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What to Ask a Client Before You Start Their Project

Business, Web Design | Jan 19, 2011

We all know the importance of fact-finding before starting any web design project.

We can’t really get started on a project until we know exactly what’s needed, what the client wants, and who the site is aimed at. In fact, in most cases we can’t even create an effective proposal until we know those things.

There are plenty of pages-long web design questionnaires out there. Some have forty, fifty, or even a hundred questions on them.

The main problem with that, though, is that your clients or prospective clients are likely to rush through a questionnaire that long, leaving you with either inaccurate or incomplete answers.

A shorter questionnaire with more in-depth questions can uncover a lot more about what the client wants and needs, and they’re a lot less likely to skim over it if the questions presented take up less than a page.

Below are eleven questions you should ask your prospective clients before you get started on their project. They’re aimed at uncovering the root of what the project will entail without requiring you client to spend an entire workday answering questions.

1. Why do you want a website (or have your current site redesigned)?

It’s important to get an understanding of why your prospective new client wants a website. Some businesses have unrealistic goals, expecting a new website to magically fix a failing business or to triple their sales. Other clients might just want a website because they think everyone else in their industry has one (which may or may not be true).

If you know your client’s motivation for wanting a website, you can better guide them in what they should include in their site and how to best position it. This is a question a lot of designers fail to ask, and because of that they often can’t offer their clients the best solutions, because they have no idea what their client really wants.

Clients are notoriously bad about communicating what it is they really want. They might spend some time look at websites from their competition and then decide that’s what they need without having any idea why their competitors might have done something in particular. They also often overlook things that could make their website better than their competitor’s, because they’re looking at things in terms of features, rather than benefits. It’s your job as a designer to get them thinking about benefits to their visitors rather than bells and whistles.

questionnaire

2. What’s your business/organization all about?

It’s important to know what a business does before you start designing a website for them. But it’s also important to know a bit about their philosophy and how they want to come across. You want to know as much about what their business does and how they do it before you start thinking about designs.

This question might need some follow up to really get to the heart of what their business is about. Ask them about their philosophy, about what they want their customers to think about them, and what their long-term goals are. Even asking about things like charitable contributions or community involvement can shed light on the image a company wants to portray.


3. What sets your business apart from your competition?

Finding out how a business differs from others in their industry gives insight into what they feel is important. You don’t just want to know how they’re different when you ask this question. You want to know where they emphasize they’re different. This tells you what that company values, and what they think their customers value.

This is also a great source for finding out what kind of content they should have on their site. If they stress how long they’ve been in business compared to their competition, you’ll want to make sure that’s included prominently on their home page or in their header. It should also be reflected in the design itself. If a company stresses being more cutting-edge than their competition, they’ll likely want their website to reflect that.


4. What problems does your business solve?

This question is about getting your client to think in terms of benefits rather than just features. You want them to focus on what their business actually does, rather than just the features or services they provide. Clients and visitors care about what a company or website can do for them, not necessarily how they do it.

For example, when someone visits the website of an accountant, they’re not looking for an accountant. They’re looking for someone who can help them better manage their money. They’re looking for someone who can save them money on their taxes or other expenses.

The end result is what’s important to them, not how they get there. The same goes for online apps. People don’t care as much about features as they do what those features can do for them. You need to find out from your client what all those features mean for their visitors and customers.


5. Who are your prospective customers or visitors?

A website designed to appeal to 30-something professionals is going to be different than one aimed at young newlyweds or retirees. It’s important that you have a good grasp on who your client’s customers are. It affects not only the look and feel of the site, but may also affect usability and accessibility issues.


6. What do you want visitors to do on your site?

Different websites have different goals. Some sites are there to encourage visitors to purchase something. Others are there to provide information. Still others are there to get someone to request more information or sign up for a free trial.

Before you can create an effective website, you need to know what your client wants visitors to do on their site. The site architecture for an informational site is very different than the architecture for a site that wants people to buy something.

While you may have a good idea of what your client wants their visitors to do, it’s still a good idea to clarify things with them before you start on their project.

questionmark

7. What is your budget?

The reason behind this question is two-fold. First, you want to know how much money they’ve put aside for their website. Some businesses have no idea how much a website generally costs, so you may need to guide them by giving them some examples. Don’t automatically discredit someone who doesn’t yet have a budget in mind, as long as they’re willing to talk frankly about money with you prior to receiving a proposal.

