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Designing with clients: 7 tips for successful iteration

Iterative design tips

Iteration can be fun. Embrace it!

During my time at Marxent, I’ve gotten the chance to design and develop projects that were both large in scope and long in timeline. Of course, long timelines mean ample opportunity for client input and for changing direction. Iteration is an essential creative process when it comes to projects like this but if you don’t have the right attitude or tools, it can be frustrating. Here are my top tips for successfully (and happily) iterating with clients.

1. Define, define, define

The early steps of  a project should always be about defining constraints. Deadlines, for instance, and technologies. What will the project be coded in? What platforms should be supported? What are the primary features? What can be left out if need be?

This phase in which lots of big variables are still undefined can be a great opportunity to step in and help to shape the project. Don’t wait for your client to deliver on things you can manage or contribute. Need some photos? Offer to take them yourself. Just jump in and define your contributions as early in the project as possible.

2. Be an expert

It’s very easy to fall into a “customer is always right” attitude instead of providing the input and expertise for which you were initially hired. There are always times in a project that are production-oriented and it can feel like you’re a Photoshop machine that prints other people’s ideas into PDFs. Do not fall into this trap! There is always production work to be done, but never forget that clients hire you for your expertise. They want you to be more knowledgeable than they are so that the final product is better than what they could have created on their own. Sometimes this means disagreeing with the client.

3. Keep an open mind

It is critically important to have and share opinions, but don’t shut the client down every time they share an idea. You are the expert in design and development, but they are experts in their business. Depending on how trusting your client is, keeping an open mind might mean putting disagreement aside and working through client ideas that you don’t initially love. Actively listen to the client and focus on the problem to be solved.

4. Empathy is everything

Empathy is one of the biggest challenges of working in a field that is informed by human relationships. Within the discipline of design, it means seeing beyond the obvious, surface-level concerns voiced by clients. The project that you’re working on with them is only one dimension of their job. Try to understand what else is going on in their business or with their position that may be causing stress, leading to unexpected changes or holding up decisions. Caring about your client and understanding the complexity of their job beyond a single project can lead to better relationships and new opportunities.

5. Go on-site

One reason I love working at Marxent is that we climb out of the email hole and make an effort to regularly meet with our clients on-site. This allows us to take the temperature on the project, to see what the client is excited about and to better understand what they’re hesitant about and to realign with them.  For instance, while we might be really excited about a fancy cutting edge feature, the client’s top concern may be ensuring that a certain page prints correctly for a very, very specific reason. It can be hard to see all of the details, to align goals and understand the why without sitting down together to talk through things face-to-face.

6. Set frequent deadlines and get feedback along the way

Set up regular and frequent reviews. There’s no better way to continue showing progress than to set a schedule and keep to it. Every designer has worked with clients who drag their feet and hold up projects. There is nothing like a rapidly approaching deadline to unclog the pipes. Frequent reviews and deadlines also mean that you’re collecting input along the way and can avoid spinning wheels or going too far in the wrong direction. By the time the project is done, the client feels ownership and knows exactly what they’re getting.

7. Take a step back

When iterating on designs, it is easy to get caught up in the details. Speed is important, but to move quickly in the right direction is even more important. What should a given button look like? Can we see a few options for that icon? The footer’s too long, can we compress that a bit? Where does the page break? Can we see it at 600px, 768px, 900px?

Stop! Take a breath and ask yourself and your client what’s really important. Lots of these small details can (and almost certainly will) be changed. What’s far more important is to make sure that everyone is seeing the big picture as early as possible and to help the client return to the big picture whenever small changes that conflict with the overall goals start to creep in. As a designer your job is to sweat the small stuff, but also to know when to move on.

Trace Palmatier front-end designer/developer at Marxent.

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