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Master the Design Handoff

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re one of the lucky designers. You’ve managed to navigate a large design project and you’re close to delivering the final site. It’s integrated with a CMS, and the client is going to take over from here on out.

In a week or a month, that client is going to email you with a basic question about how to use the site.

Do you have a plan for handling it?

The truth is that most of us designers don’t make plans like this. Instead, we plan every part of our projects—each email conversation, contractual requirement, and deadline—with only one goal in mind: get to the handoff. Most of us, my younger self included, think that once we design something, we should be able to just walk away and be proud of a job well done.

Then you get that surprise client call, and you struggle with what to do. The project is over. You don’t want to send them an invoice for an hour of answering questions about using a CMS or how to edit a blog post.

You probably don’t want to field these kinds of questions at all because they interrupt the new design you’re making for someone else.

Some smart designers do make plans for this. They’ll write up a brief tutorial about using the CMS or how to maintain the website they’ve made, and deliver it along with the final assets.

The expectation is that the client will read the document and understand what they need to do. This should prevent the designer from getting those unwanted calls, and, hopefully, set up the client to be successful.

But have you tried doing this? If so, you’ve probably seen that it never works.

The client doesn’t read the document. Or, they do read it, but still don’t understand. Some clients will do a great job of using the website for a month or two, and then suddenly stop. You might notice that they hire someone else for a redesign maybe even less than a year later, which is disappointing.

Educating clients on how to use our deliverables is wise, but there’s a more fundamental misunderstanding happening here.

Your clients aren’t stupid. It’s not that they can’t learn to use a CMS or that basic HTML editing is too complex for their poor little brains.

So why does this happen so often after a design project concludes?

Your client doesn’t even understand what a design is supposed to achieve in the first place.

Every single problem you face during a design project is at least partially caused by this single misunderstanding, including: the handoff, frustrating revision requests, late payments, and missed deadlines.

Your clients are paying you for design, but they don’t even know what it is. They don’t understand what should happen when that shiny new website is launched. Worst of all, they might not even realize that the design they just bought can actually affect the bottom line of their business in measurable, specific ways (beyond just “brand awareness”).

This means that mastering the handoff and avoiding those interrupting questions requires learning a different skill entirely.

You need to teach your clients about what design can do for them. You need to be a teacher.

For most designers, the sales pitch that we use to get hired reads something like this:

"I make beautiful and usable websites. I’ll help you to create a unique brand and style to differentiate yourself in the marketplace."

Of course, design can do a lot more than define a brand and voice. It can affect conversion rates, sales, and even the product itself.

If you’re a results-oriented designer, good job! You’re halfway there. Many designers don’t pitch their services in relation to tangible results. And that sets up so many problems that happen during the project.

However, it’s not enough just to know that design can achieve measurable results by yourself.

You must communicate that to the client, and then demonstrate specifically how your work is planned and orchestrated to bring results. That’s how you’ll get clients to stop emailing you with questions.

They don’t care to learn how to use a CMS because they don’t have a reason to.

But, if you teach them that effectively using the design will make them money, they’ll have a reason to read that tutorial document you delivered. They’ll have a reason to use the CMS. They’ll be invested in the success that these bring.

You need to teach your clients what design can do and why that matters to them.

Delivering a beautiful website isn’t enough.

Written by Jarrod Drysdale

Jarrod Drysdale wrote The Tiny Designer, a free course about how designers and non-designers can get along. He writes popular articles and books, and has been designing websites for clients small and large, glamorous and important for a decade.