Preventing Design Redirection in the Middle of Projects

Web design is a very subjective field where changing tastes and expectations can strip the gears of a project and cause you – the designer or project manager – a whole heap of annoyance. If you’ve ever been faced with a client, who after approving a design, decides to change direction, you know what I’m talking about.

For web designers and developers, and especially project managers, this is a tough nut to crack. We work hard to create a design that not only gains the acceptance of the client, but also works for the target audiences and true users of the site. Oftentimes, in the midst of the project’s final stages, clients may desire to change a color or adjust the header or request alterations to the layout of content. This is a time consuming barrier to finishing the project, and frankly, many clients don’t know what they’re talking about.

Nevertheless, design redirection occurs, and we live with it, pushing on to find the light at the end of the tunnel. What we can do, however, is manage projects in a way that prevents and reduces the potential for design changes further down the road.

Most designs are not officially approved

In my experience with clients, a good majority of design work is never officially approved or signed off on. Sure, there’s a general consensus that the chosen design will be used, but the client doesn’t explicitly say, “This is the final design we’re going to use.” Unfortunately, without this finality in the design decision, the selected concept can sometimes float around the heads of stakeholders well after the impromptu consensus was reached, thus enabling a sense that changes can still be requested.

Instead of aiming for a general consensus, get the client to affirm that they approve of the design without any additional major modifications. Minor changes are obviously going to happen, but anything that will require immense time to amend, such as colors and layout, should be addressed before the design is approved.

Some people may even want to think about having the client sign an official form of acceptance on the design – for me, though, this is too formal, and likely to frighten the client. Verbal or written approval of the design is usually enough, and the client should know that major changes down the road will be difficult and may incur costs.

Spend more time on planning, less on building

Over the past couple of years, and especially the last few months, I’ve shifted my primary focus from the actual design and development work of a project to the planning. This is where I pour most of my energy – my quality time – and really coordinate with the client to determine exactly how the new website needs to look, act and work.

In the past, a former, more impatient version of myself could be seen jumping straight into the design and development of a new site, without consideration of whether or not it would all line up in the end. In most cases, the project did not line up, and I found myself doing patchwork on the design at the client’s request and running into multitudes of development problems because of poorly conceived decisions.

What sort of planning activities should you focus on? Site navigation, wireframes, target user profiles and marketing alignment are some of the more important areas. Site navigation and wireframing deals with the structure and layout of the new website, while user profiling and marketing alignment are more geared toward ensuring the site’s design is compatible and effective with the end user.

Work in smaller iterations

As I mentioned already, design is one of the toughest jobs out there. It’s subjective, hard to quantify and can be thrown into wild disarray based on the unique perceptions of others. There is no hard science behind it – no right or wrong answer – and the moment of truth is delivered during the unveiling of a fresh new mock-up or prototype.

Will the client like it? Will they want to change anything? Will I have to start all over?

If these questions run through your mind, you’re doing something wrong. While design is of course subjective, it doesn’t have to come down to a love it or hate it situation. Rather, through smart planning and bite-sized samples, you can feed design concepts to clients without throwing the whole pie in their face.

Here’s a practical application. Once you’ve met with the client and have established color schemes, marketing angles, user personas and any of that other good stuff, you should then think about producing a wireframe. Share that wireframe with the client and get their definitive feedback. Next, find examples of other sites out there that might be in alignment with the desired design parameters, or if you’re adventurous, go with a mood board. The client will toss around a few ideas, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of a design concept at this point. When you finally do start designing, you’ll feel comfortable and confident, and you’ll produce an initial iteration of a homepage or subpage that is likely to be accepted. Don’t spend immense amounts of time tweaking the finer points of the iteration – just get the concept laid out, and then communicate with the client.

Notice in that example how much client interaction and feedback is involved? Lack of confidence is one of the biggest causes of the love it or hate it situation, and what leads to this lack of confidence is a failure to understand the client. Once you understand the client and feed them real ideas early on, you’ll find the confidence barrier gone and greater success in getting even your very first iterations accepted.

Change is not a bad thing. But change in the middle of a project can be disastrous. Avoid it by getting design sign off, planning and working more closely with the client during the initial design phase.

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