design team

Check Your Ego at the Door or 10 Ways to Better Communicate Design

15 min read
22 Jan 2019
Check Your Ego at the Door or 10 Ways to Better Communicate Design Cieden
ecently I have finished reading a book by Tom Greever Articulating Design Decisions. And for me, it was the case of reading something too later. Maybe one of the reasons why I liked this book so much was because I already experienced and could relate to many techniques described in the book.

Working in a Ukrainian product design agency, I faced and witnessed some common communication challenges. I would like to share them with you. To give some more background, I came to this job from many others, including client support, copywriting, UX copywriting and even, teaching. In most cases, I had to work with native English speakers, or with people who worked with them. This gave me some insights into communication strategies that you can use across industries.

We awe the work of any creative person, but we tend to underestimate it at the same time. While the result amazes, the amount of creative effort isn't always visible on the surface. Artists have been living with this struggle since the first artwork has been sold. Today, many creative professionals face the same challenges. A UX Designer, to top them all, has a few more.

Since UX Design is not just about creativity, it is important to communicate the right solution, instead of only making it look appealing. Additionally, we look for the solution by means of conversation. Asking the right questions includes listening and hearing the answers. This takes UX Design challenge far from the previously acknowledged artistic professions.

So, let's talk solutions.

1. Don't Get Defensive

Remember that they hire you to bring the business to the next level. If you want your stakeholders to truly appreciate your talent, you need to do exactly that. The real validation of your work happens at the point of measuring the KPIs improvement and user conversion of a complete product.

As designers, we value our masterpieces, as they are our own creations. Every idea and every pixel we produce with a lot of effort. And now you, knowing all your decisions are right and theory-proved, are going to share it with other people.

This is a very sensitive process. However hard it might be, it's essential at this point to be open to criticism and listen carefully to every opinion. It is especially valuable during the early iterations. You are presenting your vision in a form of design, and your stakeholder simply puts it in words (and references or even sketches, in an ideal scenario). It is important to hear each other, instead of defending your point of view.

If your stakeholder silently agrees with everything you did, they either don't know the value of design or simply don't care enough. Either way, this is bad for our goal and we need to change this situation. However, if our designs are being criticized for every single thing, instead of holding grudges, seize the opportunity to start a conversation, find the biggest pain points, and focus on them. If you get defensive instead of starting a dialogue, you tend to lose focus on what's really important.


2. Don't get angry

This is something I learned working as a teacher. Sometimes it happened that a student wouldn't understand the rules I was explaining. This can be rather annoying, and the bigger the misunderstanding, the angrier I could get. Of course, I was being professional and tried not to let my anger show. However, pretty quickly I realized  I wasn't angry at them. At this point, it's important to be a little self-critical and understand: since your job is to make them understand if they don't understand you, you are doing it wrong.

Let's see what is happening here. For example, if you have tried speaking 10 different languages to a person who doesn't know any of them, it doesn't mean they are stupid, it means you need to use their language. With any person or a group, you need to get to know them better and find the right approach, that might even speak to them exclusively.

Nevertheless, as mentioned in Tom Greever's Articulating Design Decisions, one of the reasons for failure could, in fact, be that your client is completely unreasonable. But there is a very small possibility, and before assuming that, you need to cancel out the rest of the possible reasons.

3. Not Just The User's Attorney

A designer is the user's attorney' we hear this phrase more often than not. In my experience, I've learned that you can defend the user as much as you want. However, if your solutions contradict the business needs, they are not likely to be approved. Before starting to design, it's necessary to get a clear understanding of what monetization strategies are to be used.

Ideally, we make the business canvas in cooperation with the stakeholders and product owners. Or, at least stakeholders share their plans with designers. Very often, it’s not the case. It’s not that the designers don’t care — sometimes we feel shy to ask this, especially if the stakeholder doesn’t seem willing to talk about their finances and income. In order to achieve the best result — we need to build mutual trust and keep the monetization strategies in mind as a guide to your design solutions.

4. The Right Questions

“A designer needs to ask the right questions” — another phrase that appears everywhere. It gives a vague direction, but while looking for what the “right questions” are, I kept finding a different template every time. For example, many acknowledged authors recommend starting with “who are we doing it for?”, or “what are we trying to communicate?”, “what do I solve with this?” or “what is our main KPI?” and so on. So which one to choose? All of these questions are great but we need to know when to ask them, to get the best results. To do this, we need to listen first and see what information we are given and what else we need to know.

On receiving a new invitation for an interview, I make a list of questions to ask. Sometimes, customers send some previous info, which, of course, influences the question list. Often, I don’t even need to ask anything, just put a check next to a question a client just explained. Apart from helping the process, this adds to a feeling of common understanding.

Once you feel the client told you everything at this point, it’s time to ask. And now you know exactly what you else you need to know.

Of course, it’s not always the case. I had initial interviews, where the product was not discussed at all. In rare cases, the client wanted to start with my opinion on the 30 pages of documentation they sent in advance. Whichever the case, a good formula you can follow is read/listen+follow up.

Ask the right questions

5. Mind the Culture Gap

Tom Geever in his book mentioned a very important communication rule ‘Show Respect’. I guess this part should be obvious in any sort of situation, not only in business. However, it’s good to remember that ‘Respect’ can have different connotations across cultures.

What is considered respectful in one culture, can be regarded as rude in a different one. I am a Ukrainian who works with English native speakers, so I see this a lot. A common misunderstanding can happen due to different views on what’s polite and what’s not.

