When preparing to write this column, I thought about the individuals with whom I’ve worked throughout my career—in my current role and past roles, at both small companies and large, and on collocated and globally distributed teams—who others perceived as leaders. I did not identify any single individual contributor on whom I could base this column, but several—most of whom are still individual contributors. Eventually a persona took shape, and I listed the traits and behaviors that such individuals consistently exhibit—qualities that earn them the respect of their superiors, as well as the emulation of their peers.
In this column, which is Part 1 in a multipart series, I’ll discuss the following ways in which UX designers who are individual contributors demonstrate leadership:
- communicating with intention
- reacting appropriately
- adapting to change
- enabling others
- being open minded
- demonstrating integrity
Communicating with Intention
“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”—John Marshall
Even though a UX designer possesses loads of talent, if that designer does not make the effort to communicate with clarity, others won’t be able to experience that talent adequately. Let’s consider some behaviors that I have observed in UX designers who communicate well, whether they’re presenting a design specification to stakeholders, providing feedback on peers’ design deliverables, or conversing with usability-study participants:
- prioritizing listening—It is impossible to learn about and benefit from others’ thoughts if you’re the one doing all the talking. As UX designers, we are in the business of user enablement. A big part of enabling users—in addition to enabling our peers, which I’ll get to later—is listening to them and learning from them. Any true leader understands the value of active listening, which helps build empathy with the person doing the speaking. Empathy is a key trait for any successful UX designer. The following tips on active listening might just seem like common sense, but in our modern culture, with its heavy use of smartphones and social media, receiving someone’s undivided attention is becoming a rare treat. A leader gives others undivided attention and prioritizes listening first. You can demonstrate active listening by doing the following:
- Maintain eye contact with the person who is speaking.
- Ensure that your body language exudes positivity and engagement. Do not slouch, stare off into space, or make facial expressions that convey either disagreement or boredom.
- Close your notebook computer, set down your tablet or phone, and avoid multitasking.
- Let others speak without your interrupting them.
- Ask clarifying questions during natural breaks in the conversation—summarizing or probing more deeply into the other person’s comments, which demonstrates that you are engaged with what the other person is saying.
- using simple words—Using jargon, complex words, and ambiguous acronyms only heightens the communication barriers between you and others. A leader understands this and makes the effort to ensure that messages are clear and simple. I stress effort because using fewer, simpler words to convey a concept or idea isn’t easy. It requires putting intention into how others receive your words. As a UX designer, putting yourself into the shoes of others is a major part of your job. Ask yourself whether you’re doing enough to ensure that the words you choose are those that most effectively facilitate your listeners’ comprehension.
- being articulate—A leader can convince others to see her perspective and inspire people to act without being the loudest voice in the room. Bluster and bravado seldom work because they are usually the result of fear and insecurity. But a leader who feels insecure about a challenge says so, admits any uncertainty about how to proceed, and puts these feelings into words rather than letting them come out in aggressive, destructive ways. Moreover, a leader takes sufficient time to form responses to others. As I described in my recent column, “Navigating Ambiguity,” quickly giving confident answers does not mean you’re providing accurate answers.
- saying Yes, and—A leader knows there is no quicker way to shut down a dialogue with others than being dismissive of their ideas. Even if those ideas seem farfetched or infeasible, by first saying Yes, a leader acknowledges having heard another person’s thoughts. Then, by immediately following with and, the leader implicitly amplifies the other person’s point, while augmenting that point with thoughts or ideas of her own that could shift the discussion into more user-centered territories. Above all, a leader values relationships and understands that she alone cannot meet users’ needs. Her fellow UX designers, engineers, architects, and product managers all play key roles in building usable products. Words of affirmation are important, and responding to others with Yes, and is a simple communication tactic that helps foster stronger relationships, while giving you the necessary latitude to navigate feedback from other constituents that might not be helpful in improving the user’s experience.
- demonstrating emotional intelligence—A leader is acutely aware of nonverbal communication, watches others’ reactions, and adapts communication approaches to meet others’ needs. Is a stakeholder nodding his head in agreement or slouching down with arms crossed? Is a fellow UX designer listening attentively or thumbing through text messages? A leader mentally notes such details, is mindful of her own body language, and adapts her own approach to re-engage others.
- telling stories—As I described in my column, “Telling a Story Through Your Portfolio Presentation,” stories can influence the opinions of others in ways that few other modes of communication can. Plus, stories are more memorable than facts alone. A leader recognizes that telling stories builds rapport and relatability and piques the interest of his or her listeners. Plus, a leader evinces interest in the stories others tell—especially stories by and about the people who use a company’s products. The goal is to understand users, be their witness, and retell their stories to stakeholders and decision makers. A leader advocates for users, wielding their stories as powerful communication tools and championing users’ enablement and satisfaction.
- writing well—The ability to be articulate extends to the written word, whether in corporate communications or user-interface copy for users. A leader consistently writes with intention and makes whatever revisions are necessary to ensure that messages are clear, concise, and meet communication objectives. A leader cares about how others receive these messages. Plus, UX designers understand the value of putting themselves in the shoes of the people receiving their messages. When you’re writing a message, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my message accurate?
- Is my message as concise as it can be?
- Could others misinterpret my message in any way?
- Does my message state the objective or outcome I want to achieve?
- Is the tone of my message polite and collegial?