How To Determine What Your Clients Really Want

By / Feb 14, 2012 / Tips

The world of freelancing is host to many complicated skillsets. Artists and graphic designers are constantly trying to match their talents with the numerous demands pouring out from clients. Project work can be exhilarating, yet also very stressful if you aren’t prepared.

In this article we’ll go over tips to figuring out exactly what your clients are looking for. At times it can seem like communication has fallen through and all is lost. But the ranging issues of a freelance project should not stifle your creativity. Once you understand how to effectively ask questions it’s not so difficult to get your clients on the same page.

Build a List

A great way to kick start the planning process is with a list of ideas. You can’t go wrong with a bulleted list since it’s easy to skim and provides a bare-bones outline of the project work. In this way the client can peruse what you’ve made and possibly suggest changes if needed.

Try not to get descriptive with the first draft. Put down only the ideas which need attention and explain them in 2-3 sentences. This should be enough for your client to gauge if you understand their thought processes. If it’s beneficial to include examples of other websites with similar traits(design patterns, navigation, etc.) then create a sub-list underneath each of your examples.

This list may consist of any number of ideas – UI features, page elements, graphics, or even functionality. It can become a working draft that you and the client may edit. Furthermore it allows collaboration between a single set of achievable goals and the project isn’t so wishy-washy from the start.

Provide Examples

The best way to clarify details with your client is through examples. Whenever you are discussing the project it will likely be difficult for the client to explain what they mean in technical terms. This can relate to design, but also interface effects with jQuery.

If you have a portfolio of works then maybe you’ve previously built similar functionality you can showcase. Otherwise try to keep a handful of websites in mind as you can utilize them for references. Clients will provide more valuable specs and you will feel confident when building each phase. If you can’t find a particular example try googling for better results.

With so many freebies on the web you can run into just about any pre-made open source script. There are plenty of great examples for image carousels, jQuery popups, navigation menus, and other page elements.

Keep Them Updated

Throughout the pre-planning and design process send your ideas over and communicate. Though in the end it is your client who has the final say in these matters. So pressure is on for your to conform with their desires and build what they are paying you to build.

Why get started coding a website layout when you don’t even know if the design is properly setup? There are only so many times you can go back-and-forth like this. Plan out an “average” schedule ahead of time so you have the details fresh in your mind. Touch base once during the sketching/wireframing process and again after the design has been polished off.

Work With Newer Ideas

Some clientel are smart enough to understand the basics of a website. Many will try to suggest how you should do the job, but this can feel slightly backwards. Don’t be afraid to point out some of the new source technologies available to web designers.

For example, just because your client has never used WordPress doesn’t mean their website wouldn’t benefit from the CMS engine. This is possibly one of the greatest hassles since editing page content and website administration can easily be accomplished through WP. Yet when you have a client who insists on building in straight HTML it makes your job a lot tougher.

night time in Tokyo - skyline
credit Alex van Knippenberg

Even other code solutions may help with smaller-scale concepts. Check through resources like Github which are host to thousands of scripts in PHP, Ruby, Python, jQuery, and SQL. Working on top of these newer code libraries will speed up development time tremendously. It also eliminates the issue of buggy code since most authors scrutinize their work religiously.

Talk About Services Upfront

It’s certainly best to discuss your services before even accepting any project work. Often times you’ll find clients who are looking for a jack-of-all-trades and will push these expectations onto any freelancer. Even finding a sole web designer & developer together can be tough, let alone other services such as marketing and copywriting.

Be sure that you clarify what can be accomplished and what you cannot do. It’s not worth the extra stress tackling excess work in the hopes of making your client a bit happier.

However I would be wrong to tell you to stay away from new ideas. If you have the motivation to help with a new project or Internet marketing plan then go for it! As long as the client understands you are not an expert they won’t be looking for expert results. It’s also a great way to expand your freelance portfolio.


Freelancing is far from the easiest job in the world. Although it can be very rewarding there are plenty of challenges to overcome. When you start working on freelance projects you need to consider a handful of strategies for dealing with clients. Networking skills are vitally important for your success.

Remember that you both need to stay focused on the same goal and communication is key. I hope these ideas can influence your process of pitching and creating new projects. Everything ultimately boils down to simplicity. Keep all the details on a very understandable level and you shouldn’t run into any problems.

About the Author

Jake Rocheleau is a creative writer and UI designer. You can follow him on twitter @jakerocheleau or visit his personal website at


    Thanks so much..good read! every day you challenge yourself and you have to stay calm as possible. hard work and passion pay!

  • nate

    And to make sure they don’t change what they want, require half or a decent payment up front along with a termination clause (requiring them to abandon the inital payment if terminated). It pisses me off when clients decided half way through a project that they want ton’s of extra features and when you remind them that extra work means extra cost they act like I’m a dick.

    • Wabbaly

      typical. some think we work for hopes and dreams. as a solution to this problem, I suggest a better control on the project: select a path from the start, argument the hell out of it, make them get it and you got it.

  • Maggie

    Really good ideas not just for freelancers but anyone doing design work. Boundaries are so important in this industry – making sure the client understands what will and will not be included is crucial. One of the most important things to include in any discussions/contracts is agreeing on when the final product has been delivered. Unless you have a monthly maintenance contract, you must know when your work is done. Not just for the designer, but for the client as well.

  • krysten

    Great tips. Often not even clients know what they want, so it makes trying to figure it out so much more difficult.

  • Ryan Hale

    Thanks for that solid advice Jake. Ideally each of those interactions ends with smiles on both sides of the table. But what if there is friction? How do I deliver a tough client–especially a new one? Here are some suggestions:

  • Navigator Multimedia

    Bridging the communication gap between designers and clients in technical knowledge terms requires encouraging alternative modes of expression in the beginning stages of project planning. For instance, inviting clients to bring in tactile examples of colours, textures, and objects they find inspiring or reflective of what they’d like to see in their website design, will help you get right to the point of “what” they want. Sometimes, even those irritating “I want my site to look like X’s!” comments must be accommodated as a specification to consider (but not exactly emulate!) during project development.

    Thanks for the article!
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  • Morgan & Me Creative

    I think one good way is also be transparent about one’s skills and limitations. That way the client gets a good grasp of what kind of quality or level to expect from you. Once they know that, they’ll start asking questions that are more focused and then you’ll be able to guess and determine what they want more effectively.

  • Eric

    Great article. I come from a freelance background, but I’m trying to grow our web design and development business at work. I think these guidelines will translate perfectly.

  • Debbs Hosting

    Very well said. I’ve been in freelancing before, too, in the fields of web-content, SEO optimization and graphic design. It’s been a trend lately and what it needs to be able to flourish more is to keep all those creative ideas coming.

  • kathryn

    The first item in your article, Building a List is a great jumping off point. I have a short survey form that asks web/branding/marketing questions of the client. After a meeting I fill in the answers as I’ve understood them and then the client has an opportunity to add or clarify where our ideas differ. Having a short form helps me get better thought-out answers before I begin the wireframing stage.