The Vanilla Ice 3-step guide to client happiness

I heard a story of frustration the other day from a friend who was working with a designer. She had briefed a designer to create a web page. He duly disappeared into his designer cave for about a month before sending over his work. My friend (the client) had issues with the state of the work and sent back a lengthy list of things that needed fixing. The designer was shocked by this long list of changes and sent back a curt reply saying it would cost more.

Now my friend was shocked and annoyed by this and told me so. I could understand what the situation was. The designer saw the work as 90% finished when they sent it over as they had been working on it for a month. The client saw it as 50% finished as it was the first thing they had seen and it wasn't what they had in mind. He was now frustrated at having more work to do. She was also now massively unimpressed with this designer and didn't want to work with him again.

It's a classic issue in the design and web development field and it frustrates me to hear it. In fact I know it applies to other industries where there is a client-freelancer or client-agent relationship. But it's all so avoidable and these days it's fairly inexcusable in our web-based world. It's a problem of the freelancer/agency's own making: when you are hired as an expert it's your responsibility to expertly explain to them how the process will work. If you try and hide from them and hope communication can be avoided, trust can break down pretty quickly.

The answer to this lies in the wise words of that sage philosopher, Vanilla Ice:

Stop, collaborate, and listen.

This isn't just a convenient lyric I've rediscovered for this article (well it's that too), it's a three-step plan to happy clients and a happy designer. Let me explain how I apply it to my UX consulting to avoid stress and client animosity.

Stop: be clear on what you're going to deliver

Before you start, don't rush the proposal process. This is where you can mess up before you've even begun.

As tempting as it can be to seal the deal quickly, dashed off emails, phone calls, or even text messages aren't a great way to start a project. If there are problems further down the line it's usually because there was a miscommunication around what each side thought was being worked on. A new website might mean a handful of templates to you but every single page to be custom-made to the client.

You should always discuss clients needs before you put in your proposal and quote. I find a 30 minute phone call does the job but sometimes it needs to be an hour meeting. It's no fun to quote eagerly only to then talk to the client and realise there's more to it than you first thought. Explaining you need to charge more so soon will not fill them with confidence.

My proposals tend to be about 10 pages long, with a page summarising my relevant experience, a page re-iterating the project and timeframes we discussed, then six to seven pages on what each stage of work looks like, before a page of prices. Not only will this mean both sides should be very clear on what is involved, a bit of time and effort will also help you stand out against any competitors and help set you up as an expert who knows what they're talking about.

If a client asks if you can bring the price down, ask them what parts of the work they want to cut back on. This is important. They need to understand that you aren't picking your prices out of thin air and any reductions are a negotiation. Though I tend to avoid this from the off by always offering a few options for clients so they can pick something that is right for their budget (usually a small, medium, and large project).

Collaborate: work with your clients and deliver regularly

Avoid being the designer/developer who goes away and works in secret on your project, only to deliver it right at the end of your deadline. You're just massively increasing your chances of giving them something they don't want. And also giving yourself more work to do. Of course you might ace it and be seen as a hero but you might end up like my friend's designer, so why take the risk?

I get the feeling of wanting to perfect something before showing it but by fighting that urge you'll become a better designer. By sharing early and often you get the opportunity to do little course-corrections and avoid the big scary rework. Additionally if a client has spent a lot of money on you, they get to feel like they're getting constant value. They also tend to build more empathy with what you're trying to do. When they don't hear anything they get nervous and can become more likely to jump on mistakes.

For example, in the UX design work I do, I always take my clients through my research phase. There's usually great insights in there that I get to share with them and they get to learn about their users. This would likely be missed if it was bundled up with the final wireframes as all their attention would be taken by the new designs. They also then understand how I come to my solutions.

Taking another example from my graphic design work, by sharing lots of early logo design sketches I get to iterate to a solution that involves the strongest ideas that the client responds to. This avoids them making suggestions late on in a project that I have already tried and know doesn't work.

Listen: clients are another data point

Your clients are the experts on their business and on their customers (or at least they should be). Use this knowledge. I find getting their input in the research phase of my work is an important part of my data-driven UX design process. It normally consists of an initial meeting with them where I get them to explain their users and the current issues with their site and it forms a very useful data point.

Always try and get them to give real examples rather than just their opinion on what should change—they often won't be a typical user. A good business should be gathering constant feedback from their customers on issues they have and things they react well to.

If you're working with big companies perhaps the person who hired you isn't that close to the users, in which case you should ask to talk to the customer team. By actually listening to what they have to say you will often find the answers to the real problems that need solving.

Of course whilst they can be the experts, don't make this your only research. In UX design I make sure to combine it with my own site audit, competitor analysis, quant data, and user testing—more on that here. The sweet spot comes when you combine their experience and your outsider's perspective.


If you've got clients you work with regularly you can potentially break all these rules as you develop a deeper understanding with each other. They might be cool with you going off the radar and your text message quotes. But next time you're getting started with a new client, remember Vanilla Ice.

Published on 13 June 2016

ux / web design / development / clients / freelance / agency / process /

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