In last month’s Johnny Holland column, I made the radical recommendation that UX professionals stop making recommendations to their clients. Nick Gould, CEO of Catalyst Group, commented that this wouldn’t work for him:
My clients would fire me if I didn’t come to them with ideas / recommendations for how to address problems identified in research. But we discuss the ideas and prioritize approaches together. We have a shared stake in the outcome. Maybe we’re already doing what you’re suggesting, but I don’t really see it as eschewing recommendations completely.
Chris Fahey, who runs the UX consultancy Behavior Design, thought we were talking about the wrong approach to the process:
This is why I think it’s silly that design research and design are ever done by different people. Or that strategy and implementation are done by different people.
This is why I run a design company – we don’t make recommendations, we make plans and execute them.
We could plot these strategies on a spectrum.
On the one side is Chris’s approach of designing all the way to execution, delivering a detailed specification to the tech team, solving every design detail.
On the other side is my approach of letting the clients build and maintain the entire thing on their own, only providing coaching and guidance so they do it better. Nick seems to be right in the middle, providing recommendations to help them build it out. (Nick tells me some of Catalyst Group’s projects go all the way to execution—however, most go up to research deliverables.)
This spectrum doesn’t only apply to UX consultancies, like Catalyst and Behavior. If you’re a UX professional working with an internal or external client, helping them create a better design, you’ll find yourself somewhere on this spectrum. Either you design the entire thing, teach the team to do it themselves, or are somewhere in the middle.
Should We Give Clients What They Ask For?
Clients, left to their own devices, will ask for all sorts of things. Some clients want the Behavior approach—to have the UX professional provide everything they need to implement the design—solving all the issues and providing exact instructions. These aren’t recommendations-—they are marching orders. This approach works best when the design, once built, will likely not change and the client shows no interest in developing their own design skillset.
For example, Behavior designed the award-winning site supporting HBO’s project for the TV series The Alzheimer’s Project. Once deployed and the final touches applied, this site probably won’t change much. Even if it does, it’ll be a discrete project that Behavior (or someone else) can rework, soup to nuts.
In contrast to Behavior Design’s approach, at UIE we assume the client team will make all the important decisions. We help them by giving them a process that informs their decisions. We look at the skills the team has and assess where they need help. Then we work closely with them on their techniques and process, giving them a way to tackle both their current and future projects.
Over at Catalyst Group, Nick’s team works with the client’s team while conducting their research. However, as Nick said, his clients ask for recommendations, so he gives them. The client is happy to get a great set of recommendations (and I’m sure that Nick’s group produces some of the best out there), so what’s the harm? He’s doing what they want.
Obligatory Ancient Philosophy Reference
I’m sure you’ve heard some variant of this wise ancient philosophy:
If you give a child a Nintendo, he’ll play all day long.
If you teach him to build his own Nintendo, he’ll become a millionaire, date hot chicks, and eventually start a foundation solving the world’s problems.
Is giving in to the clients’ desire to receive a list of solid recommendations the best for the clients?
What Happens When You’re Gone?
When Chris and the Behavior team are done with the HBO site, they move on. The HBO team doesn’t need to change the site, so they’ll move on to other projects too. The site keeps running as long as the servers are plugged in. Everyone is happy.
When we finish our engagement with our clients, they’ve learned how to do the work themselves. They can continue researching and enhancing their designs, using the techniques and tricks we’ve taught them. We’ve done our job and they’re happy continuing on their own.
When Nick and the Catalyst team have delivered their recommendations, their client goes off and makes changes. The question I have, however, is this: are they left in a situation where the only way they can make any further changes and enhancements is to call Nick’s team back?
Unfortunately, many projects aren’t like Chris’s HBO site. They need to evolve as the business, the technology, and the customers mature. They need new features, new enhancements, and new ways of thinking about the problems they’re solving.
Are we leaving our clients with the best possible experience? Are we considering that when we first pitch the project and its deliverables?
Preachy Professional Responsibility Section
Dumping a Jenga tower of recommendations in the client’s lap only delivers a short-term solution. It doesn’t give the client the tools to survive in the world for the long-term.
Yes, they asked for it. But clients ask for lots of things we tell them we won’t give them, like that really big fluorescent green blinking tagline. Just because they ask for it doesn’t mean we should give it to them.
This is where I get preachy:
In any new project, one of the first things we, as responsible professionals, need to consider is what will happen after we leave. Are we preparing our clients for their long-term best interest? Or, are we only shooting for the short-term deliverable, figuring if they wanted something more, they would’ve asked for it?
Once Again, Do We Need To Make Recommendations?
If we’re taking the entire thing through to execution, behavior-style, we don’t have to make recommendations.
If we’re helping the team learn how to make good decisions themselves, we still don’t have to make recommendations.
The need for recommendations may just be a placebo, to help a client think they are getting one thing when we are really doing something else. Or maybe recommendations are just a way for us to sell more project work.
What this comes down to is a philosophical approach to our work in general. Are we looking at the short term, or do we want to take a long-term view?
Where do you sit on the spectrum?