7 things to do that hugely increase the chances your client will sign off your designs when they’re supposed to.
Every client-facing designer struggles with sign-off. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how perfect the work is, how watertight the research was. If there was a quick fix you would know it already, but there isn’t.
I’m about to leave client-facing design, but before I go I want to share my list of things you can do if you’re tired of wasting time with wasteful sign-off processes. None of these things are tricks. All of them are based on deep respect for your client. And they all work.
These are my 7 steps to getting your client to say ‘yes’.
1. Research your client’s needs
If you want to get your client to say ‘yes’ then start with understanding what your client needs in the first place. It’s user research, but with clients.
There are two killer client research methods you should be using.
The first is the kickoff meeting. It’s your responsibility to leave with a clear understanding of exactly what the client needs from this project. Prepare in advance by going through any brief or proposal materials and write out that huge list of questions you have. Then do good some detective work and make sure you leave the workshop with your questions answered. You would be amazed how many people fail to do this.
The second is the stakeholder interview. A stakeholder interview is a one on one discussion behind closed doors with someone in your client’s organisation. This privacy gets you to the deep needs of your client, not just the surface-level ones that people talked about at the kickoff meeting. Prepare well. Speak to lots of different people. Make them feel safe. Ask tough questions. Every design project should have stakeholder interviews.
If you pay close attention, this combination of the kickoff meeting and stakeholder interviews will give you a fantastic, nuanced understanding of what your client needs from the project.
Client research is always the first step to getting your client to say ‘yes’.
2. Over-communicate like crazy
People hear what they want to hear. If you have 10 people at the same meeting, it’s likely that all 10 of them think something different happened. This is a disaster for getting your client to say ‘yes’ because everyone is working from a different understanding of the problem.
The solution is to over-communicate, to say things more often than you think you need to, and here are my two favourite ways to do it.
The first is to post notes from every meeting into Basecamp (or whatever you use). Write them in plain English and make sure you cover everything you agreed in the meeting. Then say to your client, look, this is what I think happened, and this is your chance to tell me I’m wrong, because after this I’m going to be treating these notes as the binding truth. It takes a bit of extra time but it’s worth it. Clients respond well to these notes because it shows you were listening.
The second is Jared Spool’s short-form brief (go and read his article if you haven’t already). Taking the time to write a short-form brief is good. Signing off the brief with your client is better. But the real magic is the act of reading it aloud at the start of every client meeting, because this brazen act of over-communicating guarantees that everyone has the same understanding of the project, throughout the whole project.
Only one thing matters with over-communicating: are people still saying random things that sound as if they’re talking about a different project? If they’re not, you’re already closer to getting your client to say ‘yes’.
3. Show work before (you think) it’s ready
Take a problem, lock yourself away for weeks to solve it perfectly, and then rock up to your client’s offices asking them to sign it off.
That’s how you get your client to say ‘no’.
You make a million tiny decisions that feel obvious to you but are invisible to the client. It’s fine to make these decisions but you need to find ways to make them visible to the client before you build a super-structure on top of them. Because if they’re wrong your super-structure is coming down.
Instead, show your work before you think it’s ready. I’ve shown sketches, wireframes, comps, prototypes, Word documents, spreadsheets. This is all about framing it well, knowing what to listen to, and knowing what to ignore. It’s a skill you need to learn.
Here are three reasons this helps with getting your client to say ‘yes’:
- Showing clients things that look real prompts them to give you more information about their real needs. It’s amazing how the quality of the feedback improves when you talk about artefacts and not abstract ideas.
- Talking through your design patterns lets you work through their objections and fears one by one. This is so much easier and more productive than trying to persuade them in one big final presentation.
- Sharing work in progress shows your vulnerability. Asking for feedback shows you are listening. Both these things build your client’s trust in you, and in the end sign-off is all about trust.
Showing early work feels dangerous and risky when you first start doing it. But it’s probably the single best tool you have to get your client to say ‘yes’.
4. Build the ultimate sign-off process
None of this matters if you fuck up the actual sign-off process. Over the last five years I have fucked up the sign-off process more times than I can count.
This bitter experience has taught me two truths about sign-off:
- Clients always need more review opportunities than you think they do
- Clients don’t care if their new feedback contradicts their old feedback.
The ultimate sign-off process must live with these two truths if you want to get your clients to say ‘yes’. Here are two ways to do this that work.