That’s the other reason behind the money question. If a client isn’t willing to talk honestly about money, what makes you think they’ll be upfront about other things throughout the design process?

You want a client who can communicate effectively with you. One who can’t discuss money is likely to have issues discussing other things, which can lead to frustration for both of you.


8. By what date do you need the site completed?

A lot of people aren’t very realistic about how much time a website takes to complete. Usually, it’s because they don’t understand how much work a website takes to design and code.

They look at a site and think in only the most basic terms of what it does, thinking it can’t be that difficult if they only had the right tools. A lot of non-designers have the misconception that the software does all the work, and the designer does little more than push a few buttons.

By finding out what your client expects in terms of schedule up front, you can avoid confusion later. If you’re lucky, your client will have reasonable expectations when it comes to time. If not, then it’s easier to get them to adjust their expectations at the beginning than it is when you’ve already started working on their site.


9. What are your long-term plans for your site?

A lot of clients might come to you and say they just want a simple website with a few pages about their products and some photos. They don’t have a big budget and they want something done relatively quickly. And they tell you they’ll just have you make updates to the site, rather than doing it themselves.

What they don’t tell you is that they want to set up a full e-commerce site next year when they release some new products. They don’t tell you they want a social network for their clients, or a bunch of employee blogs for outreach and marketing purposes. And, unfortunately, their entire site will have to be rebuilt from scratch when they decide to go ahead with any of their plans.

If you know what they want to do in the future with their site, you can make allowances in the design and coding now. If you know they’re going to want to do all these things in the next year or two, you can be sure to use a CMS that can expand to accommodate their future plans. It saves them time and money in the future, and makes them happier with you, since you were looking out for their interests.


10. Who will be responsible for updating your site?

This is another important question to ask up front, as it can play a large part in determining what CMS you use. You also want to ask how tech-savvy the person responsible for updates is, and possibly meet with them before you start designing, to get a real feel for what they’re comfortable with.

The client may say they want you to do updates, and if that’s the case you’ll want to include a maintenance agreement in your contract. Make sure your client knows your policy about how many hours you include in your maintenance plan each month and whether you’re willing to carry over unused time. If you don’t specify, your client may expect that (we have rollover minutes on cell phone plans to thank for that).


11. What do you NOT want on your website?

People can often nail down what they don’t like much easier than what they do. Ask someone what their favorite food is and it might take them awhile to think about it, or they might give you a bunch of answers, unable to decide. But ask them what food they hate most, and they can usually tell you without having to consider it.

To get a clearer picture of what your client wants on their site, get to the root of what they don’t want. This is especially helpful when you have a client who uses the infamous “I’ll know what I want when I see it” line, as you can at least rule out what they don’t want. Sometimes this question ends up revealing what they really do want, too, as they’ll often make comparisons between what they don’t like and a better alternative.


Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.

Have other questions you find helpful in the fact-finding phase of a project? Or maybe some questions that really aren’t helpful? Share them in the comments!

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  • http://www.impresspages.org Audrius Jankauskas

    I’m not sure that the assumption on question 10 is correct. How many developers are there that decide which CMS to use on every project? I wish it was true.

    I saw lots of situations when small business managers have to deal with crappy interfaces. CMS they were given is for big and complicated websites. All they need is just to simply move things around their pages. Edit and change everything on the go.

    Are web developers flexible enough to get used to different CMS for different client?

  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    budget + time-completion + niche of website. these should be clear out on first communication because it helps you to give a thought what you have to do with this project and rest things will become more clear after communicating with client

  • John Nerush

    Perfect! Just what I have been looking for, thanks WDD!

  • http://koolinus.posterous.com kOoLiNuS

    interesting read !

    … point 7 is always my starting point, BTW … since from the bugdet involved you can really see that the real commitment to the web presence of the client is

    • AWS

      I think Question 7 (Budget) should be the last question to discuss. You are given the chance to sell yourself to the client first rather then blindly negotiating price or establishing a range. By determining how big or complex the project is first It gives you an advantage.

      Ask all other questions first to determine a base knowledge of their company, industry, weak points, strong points, and goals. As you cover each question you are adding to your knowledge and given the chance to focus your next answers on their specific areas of interest and how you can reach their goals. Demonstrating to the client how valuable and beneficial your services are will encourage them to reconsider the budget they had in mind going into the meeting.

