In Search of the Wow Factor
It was during a job interview that I first heard the term “wow factor”. I was presenting a project I’ve worked on and explaining the design process, the research I did that guided it, and I was sure I was doing well. The head architecture and design were loving my work. Then the CEO looked me straight in the eyes and said: “that’s all good, but where is the wow factor?”.
I was caught off-guard.
I thought my design being human-centric was the “wow factor”, the star of the show that explained how what I’ve done benefited the people that will interact with my project.
You could cut the silence in the roo- Ok it wasn’t that dramatic. I didn’t know how to answer that question. I asked the CEO what he meant by the “wow factor”, but he couldn’t articulate it. He started to get heated up, and I eventually stopped trying to probe him for further questions. My questions were getting him angrier, and I wasn’t getting any answers. There was a (non-linguistic) language barrier.
I’ve come across the ‘wow factor’ several times since then. Sometimes I was spot on, I had this elusive ‘wow factor’, and other times everything played out exactly the way it did with that CEO. If you asked me today to point out a project I had that has this elusive wow factor, I couldn’t give you an answer.
I’m sure many of you have gone through this situation, and if not, I’m sure you will soon enough.
Let’s take a more in-depth.
What is the wow factor?
I don’t know. Anyone who claims s/he knows what the wow factor is, and has the exact steps you need to reach it, is probably lying.
We’re asking the wrong question though. There’s a more pressing question to be asked.
What do clients mean by the wow factor?
Now we’ve properly framed the question.
There are many ways we can answer this question. I believe what a client means by a ‘wow factor’ stems from an inability to communicate what they are looking or expecting.
You’re probably a designer, so you’ve got the toolset needed to communicate visual concepts to others. You’re probably good at diagramming concepts and creating small sketches. Your clients, however, don’t have usually have those tools.
Clients have a specific image in mind and perhaps even a preconceived notion about what they want, even if it might not be the best choice. The clients might want to create something similar to a competitor/business they admire, or perhaps they want you to build ‘exactly’ what they want.
Fast-forward a few weeks into the design process, you might find yourself in a meeting with your client. You’re happy with what your team has produced, but what about the client? The client is too busy searching for the wow factor to bat an eye at what you’ve done.
“That’s nice… But I want something that wows!”
What went wrong? You based your design on research and meticulous study, and you’ve gone above and beyond your call of duty but the client isn’t looking at you like the design superstar you are.
Let’s look at what put you in this situation:
You didn’t communicate with the client.
Your job as a designer starts long before you hit the drawing board (or the Wacom). You ought to begin by asking your clients the right questions. The client might have a mental model of what they think they would like, but do not know how to communicate it to you.
Unfortunately, we still don’t have the telepathy technology to transmit mental images to each other, so we have to do things the old fashioned way: Debriefing the client.
Ask your clients questions about what brands/products/buildings/apps/potatoes inspire them, try to understand why they think they’re inspiring. Keep asking open-ended questions and have the client do some work for you for a change. These questions will allow you to create a rough model of what your client has in mind, and it will enable you, through research, to judge if the client’s idea works for his/her specific audience.
Notice that keyword I left: Audience.
We’re gathering ideas about what the client thinks they want, but in reality, that’s all pointless because if what the client wants doesn’t meet his audience’s needs, then the design is a failure.
By sitting down and talking to the client, you’ll be conducting qualitative research. The research will allow you to create an affinity map of what’s going on in his/her head. The affinity map can help you extract a high-level idea of what the client wants and outline the main thematic elements s/he has in mind.
Why go through all this trouble?
You want to align the client’s mental model with the end-goal.
You did not educate the client.
Design is not about execution alone. You want to educate your client with your findings to help rebuild their mental model of the final goal.
The high-level concepts that the client has in mind might not work with his/her target audience. As a designer, your job is to inform your client why what they’re asking for is unlikely to work. You want to create a dialogue between the client and yourself, and through a lot of back forth, you’ll be able to re-align the client’s mental model to one that suits their target audience.
You did not understand the goal.
Sometimes you might have misunderstood the goal the client wanted to achieve. You might have communicated with the client a lot, but you might have miscommunicated more often.
I don’t have a specific tip for other than to rephrase what the client has stated using your own words. I try to make a point to repeat what the client is saying and having them correct me. It might get tedious, but it’s necessary.
It’s as simple as listening to the client and then asking them “Do you mean…?”
The client doesn’t understand their goal.
This point links back to the role of a designer as an educator. Sometimes the client comes in with a specific goal in mind, but they’re not quite there yet, or they’re pointing South when they should be pointing North.
Your goal here is to help your clients better understand their audience and key stakeholders and create a focused mental model.
I do not mean to propose that as a designer your goal is to re-create their business logic - That’s not our job, but it is our job to tell them when what they want and their real goals are not aligned. Your job is to point them in the right direction.
I did all that, but what if the client still wants the wow factor?
Sometimes no matter what you do, you’ll have a client you can’t make happy. The client might be dead set on the mental model they have. No matter what you do, or how much you try, the client might not budge.
Ego is a factor. The client might be hard to impress, or only really care about the project as to how it relates to them, and only them.
With some clients, you’ll find yourself at a fork in the road.
Do you throw up your hands and design what the client wants? Do you keep pushing back? Or do you show the client the door?
That’s up to you. If you’re willing to get the work done, it’s fair enough to bite your tongue and bring to life the exact model your client has in mind. It might not be the most successful, but it’ll at least get the job done, and you paid. The risk here comes from the fact that the wow-factor is self-serving, and the only real winner is the client until they find their project isn’t successful, then you’re called a terrible designer.
If you’re willing to push back, more power to you, but it’s necessary to know when to call it a day. Some times you might find yourself in a position where you’re willing to, or you have to walk away. Walking away is a luxury, but it might put you at a stronger ‘position’ in the future when the client finds that what they wanted doesn’t work.
Wow Factor Revisited
If I had to define what this elusive “wow factor” is, I would say:
The wow factor isn’t universal. What makes you tick won’t necessarily make me tick. The same thing applies to your clients: What rocks their boat might not have the desired impact on their audience.
The wow factor is an egocentric expression of a client’s mental model of the final product. It is a subjective factor that varies from person to person and is a mental model based on preconceived notions that may be flawed.
Your job as a designer is to understand what the mental model client has, and then deconstruct it to help the client align their mental model with one that will have a lasting positive impact on the target audience.
Be sure that you’re working with your client to create a model that works for their goals, but be sure you’re not trying to impose your vision of a ‘wow’ factor.
It all boils back down to communication. If you communicate with your client, you can begin to breakdown their preconceived notions and help them achieve their goals. If you fail to communicate with them, you’ll be in a constant goose chase with the ever so elusive wow factor.