Getting Down To The Nitty Gritty: How To Figure Out What Your Client Really Needs

Clients hire us as designers to solve some type of problem. We’re problem solvers.
More specifically, we are creative professionals with an expertise in design. But many times, clients hire designers without a good idea of what we do. Many clients also don’t understand that there’s often a difference between what they want and what they need.
Here’s a little scenario to illustrate.

I take my car to a mechanic and tell him that I want my engine replaced. Surprised by the request, he tells me how much work a complete engine transplant would be and how much money it would cost me. 
After he talks to me, he realizes that the problem I’m really trying to solve is squeaky brakes. I know that my car makes a lot of noise and that it’s powered by an engine, so the only logical conclusion I could come to was that I needed a new engine.
After talking with the mechanic, however, I discovered that the brakes are separate from the engine, and all I need are new brake pads. This is much quicker and will cost me a lot less money, and because the mechanic took the time to figure out exactly what I needed, I’m going to come back to him next time I need any work on my car.

This scenario often happens in the design world. So what can you do to make sure you’re really solving your clients’ problems and keeping them coming back?

Have a real conversation

To start with, talk to them. To understand the problems your client is having, you have to understand who your client is. You have to have a conversation with them. A real, face-to-face conversation, even if those faces appear on a screen in a Google Hangout or Skype call.

Find out what they do and why they do it. It’s kind of like a first date. Then, once you’ve gotten to know a little background on them and their business, you get down to the nitty gritty. Ask them this question:

“Why do you want to hire me?”

Asking them this way versus asking what they want you to do digs a little deeper into the problems they’re dealing with. In the conversation after this question, you really find out what challenges they face with their business and what their problems are.

Use a creative brief

One of the simplest, most powerful tools you can use to find out your clients’ needs is a creative brief. Whether it’s a set of questions that you sit down and go through with your client or a document that you send to them to fill out, a creative brief can help you get down to the details of what you’ll be doing.

A creative brief is basically a short set of specific questions with the goal of getting down to the details of what your client is looking to accomplish. The keyword here is brief. Keep it short and simple and you’ll get much better answers. Here are a few questions that should be in an effective creative brief:

  • What are your goals for this project?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • How will you judge the success of the project?
  • How do you want people to see you as a result of this project?
  • What is your budget for the project?

The last question may have made you squirm in your chair a bit. Not many designers enjoy asking about money. And, as Mike Monteiro writes, clients aren’t always comfortable talking about their budget, either. Though it‘s not always easy to talk about, at least having an idea of what your client’s budget is up front helps you plan out the scope of the project and can help you avoid scope creep down the line.

Going through a simple creative brief at the beginning of a project can help you and your client get on the same page (literally) from the beginning so that you can produce your best work.

Do your research

You can get a lot of information by talking to your clients and going through a creative brief, but it’s always good to do a little research on your own. Do a little digging on your clients’ competition. See what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right. They may have tried building a mobile app that didn’t work out or upset customers with an unnecessary redesign.

You can do the same for the big players in the space. See what the dominant companies in your client’s industry is doing and borrow some ideas that work. Those companies have a lot more money to spend on research and testing, so use that to your advantage.

Researching other companies is great, but researching your client’s company can also be helpful. In addition to talking with them and getting information from them about their business, do some research of your own. This will help you get a sense of how the company is perceived by the public and their customers.

Once you’ve talked to your client, completed a creative brief and done your research, you should have a good idea of what you can do to solve their problems. And when you can solve their real problems, there’s a much better chance that they’ll come back to you next time they need design work.

Austin Price

Austin is the lead designer at Krit. He writes about everything from design critiques to sitting on the toilet. You can give him feedback on Twitter or inflate his ego on Dribbble.