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Setting Design Expectations

11-20-17 Jeremy Loyd

Jeremy explores how we create great designs while proactively setting design expectations.

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to effectively establish and maintain client expectations on projects. More specifically, we’ve been asking ourselves how we show great design while shaping expectations related to the final output. Our design goal with any project is to show great creative concepts, layout, animations, and interactions at the beginning that communicate how design can be used to accomplish the project goals and add value for our client. Essentially, beginning with the end in mind. This may mean showing Sketch comps, a Principle prototype, a CodePen, or an example website that looks or behaves the way we’re thinking the project could.

Let’s be honest, sometimes taking this approach can cause some external and internal challenges if expectations aren’t managed. If we show great design, animations, and interactions at the beginning of a project and then run out of budget and/or time to implement them all, that’s not a good thing, right? It’s frustrating for the client who was proposed all of the bells and whistles in the context of a cohesive design concept and is on board. It can also be frustrating for your internal team as the final product may not feel finished. A project that everyone was excited about becomes the project that didn’t reach it’s potential.

So, some simple planning and communication can help alleviate some of this internal and external friction and help establish clear client expectations. We’ll be the first to tell you we don’t have this completely figured out, but here are a few approaches that have helped us:


Talk about expectations up-front and often. Even before project planning starts, clients have expectations. While many of these expectations can come from previous projects, a large one set out by your team is price and what the client expects to get for that price (scope of work). Make sure your client knows how you work and what potential things could happen to affect the output. Meet weekly to talk about budget and progress. Call out things that may not make it into the timeline or the budget as early as possible. And do your best to set realistic expectations even during the sales process.


Explaining why you work the way you do is important for the client to understand. For us, that means explaining progressive enhancement and telling the client that we strive to build a solid foundation to fall back on and then layer enhancements on top. It’s important to define the terminology you use too. Words like enhancements and fallbacks may need some explanation as they can mean different things to different people.


In the design process, collaborate internally with your team and be sure what you show the client is doable in time and budget. We always want to show design concepts that have the polished details, but sometimes things that seem simple can take a long time to develop. Before showing anything to the client, meet internally to make sure everyone’s on the same page and what you’re about to present is doable within the timeline and budget. Sometimes this is easy to determine, other times it is not. Make sure a developer is in the room, giving feedback and/or offering alternatives that may be simpler but achieve the same effect.

Consider What the Client Values

It’s helpful to know what a client values going into a project and as the project progresses. This is a little different than expectations in that it may be a little higher level. For example, a client may value the way the code is structured over visual enhancements so that they can maintain the site more efficiently. In this case, prioritizing these efforts over visual refinements makes sense. Conversely, if a client values a visual refinement over a functional feature, it makes sense to tackle the visual refinements first.

Consider Value

Often times, an hourly budget runs out and there are minor enhancements that would make the project feel more polished or user-friendly. The extra work will likely add value to the client in some way. Maybe doing the extra work will result in better conversions and better accomplish the project goals. Make sure to help your client see the potential payoff these features could have if the need for more budget arises. If asking for more budget is unsuccessful, you may be faced with a choice of doing the changes and eating the cost or just stopping the work. I think that too often this is seen as a black and white issue, but there’s more to this decision. It’s also helpful to ask what kind of value it will add for your business. If a more polished website is more valuable in your portfolio, you might be able to make a case to decision makers that it’s worth covering the cost of those enhancements internally. If you see that going the extra mile will make for a happier customer and potentially result in additional work or a referral, it could be worth it.

If you’ve worked on any type of client project before, you know that if you don’t proactively set expectations, you’ll be left to manage them. Setting your client’s design expectations can be done with a little intentional communication externally and internally. It’s less about what deliverable you show a client and more about how you talk about how it fits into the larger picture of the project.

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