Collaborative Web Design: How Designers and Clients Can Work Together to Make Websites that Work

Robbie Moore

Great websites don’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort from both designers and clients to build a website that looks beautiful, engages visitors, and helps a company reach its goals — all while staying on track and within budget. We’ve got a process that helps get everyone on the same page, but every step is built on trust. Here’s how it happens.

Establish Trust on Both Sides

At the beginning of a relationship, designers don’t know a client’s business and the client probably isn’t an expert on web design.

To build trust, designers need:

  • A willingness to learn the client’s business. The designer must be curious, ask questions and find answers to determine how best to showcase the company’s strengths.
  • Patience. Designers must be patient teachers who can explain the “why” behind decisions.
  • Consistency. Designers may be working with a wide variety of internal players, and keeping the messaging consistent and systematic when working with any of them will help reassure clients.

At the same time, clients need:

  • A willingness to be open. Clients must share sometimes sensitive information about business goals to help the designer create a great website.
  • Honesty. In some cases, the client might not know what the business or departmental goals are — and that’s fine. It’s better for designers to know that rather than trying to design something that isn’t going to fit later on.
  • Curiosity. Clients should be interested in understanding what makes good web design. Understanding the principles of good design can help them make better decisions throughout the process.

Both sides, of course, need to be willing to communicate. I set up weekly meetings, to keep everyone in the loop.

Trust and passion lead to great back-and-forth with a client. A client who’s not afraid to say they don’t like or don’t understand something is an awesome thing. That kind of respect gives everyone some breathing room and keeps the air clear. If the design — any part of it — is off target, open communication allows the design to be reoriented in the right direction.

Agree on Goals

Any creative strategy needs a goal, so clients and designers should work together to find one. But if goals change over the course of a project, that’s no problem: Some companies thrive on change and other companies find that as they get into a web makeover, they’re challenging all sorts of internal assumptions.

If you get down the road and things change, back up and start again. Some people learn by seeing and once they see a design, it helps them realize they aren’t what they thought they were.

Document, Document, Document

I’ve found it helps to have some foundational paperwork before diving into designing — things like site maps, wireframes and a written creative strategy. It adds about a week to the project upfront, but it’s worth it.

Once I present a design, I ask for feedback and tweaks to stress test it. Some clients will take screenshots and mark them up and ask me to move stuff around or shoot me some ideas. I welcome that because it builds trust and most of the time it creates a better web solution.

Remember the Audience

Sometimes clients say things like “I know what I like when I see it” or “I want something really creative, really different.” That’s fine, but web design has to keep in mind usability standards. If you’re too creative, site visitors may be more frustrated than awed. So it can get really expensive for a client if they want to explore a different design direction every week.

I try to help them understand that what the users need and want should trump their personal tastes. But if the client wants to change the color of the site from green to blue or the navigation fonts from all caps to title case, it’s usually not a big deal, so I go ahead and make the changes.

Good web design is collaborative, and collaboration stems from understanding each other’s goals and being committed to honest communication. For us, these steps help us give our customers the best websites possible.

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