Confused by website feedback from clients? Let’s clear it up!

This is a guest post by Dana Flannery.

“I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it!” Urrrggghhhh. HEAD. DESK.

Interpreting the client brief and client website feedback – it’s as much of an art form as designing or copywriting. From the client who knows everything to the client who is clearly clueless, turning the client brief into the client’s dream means digging into their psyche and poking around at their motivations. A little bit of amateur psychology can go a loooong way to calming the client shit storm.

Once you’ve found that elusive place that the feedback is coming from, interpreting the design brief and their subsequent website feedback can be simple. While this may sound patronising or even deceptive, the end result is a happy client and a happy developer… it’s up to you if you’d like to gently try these techniques!

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Before you take negative feedback to heart, determine if the client has a point

Missing the mark in a brief isn’t always your fault, but it’s not always the client’s fault either. Often it’s a basic issue with miscommunication and a few minor changes can create a new found love affair between your client and your work. It’s important to put your butthurt aside and determine whether the client has a point: objectively, does the work does look inferior? Off brand? Close to a competitor’s look and feel? Some level of negotiation is always part of the deal.

If you’ve run through which websites they envy, made your best design effort and they’re still not happy, it’s time to dig around a little and understand their motivation for complaint.

Website feedback: It’s not professional/creative/eye catching enough

If you’ve delivered a clean, slick site but the client still isn’t happy, determine the root of his or her unhappiness. Have a chat. Talk about his industry and who he struggles with. Chances are there’s a competitor in the wings that has something he wants. He might not like to admit it though, so some gentle digging is required. The motivation for his complaint? He feels inferior to the competitor and wants to ‘show him up’. If you can get the competitor’s name out of him, it shouldn’t be too hard to see what the competitor is doing well, and craft your work around doing that even better.

Client feedback: I could have done this myself… what am I paying you for?

He’s probably sent you a beautiful picture, poetic description or wireframe he created in Paint or a Word document and doesn’t feel your effort is much better than his. This client needs validation. He needs to hear that his work was excellent and he’s clearly a creative genius. This client needs for you to defer to him on a few design concepts.
Tell him you’ve listened to what he said and believe his message to be [insert excellent message here]. So, based on his ideas, you’ve selected [colour/layout/design] because you believe he’s right – his brand is all about [adjective]. Once the concept is ‘his’ this issue should go away pretty fast.

Tip: It’s easier not to choke on words if you email them than if you try this on the phone.

Website feedback: I really hate the way the font slants, obviously you have no idea about my brand

When you send a client a big concept and they get all het up about a small element, you’re likely talking to a person with anxiety issues. Anxiety makes a person overthink. It can make them feel the need for control. It can make them feel overwhelmed and like the whole project needs rethinking. The bad news is, if you don’t help this person ease their anxiety, the project will be fraught with time consuming complaints.

She needs to feel organised, in control and like she has a handle on the process. It’s time to arrange a phone meeting; and don’t just give her a call, arrange a phone meeting at a mutually convenient time. This way she can sit down and think about what she wants in advance. She can be specific with her website feedback instead of simply saying “I don’t like it”.

During the phone meeting, you can ask her about specific concerns and site elements. If you’re lucky, they’ll all be changes made with a single CSS edit. You can then make a To Do List, which you can send to her to keep as record. Make it clear that upon completion of the list, to her requirements, the job will progress to launch. Put a clear time frame on it.

Make sure that anything she needs to do is clearly highlighted so that she knows her responsibilities in advance. An anxious person will likely address these carefully and in a timely manner. As you tick them off, send her a notification or quick email letting her know to check and approve. Once they’re all ticked off, send her a simple email stating that the site is now going live, how exciting, and that you’re thrilled that it’s EXACTLY what she wanted.

Client feedback: I love it, except the best bits, get rid of those

A client who wants control of the creative process will always want to ‘be the boss’ and have the designer defer to them. There’s a design theory called the Blue Boat Theory. If a client is going to be hard and controlling, create a ‘decoy’ in the design – something obviously out of place, like a blue boat. She can then demand it be removed, with satisfaction. This way she doesn’t remove the best design elements just so she can feel in control of the creative process.

If she still tries to remove the core of your design, the showpiece, the element that binds the site together, you may need to abide by her wishes. She is the client after all. You can however attempt to demonstrate the importance of the design element by dropping in inferior replacements, leaving awkward white space or even a ‘blue boat’.

Client feedback: I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.

This is the worst possible feedback of all time, across all creative industries. You’ve been through all the competitor’s sites together, got his feedback on each, you know what he likes and hates, you’ve carefully delivered that. But it’s not what he wanted. This person is likely feeling out of his depth. He hasn’t the knowledge to understand what makes a great website/logo/page of copy, so he’s got a vague expectation of what it should be. Nothing you show him will match his vision. Never. Ever.

This website feedback usually comes from traditional business owners, who are used to bricks and mortar all the way. Someone is making him go online or he’s come to the conclusion that business is slowing and the interwebz is the answer. It’s time to prove to him, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’ve NAILED IT. If someone is making him get a website, suggest he get that person’s feedback on the design.

It’s time to introduce him to some web marketing heroes. Look at sites that give terrific, simple explanations of what makes great online marketing. Rand Fishkin’s White Board Fridays? Maybe you have your own web design hero? Send him a few links to videos and articles that will help him understand what makes excellent design.

Once he’s watched them, discuss the ideas with him, drawing on examples from his own site that really work. Get him excited about what a great site it is. Empower him to understand. Empower him to feel confident. If you can win this client over, you’ll have referrals until the end of time. He’ll be the greatest customer you’ve ever had.

The language barrier

While it might feel that these strategies are condescending or manipulative, some clients face a dual level language barrier. They’re unable to communicate with ‘digital types’ and they’re unable to separate their emotional needs from their language. Yes. That’s probably the most patronising sentence I ever typed! But… if in the end, you’re able to help them to get exactly what they wanted from their design, and help them improve their website feedback techniques, are you really doing anything wrong?


This is a guest contribution by Brisbane SEO Dana Flannery. Dana has worked as a client side creative for over a decade.

Dana Flannery

Dana Flannery owns Brisbane SEO consultancy, Talk About Creative, where she helps small to medium businesses dominate search results.

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