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helping clients define what they need is part of a ux job

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Helping clients define what they need is part of a UX job. If we don’t collect the right requirements, no matter how great our experience design is, it won’t be successful.

I’ve heard people say “oh, clients don’t know what they want”, or “it’s hard to understand what clients want…” while discarding all responsibility for figuring it out. That’s not going to help us do a good job, is it? 

It’s a fact that often clients have but a rough idea of what they want. It may even come across as confusing and contradicting when they express it. But as UX designers we have to deal with “not knowing” and go on a mission to find it out. 

How to tap into the business goals

When a client of yours needs help defining what to put on the brief, before drilling down to requirements, you need to have a grip on their business goals, how the product (or whatever it is) fits in the current business strategy, and what they expect to achieve as a result. This can be done over a call or a face-to-face meeting. Personally, I like sending the questions over to the client in advance, in order to avoid surprising them with questions they don’t have the answers to. Here are some questions that may come in handy:

  • Business goals - what are the business goals or challenges behind the request for this product?
  • Strategy - does the product fit an overarching business strategy? If so, could you please share that strategy with us?
  • Target audience - do you have existing market segments, or studies that would shed a light on your customer’s behaviours? If yes, can you please share them with us?
  • Positioning - what’s the message that this product should carry, in relation to the company / brand? 
  • Desired outcome - what are you expecting to achieve with the development and release of this product?
  • Success measuring - is there a KPI-based objective, or another kind of metric that you will be looking at?

These questions will be a good starting point for you to understand where the idea for the product is coming from and what it means for the organisation. 

In some cases, the answers you get may be enough for you to move on. The truth is, there are many instances in which your clients do not have clearly defined goals or solid strategies to share with you, and need your help to craft a vision as to why they should go for this product and what to expect as a reasonable yet ambitious outcome. So, how do you help them?

Extra dimensions

If you are going to help your client define the brief, you will need to look at other dimensions beyond “what are the business goals” questions. These dimensions will help you sense what is going on inside the organisation, what are the internal forces driving decisions, and overall context influencing the business sector your client is in. Here are the dimensions you should look into:

  • The market context the client is in - what are the social, economical and political forces influencing their business? Who are the competitors and what are they doing? What are the overall market tendencies?
  • Their customers - what are the buying and usage habits of their customers? What’s going on in their own homes, families, jobs, etc, that may influence their decisions buying and using our client’s products?
  • The client’s business - what’s the history behind the product that we are being called out to help on? What other products does the client have and how are they performing? What are the internal political interests behind this product and what are the departments involved in this request?

After looking at these 3 dimensions we will gain more knowledge about your client’s business, their challenges, and at the same time, opportunities in the market that may be untapped. 

Now, how do we transform a set of notes and insights into the brief? This may go in different ways, but essentially you cannot define what the client needs without the client agreeing to it. Thus you have got to propose a set of options they can choose from.

In these cases, I like to prepare a deck with my team’s findings, followed by a set of possible approaches for them to evaluate. I present them in the form of proposals where each means to tackle one or more of the challenges and opportunities found. These should not just be what the users need, but should also answer the business objectives the client has passed to us.

Clients are just like you

When trying to define what the clients need, we should understand that, just like us UX designers, our clients often have bosses, stakeholders or external parties they need to answer to. That means that their decisions and intentions are biased. If the briefing doesn’t seem to make sense to us, we should try to dig deeper and find out what is influencing our client and his briefing. 

The product that you were asked to help on might represent many different things for your clients, from an opportunity to “shine”, or show their worth, to a “problem” they were left with from former management, or even an unclear demand from their top management - which they don’t fully understand themselves. These are all possible scenarios that will affect your work, your requirements, and your ability to relate to your client in a productive way. 

Whatever these influences may be, you should try to put your finger on them, in order to effectively help. Here are some aspects that you may want to investigate further if needed:

  • Who will be impacted - which teams in the organisation will be most impacted by the outcome of this product’s development / release?
  • What does it represent - what does this product mean for you, your team or your department? In practical terms, what will change?
  • Where are the obstacles - where do you see the biggest challenges for this product?

It takes a bit of empathy and persistence to go and extract that information. Perhaps it’s more than one chat with your clients together, and a few more with them individually (in case there are several people involved). There may be a circle of trust that you have to build first, in order for your client to open up to you, to the full extent. It helps if you have a long relationship with them, but if not, it may take some time. 

Lay it all out

I hope that after reading this, you feel less inclined to say “clients don’t know what they want”. Remember it’s part of UX to help clients find the sweet spot between what the organisation wants and what the user needs. Sometimes it’s just a matter of laying it all out - all the information you gathered. Once we do that, they start seeing the possibilities more clearly. 

Happy client relationships!

Katia Serralheiro
April 19, 2022


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