One reason many websites fail to benefit a business is because clients give designers bad briefs to work from. Every successful project starts with a great brief, and every great brief starts with clear goals.
The client questionnaire. If you’ve ever needed design work, chances are you’ve filled one out, and it makes you groan just thinking about it, am I right?
The questionnaire I used for many years was notoriously “painful” according to my clients who were brave enough to take it seriously: “She’ll make you do a lot of homework… but it’s worth it.” And easy-peazy for those who filled it out during what I can only assume was a commercial break:
Describe your target customer. People with money.
What are your goals for your new website? Our website is old, we need a new one.
Designers often lament about bad creative briefs — too little information, unhelpful information, ridiculous information. We know that solving the wrong problem or following bad direction isn’t going to help our clients’ business, but frankly, we work with what we’re given and we give you what you ask for because we want to make a living.
In most cases, when you return a client questionnaire that disappoints your designer, the problem is not that you’re lazy, that you don’t care about your business, or that you’re too clueless to give us the information we need…
The problem lies in the process, and unrealistic expectations about what goes into a website that can really do something for your business.
Why Client Questionnaires Suck
I’ve looked at dozens of client questionnaires, and I’ve tried filling them out myself. I’ve downloaded “brand challenge workbooks” that make big promises to help me get clarity about my brand, only to be presented with pages and pages of questions that make my eyes glaze over.
The questions are not the problem, those are usually pretty good.
The problem is that the questions are really hard to answer and require a lot of careful thought.
We understand you may decide not to hire us and don’t want to spend too much time filling out these forms, it might all be a waste of your time.
It’s really hard for us to answer the questions, “How much will it cost?” or “How will you approach this project?” without knowing what the project even is.
We really really need you to do your homework.
When we get back horrible briefs, we don’t insist you try again because your answers are shit, that would be rude. And we don’t take the time to explain how to answer the questions if we’re not “on the clock” yet.
We know a lot is being thrown at you — lots of new concepts, technology you might not understand, things about your business you may not have given much through to until now. Which is exactly why some designers charge for their intake and discovery process. When the budget allows, we walk our clients through all of this step by step, creating the scope of work, the creative brief, and the strategy for and with you.
If it doesn’t, we can’t include planning and strategy because that means we’d need to chip into your already small budget. We can give you a minimum value product but not much more. And yet, you’re probably expecting much more.
Unrealistic Expectations About How Much a Website Should Cost Sucks
In the age of the $69 WordPress themes and free website builders that promise to get your business online in an hour, client expectations are totally out of whack. People want a website NOW and they want it CHEAP. Designers are often expected to perform miracles on a shoestring budget. Only you don’t really realize that because everywhere you look, you see big promises that buying design should be easy, fast, and cheap. What makes a $500 website different from a $15,000 website? You don’t know.
Well, a big difference is that the smaller the budget, the less thought goes into laying a solid foundation for how that website will help you meet business goals. When the budget is larger, I can take the time to get to know your business, research your competitors, uncover what your core business problems are and help you creatively solve them. I can help you fine tune your content so it’ll be more likely for your site visitors to convert, and I can even test our theories with users to make sure we’re taking the guesswork out of it. Less stabbing in the dark, more process.
A small budget focuses mostly on implementation, and relies on the client to create the plan and to fill in any gaps in knowledge, strategy, or actions that need to happen pre- or post-launch. Less process, more “here’s what you asked for, good luck.”
Small budgets put the designer in the position to take shortcuts — one of those is the client questionnaire. We use them because we need information from you, but you don’t have the time or budget to work with us to create that solid foundation. (We use them with larger budgets too, but it’s just a very basic starting point for discussion.)
We hope you get it right, and we hope you answer those questions carefully. Any shortcut in the process means you’ll have to pick up the slack. We expect you to take responsibility for the things you’re not paying us to help you with.
I’ve lost clients because I’ve followed bad briefs
There’s a truth bomb for you, and it’s not easy to admit, but I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m 100% sure of that, because lots of other designers have lost their clients to me.
I’ve worked with clients who are not open to spending time thinking about their project, they just want it done. Or they know what they want and they aren’t open to my input or guidance, they just want somebody to execute. When I have a full plate of work lined up I sometimes turn down projects like these, but if not — hey, I need to make a living and I’m in no position to turn away a paying gig. But I don’t feel good about it.
I spent years perfecting my client questionnaire — the questions carefully considered and designed to get the answers I need to help the project succeed. Only to literally have them completed and returned within minutes, sparsely filled out, with responses like these (actual responses, btw):
Just make it look cool
I don’t know what I want, I’ll know it when I see it
I like thiscoolwebsite.com and thisothercoolwebsite.com, I want something like that
They’re busy, and that’s all they were willing to give me to work with. I probe further to no avail. I just have to trust that they know their business and what they need. I follow their direction, do my best, and hope it works for them.
Some time later I may notice that they’ve redesigned. They didn’t hire a better designer, or build a better website, they just wanted something different. Sometimes they’re worse off than they were before and I won’t lie, that makes me sad. They’re still trying to get it right and they’re still responsible if it fails.
And it will fail if there wasn’t a better plan. And until there is, the process will keep repeating. And that’s costly.
There are many reasons why planning is brushed over by clients:
- You’re in a hurry
- You’re super busy
- You’re expecting the designer will know what to do without much input from you
- You think that giving a designer too much information will inhibit their “creativity”
- It’s just not that important to you. You don’t believe websites really “do anything”, you just think you need one because it’s expected these days
My theory about all of this goes a little deeper. I suspect:
- If you knew how important creating a strategy for your website is, how it could help your business, that you would eagerly invest your time and attention.
- That you may not really know how to go about answering those big, hard questions, because you never gave them much thought before now and nobody ever explained it.
- Maybe you feel embarrassed or your ego gets in the way. You’ve been given pages and pages of questions about your business and they should be easy to answer if you know what you’re doing, right?
How to create a better client brief
Assume you need help answering these questions and get it.
A question like, “How is your business different from your competitors?” or “What is your unique value proposition?” are really complex subjects and if you’ve not thought these things before, it’ll take a bit of work to answer them. There are entire books written on the subject of positioning, courses you can take, blog posts you can read and YouTube videos to watch if you’re not clear what a value proposition is. (Hint: it’s the single most important piece of content you’ll put on your website.)
Take your time with it.
It definitely shouldn’t take you 15 minutes to scope out a website project, or answer a question like “What are your goals?” Nobody who ever answered these questions at a stoplight got a great result from their designer. When I ask clients about their goals for their website, I’m really hoping they’ll think carefully about what change they want their website to bring their business.
Take advantage of the website planning process to think deeply about the future of your business
If you don’t have a business plan, this is a great time to create a strategy that will help you move forward in a powerful way. There’s “power in the process” — use it to get clear on a few things:
What problem does your business solve?
What makes you different from your competition?
Who is your ideal customer?
How do your customers feel about you?
Are there any areas of your business that need improving?
Ask for fresh perspectives
A year ago, I decided to make some changes in my business and redesign my website, and it took me weeks to get clear about these things. I got help from a marketing consultant, a copywriter, colleagues and coaches. We all need help and fresh perspectives, even if we do marketing or design for a living. Approach this with a beginner’s mind and amazing opportunities to use your website to improve your business will open up to you.