Jeremy Britton is Partner at ZURB, a 13-year old design consultancy with over 100 start-ups under its belt. He acts as Design Lead and Strategist with the team. Setting up problems that people care about and then solving them in ways that work for businesses and delight customers are his focus at ZURB. He still loves to draw pictures, which comes in very handy at these tasks.
I had a chance to speak with Jeremy about the design process, working with clients and the various tools ZURB has developed for the web community.
The article "so you wanna be a design strategist" talks about everyone being a design expert. As designers, we often face clients trying to take control over designs. How do you handle keeping clients involved while maintaining control over your work? Or is that not your goal?
Everybody has their own opinions on the way something should look and designers get frustrated when people step on what they feel is their territory. Designers are right at the heart of where people interact with a product and anyone can jump in and provide feedback or provide their own mockup of changes. That’s the curse and the virtue of working in “design.”
What we do at ZURB is make sure we communicate up-front about how the process works and what the client's role needs to be. Always provide context for what you do, and reiterate that when presenting designs to clients. Help them to understand all the layers of decisions, so if they send something back it has to have that same reasoning behind it. We back up our decisions, and tell the client what we need back from them, with a time frame. Coaching is important, and reiterating. This allows for give and take but raises the bar.
I read about "timeboxing" in ZURBword. It seems clients (new and existing) always want things "ASAP." When someone comes to you with a request and a short time frame, how do you determine whether to meet their deadline or present them with a new one? How do you explain to clients (who often just want things now) the importance of "enough" time vs. just meeting a deadline?
Don’t schedule everything. Long schedules are death to motivation and you need motivated designers to create great things. Instead, we timebox our work in short bursts. Each project has a start and an end date. Between those two dates we balance being opportunistic (capable of turning on a dime to pursue a new discovery) and following through on stuff that has to get done within a timeframe. Typically we keep a three- to five-day rolling schedule of mini milestones to give everyone visibility and force ongoing decisions about what’s in and what’s out for a given project.
With clients, show them the value of design methods so they know design isn't just window dressing. Get the client to articulate clearly what their goals are. Find out why they are doing a project, and why they need it in a time frame, and you’ll find there is often more to the story. Then, address the root issue rather than slap an end date on it. For example, if a client says "we need flash demos on how to use this tool,” perhaps you can spend the same time to just make the tool easier to use. We did this at ZURB with Photobucket. Instead of a tour explaining how to use a broken interaction, we fixed the UI to make the interaction work. Designers need to stick to their guns, and bring something to the table that the client doesn't have.
Don't forget about all the elements that must come together beyond just the initial launch of a project: maintaining, growing, marketing, etc. Designers need to understand what the client is passionate about, who they are and what drives them, and see them as a partner in getting things done.
You mentioned "design for people" and how that goes well beyond client work to products, courses, training and events. What would you recommend to freelancers working solo to achieve this, even on a smaller or different scale?
The goal is to be accessible. Clients are one group you can work with, but if you are passionate about ideas and what you're doing you can look for other opportunities and share and connect with people and exchange knowledge in different forms. We’ve seen people take on our principles that we speak about at ZURB and we can share in those successes. What are you good at? Can you share it online, can someone re-publish your work? Do that regularly and then be there to reply and connect with the people who respond.
We talked about your focus on relationships with clients and details as far as how emails are written. What advice would you give to new designers regarding building successful client relationships?
It comes down to the initial contact. Who are you meeting them through or referred by? Form strong relationships and you'll meet people through that. Be responsive, get back to people quickly or just check in with clients once in a while. Always listen, read people, and understand where the person is coming from and how to speak with them. Be responsive. Tell people what you'll show them, show them, then tell them why. Recap it, and repeat. Get momentum and rhythm with a project. Always keep clients in the loop as to what you'll need next and what to expect is coming from you. Don't get lazy with emails, and don't underestimate the importance of presentation. Your service components must let the design shine.
Here’s a tip: Write an email that explains a deliverable you haven’t done yet, do the work, then compare your work to the original email stating your goal. Does your work match your goals?
Do this often. Building momentum means breaking work down into smaller decisions to present. Bring your client along with you and don't hold back on getting feedback, because you don't want to get it all at the end. Design doesn’t work like Mad Men with the "big reveal."