Defining a Project: Discovery Questionnaire

One method of obtaining information to use as a jumping-off point is for a designer and their client to fill out a discovery questionnaire together. This document can help set out a general direction to move forward in.

There is no universal questionnaire for web designers that applies to each and every project. Each project is unique in some way, each business has its own specifics that need to be considered. A key question relating to the specifications of one website may make no sense whatsoever to another. Nonetheless, I have tried to write up some sort of general core, a common denominator for most commercial websites, and give it the form of this example of a website design questionnaire. I have tried to include all the essential information that we should know about any new web project. If we already know that some of the bullet points are not relevant to our particular project, we can leave them out with no qualms; equally, if we know certain elementary pieces of information are missing, we can add them straight away.

Once we have prepared the questionnaire in this manner, we can use it as a worksheet during our second meeting with the client. Alternatively, having agreed on it with the client (and having explained the rules), we can send it to them to fill out. Either way, two things are paramount, and we must take good care to get them right:

  • We need totally honest and truthful information. We will duly explain the need for this to the client, and stress that any exaggeration, glossing over, bragging, or obscuring of unwelcome facts might ultimately cause a lot of damage. If we have not done it before, this is the time to offer the client, of our own initiative, that we will sing an NDA (a non-disclosure agreement or confidentiality agreement), because we are aware that they may consider much of the information we want from them to be sensitive, and potentially dangerous to disclose in a highly competitive market environment. The client must fully understand that we will take any piece of information they give us from now on as fact, as a point of departure from which to tailor our proposal to their needs, and that any information provided will be reflected in the resulting design we deliver.
  • We must help the client find answers, advise them and give explanations – but we certainly have to steer clear of giving any cues; we must not assume anything or put words in their mouth. We might be convinced, for example, that the amazing tagline that occurred to us just yesterday lands itself as an ideal marketing claim for them. Even so, the client’s “I’m not sure” or “We don’t have anything final yet” is a valuable piece of information at this stage. No need to worry, or to try and rush things. A more appropriate and efficient opportunity to present this idea will arise later.

What we can do, however– and it is a very good idea to do so – is to offer an answer when we reliably know the client’s position on the matter, we have it confirmed; where the information is (in our eyes) obvious, and it would probably even be pointless to make the client reformulate it. Every such hint of an answer, albeit partial, helps the client a lot. It conveys that we see eye to eye with them, that we understand their instructions, and also indicates that the questions we do want answered are actually important, not a mere repetition of what they have already told us several times. If that does end up being the case, we can follow such questioning with the expected answer, but always with a request for confirmation. So let us, for instance, take the previously mentioned question relating to the tagline:

  • Wrong. We think that a suitable new tagline for your service might be “That’s how we roll”. We can offer a new slogan later. For now, we only need to know the client’s expectations, and their position on potential changes.
  • Correct. The tagline you are using now is “World-class rolling-element bearings”. Is that correct? Is keeping it essential, or are you potentially open to change? This will give us and the client space, and leaves the door open. Who knows, it may even turn out that the client is not really happy with their current slogan, and our suggestion to replace it will actually please them, even though they were not originally expecting it.

This is the approach I personally use even when I am just sending a discovery questionnaire via email. I include answers that I think are known or predictable, always coupled with a question prompting the client to confirm or correct my assumptions. Is that accurate? Correct? Is that so?

I try to steer clear of offering my proposals and ideas here. Experienced designers will agree with me that it takes a degree of self-restraint and swallowing one’s professional pride, but without a doubt it pays off. There is a business element to it too: often this occurs in the initial phase of the project, which might end up with only invoicing a sketch fee – a small payment for just the preliminary analysis. It is thus not in our best interest to give the client our ideas prematurely – practically giving them away for free. However difficult it may be for a creative person teeming with ideas, it is better to not show and tell to the client prematurely. At this point, of course, we may have a few ideas ready, possibly a comprehensive outline of a pretty decent solution in our head. Still, we should hit the breaks at this stage, and kick our conceited ego that has just ripped its shirt open in a clamour for attention in the backside, and just tape its mouth shut.

Every idea should be kept for the right kind of presentation at the right time.

Quite frankly: sometimes it really is a struggle. If I counted all the ideas that I just blurted out at the first project meeting on a job that was later cancelled, and then saw them used as the client’s own solution, or even in a competitor’s design… then as a budding young designer, I would have had a few more happy zeros at the end of my bank account balance, I guess. Well, good old trial and error.

We should carefully note down or sketch out all of our ideas, and keep them locked safely away for a superb presentation somewhere down the line. For now, we just want to know information, the client’s views and attitudes. Now, grab the prepared questionnaire, and pre-fill it only with any answers derived from already-known facts, not with fresh ideas, and let the cross-examination begin.