September 28, 2015
  |   AEM, Blog, UX / CX

Creating A Design Hybrid: Merging Customer Expectations & Usability Best Practices

Fusing best UX practices with client business / creative dreams can be a central challenge in any project. Experience has taught me that rather than squashing the client’s vision, the UX designer must accommodate that vision with best practices and a careful hand. The solution is the Design Hybrid, which enables the client to execute on their ideas where possible, avoiding the worst pitfalls of ignored user experience. This is an important reason why they’ve hired a UX designer – to consult and advise, but not to run roughshod over all their marketing ideas.

Have you ever worked on a project where your first design was your last and every delicate decision you’d made warranted applause and total client approval? Me neither. But why is this so? At this point there must be flashes of horrifying assumptions fleeting before you. “Did I miss the mark?,” you might ask yourself. “Is it just a horrible design and I was too close to the project to objectively see it?”

No. None of these things.

Why The Client is Always Right (Even When You Think They’re Not)

They’re clients; experts in their field, looking at a project from a different angle. They have unique expectations of how the interface should look and work based on their own knowledge and expertise in their industry. In the past, some clients of mine have opted to disregard user experience best practices in lieu of something they’d seen on Awwwards. Everybody wants their interface to be minimal and slick, but this could mean falling short of usability.

So how do you convince these clients that your solution is better? You don’t. You need to guide them to a usable solution that meets their unique perspective and aligns with their desires.

Have you ever heard of choosing your battles? Yeah, that philosophy applies when the client has an alternative solution in mind. This is completely normal. You may be anticipating that there is no end to the harmonious battle between a “slick” and “clean” (but highly unusable) UI and one that meets users’ expectations. Don’t fret, there is a workaround for this…

The Secret to Creating Happy Clients AND Great Websites

In my experience, if a client wants a highly minimal, slick, albeit less usable solution, the best way to guide them to better usability is a great and wonderful thing I call a Design Hybrid. A Design Hybrid is the mixture of the most usable solution and the alternative (the one the client wants).

But why bother creating a solution that isn’t 100% usable? Because we ought to look at the glass as half full, that’s why. Some usability is always better than no usability and there are many solutions to a singular problem.

If you can help enlighten them that their desire to hide the main menu for all navigation on desktop (in an attempt to be minimal and modern) will result in irreparable losses of engagement by users and the end solution is their agreement to only hide the utility navigation, I call that a glorious win for both the client and their users.

In the event you’re making a hybrid for a passionate client, you want to get to the core of why they prefer their alternative solution.

Do they want it simpler? Cleaner? Bigger? Whatever it is, use this as a catalyst for crafting your Design Hybrid. You can gather this information on your weekly client calls, in a simple email, or even in a creative brief. Guide them through the process by asking direct, open-ended questions like: “What does ‘simple design’ mean to you?” or “What is the best example of a modern website you’ve seen?”

Why You Need to Know Your Data

Once you have these terms defined by your client, you can better empathize with their perspective and better understand their ideas. Then you can take the most crucial aspects of your solution (things that might be a usability catastrophe if not implemented) and brainstorm some rough ideas on how you can make them more closely align with the client’s own terms.

You want to strive to closely match your solution to the attributes they’ve defined for you. Additional research may be needed to help support these new designs (references to be found below).

For an example of a Design Hybrid solution in action, let’s say we have a simple green button-style CTA in the hero image with some intro text. Pretty standard. But then the client sees a site that hides all the content until a user hovers over the image and a complex animation reveals the goods. They love it and they’re completely set on hiding their own content on page load, no if ands or buts (or coconuts).

A hybrid solution might mean dulling down the animation, making it more natural. Perhaps an increase in y-positioning and a nice fade in, instead of that tilt-a-whirl solution they love so much. Another hybrid solution might be to design an indicator, perhaps an icon of a mouse, or a finger with simple text saying, “hover for more information.” At least the client is calling attention to this space rather than hoping the user will hover over the designated target (which usually doesn’t happen).

After you’ve created a working solution for your Design Hybrid, you will want to make sure that all your ducks are in a row before a walkthrough with the client.

I encourage constant research on the hybrid solutions you propose, keeping in mind that real tangible data is what stakeholders are looking for. Being UX professionals means we need to offer direction and guidance for our clients. Without real data to back up our most important claims, it may be difficult to prescribe the right hybrid solutions for the project.

If you thought your initial research findings could suffice for this Design Hybrid and are now discovering that they don’t fit, additional research should be conducted.

For unbiased research on hundreds (maybe thousands) of UI’s, check out sites like:

…to name a few.

How to Gain Consensus Through Education

In my client engagement example above, I pointed out to the client that users like natural animations better than large, flashy ones. I  also suggested to the client that users don’t know an image is clickable unless there’s some sort of visual indicator. I could even reinforce their decision to follow my hybrid design solution by showing them some data around the ‘fold’ and how they need critical, revealing information shown on page load and on screen to spark user interest.

Once your research is complete and you’ve compiled a nifty one-pager of your findings, you will want to jot down a bulleted script you’ll reference when on your call or in your presentation with the client. This will help you reference quick snippets of data without pouring into the original findings. This opens up more time for you to answer their questions and demonstrate how your Design Hybrid best matches their business objectives and aligns with their users’ needs.

The final thing I would recommend is going over these findings with your project manager or other designers on the project. This will not only allow them insight into the design decisions that were made to this point, but they will serve as helpful advocates in future conversations with the client. Giving more transparency to your work ultimately allows others on your team and the client’s to trust it more.

It even pays off for all when, later in the project, a developer tells the client that their ‘complex animations for the hero image solution’ they love so much will slow site load time, they’ll recall they made that trade off decision, and will know not to expect additional development time to solve for it.

This is a Design Hybrid. It is the best solution that meets the client’s desires and the users’ expectations based on a collaboration of ideas and real supporting data.

At the end of the day you’ve helped to solve a complex problem for your client and you can treat yourself to that candy bar you’ve been craving.
Just remember: it’s about finding a balance between what the client wants and what the user needs that matters. If you can find that balance, that sweet spot, that ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for design, you’ve steered the client away from rough waters and into a usable solution that’s better for their business.

Ryan Davis
Ryan Davis is a Visual Designer at Blue Acorn iCi, with an eye for marketing and a focus on results-oriented creativity. He also enjoys long walks on the beach and horseback rides and dreams of world peace.
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