In early 2021 we lost a client because they were unhappy with our design work.
They were thrilled with the branding and web design work we had done for them, but the first two drafts of product designs we turned in weren’t in line with their expectations.
It was a shock.
Product design work has been our strength since we started the company. Although we began as an agency focused on development, we won new clients over with the quality of our design work.
So, how did we nail the branding and web design but get so far off on the product design?
One of our core values as a company is transparency. Living that value means taking an honest look inward and embracing the opportunity to learn and improve. So we set about to do just that, and we identified 3 areas where we went wrong:
- Agreeing to a timeline that didn’t leave enough room for revisions
- Not spending enough time on creative direction
- Failing to capture a core expectation in the discovery process
The first two were process changes. We’ve put a ton of time and energy into fixing all of these, and have since delivered two complex design projects on time, on budget, and with the quality we expect.
But the third area required a refresh of the discovery process we pride ourselves on. And that’s where I want to focus today.
The discovery stage is where the groundwork is laid for the entire project. It’s where we make sure we understand what the client wants, ask tough questions, and get both teams aligned on the product vision.
Here are two tool improvements we’re making to ensure Discovery Sessions are even more valuable.
Tool 1: Moodboards for branding AND product design
What we have been doing: We use a standard set of tools in our discovery process. Moodboards are one. A moodboard is a collection of images that represent what the client wants to see in their designs. We encourage clients to pull from popular sites like Dribbble, Screenlane, or some of their own favorite tools.
Moodboards are effective because it can be really difficult to explain what you want, especially without the shared language that design training brings. It’s much easier for those of us who aren’t designers by trade to show what we are looking for with real world examples.
For example, "When a client says modern, I think lots of white space and flat element styles. But the client may really mean ‘not bootstrap’ or ‘make it look like Stripe.’"
Consider this podcast art moodboard for the podcast we’re launching soon (oops, did I just let that slip out?).
You can quickly see a pattern. Bold type, illustrations, pictures of the hosts, mostly strong contrast. It’s easy to understand the visual style we’re looking for.
What we learned: For a long time we only used one moodboard for the whole project. If we started the project with branding and web design work, the moodboard might focus on those examples. And while we always aim to keep the brand and visual style consistent throughout, there are differences in what clients want from their marketing site and their product.
What we do now: So we now set up separate moodboards for each stage of design work.
Tool 2: Product sliders
Another tool we use for branding projects is the Google Ventures Personality Sliders. Google Ventures developed a process for kickstarting a branding project called a brand sprint. It’s a 3 hour discovery process designed to help the company define their values, their “why,” outline competition, and refine what they want their brand to be. We pull elements from it regularly, but find the personality sliders particularly helpful.
Marking where your company exists on these spectrums again gives everyone a common language to discuss what the brand should be, and why. It’s more helpful to say, “this doesn’t feel young & innovative, and we know our customers are tired of the same enterprise options,” than it is to say, “this font is too blocky.”
But these brand sliders are naturally very high level. While they provide some guidance on product design, there are common design decisions we have to make that don’t immediately fit on one of these spectrums.
So we’re going to be piloting a new tool with clients, Product Sliders.
These 6 dimensions represent common decision points we make when designing any new product. Here’s how it works with a couple of our past projects as examples.
B3i Analytics would be very information dense, as it is designed for trained professionals. It uses a lighter background, and is more monochrome but uses color throughout. It tends to be more conventional, but is a little adventurous for it’s space, and is somewhere between flat and analog, using drop shadows and buttons with some depth.
GreyNoise on the other hand is very open and airy, full dark mode, very adventurous, mostly monochrome, designed to be accessible but for a technical audience, and is very flat.
There will be times where we will push back on clients when they’re thinking through these dimensions, or where we may make suggestions to fit with their brand and goals. But the important thing is that this tool gives us a shared language to work from so we can meet their expectations.
While it was tough to hear that we didn’t live up to a client’s expectations, I’m proud of our team for living our values and taking a hard look at what went wrong. That led us to these changes. We’re tweaking our processes around building project plans, consistently carving out time for creative direction, and we’ve developed these new tools to clarify the vision of the founders we work with.
I can’t wait to share some of the work we’re doing now as a result, it’s even stronger than before.