What to Do When Your Client Doesn’t Know What They Want

Three ideas that can help you uncover what your client really wants and the right problem to solve

Lina Bodestad
Oct 22, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash

YYou know what the real problem is, according to science, with a lot of problem-solving we do in society today? It’s not necessarily in the methods we use, or in the people we involve (or exclude). Too often, we are solving the wrong problem in the first place.

Recently I had dinner with a friend who works in marketing and design. We got to talking about a phenomenon that’s hard to translate into a proper English term. Here in Sweden we call it beställarkompetens, which roughly translates into “client expertise.”

Or, you know, “the client understanding what the heck they actually want, and putting their thoughts into comprehensible words, preferably something more substantial than ‘we want something that feels high-tech and moves really fast.’”

As an organizational psychologist, my mind soon spun into thoughts and ideas as we talked about this over our bowls of greasy peanut noodles and sparkling wine (yes, those two go excellently together, thank you very much).

Here are three psychological concepts I believe can shine a light on why your client has such a hard time explaining what they want, while at the same time looking at your prototype and saying, “Well, we have no idea what we want, but we know this isn’t it.”

As the expert, you need to pull your client through the window

Well, not a physical window — that would be a medieval form of execution, called defenestration (hey, look at you, you learned a new word today!).

What I’m talking about is the Johari window, a psychological model to describe what you know and don’t know about yourself, and what others know and don’t know about you.

Describing the Johari window is a bit tricky without confusing the reader and jumping through a lot of hoops with double-negatives, so let’s just skip to the important part:

If you are an expert at something, and a client hires you to do your expert-thingy, it is your job to know what the client doesn’t know that she doesn’t know.

Didn’t make it a whole lot clearer now, did I? Well, think of it this way. A person with an ailment walks into a doctor’s office and claims, “Doctor, my foot hurts, and I did some reading online, and now I believe I have footitis (yes, I just made that word up), and you should probably amputate my foot before it gets any worse.”

Most doctors would not jump straight to amputating someone’s foot in a situation like this. Why? Because the doctor knows that she has a much broader knowledge about the body and its illnesses than the patient and that “footitis” is not the most likely cause of the pain.

It is the doctor’s job to offer the patient a remedy or treatment that the doctor knows will likely heal the underlying cause of the ailment.

And when you think of it, this applies to most, if not all, other expert roles or professions as well. If you are a design firm and a client comes to you to ask for a “shiny, glossy brochure to hand out to potential customers,” what happens when you back up a few steps and start to investigate things further?

Why does the company feel they need a glossy brochure right now? What are they trying to accomplish? Is a glossy brochure the best means to reach the desired goals of the client’s customers or end users? Or do they in fact need something completely different — something that you, with your expertise in marketing and design, can see the benefits of, even if client cannot, at least initially?

If you can take the client from “not knowing what they don’t know” via “understanding what they don’t yet know” and ending up in “knowing what they know, and what to do,” you are much more likely to actually have worked on the right problem. And your client is hopefully more satisfied, even if the journey was a bit rockier and took slightly longer than expected.

The client expects you to know their end user better than they do

I recently met a developer whose firm, among other things, worked with a large company who sold IT systems for the medical community, e.g., digital medical records and the like.

Having previously worked in a health care profession myself, I asked the developer who usually takes in the perspectives and needs from the end users — in this case, the doctors, nurses, and psychologist who would be using the system.

Their answer? “Nobody, really.”

Then they painted a picture for me of a tricky dilemma: On the one hand, clients rely on the tech firm to know how to create good and usable tech, because they are the tech experts. And if clients aren’t willing to pay the true cost of thorough user research, the tech firm knows how to build systems that work just fine anyway (i.e., pressing button A reliably triggers action B), regardless of who the user is or what the system is supposed to “do” in a broader sense.

The downside? Further down the line, this could cost organizations thousands, millions, in hidden costs when workers aren’t able to perform their jobs effectively and efficiently. It’s not easy to do your job when a system you use and rely on every day is tailored to your needs about as much as a bicycle is tailored to the needs of a fish. Okay, I might exaggerate just a bit, but you get the idea.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this: Make sure that someone (preferably you) does at least some research into the actual needs and goals of the client’s end users. Use a design sprint or any other method you like, but do the end users a big favor and don’t leave them entirely out of the process. They will be ever so grateful in the long run.

Don’t let your popcorn brain of ideas miss two important steps

If you’re anything like me, you are a person with a lot of ideas. Maybe your brain, just like mine, is a little like a popcorn machine, constantly popping new ideas into the air all your waking hours (and sometimes in your sleep, too).

Divergent thinking, fancy-speak for “coming up with many possible solutions to one specific problem,” is of course a key skill for a designer or UXer of any kind. But did you notice one tiny word in the last sentence that us popcorn brains sometimes miss?

Specific. As in, solutions to one specific problem. One problem that is agreed upon and clearly defined, by all parties involved.

As a psychologist, I just love the idea of the design thinking process. if you’re not familiar, it is a model to describe any design process, boiled down to five steps that you go though, and jump back and forth between, when designing solutions.

Empathize. Define. Ideate (that’s the popcorn brain part). Prototype. Test.

Those are the five steps of design thinking. And what I like most about them is those first two words:

Empathize and define.

If we don’t first empathize with the client, and their end users, and understand the underlying problem (i.e., what is really causing our client’s “footitis”), we can’t move forward to find a suitable solution.

Or, rather, we can — and in fact we do it all the time. But we run a high risk of starting to ideate about the wrong problem, if we speed through this phase too quickly, or skip it entirely.

The second step is just as important. Define. Empathizing is the backdrop, but the definition needs to be so clear and unambiguous that when you walk out of a meeting with a client, you and the client have the exact same picture of what the problem really is.

Note that you do not yet have to agree on the best solution. That’s when your popcorn brain will do its magic and you’ll work together with the client to agree on a solution, after coming up with a few and prototyping some of them.

Defining and agreeing upon what problem you are actually solving is a key step — where, sadly, too many endeavors fail. Therefore, if you want to sharpen your competitive edge, learn to listen. Shut your mouth, and then listen some more. Ask questions. And more questions. Draw, sketch, do anything that brings you as close as possible to actually reading your client’s mind.

Then, hopefully, your project will result in your clients exclaiming, “This is exactly what I imagined! You are a mind reader!”


Helping designers thrive.

Lina Bodestad

Written by

UX psychologist. Writer. Avid drinker of oat milk lattes. lina.bodestad@layer10.se


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Lina Bodestad

Written by

UX psychologist. Writer. Avid drinker of oat milk lattes. lina.bodestad@layer10.se


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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