How do you deliver a fantastic work that makes your client happy (ehm, gets you paid) and brings recognition from the design community?
Before you try to come up with some ideas - the best thing you can do is to ask someone who has done it before. However, if you ask just one person in the creative industry, you cannot be sure their tips will work for you. Plus, how do you know who to ask?
Every other day, I’m checking the Awwwards nominations and wins for the Site of the Day. If you’re designing, animating, or coding websites, you’re surely familiar with it. What’s great about Awwwaards, is that the picked and featured designs are:
- submitted by creators from all over the world
- assessed by various respected design leaders, i.e., it’s a good filter to find genuinely "good work."
And here’s what I did. Together with our design team, I picked some influential design works on Awwwards, and I reached out to them to learn their secret.
Though now I work for a product company, I spent a few years in the ad agency biz, and what I’ve learned is that everyone is crazy about winning awards... and every agency has - some client work and some passion/NGO projects they do to win some awards.
Instead of just being curious about "how to build the next Awwwards winning site," I was more interested in how agencies nowadays fight to keep their clients and win new ones.
How do the best digital agencies work with clients?
It’s time to meet the agencies that I asked to spill their secrets on how they work as a team and what is the secret to a healthy client relationship:
- Nok Nok Studio from the Netherlands
- Significa from Portugal
- Obys from Ukraine
- Muskae from Spain
- Cosmos Studio from Ukraine
TIP: At the end of this post, you can find more information about them, along with examples of their work they were picked for.
The more messages I exchanged with the agencies above, the more I started to notice patterns that they were agreeing on, even though they didn’t know what I was talking about with the others.
I narrowed down these patterns into 4 actionable principles that seem to be working for them, and I hope they will help you too to keep your clients and optimize your business (not just) during the COVID-19 crisis.
Let’s hear it.
1. Always define milestones and goals in the beginning
Nothing is more important that managing expectations on both sides. The sooner you start, the better. Many times, I heard that if documentation is specified before the design phase coding is 2x faster than when there are changes from the client after visuals are done.
Olia, Marketing Director from Obys, mentioned that every time they meet the client for the first time or have a Skype call, they ask them to fill in the brief. Ilya, the founder of Cosmos Studio, says they dedicate no less than 90 min to the first call with every potential client, and they save their answers in a structured Google Form.
Rui Sereno, Partner at Significa, stressed the importance of getting everyone excited about the project, at best show the client that you are passionate about this.
Significa’s handbook also shows that they include a lot of people from the start (not just some account manager). Namely, it’s the product manager, lead designer, client team, and the whole team of developers who are helpful with setting estimates and can advise you on the feasibility of each milestone.
Tools that were often mentioned for tracking client requirements and documenting were Google Forms, Typeform, and Notion. Many times I also heard that already in the introductory and documentation phase, it’s smart to prepare wireframes and user flows. The most mentioned tools for this were Figma, Sketch, and Balsamic.
TIP: While setting the project scope, don’t overwhelm the client with too many tools. Your goal is to help them focus on giving you all the necessary details like timeline, expectations, needs, budget, and introduce you to the problem they are trying to solve.
2. Work with others and let them in at the right time
As businesses are becoming more design-centric, there is a strong notion of including more people in the creative process in the hope of building more diverse products. As honorable this effort is, you need to be able to manage all the people who are coming in to participate.
Kike Valdenebro, the partner at the Spanish agency Muskae, says: "When carrying out complex projects that involve various areas of action and multidisciplinary teams, it is essential to use an appropriate set of tools that will speed up the work and allow for correct and rapid communication between all the members of the team." He also pointed out the importance of real-time information systems that allow any team member, including the clients, to know the status of the project at any time.
The people from Obys also recommend that often there is a time pressure created simply by a few people wearing way too many hats. Their advice? Just drop the juggling act and learn to delegate and hire replacements.
Collaboration with other agencies is your business opportunity
Eight years ago, I worked on a project for the Allianz Insurance Group, and at the time, there were 23 agencies taking care of all marketing activities - just in one country! I bet you also have experience working on accounts with other agencies. Please bear in mind that it’s not a competition. If you set up healthy collaboration relationships with other agencies on the account, you might get your hands on new projects/clients through them.
