Making Things Hard

by Tiffani Jones Brown

We try to make things—like grasping our process, knowing what you’re getting and understanding why we make the decisions we do—easy for our clients.

This, because most clients don’t have time for endless research and exploration. They hired us for that. And of course, most clients manage web design projects on top of their existing workload. So really, it’s just polite to make things as easy as possible.

But the thing is, in order to make things easy, sometimes we have to make them hard first. 

Shoot Me Now

A typical set of discovery questions for a 2-page design + copy project might look like this: 

  • What’s Acme Inc all about? Talk to me like I’m 10.
  • Who are Acme Inc’s main competitors? What are their websites?
  • Who is Acme Inc’s target audience? What do they care about?
  • Why did you hire us?
  • What don’t you like about your existing design?
  • What don’t you like about your existing copy?
  • How is Acme Inc different than other companies like it?
  • How is Acme Inc better than other companies like it?
  • Give me a handful of adjectives that describe Acme Inc.
  • What other marketing initiatives will accompany this project?
  • Point me to a few sites whose writing you really like.  Why do you like it?
  • Point me to a few sites whose design you really like.  Why do you like it?
  • DIY Pitch: In three minutes or less, give me a pitch for Acme Inc’s products.
  • What do you want people to think of Acme Inc as a result of our work?
  • Who will maintain your design + copy after we’re done?
  • What main actions do you want people to take on acmeinc.com?
  • Please upload any logos, assets, etc that must go on the site.
  • Please list any keywords that must go on the site.
  • Please upload your branding guidelines.
  • Please list any content that must go on the site. (specific phrases, content types, etc)

And so on. Keep in mind, I said 2 pages. Maybe you’re thinking, how hard can it be?

Well, consider this. To get a really good answer (one that helps us design or write a site that’s both effective and interesting), we might have to break each of these questions down into multiple smaller questions, meetings and interations.  

Let’s use the sample question, In three minutes or less, give me a pitch for Acme Inc products, as an example.  Here’s how we might get to a good answer:

  • I ask question
  • Client takes 3-10 minutes to answer
  • I review the answer
  • We have a phone call about the answer
  • I notice there are actually three parts to the answer, say benefits, features and brand attributes
  • I ask client to elaborate on each of these 3 components
  • Client sends me some more brainstorming or writing
  • I use that writing to generate either more questions, or a rough draft of the benefits and intro message for the home page
  • We revise that writing
  • As more info comes to light, we repeat

And that’s just 2 sentences and 3 bullet points on a home page.  

Not Your Average Easy Bake Oven

The point is, the process of designing and writing a website is not an input-output binary.  We don’t just submit our neat form, which our client then fills out, which we then transform into a dozen Littlest Pet Shop Shortbread Cookies.

No. We have to put our clients through their paces. Ask them lots of questions. Have some calls. Try some stuff.  Redo it. Have another call.

Of, course we can be responsible and pragmatic about this, but there’s no getting around the client-side effort those shortbread cookies take. Oh it hurts.

Out Pops Dinner!

When it comes to a client’s involvement in the web design process, we’ve found that gain does, in fact, arise from pain.

In wrenching every last drop of genius from our clients (and believe me, you will experience much genius when you encourage clients to be creative and involved), we’re able to produce better work. It makes more sense. It’s more interesting.

Make things hard to make them easy.


Sorry, we're not taking on new projects.

We packed up shop in early 2011 to work at Facebook. Tiffani now works at Pinterest and Matt is working on secret projects. To keep up with us, check out the Brown Blog or follow @brownthings and @ticjones!