An Approach to Looking for Positive Signs

By Daniel Szuc and Josephine Wong

Published: December 10, 2012

“We all need to better understand the questions we should ask and the approaches we should take to prevent our jumping too quickly into selling our services and methods….”

In a previous UXmatters article titled “Positive Design Impact,”¬†we spoke about the importance of our first meeting with a client:

“This initial discussion helped us to get a preliminary idea of what might be the most appropriate approach to take in order to discover more about the product, the team, and the business.”

In this article, we aim to explore the importance of the first meeting with a client in greater depth. We all need to better understand the questions we should ask and the approaches we should take to prevent our jumping too quickly into selling our services and methods and risk potentially confusing our clients with language they don’t understand or concepts they have never thought about.

Our Lens

“The lens through which we look at the first meeting with a client is all important. When meeting a first-time client who is interested in what we do, we have an opportunity to explain and offer our unique skill sets.”

Businesses in Asia are continually becoming more aware of and interested in user experience and how it can help them to succeed in the marketplace. The success and allure of Apple helps, but understandably, many businesses in Asia still don’t know what user experience is or how to employ design thinking and UX methods in improving the design of products and services. They need a helping hand.

However, the lens through which we look at the first meeting with a client is all important. When meeting a first-time client who is interested in what we do, we have an opportunity to explain and offer our unique skill sets. This first meeting can be a mix of exciting and daunting. We need to assess the maturity and receptiveness of the person or team we are meeting to best determine how to help them. This requires planning what questions to ask to discover what we need to know to take the right approach to devising a UX Plan that best fits their current situation.

While the easiest approach might seem to be to go to a first meeting with a client armed with a list of your services and methods in a slide deck, selling a standard approach that may be right for you, but might not fit the precise needs of the client is not recommended.

It is important to have a clear focus, and the primary purpose of the first meeting is to get alignment with your client on a joint approach to a project. You need to be able to assess whether there is sufficient flexibility to achieve a joint understanding, with the long-term goal of creating a culture of design thinking in the business going forward.

“Having a shared language is part of the rhythm a team discovers in moving collectively toward achieving a shared understanding and, finally, shared values. Great products come from shared values.”—from “Getting to Value” on UXmatters

Letting Go of Everything You Know

“Before walking into the first meeting with a client, it is important to let go of everything you think you know and approach the session with a fresh perspective.”

Before walking into the first meeting with a client, it is important to let go of everything you think you know and approach the session with a fresh perspective. As you begin to learn about a new client’s business, you’ll also assess whether the people you are meeting with think about customers and empathize with them when designing products and services as you do. For example, do they just want to improve a design with the goal of profit for profit’s sake, or is it about something else? This is something you may need to explore together.

You can do some preliminary homework and learn about the business by speaking to people who have worked in the business or in the same business domain, by visiting their Web site to get an initial impression of their approach to customer service, by calling customer service to ask about a product or service, or by visiting a shop to get an overarching impression of a product. In doing this, you are first immersing yourself in their world and gaining an understanding of their language.

If you have been invited to meet with the business by a person you know, it can help to talk to them before the meeting to learn about the business climate, team setup, and the people you will be meeting with on your first visit.
It’s good to keep your UX methods close at hand, but don’t lead with them as you embark on learning about the business and explore how you can help.

We Are All New at This

“You are there primarily to serve as a facilitator to help the team achieve a holistic understanding of their project needs.”

Even though your client may have invited you in as the UX specialist, there is something good in your starting from a position of newness. This shows everyone participating in the first meeting that you are there primarily to serve as a facilitator to help the team achieve a holistic understanding of their project needs. This also lets you avoid bringing any arrogance or a new layer of confusion to the table. Your common goal is to see how you can help the client achieve product success.

One way of thinking about this is to imagine that you are newly employed as full-time staff by the business, and this is your first week at work:

  • What would you want to know about your new workplace and the people you’re working with?
  • What would you want to learn about the way the business is making products and services?
  • What collective goal would help the team to remove the divisions that often exist between departments and people delivering products and services?

An Approach, Not Methods

“This conversation is not about selling services or methods, but setting the stage for what you could achieve through planning. Making the importance of the need for planning explicit is a core part of the conversation at this stage.”