Don’t look for inspiration where everyone else is looking
David Ogilvy said that one of the 3 points of recognizing an ad is good, is that when you see it, you wish you’ve done it yourself. This also works in the world of interface design, but with the amount of new digital UIs coming out, it’s much harder to stand out and create that awww feeling.
Do you go to Dribbble or Behance for inspiration to build a hip website? Since this is what most people do, you have low chances that the result will actually stand out. If you don’t want the client or their audience to skim through your designs and say "yeah I’ve seen that somewhere", listen to Olia from Obys: "In our mood board we do not include site of other designers’ or companies, we look for and select the photos of nature, architect, cites, people and some identities or books, magazines."
Share only what should be shared
Ilya, the founder of Cosmos Studio, mentioned that to help the client focus at every step of the process, they always prepare a clean "final" design version that doesn’t contain any comments, drafts, or ideas.
During your project, you surely spend a lot of time on research, mood boards, and exploration. It’s not my place to tell you how to do those - you probably know better. But there is one thing I’d like to remind you - be careful with what you share. Whatever tool you’re using, don’t let clients into the projects with your exploration screens. Pick a tool that has advanced user permissions.
3. Invest in automation
Get rid of communication buzz
Olia from Obys mentioned that "it would be great to have more time to work on projects because often the client has a tiny timeline and huge amount of ideas about his website. In this case, we have to work as superheroes.
Are you working long hours and still tight on deadlines? Work smarter, not harder. Treat your time as money and find space where you can save. If you look closely, the biggest hole that sucks most of your time in is communication and countless iterations - again mainly caused by communication buzz.
Three tools you need to eliminate communication buzz:
- Share project information with everyone via Notion.
- Manage access to design files via Avocode.
- Set up private Slack channels for communication with clients.
Lower the number of iterations
After you’ve optimized communication and transparency of the project management, there is still room for improvement. Somehow you have to teach the client to provide feedback only at the right time. How do you do that? Don’t forget - it’s you who can define the rules. Follow these steps:
- Set up frequent milestones - for example, Significa is checking with their clients on a weekly basis + they have dedicated Slack channels where clients can ask at any time.
- Avoid slow client response - define a deadline for review. If you can’t rely on the client, define it in a contract. Implementing every late feedback will bloat the scope of the project. If you’re OK with it, make sure you get paid for extra edits.
- Find bugs and UX fails early - set up regular testing sessions, already on wireframes and user flows to discover logical issues/difficulties. Do the same with low and high fidelity prototypes. Don’t trust only internal or client testing sessions. Invest in tools like usertesting.com. Rui from Significa reminded me of the benefit of real-coded prototypes: "We deploy a quickly crafted, coded prototype to users, featuring the core functionalities to be validated. It adds-up a few bucks to the budget, but the findings are much more insightful and trust-worthy." I would add another benefit of this approach - you can avoid tedious session scheduling and also install Hotjar or Smartlook to troubleshoot UX fails. Based on personal experience, I suggest you watch at least 10 recordings in every iteration phase.
- Automate the rest - Invest in tools that can replace the roles you don’t need/don’t want to deal with internally. I asked all of the aforementioned agencies about their tool stack, and these were the most popular tools. (Notice it’s not just Adobe CC what they are paying for.)
- Online research: Optimal Workshop, Maze, SurveyMonkey, FullStory, Typeform
- Data analysis: Airtable, Notion, Google Sheets
- UI design tools: Sketch, Figma, Adobe XD
- Bitmaps & retouches: Adobe Photoshop, Affinity Designer
- Animation: Adobe After Effects, Principle
- Prototyping & Userflows: Avocode, Overflow, InVision
- Coding: PHP Storm, Postman, Sublime Text, Visual Studio Code, Putty, TightVNC
- Remote meetings: Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts
TIP: As you might have noticed during the COVID-19 times, remote meetings can save you a lot of time, especially if you carefully prepare the agenda, and the attendees respect each other’s time. The great thing about having a call is that you can do them more often, you don’t have to burn time/resources on the commute, and most importantly, more people can join. This way, your creative team can feel as included as every account manager.
