How To Ask Good Questions To Make Great Work

December 3, 2020 work

“I like it but…I just want it to be more glossy.”

“Okay! Sure thing. So do you think we should print on glossier paper? Or do you mean you want the design itself to look shinier? Or…?”

“I don’t know. Just…just make it more glossy.”

Good feedback is hard to come by

The “glossy” talk above came from part of a conversation I was recently having with a fellow coop member last week, about the moments where you have to take the lead and help the client answer the questions that will help you turn their goals into beautiful design, copy, and code.

We’ve all had conversations like it; it’s part of the process of helping a client narrow down and name what they want. Just swap out the word “glossy” for “luxury” or “sophisticated”, and you’ve got a conversation that has been happening in agencies around the world, since the beginning of time.

As a branding agency, it’s our job to help clients understand exactly what “glossy” means to them. Clients who come to us are usually coming to us because they’re not creatives and they don’t have the time to invest in the deep level of work it takes to truly understand and craft a unique company brand. It’s a full time job. It’s our full time job.

So as designers and brand crafters, we have to be able to guide the strategy in the right direction and help the client to understand exactly what they’re looking for.

One of the best ways to do that is to ask good questions. Sound simple? It can be, once you know the right questions to ask and how to ask them.

How to ask the right questions to make great work happen

When a client is stuck — when they are stuck on one idea, or struggle to express their opinion, or just don’t seem to like anything — then it’s your job to help them get unstuck.

Smart questions can help you move the conversation forward and make sure you are working on the same page as the client. The ideas below will hopefully help you be able to create context, bring clarity, and understand the right direction to delight your client with an on-target brand.

— Narrow down their definitions

Getting stuck on one word or idea is really common; a client knows they want their site to look glossy, or luxury, or sophisticated — but those words mean something different to everyone, and so if you can’t drill down on what their target word means to them, you’ll essentially just be guessing.

(And that’s not real efficient.)

So one of the best ways of moving the conversation forward and getting the context you need in order to do great work that meets their expectations is to ask them to define the words they bring up the most. “What does glossy mean to you?”.

Even if they can’t define it right away, they’ll likely say a couple of ideas (maybe a company they like that has a “glossy” look, or a color that they think looks “glossy”) that will help you better understand what they mean when they use that word.

Don’t be afraid to follow up. When you think you know what direction they’re going in, ask them. “It sounds like you are looking for something like ____. Does that sound correct?”. It doesn’t matter if they don’t jump up and down to agree; the goal here is to just keep the conversation moving forward so you get closer and closer to the right answer.

— Ask for examples

Another great solution to getting inside a client’s head and help them define what they like is to ask them to make you a Pinterest board, or to send you links to sites they love.

Try to get them to give you at least 5-10 examples; the more the better (unless, of course, they want to send you every single website under the sun — then you’ve got a different problem). It doesn’t matter if they send a lot; you don’t have to read every site to get what you need for this exercise. Instead, you’re going to be looking at the sites as a collective to see what they all have in common — because that is what your client is being drawn to over and over again.

Maybe they all have a dark color theme, or they all feature big, minimalist photography on the homepage. Whatever it is that they have in common, that’s your clue.

Getting your client to show you examples helps circumvent the problem of them not having the right words to explain what they mean. Instead, you get to draw conclusions based on the client’s actual opinions and preferences, even if they aren’t fully aware of them themselves.

— Ask the same question as many different ways as you need to

This is something I’ve learned in doing user research. Asking good questions is often about tackling the same issue from a couple of different angles, each one helping you get more and more specific, rather than trying to cover every possible issue at once.

In a meeting, it’s tempting to want to ask broad questions, like “What do you like about this design?” or “What is this design missing?”, but in general, those won’t get you very far. Trying to get someone to pin down a vague idea is challenging because part of the reason they are clinging to one idea is that they can’t define exactly what they’re looking for.

It’s better to try several different angles at asking similar questions and seeing which one cracks the conversation open.

— Sketch potential solutions and ask for quick feedback

Working iteratively is one of the best ways to partner with an indecisive client, since it saves you from spending hours creating complete presentations that you aren’t sure will be close to the mark.

Try sketching as soon as a client starts giving you feedback, while listening attentively, of course. If you can present 2 or 3 possible solutions (in sketch form) while in the meeting, that’s an opportunity to get clarification and direction so that you can walk out of the room with answers that would otherwise potentially take weeks to get.

— Avoid the negative and keep it constructive

If a client is counting on you to bring the ideas, then it can be hard for them to give constructive feedback if they don’t like your initial presentation. Instead, it’s much easier for them to simply identify the things that they don’t like about the current work.

It’s not because they’re negative or over-critical; it’s simply a fact that if they can’t imagine or verbalize “It should be more ___” or “I want to see ___” then it’s much easier to just look at what is in front of them and identify what they don’t like, since it’s right there.

Even though hearing critique can be productive, it isn’t in every case. For example, if a client doesn’t yet have a crystal clear direction pinned down for where they want the project to go, then things they don’t like might actually just be things they don’t understand as opposed to things that truly aren’t working. An idea they hate today might be an idea they love next week, when you’ve fine tuned other, more important, parts of the design and gotten closer to the perfect finished product.

If a client is too focused on listing what they don’t like, help them reframe it to be productive and constructive for you. If they hate the colors, try asking them to name a company whose colors they do like. If they don’t like the copy, ask how they would fix what is written. These questions are just another way to get feedback; you’re not asking them to do the work for you, but hearing their opinions on what they do like can help you get on a better track.

Getting the right answer is all about the right questions

Asking questions makes you smarter and it makes your work better. The next time you are working with a client, try asking more questions and helping them to show you exactly what they want. You might just find the perfect design comes along even faster than ever.

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