How to manage client conflict during a web design project

How to manage client conflict during a web design project

Mikel Bruce's Layout avatar

As a web designer, you want to push the limit with your designs in order to create something innovative for your clients.

But clients can instinctively feel resistant to new ideas and trends, as the unfamiliar is scary. Design is subjective and it is meant to evoke emotion. That’s why it’s very common to experience some conflict during a website design project.

While it may seem easier to stick with a “safe” design and avoid these client conflicts, it’s not worth it. By following a few steps before and during the design process, you can create out of the box designs and get to a win-win scenario with clients.

Here are five ways to handle client conflict during a web design project: 

  1. Set clear expectations
  2. Discuss designs over the phone
  3. Be ready to pitch your design
  4. Show empathy and compromise when possible
  5. Get support from other team members

1. Set clear expectations

The best web designs are a collaboration between you and the client. As a designer, you bring your creativity and design best practices to the project while the client can contribute their knowledge of their business and industry.

But most clients haven’t gone through a website redesign process and they don’t know what to expect. Before you start the project, arrange a call with the client and anyone on your team who will be involved in the project. The focus of this call should be to review the scope and timeline and to establish expectations for the project.

If you are working with a larger company and they have multiple people involved in the project, ask the client to designate a point person who will collect all the feedback from their team and pass it along to you.

I also like to tell clients that it works better if they have only a small group of people (think three to four) review the design mockups versus sharing the mockups with everyone and their mother-in-law.By covering all of these things upfront, you can reduce the chances of getting derailed during the design phase and instead focus on the site.


2. Discuss designs over the phone

In general, a website design process can go smoother if you discuss the designs while over the phone or in-person with the client.

It’s much easier to pitch your design and ideas to a client over the phone than through email. You can hear the client’s reactions in real time, and you can also gauge how they are responding emotionally to the design. It’s very easy to misread a client’s response via email or misunderstand a change request.

The one downside of phone calls is that you don’t have the written documentation of the client’s feedback, unless you take detailed notes. Another option is a video call, such as Zoom, where you can walk the client through the different pieces of the design so you can gauge their interest and get their feedback, all while also explaining design choices.

After every call with the client, always send an email summarizing the discussion and requested changes. This is such a critical step because you may need this documentation later in the project.

During the web project, you don’t need to schedule a call for every design revision, but it typically helps for the first mockup and any major revisions.

If you are discussing things with a client via email and things aren’t going well, schedule a call as soon as possible. If you are working on a larger website project, consider building certain phone calls into the timeline of the project.


3. Be ready to pitch your design

Pitching your website design is an important part of the project. Sending off the first design mockup via email can be risky as the client doesn’t have any context for the design and your choices. It’s also much harder to explain and pitch the design concepts via email.

It’s normal to hear critical feedback from clients on a design, but you should be prepared to share your reasoning and thought process behind the design.

A common reason that websites end up with older design styles is that clients unknowingly select inspiration sites that use outdated design styles. This can be a cause of conflict during the design phase as you may be pushing the client to a new trend that they haven’t seen on the web. The client may keep referring you back to their inspiration sites as a reference and be resistant to the new ideas.

Presenting some different inspiration sites that support your concept can help your client understand your point of view. If you are presenting an innovative design idea, then it may be difficult to find other sites depicting the same thing, but search through sites like Dribbble and Awwwards for other designers’ work.

While your client may not agree with your design ideas in the end, you need to be ready to support your concepts in a concise pitch.


4. Show empathy and compromise when possible

While you want to do everything possible to pitch your ideas and guide a client to an amazing web design, you have to be ready to listen to feedback and understand your clients’ perspective.

Conflicts during the design phase can escalate because there is a lot of emotions involved in a website project. Remember that this website is representing the clients’ business.

If you are working directly with the owner or founder of the business or creating a site for someone’s personal brand, you need to remember that the client may feel incredibly vulnerable about putting themselves out there in a website format. They may be feeling a lot of fears and doubts when trying to decide on aspects of the site design.

All of this can create an intense environment. After presenting your design, listen as much as possible to the client and ask follow-up questions. If they aren’t forthcoming with their feedback, try to create a safe space. If the client feels scared to voice their opinion, you can end up with a flat discussion and quick approval, but then problems arise down the road because the site isn’t really what the client wants.

Lastly, you will probably need to compromise on some aspects of the design. Spend more time discussing the most important parts of the design and compromise where possible. For instance, you may want to dive into a longer discussion on the home page design, but you don’t need to have a 20-minute conversation on moving a button over an inch.


5. Get support from other team members

If you have other team members, such as a project manager, web developer and/or UX web strategist, who are involved in the web project, consider bringing in some of those team members during your design phase.

There are a few ways that this can help the process and manage client communication. During the pitching of your design, you can have another person share information on user experience best practices and support your recommendations.

Secondly, if a conflict with a client really escalates to a negative situation, have someone else on your team attend the phone call with the client. This other person can even be the owner of the business or another team member who isn’t directly involved in the project. That other person can just be an additional a presence on the call and ask questions, so that the call turns more into a discussion and less into an argument of two opinions.

Lastly, you may also want to encourage the client to include their entire team in a phone call if the design discussion isn’t moving forward. While you may have one main contact on the client’s team, there could be certain members of their team that are having the most issues with the design. You may be hearing all of their perspectives second-hand and things could be getting lost in translation.


Conclusion

It’s natural as a web designer to want to push the limits with your designs to truly create something transformative, yet original for your clients. However, client conflict, no matter how big or small, can make you feel like you’re holding back and designing something that’s too safe. By following these five steps, you can learn how to manage client conflict like a pro, while designing something both you and the client can be proud of.


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All images were taken of Flywheel employees by Flywheel‘s in-house photographer, Kimberly Bailey.

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