Art of saying yes, part 2: building a collaborative solution

Building a collaborative solution

It’s not uncommon for clients to come to us with fairly established web solutions they think will work. Some solutions in fact may work very well and in these cases, it’s always preferable to enthusiastically accept and implement them. When that’s not the case, and you sense a host of challenges and/or risks with the ideas, then you should build on your study of the business requirements and intended results to co-produce a solution with the client.

I overheard a comment at a recent conference that “it took a multi-disciplinary team to destroy the Death Star.” I appreciate the sentiment. Bringing together people with different skills and perspectives has been demonstrated to create richer and more holistic approaches that will work better for intended audiences. But there’s complexity at work here too, no matter if it’s designing a government benefit for millions of Canadians or the vanquishing of an evil empire. Given the multiple perspectives and personality types on teams, we need to find a way to communicate our ideas and bridge them into a workable end product.

Build empathy with the client

It sounds like an odd suggestion but developing empathy for a client’s project is how we can best build the trust needed to work together. Empathy is not about emotion: it’s about understanding another person’s point of view.

In her book “Practical Empathy” Indi Young frames describes this activity as “the willingness to take time to discover the deep-down thoughts and reactions that make another person tick.” She emphasizes listening skills as the way to get past preconceived notions when we are presented with an idea that seems at first glance somewhat impractical or short-sighted.

You build empathy with a client when you devote time digging into the requirements for their project. Conversely, your client can gain empathy of the web planning and publishing process when you explain the pros and cons of various options based on your experience. Sometimes I start the conversation with “what would success look like?” to see if there are performance indicators that would require different solutions, but still yield the results that the client is after.

Active listening and a neutral mindset, says Young, will help us acknowledge our client’s intentions and work to improve the relationship. In short, to truly collaborate, you have to behave like a collaborator.

Co-produce options backed with evidence

In our scenario, the original request from the client was to revamp a website which has been updated in very small increments over three years. At this point you have a project brief built through in-person meetings where you actively listened and have a better understanding of the client’s needs.  Now start to build your project plan with these sections:

  • Context: the policy drivers that should be supported by the content and the requirements from the TBS policy that inform findability and readability of content
  • Current state:
    • which content is getting traffic and the accuracy/currency of that content
    • which content aligns with the department program policy and the current TBS policy for findability and plain language
    • how people find the content (navigation, search, campaigns, social media)
  • Goal: our content must help our audience, support our policy and comply with TBS policy
    • Measurable objective 1: people can find their task in less than three minutes
    • Measurable objective 2: the content is in line with our policy (accuracy check)
    • Measurable objective 3: people understand the language and can do the task successfully (plain language score and task completion)
  • Rationale:
    • By measuring how people can find and do their tasks, we are ensuring our content is actually performing the way it should.
    • If we focus on aesthetics first, we risk not making the substantive changes that will support the program policy.
    • Focusing on having great content will be the most effective use of existing resources.
  • Audience: because our audience is mostly [audience type], we will reach them by [clear navigation labels using words they recognize, official social media accounts, our newsletter, campaign features on Canada.ca, etc.]
  • Options Roadmap: to meet our deadline, we will take an incremental approach to fix known issues and then work to phase in improvements using our current resources
    • Accelerating the schedule or expanding scope would require an adjustment of priorities (list the priorities) or additional resources (include an estimate)
    • List obvious issues that could be addressed quickly
    • Identify further issues for user testing
    • List high-level steps for video production and estimated cost
    • List the time estimates for blog creation, approvals, translation and publishing and the frequency needed for the blog to be considered useful for the intended audience (this estimate will uncover the unknown truths about blog management)

Invite your client to a working session that will refine the ideas and identify any gaps in the project plan. Rating items according to level of effort and value will help set priorities and alleviate activities that introduce risk into the project. You can use a whiteboard or sticky notes to capture items quickly and make changes.

If at the end of this meeting you have a workable plan, well done. But what if the client wants to keep the original vision, even with its risks? We’ll explore some options in the next post on retooling or escalating when collaboration stalls.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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