Is getting clients to sign off design a bad idea?

Getting design sign-off is one of the key milestones in most web design projects. We have learned through experience that a lack of design sign-off can derail projects. More than that, it can devastate profit margins.

Is getting clients to sign off design a bad idea?

But, let’s be honest, design sign-off can be painful. This is especially true considering the idea of a single, de-facto design is misleading.

What exactly are you asking clients to approve?

Take a moment to answer this question: What exactly are you asking clients to sign-off? Is it a Photoshop document? Is that actually the design? After all no single static comp can show animation, browser versions or mobile adaptions. You can end up producing a huge number of mockups to cover every eventuality, which lets be honest we rarely do.

Is getting clients to sign off design a bad idea?

You might think that getting a client to sign-off on an in-browser design might make more sense. But does it really? Is the client going to check that design in every browser or even on different devices?

This means even if the client does sign-off there is still room for ambiguity. Ample room for the client to complain later.

And anyway, has design sign-off ever actually stopped a client asking for changes? Sure it gives you some leverage, but if you want to keep their business you are always on the back foot.

Not only is design sign-off ineffective, it can also be damaging.

The problems with sign-off

For a start design sign-off carries with it an implication. An implication that the client has to ‘like’ the design. But do they really? Do they not want a design that performs, a design that meets the needs of users? Why then do they need to approve it? Isn’t that what testing is for?

Is getting clients to sign off design a bad idea?

Of course, clients want a say in the design and there are good reasons for giving them that say. They know their business better than us. They may well know their users better too. They also have to live with our design long after we move on to the next project.

But design sign-off is a binary way of involving them. They only get to say yes or no. That isn’t helpful. We don’t get their full insights. They don’t get to learn what makes a good design, making it hard for them to give informed feedback.

Then of course there is the pressure of design sign-off. When the client gets one chance to comment on the design they feel a lot of pressure. They have to get things right. That makes them hyper critical. They will also consult with lots of colleagues in the hope of sharing the pressure. But this does nothing but muddy the waters.

Finally, design sign-off prevents iteration. Once the client approves the design, nobody can change it and that includes us. That means no matter what we learn after that point there is nothing we can do. Discover a new user need… too late. Find out the developer can’t build what we have designed… we will have to find a way.

This is out of step with modern web design practices. Practices that rely on continual iteration based on increasing understanding.

Is getting clients to sign off design a bad idea?

So if design sign-off is no longer working, what are our options?

A better way?

There is no perfect solution. But a better starting point is to include the client more often in the design and development process. This allows us to get a better understanding of their requirements. But it also educates them about the decisions we are making together.

Finally, it gives them a greater sense of investment in the design. This reduces the chance of them rejecting the design later. It also encourages them to defend it when talking to colleagues.

So instead of a major design sign-off point, we have a series of smaller steps. Informal discussions and decisions together with the client to shape the design.

By working with you on the design they are more invested and better educated. They don’t feel the pressure of a set in stone decision. Instead they get to observe user responses to a design through testing and iteration. They become a team member, shaping the design.

This approach does take more work in educating and engaging the client. But it should reduce the number of iterations required to get approval. In the end it should reduce your workload.

But the approach doesn’t always work. What if the client changes their minds late in the development process?

But what if they change their minds?

Clients do change their mind and design sign-off does provide some protection against this. They change their mind for a couple of reasons.

First, a colleague or manager changes it for them. But this happens even with design sign-off. A manager who swoops in and poops all over the project is something that nobody can avoid. But a client who is an active participant in the design process is more likely to defend it. Not only that but they are better equipped too.

They will understand the design decisions well enough to explain them. But they will also feel invested in the design and so its rejection would reflect on them.

The second reason clients change their mind is that they think of something after sign-off. Things they had not considered earlier. They think of a new piece of functionality or have second thoughts about how users will react.

This happens because they just don’t give the project enough thought. But if you work with them throughout the design process they will have spent more time thinking about it. This reduces the chance of them thinking of something new late in the project.

Pilot the approach

I am not suggesting you dump design sign-off on all new projects. Instead I am suggesting piloting it on a single project. See what happens. See if you actually miss that signature on the dotted line.

Also keep a careful eye on projects that do include design sign-off. Are they really better? Does design sign-off actually protect you from design changes? Or are they just a barrier between you and the client? A barrier that leads to endless iterations and a less informed client.