To learn more about the business and the people with whom you’re meeting, it’s important to start projecting how you would conduct your work if the company had already commissioned you to do the work. We do this by keeping our presentation brief and quickly moving on to using paper and Sharpies or a whiteboard to tell our story and start sketching the organizational landscape. We camp around our sketch to support our conversation and make our critical points tangible.

Freeing the conversation from the confines of a presentation—which can feel like one-way communication—automatically brings other people into the conversation and encourages collaboration. Another benefit of sketching on paper is that the client can keep the drawings as a reference for future conversations.

The first meeting is less about trying to close a sales deal and more about encouraging a discussion of an approach to thinking, working, and design on which you can get some initial alignment. An important piece of this is sharing knowledge and connecting to a larger body of knowledge—beyond what you can offer. This often opens a door to helping a client plan a UX program. You may be inviting a potential client into a playground that they may not even have imagined.

To clarify, this conversation is not about selling services or methods, but setting the stage for what you could achieve through planning. Making the importance of the need for planning explicit is a core part of the conversation at this stage.

Setting the Stage

“As a business explores its need for user experience, they’re setting the stage for great product design….”

In theater, as all of the performers rehearse a piece, they mark lines on the floor and use simple props and furniture to get a sense of the space on the stage on which they’ll be performing. This also allows the performers to get a sense of how the story will play out and helps with their interactions as the characters in the story mature.

As a business explores its need for user experience, they’re setting the stage for great product design and moving toward understanding

  • what skills their product teams require
  • who is currently on the delivery team and what their strengths are
  • in what kinds of physical spaces they’ll create products and services
  • how effective product teams are organized
  • what their overall understanding of user experience is
  • whether the organization requires further alignment
  • what previous research might provide customer insights

UX Mentoring and Coaching

As user experience matures in Asia, gaps in knowledge are surfacing. People are hungry for UX knowledge. They want to know everything quickly, but do not always know where to find information locally or how to build a foundation to better understand how all of the UX components fit together. This is true not only of user experience, but also of the way businesses and societies operate. There is a real opportunity for the more experienced UX professionals and leaders in Asia to mentor newer practitioners—helping them not only to identify gaps in their knowledge, but to provide a clear roadmap for their professional development.

Becoming Self-Aware

“Before meeting with clients, we often briefly rehearse our approach and think about what we would like to learn during the first meeting.”

Being aware of your own approach and performance when meeting with clients is important. Before meeting with clients, we often briefly rehearse our approach and think about what we would like to learn during the first meeting. We also give some thought to what our demeanor should be—both before and during the meeting with the client. Some useful questions to consider include the following:

  • Are you focused on the meeting?
  • Are you feeling tired or energized?
  • Are you genuinely interested in learning more about the business?
  • Are you open to and flexible about helping to craft a UX Plan with the client?
  • Are you relaxed, so you can help the client to relax and be receptive to knowledge they may not yet have?
  • Are you smiling and projecting a positive outlook?
  • Are you thinking about a path forward, working toward your next meeting with the client?
  • Do you have a few questions prepared to help build a bridge to a larger conversation?
  • Are you in sync with the beliefs and values that are the foundation of your own approach? Do they match up with your client’s outlook?

Ask yourself what skill sets and character traits are essential for UX professionals to do our best work and have the tactical and strategic impact we seek to have in business. How does this inform an overall skills framework for the activities we need to practice? Examples of skills and character traits include the following:

  • listening
  • empathy
  • clear communications
  • holistic thinking
  • flexibility
  • decision making
  • persuasion
  • negotiation
  • selling

What else would you add to this list?

Caring About UX and Looking for Positive Signs

“Your overarching goal should be to look for positive signs that a client is someone you want to help and that the business will be receptive to your help.”

In a previous UXmatters article titled “Being Human,” we spoke about the importance of caring:

“Caring for other people assumes that you care enough to look out for their best interests. It suggests that you have thought about the points at which people may face roadblocks in their journey and how to help guide them gently around those obstacles. It also assumes that people should have the flexibility to handle situations you may not necessarily have considered when devising a design solution and that you empower people to handle those situations well. Doing all of this ensures that, when people are impacted negatively, they’ll remember turning a challenging situation into positive one. These moments are rare.”

Your overarching goal should be to look for positive signs that a client is someone you want to help and that the business will be receptive to your help. Are they open to the new research methods that are available to help uncover customer insights? Are they receptive to new approaches to design that may be contrary to the way they are currently working? Are they ready to become a human business again?

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