      • http://www.twitter.com/ngassmann ngassmann

        Yep. You can get a pretty good idea of how serious a person is about their site through a well thought out design brief. Then when you have the first meeting to go over the process, their brief, etc. you can attack the budget.

        Demonstrating to the client how valuable and beneficial your services are will encourage them to reconsider the budget they had in mind going into the meeting.

        DING! DING! DING!

        Sales 101: Build a perceived value where there is none, or inflate the one that is already there, BEFORE you ask them what they feel how much the project is worth to them.

    • raskielle

      So what you are saying is that multi-nationals are the only companies who have REAL COMMITMENT to the web cos they have huge budgets and links to advertising companies who pitch for their work.

      Why should buget determine their commitment to have web presence?? I mean seriously, what if they don’t have the money yet to throw at a website but need something. Social media is free to back the website up if its relevant. IMO

  • http://www.iamparagon.com Drew

    Great list.
    We’ve also found it useful to get examples of the sites they like the look of as well as their competitors. Sometimes when dealing with the more subjective aspects of “look and feel” having them verbalize their wants is a bit tricky. One man’s “minimal” is another man’s “bland”. So we get them to point out some sites that exemplify what they’re looking for, or if they’re stuck, we pick out a few samples and ask “is this what you mean?”

  • http://www.marcaurelegeffroy.com Marc-Aurèle GEFFROY

    Very interesting ! A post to bookmark !

  • http://www.limefresh.nl Corne Smetsers

    Great list! Allready use some of them.

  • http://adnanistan.wordpress.com Adnan

    Insightful and helpful post. Thank you!

    • http://iamautocomplete.com Angelee

      Indeed! These are questions fundamental to build / rebuild a client’s site while you reserve the overwhelming feeling of landing on a dreamed client…

  • Raymond

    One of the questions I find helpful is “Who recommended you?” I find this helpful because I can usually point back to that website and tell the new client how that project went as an example. Great Article!

  • http://voltampmedia.com Eric

    I can’t count the number of clients I’ve interviewed that could not answer most of those questions. For example, I asked a client what differentiates their company from the competitors. The response was a blank face. I’ve found if potential clients can’t answer these questions, they will be quite the pain in the rear.

  • http://rolling-webdesign.com Theo

    Nice and useful article, i would ad one more: clarify who is the decision maker trying to avoid design committees.

  • http://www.twitter.com/ngassmann ngassmann

    Two cents: Asking “what is your budget” before letting them build in their mind an expected value of your services is a no-no. If the client has a budget of $1,000 but you would charge them $4,000 for a website and you ask them “so, what’s your budget?” you are building unnecessary conflict.

    If you let them arrive to (or at least close to) what you’re going to quote them at, they are less likely to get sticker shock. Break down what you can do for them and then ask them questions like:

    “So, how much do you expect something like what I’ve proposed to cost?”

    However, even before asking a question like this you need to make sure they realize that without your services that they are losing potential revenue. Make the client quantify that potential (or actual) loss. If a client is losing a potential 5 clients a year because their site is non-existent, ask them how much those clients are worth. Maybe those clients are worth $25k/year.

    Now your $4k number that they are going to arrive to on their own will seem minimal.

    • http://www.biancafrank.com Bianca Frank

      nice point on the budget question and quantifying that with relation to clients lost.

  • http://hiredgunscreative.com Reed Botwright

    Great list! We use a similar one, and extend it for our branding work. It’s nice to see that asking about the budget is on this list. I think a lot of people still feel uncomfortable talking about money and budgets. I find that if I don’t ask about budget there is always a disconnect between us and our clients. Thanks for putting all of these in one place!

  • http://www.stereohero.se/ Pontus Ekman

    I’m considering using a survey for each and every project/client. This list is a great start!

    I salute you!

  • http://www.webtasarimsitesi.com/blog/ web tasarım sitesi

    right questions. answer are define border of the project.
    thanks for article.

  • http://www.twitter.com/alfiks albert

    These questions are really helpful. However I have worked with client that wouldn’t listen to any questions or comments. It is really hard to work that way.

  • http://www.themanagementskills.com Johny

    Nice one, I need to update my questions…

  • http://www.benstokesmarketing.co.uk Web design Shropshire

    Nice list of questions – all designers should spend at least 1-2 hours on an initial consultation with the client to find out what is needed of the website . . .

