Imagine a math teacher giving a 5-minute pop quiz. She starts writing some numbers on the chalkboard, and asks her students to solve this one equation. Everyone goes to work, except for one student. He timidly stands up and admits, "I can't solve the equation unless I know what the problem is. Having the numbers isn’t enough." The teacher is pleased that the student noticed. And she gives him an "A".
We sometimes get vague requests for creative output. A quick email with "Hey, I need you to make this better. I need it by the EOD. Thanks!" Or maybe we are asked to review a bunch of email replies to decipher the request. Or, sometimes we think we have what we need only to discover that we are missing some critical information that the client doesn’t have.
We've all been there. And as designers we know we need more than directives. We first need to know the problem a lot more intimately.
So, just like the savvy student, we have to humbly admit we need to understand the problem a whole lot more than the request. True, we need to understand the request. But we need to ask more questions about the problem than about the solution.
Here’s what I mean. When a client or coworker makes a request, they are asking us for a product. And although that’s what we will ultimately produce, the product isn’t the solution. It’s only the result of the request. So, a proper understanding of the problem helps us create a product that solves the problem — rather than just being output.
Here are some questions we need answers to before we can begin any project:
1. Why are we doing this?
The client has to let us know some background on this. There’s always a reason a request is being made. And the reason can illuminate the primary problems that need addressing.
2. Who's this for, and why should they care?
The intended audience determines how we can address the solution. This question helps focus our design approach. (What will attract them, make the main message clear to them, and be persuasive?) Also, we need to know why the client believes his audience would care about his message. We can begin to get an idea of what obstacles and problems the client really wants solved.
3. What's the mood?
The client wants to convey a certain feeling with this project. What is it? And is it appropriate for the message? This question helps us direct the design towards the feeling the client wants to convey. For example, the mood can be bright and happy, or dark and foreboding. It can be serious or comical.
4. What is the target audience supposed to do?
When the message and mood are appropriate, what is this project supposed to accomplish with this audience? Should they contact the client, buy something immediately, sign-up, feel something, think deeper about something, etc.? Making this clear makes the project easier to design.
5. What outcomes would make this successful?
If the client is clear what they want to ultimately happen because of this project, we are clearer about the problem we are trying to solve. For instance, if the client wants the main audience to contact them for more information. The way we know we are successful is measuring the amount of people who contact them as a result of the project. And ultimately, the client wants to develop new relationships to make more meaningful sales in the future.
Don’t settle for “more sales” as an answer either. It’s way too vague for most design projects. And it lacks a clear measurement that most design projects can achieve alone.
Asking these questions are really helpful. But this brings up a question I have all the time.
What if the client isn't interested in answering questions?
My advice? Just stop asking them, and start making statements. At this point it’s better to tell the clients what we need, so we can get the project done well and on time. And give them a plan to solve the problem. (Usually in a creative brief.) And have the client sign-off on our plan. This forces better collaboration between the client and designer. And this will make life easier for both parties.