First, schedule (many) more reviews than you think are necessary. On a recent project we worked in 3-week design sprints and the client needed 6 reviews in each sprint before they started signing off things in-sprint. Your goal is simple: get to the point where your client isn’t feeling rushed into making decisions about design, because rushed clients don’t say yes. It means you have less time to do design work, but that’s the cost of getting your client to say ‘yes’. No one said it was easy.
Secondly, control your client’s access to review materials like a maniac.When you plan 6 reviews every 3 weeks there is a HUGE risk their feedback will be late, they’ll comment on previous versions, or they’ll reverse their previous decisions. We avoid this with hardcore workflow management:
- upload the designs to InVision two hours before the review
- go through the designs in InVision during the review
- leave the designs open for comments for a few hours after the review
- remove the designs from InVision completely and close comments
- work on the next iteration based on the feedback from the review.
It’s (nearly) impossible for clients to give late feedback, or to give feedback on the wrong versions, with this system. You might think it would be impossible to get your client to work in this way, but it’s how we work.
And it works like a dream in getting your client to say ‘yes’.
5. Bend, but don’t break
How you respond to client feedback in design reviews is critical to getting sign-off later on. You should bend, but not break.
The ‘bend’ part is to concede on the stuff that doesn’t matter. Fighting for every single design decision is exhausting and counter-productive. Here are some reasons why it’s OK to concede stuff:
- There are many ways to do things. This means there are hundreds of details where it doesn’t matter which way you solve a problem.
- Your approach is often based on a hunch. Unless you have bottomless pockets it’s impossible to base every single design decision on research. Why go to the wall for a hunch about something that doesn’t matter?
- Clients are right more than you like to admit. You’re attached to your design because you made it, but often their approach will be just as good if not better. You do not have a monopoly on being right.
You probably hate this advice. But if you concede on stuff that doesn’t matter then your clients not only feel listened to (which builds trust) but when you DO push back, they are much more likely to listen.
The ‘don’t break’ part? Never concede stuff that matters without a fight.Make the case for why it matters and convince your client. Use every tool at your disposal which might include the hairy arm technique, psychology studies, an appeal to ‘Apple does it like this’, crying, pointing out how much extra it will cost, trying to get the client’s boss to overrule them, sneaking it in through the back door. Whatever it takes.
This is a core skill of being a good client-facing designer. Can you judge which parts of your design are really important and which parts are not?
Getting this right is critical to getting your client to say ‘yes’.
6. Kill ambiguity where you can
Design needs ambiguity. We don’t know what the answers are, what they look like, how many there are, how big they will be, what shape they will take, or really anything about the answers at all before we start.
Clients hate ambiguity. It makes them nervous. They worry about paying you a ton of money when you even can’t tell them what they’re going to get.
We must convince clients to live with the ambiguity needed for good design. But in return we should remove ambiguity from everywhere else to stop our clients feeling nervous, because nervous people struggle to say ‘yes’.
Here are some places where you should remove ambiguity:
- Cost. Make sure you are clear about how much things cost. Alert clients to anything that changes cost and make it clear how big the change is. Don’t hide your costs and think you will get away with it. You won’t.
- Scope. Agree a clear scope upfront and keep returning to it. Don’t let the client make it bigger without proper agreement. Don’t ignore it when you come to deliver. Make sure that you deliver what you agreed to deliver.
- Time. Set times for meetings. Set times for sending over work for review. Set times for calls. Set times for milestones. Keep to all the times. If you can’t keep to a time you have set, tell your client well in advance.
- Amendments. Make notes of what the client says and what you agree to do in design reviews. Type up these notes and send them to the client. Address all the points in your notes by the time you do your next review.
You earn the right to ambiguity in the design process, where you need it, by removing ambiguity from everywhere else. Too many design agencies are ambiguous about too many things. Don’t be one of them.
If anything sums up my whole approach to getting your client to say ‘yes’, it’s being clear at every step of the way.
7. Sign it off before the end
This is a short one. It’s a hack really.
If a project ends on a Friday, set the final sign-off for Wednesday. You know there will always be final amends. If you get them on Wednesday, you can get your client to say ‘yes’ on Friday.
It’s taken me five years of client-facing design to work a lot of this out. It still amazes me how little of this is common practice, but this bread-and-butter stuff is never as exciting as articles about new design patterns (notice that none of these 7 tips are about doing better design work!).
Why should you care? Why should you bother? Well, designers that get stuff signed-off finish their projects on time, which means happy clients and happy agencies. These two things do not go unnoticed.
I’m off to work at the Government Digital Service now. Good luck!
This is how we ran design projects when I worked at cxpartners.