  • http://www.yourwebdepartment.com Flavio Mester

    Great list. We’re passing something similar to our clients (designers) to help them when they create sites for their own clients (businesses) using our tools. I’d especially like to reinforce the point made by #11. Unless it’s a site for a very small organization, it’s always important to get a grasp of who the decision makers are (and even then, it may end up being a spouse or a nephew).

  • http://www.hodgeman.co.nz Hodgeman

    Great list, a couple there we weren’t using.
    Like @Drew, we also ask for a list of sites they like, dislike so the client can help distinguish visually which style/s of sites they like. It’s easier for clients to explain what style/s they like if you can look at examples.

  • http://www.zeitgeist.ch

    a nice list for people working as webdesigners/-developers – basically i think that all people working with clients should at least from time to time think about marketing & communication. if you do so – this list is in your mind automatically.

    a special task is, basing on my experience, the question ‘what is your budget’. it’s of course an important thing to clear. but as others already mentioned it’s very often not easy to talk about money with potential clients. so i use the following techniques talking about money:

    – explain the customer that a website is like a car. cardealers also need a budget – you can’t ask them ‘what does A CAR cost?’ you have to define what car with which features you want and cardealers tell you the price – or you tell them your budget and he shows you what cars can be bought for that money. this of course also works with architects, etc. (hint: use examples that are in the same pricerange as the project costs in your silent calculation…)

    – explain the customer that a website has to be considered as an investment! a good job may stay online for 3-5 years (with updates of course, but the core stays the same). from this point of view an initial investment of 20’000$ ends up in yearly costs (for the basic concept, design & technical solution) of 5’000$/y (running 4 years).

    i hope this was helpful & excuse my english;-)

  • http://designstarw.com Design Straw

    I’m considering using a survey for each and every project/client. This list is a great start!

    I salute you!

  • http://www.casella.com.tr ofis koltuklari

    sites that exemplify what they’re looking for, or if they’re stuck, we pick out a few samples and ask “is this what you mean

  • http://www.nathanpurcell.co.uk Nathan Purcell

    Excellent, I’ve got a meeting coming up and this will hopefully keep it inline!

  • http://www.john-mcduffie.com John McDuffie

    Asking the right questions before starting a project, especially with new clients, is crucial. Not asking the right questions is the fast way to a nightmare. This article is a great example of what to ask to get started quickly and with as many details as possible. Great job!

  • http://www.drivvedwebbyra.se Fredrik

    Good stuff here! We use a similar one with some extensions think I have to add some more that we have missed

  • DRoss

    Best article in months. Informative, thoughtful and divulging. Congrats!

  • http://www.gumpshen.com Brendan Rice

    Really good post, some great tips in here. I wrote a similar blog post but didn’t include your points 3 & 9, I may steal these.

    The blog post I wrote can be found at:

    http://www.gumpshen.com/blog/2011/1/19/things-to-know-before-a-website-redesign.aspx

    I think your readers will get value from it.

  • http://reelwebdesign.com Peter

    Great break down of questions on what to ask. It’s good to see web designers looking at things from more of a business/user perspective than the old design only perspective.

  • http://www.pixmac.com Simon

    Really useful guide! thanks. Simon at http://www.pixmac.com

  • http://www.orphicpixel.com Mars

    substantial reading… but sometimes most of the enlisted were neglected

  • Abdullah Bin Laique

    Really nice post thanks….

  • http://www.jefferyswebdesignsbuiltforyou.com/ jeffery

    I am just starting to build web sites; is it the developers responsibility to get the site online if it is a new web site or business that does not have a web address.

    • http://www.biancafrank.com Bianca Frank

      I’ve wondered this myself, but honestly I think that if you don’t offer a package to host the site, you at least need to be prepared (and include) in your estimate the cost it will be to get it live on the web.

      Most of the time people that don’t have a website really don’t know where to start. At the most they may have a domain name, but other than that they don’t understand they actually need to buy domain hosting.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ngassmann ngassmann

      Yes… who else would do it? They hired you to design/build/deliver a website. Plus, if you offer it that just means more money in your pocket. Photographers can deliver digital files, or they can markup and sell prints.

  • Radek

    Thanks a lot for this list, I’m gonna use it on my projects.

    • Anonymous

      what the client wants, and who the site is aimed at. In fact, in most cases we can’t even create an
      mantolama izolasyon