highway.

This is the game where the client seems to delight in letting designers know they are in charge. The client doesn't always say this outright, but they will often remind the designer when they review the design work that they insist on quality work (or, in other words, "Give me what I want, then I will go away"). You as the designer may have an expert opinion, and the client may even ask you for it, but they only want you to agree with them.

Often they do this because they want to ensure that they are leaving their mark on the project. They want to be able to claim success when it goes well, and have someone to blame when it doesn't. And they feel the pressure to make the project go well.

5. I'm gonna change something no matter what.

This game is like the previous one in that the client has to put their mark on the project by changing something. It doesn't matter if it's something the client requested, part of the agreed upon scope, or that it is what's needed. The client has to make a change.

In this situation the client feels they need to show they are contributing and doing their job. They want to feel like they are engaged by offering opinions — even if it's something they don't really care about. Unlike the previous game of My way or the highway the client genuinely wants your feedback, and is willing to bend. But they have to push a little.

So, what's a designer to do

  1. Listen. But don't play. In other words, be sympathetic to what your client might be struggling with. Be very clear about expectations. But stick to the agreed upon plan and scope. Offer to change the scope only if compensated, and in agreement on acceptable delays.
  2. Connect to the client emotionally. Although this is all about business, it doesn't hurt to be understanding and peaceable (as far as it depends on you). Express what you think the client may be feeling, and try to be helpful. Sometimes, we designers can use more empathy even if it's business, because client's are looking to us for genuine help. Designers shouldn't be quick to write off clients as bad, until they prove themselves to be.
  3. Get clear on expectations and ownership. This is not the time for ambiguity.
  4. Remind the client about your process. Even if changes are necessary, always remind the client how you work, why, and what the expectations were agreed upon.
  5. Avoid the blame game. Don't play this, even if the client insists on blaming you for all their problems. Stick to solutions-based conversations. If the client refuses to do so, there is no reason to continue until there's an agreement on scope, costs, and time. You don't have to take abuse. You and the client have better things to do.

Photo courtesy Steven Ung of

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