Back in my teaching days, small talk, saying “thank you” more often than they are actually grateful, and criticizing “correctly” were the things I had to explain almost to every single one of my students.

Ukrainians are straightforward with their affections and they will never say that they like something, if they don’t. As a culture, we value ‘honesty over flattery. Americans, for example, can find this behavior extremely rude or get all upset after hearing what we consider ‘minor criticism’. Ukrainians in their turn, can be confused with feedback: how come they liked my designs so much but I need to make so many changes? For the designers, to avoid these misunderstandings, I recommend learning the language together with culture, instead of simply translating yourself.

So if you, as a designer or a customer, find yourself slightly offended by something your foreign partner said or did, before getting all angry, do some research on their speaking environment. You might be surprised by what they actually had in mind. Also, knowing this background will help you better understand the emotions and reactions to your work.

This takes us to the next point.

6. Read Between the Lines

Ever since I started doing user and stakeholder interviews, I realized that there are certain barriers that we cannot overcome in 5 minutes of small talk. Some people stress, or feel shy, or don’t trust enough to word their real concerns.

The most useless user interview I ever witnessed was with the nicest elderly man and it happened over the phone. It was research for a candy delivery store, and the man was very aware of not being rude. He had absolutely no complaints. It was nice talking to him but when we tried building the User Journey Map, in order to find the pain points, his interview, in particular, gave us zero insights.

Based on this case, I recommend doing interviews in person, and if you are doing it remotely, always use a video conferencing tool, with the webcam on and record the session. Whatever the person puts in words, you can catch the physiognomy and the tone of voice they are using and get some more insights from that. I am always using this approach and it has proved very useful.

7. Lead the Conversation

Based on rule №3 in this article, it is very tempting to let the others talk and just go with the flow. However bonding and amusing these talks may get, they might get inefficient. Remember, when it comes to design decisions, you are the presenter and you conduct the discussion. If you feel that the conversation has taken the wrong turn, don’t be afraid to put it back on the right track.

With the particularly expressive teams or clients, where it’s hard to bring the process to the desired order, it is good to prepare a clear plan of the discussion, with a separate time for everybody to speak. Before you talk, you can even show the agenda and make sure that everyone knows what we are doing here. This is the most extreme method but it will help you in the worst cases. Again, I borrowed the approach from teaching techniques, but certain human responses are quite universal and I found these methods to work well.

8. Clarify the Obvious

I am an internet nerd, and after finishing a book I go to Goodreads, in order to check it in and give myself some virtual points for that. At the same time, I love reading reviews, and I always start with the worst ones (1–2 stars). As I mentioned previously, it’s the criticism that has ‘the good stuff’.

So I finished Show and Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations by Dan Roam, I went to Goodreads. And there was one very long one-star review. The guy went on and on about how data representation is a complex issue and cannot be brought down to childish games. I personally believe it can and it should. The simpler the explanation — the easier the understanding.

The age of boring grey suits and serious-pretend it over. Luckily. Now the world is moving towards releasing the inner children, who like to play and perceive things in a simpler way.

Remember, that something might seem obvious to you, or you might think it’s common knowledge, while the other person had a different experience. So don’t be afraid to “state the obvious” or explain in small chunks.

Similarly, don’t be shy to ask all kinds of questions, if you feel you don’t understand something. Many of my coworkers heard my “may I ask a stupid question?” and they never denied me an answer.

9. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (A Prototype Is Priceless)

Talking about music is like dancing about art. The same principle applies to design. We can explain how something works but we will never fully convince if we don’t show it. I don’t know about you, but most of my clients are ‘visuals’. They would even say “Ok great, will you show me how that works?”

While showing your work, make sure that nothing else is on the screen. I can’t count how many times I was asked: “What do these lines do?” (about the Sketch grid), or “Why isn’t the sidebar on the edge of the screen?” (while the screen design was simply center-aligned on the screen) and so on. The same goes for placeholders. They can be helpful to you but can confuse the presentation, as they are not the actual content. Especially, the beloved Lorem Ipsum.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is priceless. Taking extra time to make a clickable prototype not only improves your presentation, but it also brings many other benefits to your process. First of all, while making it, you are more likely to see some logic flaws or design inconsistencies than you can notice looking on an artboard in Sketch. Secondly, if you make your prototype simultaneously with the designs, it will save you time and effort in the future. Additionally, a clickable prototype will make the life of your business analyst and the developers a bit easier.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

10. Do Something, Even If It's Wrong

Disclaimer: to be used only in extreme cases.

I got inspired for this article by real-life events, but Tom Geever's Articulating Design Decisionshelped me structure it in my head. As I mentioned before, I could relate to this book a lot. However, there was one rule that had never consciously occurred to me before, and that I just loved it. It was called the McDonald's rule. I won't spoil the intrigue and tell you where the name comes from  you can read about it as well.

The idea is to get things in motion by making an awful suggestion. If everybody stumbles on the same issue or is too afraid to decide wrong, just get over that fear and make something consciously bad. I would call it the Marilyn Manson approach, as this is what he claimed to be doing about society's flaws. Hit the bottom, in order to push yourself upwards. Doing something wrong is more productive than doing nothing.

11. Bonus: Hometask

Read about Paint the Duck Rule.

Whatever we read, it helps us project it to our own experience and solve some problems on our way. However, the more designers there are more uniques strategies. While working we build up our own style both in design and in communication. And the true blessing is finding Your Client who understands you well.

Will be glad to read about your experience and practices.

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Check Your Ego at the Door or 10 Ways to Better Communicate Design Cieden
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