Designing for folks who don’t know what they want

Richard Charpentier Notes from Rich Leave a Comment

In 1994 while researching for my Master’s Thesis in Economics I had my first exposure to the Mosaic Web Browser.  Initially while researching via the Internet I used text base search engines.  No fancy graphics, just text, just the information.

As my research progressed I found more and more websites using HTML, and the Mosaic Browser allowed me to view those sites.  The text based sites went away quickly, and what we were left with was web browsing that we’re all accustomed to today.  It was quite a ride watching that evolution.

While doing my research I started teaching myself about HTML, Web Servers, and website design.  The first HTML editors were not flashy or drag and drop.  You had to know the language in order to build a site.  Quickly many companies came along to make web design easier, and today you don’t really have to know the mark up languages to design a site.  Progress and innovation.

From my perspective slapping a website together is pretty easy.  I can build a mock up site quickly.  It’ll look nice, have cool link buttons, etc.  But there’s one thing I can’t do for a client while building a site.  I don’t know their business, I’m not a marketing guy, and therefore I can’t immediately dream up the content for their site.  And this is a problem that many designers run up against.  Clients that don’t know what they want.

I don’t do websites for a reason……

Personally, I don’t sell myself as a website designer.  When the web first started becoming important web design companies popped up all over the place.  I considered doing some freelance web design back in the day, but after talking to a few potential clients I scrapped the idea.  Not because I couldn’t build the site, but because I had no content for the site.  Often times when you sit down with someone who wants a website they just don’t know what they want it to say.

If you ask web developers today what their biggest challenge is I have a suspicion that many will answer, “Clients who don’t know what they want in the site.”  You’ve got to be more than just a web developer, you’ve got to be a marketing service as well if you want to succeed.  And if you look at the big site development companies out there, they are not just a web design company.  They’re a total marketing company.  The web designers build the container.  The marketing guys dream up what to fill the container with.

Beyond web development…..Database Design

Since I decided many many years ago not to get into professional website design, I’ve run across the phenomena of clients not know what they want in other areas.  Doing database design since 1996 I’ve found that clients or co-workers also don’t know what they want in a database.  They need to track something, hence the database.  But when you sit down with them and ask them what the key data is they want to track you normally only get part of their true requirements.

The first database I ever designed was for Sprint PCS in New England.  We needed to track all of the connections from the cell towers to the switch, and then back out to the PSTN (public switched telephone network).  My primary job when hired at Sprint was to track all of the connections.  So I knew exactly what data points I wanted in the database.  The design was easy and the database did it’s job.

With the success of my first corporate DB co-workers in other departments wanted their own databases as well for tracking their part in the process.  Site acquisition, construction, project management.  And when I sat down with the various departments I found the same phenomena I found with website clients.  They don’t really know what they want.  That is, they couldn’t describe their whole process to me and assess all of the important data points.

Of course, designing a database without knowing all the key datapoints leads to issues.  You map out the process, link primary relationships, build the UI (user interface), launch, and weeks to months later learn about other relationships that weren’t specified to you.  Painful.  And once you’ve got the initial relationships there it’s a lot of work to introduce new relations.

It goes beyond the web and database design

Through the course of the work I’ve done in my life I’ve seen this phenomena beyond web sites and databases.  While running my photography business for years I came up against the same issues of photo clients.  I enjoy being creative with the images I produce, but I always want to know what the client wants.  If they throw out a few concepts it gives me more to work with.

Incredibly enough though, time and again when I asked clients how they would like to be portrayed I would get blank stares back.  So then I went about asking them about their hobbies, likes, dislikes, and would dream up how they would best be portrayed myself.  Almost all of the time it was very successful, but still, it would be nice if a client knew what they wanted.

Now nothing has come up at work to motivate this post.  It’s just been something I’ve been thinking on lately.  And I wonder how many other industries run into the same issue……  A client wants a new house, but can’t relay everything they want in it so that’s where architects come in.  Interior Designers, yeah I could see those guys running into this every day.  Programmers laying out new systems without a specific client road map……  Almost seems like there’s a need out there for professionals to help customers understand their own needs and wants…….

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