4. Clean and professional delivery matters
OK, I know it’s been a long read, but pay attention - this last part will be about how you can bring customers back (retention) and how you can bring in new or bigger ones. This is your time to shine.
It’s Christmas time
Think of project delivery as packing a gift. Be on time, and never miss a deadline. You don’t postpone Christmas Eve, do you?
On the day of delivery, make sure you have packed all that you’ve built, so the client really feels the value. A package that will be pleasant to unpack. A simply messy folder can really impact their perception of you being a professional. Organize and name all documents, assets, and outputs.
Before you send it over...
Before you send it over, go through the initial project scope description for one the last time (remember, the part we were talking about in the beginning?) and if there were any changes to it or some extra work, clearly describe them, link where the decisions were tracked and show that you were able to deliver extra work.
What comes next?
With delivery (and paid checks), the job is not done. You want to do this thing, again and again, correct?
So get this...
Let the client build on top of what you build but keep room for maintenance
You can add a lot of extra value. For example, Nok Nok Studio, after delivering the Dutch Digital Design, mentioned that they wanted to "build something that was going to be very flexible for the future".
And they explain: "That’s why we built it on React, using a headless CMS. During the UX phase of the project, the idea came up to develop a tile-structured layout system. The tiles make it possible to be flexible on all devices, yet they give a clean structure for cases and articles. On all devices, we strived to make the navigation between showcases and articles as seamless as possible."
This a stellar example of being mindful and think about the future use of the project. Please do the same - think about mobile, maintenance and modularity.
Speaking of modularity... Here’s what Significa agency considers as part of the deliverables:
- interface map
- interactive redlines/specs
- editable files
- aaaand Design System with neatly named elements
Giving the client the building blocks is great, but don’t underestimate the value of it - don’t give it away for free. If they can build anything from your components, they might not need you again. So your job is to find value elsewhere.
A year ago, we did thorough research on the Design System - and the n. 1 problem with them was "education and ongoing usage". Don’t worry - your client won’t miraculously just build things the next day after you send the design files. They need you to show them, educate them - and step into the maintenance phase (a.k.a. more business).
Win big through word of mouth
This is the last tip I’ll leave you with today. You already think of past projects as drivers for new biz - that’s why you do Behance case studies, compete for awards, and build those nice portfolios of yours, right?
Keep doing that. But don’t forget that client satisfaction might be a much better marketing tool that can be created with much less effort than building an animated reel presentation. The last impression you leave with the client (i.e., the way you deliver the project) and the quality of the project, the client will interact with daily makes or breaks future cooperation and recommendations.
Not only the client will be more likely to come back, but he might brag about you to other potential clients on a Sunday golf course stroll.
What have we learned?
- Always define milestones and describe project scope to the utmost detail in the beginning phase to save time on iterations.
- Don’t do everything on your own. Work with others, but be mindful of what you show them, and you let them into the process.
- Invest in tools that can speed up/eliminate manual work so you can focus human resources on creative work.
- Be neat and mindful about project delivery because it doesn’t cost you extra, and it will help you win more business.
Good luck out there! If you have more tips on what works for you, feel free to send them over at email@example.com.
...as promised - here are the heroes that helped me put this article together:
Muskae (Spain) - part of a global creative digital strategy consultancy Good Rebels is building digital applications like websites and blogs, picked for this Israeli experience agency web presentation.
Obys (Ukraine) - boutique agency and brand identity specialists, picked for their showreel agency presentation.
Nok Nok Studio (Netherlands) is focusing on strategy, design, and digital experiences, picked for their exceptional work on the page for Dutch Digital Design (together with Momkai).
Cosmos Studio (Ukraine) - a digital studio creating awesome websites with world-class design, picked for the crazy-animated portfolio of their founder Ilya Kulbachny.
Truthfully, I asked many more agencies, but not so many got back to me. If you’d like to share your tips and what works for you, please send them over at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is Avocode?
It’s an all-in-one tool for teams that want to code and collaborate on UI design files 2x faster.