Reality-check your design projects before it's too late

Jun 6, 2016

The life of a freelance web designer can be incredibly rewarding. The independence of working for yourself is alluring, but working by yourself comes with more than a few drawbacks. With nobody to bounce ideas off of, or show your works in progress to, how do you ever really know if you’re on the right track?

We’ve all been there. You work for weeks or months on a website in relative isolation, and you think you crushed it. But when it comes time to unveil your masterpiece, your client is, shall we say, less than enthused with the outcome.

What went wrong?

Sometimes when we work for long enough on a project alone, we lose sight of the original goals, and/or aesthetic we were going for in the beginning. It happens to the best of us, which is why it’s so important to get a “reality check” every now and then, before it’s too late.

Showing a work in progress can be uncomfortable for the designer, because our instincts tell us that unfinished equals bad. “Nobody will get it,” we think. But as we finish smaller parts of the whole, we should look both inward and outward to make sure what we are doing makes sense, and fulfills the objectives of the project.

These reality checks should occur at every stage of the process, otherwise you risk veering wildly off course. By checking your work against the project requirements often, and checking in with people you trust at various milestones, any detour you may have made will be easily correctable.

Here are some tips that should help you stay on course, and make sure each web project is in good shape before its time to review milestones with your client.

Review the brief

It’s common practice to begin every project with a creative brief. It’s the foundation, laying out all of the objectives and requirements.

I recommend keeping the original brief handy throughout the entire design process. Tack it up on the wall if you have to. Highlight key phrases. Whenever you’re in doubt, consult the brief. The more you go back to it, the more you will begin to internalize the concepts within it.

Then, at key points in the process, check your designs against it to make sure that every choice you have made is in keeping with the objectives and goals that were originally identified. Because while the method of implementation may be subject to change during the course for the project, the ultimate site goals should remain the same.

Check against what’s working

While you’re designing, you should periodically take a step back and make an honest assessment of how it’s going. One way I find incredibly helpful is to look at other successful existing websites or apps to see how my work is measuring up against them.

By no means am I suggesting you copy another design, but take an honest look to see what others in the space are doing, both in design and user experience. Is it working? If so, why? Is your version on par, or better?

If not, start digging. How exactly are the other websites fulfilling their objectives better than yours? Once you understand this, you will have a much clearer picture of the work that needs to be done.

Design for personas

Borrow an old marketing trick and start to develop personas for every project you work on. In case you’re unfamiliar, a persona is an imaginary person who uses your client’s product. The key to developing personas is to be incredibly specific. You aren’t just identifying a type. You’re literally making up a person. With a name, a job, hobbies, and a life.

So when you start a new project, brainstorm a few personas that fit your client’s audience. Most companies have more than one target market, so develop as many as make sense for each project. (Before doing this, check with your client. They may have existing personas for you to use.)

I recommend making an index card for each. On the front, put their name and photo, (get it from a magazine, or print one from a stock photo.) On the back, write down their age, job, if they’re married, single, kids, their hobbies, and whatever else you feel is important to that person. Use bullet points.

Keep the cards close by, and design for those people. What would they respond to? What would they want to see? What would they need to see to convince them to become a customer? It may seem silly, but this type of roleplay is very helpful to see the project through a pair of fresh eyes.

An impromptu focus group

If you really want some outside perspective, round up a few friends. They don’t have to be web savvy, in fact, it may be preferable if they aren’t. Invite a small group over for drinks or a Netflix-binge, and have them look at and interact with what you’ve got so far.

Do they understand the interface? Do they like the look? Most importantly, do they know what they’re supposed to do once on the site?

If you have a functional mockup, simply watch as they interact with it, and ask them questions as they do. If you are earlier in the process, and only have PSD mockups, ask them to verbally tell you what they would click, and what they would expect to see if they did. Lastly, ask them for their overall impression of the usability and look-and-feel of the project. Does it inspire them to buy into what the site is offering? Are they 100% crystal clear as to what that is?

It’s important that you tell everybody involved not to sugarcoat their answers. We all have “nice” friends, and “honest” ones, so make sure you invite at least a few you can count on to level with you, even if they hate it. And maybe provide them with a few drinks first.

Turn to the web

If you can’t always have real-life friends help you out with this type of thing, there are many fantastic online options available to you. The internet is a great way for lone-wolf designers to feel connected to the outside world, and get constructive criticism.

While online trolls certainly exist within the comments section on most websites, I have had nothing but good luck receiving well-articulated, and helpful advice from the design community online. It’s a great, low-risk way to ask for opinions from a larger group who probably know enough about web design to offer some actionable advice. The trickiest part is deciding which advice to implement, and which to politely leave behind.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Facebook design groups
  • LinkedIn design groups
  • Dribbble
  • Public Slack teams

Just remember, these are online communities, so if you are going to ask for help, you should provide some to others in return. The circle of life, and all that.

Schedule regular client meetings

You can check and recheck your designs all day long, but at the end of the day, your client is the ultimate deciding vote. I recommend setting up a standing meeting with your client every single week. There are many benefits to this plan, including the ability to go over your progress, and to make sure everyone (including them) is on track.

If you meet every week, you will never get too far off course, because you can explain your design decisions in real time. If something is truly missing the mark, you can easily pivot back before you’ve invested too many billable hours in a flawed strategy.

Final thoughts

The life of a freelance web designer can definitely skew toward isolation, so we have to do what we can to involve others in our process. While it’s true that too many cooks can spoil the broth, you must remember you aren’t designing for you. You’re really not even designing for your client. Ultimately, we are designing for our client’s audience, and to please that many people often takes a bit of a group effort.

If you can get some new eyes on your work-in-progress, or even look at it through the prism of your end-users, you can correct anything that may go wrong before it goes too far into the weeds.

Wes McDowell

Wes McDowell is the head of web strategy for The Deep End Web Design. He's also authored several books for freelance designers and co-hosts a popular podcast "The Deeply Graphic DesignCast."