Product Principles: Clients Are Team Members
Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in a seven-part series from Levvel’s Product Innovation team that details the critical product principles the team lives by. Also see parts one, two, three, and four.
We often hear consultants in the industry say things like, “clients are from hell.” While clients aren’t always easy to work with, seeing them as the problem isn’t constructive and ultimately distracts teams from focusing on the real problems.
As we’ve written about previously, we believe that real problems cross disciplines. This means that projects can only really succeed if you bring together design, engineering, and business perspectives. Teams like Levvel bring design and engineering expertise to the table, but the last piece, business, is best represented by the client.
A truly cross-disciplinary team needs active client engagement. This doesn’t mean just doing demos for a client once a week. It means integrating clients into the process and leveraging their expertise. The most successful teams are organized such that clients are team members.
Transparency is King
Nothing sets a better collaborative tone up front with clients than transparency during sales. Instead of trying to sell a canned approach, we try to understand the client’s team, expertise, constraints, and expectations to figure out where our skills can add the most value. It’s an exercise in transparency and humility. Sometimes it could mean a smaller project for us, but the project will be better because the trust we’ve earned will serve as the foundation of a strong team.
Once the project kicks off, we add the client to our Slack channels and project management tools so they can be involved in the day-to-day. An open line of communication breaks down walls and includes everyone in the project. The client can see conversations happen in real time and participate in them like every other team member. Bringing our clients along throughout the journey provides incredible value. It allows clients to continually provide input into decisions early, before they have a chance to hurt the project. It also creates more alignment between the client and our team, because they understand the thought process behind decisions and have even participated in them. This minimizes development re-work and design churn which are the biggest sources of budget overruns and conflict among teams.
Some design studios like to hide their internal process and people from clients, but we believe that if we break down the walls and get to know each other as people, we can build trust, which is the key ingredient for effective teams.
Creativity is Learned
Just like we wouldn’t expect a new employee to fit in perfectly with the team on day one, it would be unreasonable to expect clients to be great team members right away. It’s this unrealistic expectation that leads to the “clients are from hell” thinking. We understand that, just like for new employees, it will take some time, listening, coaching, and a few iterations before the client gets comfortable with the process and their new teammates.
Most clients join the team with little knowledge of design thinking. Educating them and changing their old thought patterns is critical to the success of the project. Changing anyone’s thought patterns is hard, especially when they’re the ones signing the checks! Still, we would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t challenge them to learn the concepts we’ve practically come to accept as common knowledge.
Intellectual Safety First
I mentioned earlier how trust is such a critical factor for effective teams. Just like it’s important for the client to trust our team, it’s just as important for client stakeholders to trust each other. It would be a mistake to assume that client stakeholders have alignment coming in to a project.
Just like with any group, client teams have complex relationships with one another. The team members might not have talked openly with each other before for political or organizational reasons. The secrets they keep are the silent killers of projects three or four months down the line. Before we do anything else, we need to create intellectual safety. Without it, the project is immediately in danger.
With this complete layer of transparency comes honesty and trust. Now, workshops and conversations start to feel even more natural, and this is where intellectual safety is created. Nobody has to worry what the other person is truly thinking, instead everything is brought to the table. This type of environment includes the client and helps them appreciate reasons for decisions that are made as opposed to just telling them what should be done. There absolutely cannot be a designer’s “us vs. them” mentality. It creates a hostile environment that makes decisions hard, stunts creativity, and is ultimately unproductive—this will only halt momentum and can end up delaying the project.
Clients don’t always know or understand UX as well as we do and, just like new team members, they need to be taught. Part of the job is not only solving the problem and creating a great experience, but it’s also educating the client in design thinking. This education not only gives the client the necessary tools to continue to think this way as the current project continues, but they can use this knowledge on future projects as well.
Even as designers, we should never be designing in a vacuum. Design is a process that approaches the problem from a holistic viewpoint. Design is not just art in terms of something looking pretty while ignoring constraints. It’s a continuous delivery of our work with an explanation of why it is being done this way, rather than a “big reveal” which often leads to many questions getting lost and unanswered from the client.
We Aren’t Just A Resource
We don’t want to be just another resource to the client. Rather, we want to be on the same level as the client. Ultimately, our job is to provide further insight that can help solve a problem. The best results cannot be produced unless both individual teams are communicating efficiently, are completely transparent, and are on the same team. That’s why, at Levvel, we truly believe that clients are team members.