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Drawing Upon Baseline Values to Inform Connection

The Designer in Focus

Connecting creation with collaboration

A column by Justin Dauer
June 7, 2021

Some touchpoints—values, really—exist between the ways in which we must engage with one another at work and the capacity we must create for engaging with those outside of business: humility, inclusion, compassion, and respect. These values lead to connection—to the benefit of our work and those who engage with it. These touchpoints are identifiable; we can leverage them; and they can show up in the smallest perceived dynamics.

A Familiar Scenario

For example, consider the simple act of planning a meeting. When you’re looking at people’s calendars, it can often be hard to find a single unit of time that is free for everyone. But somehow, someway, on most people’s calendars, the noon-to-1pm block of time always seems to be available. How is that possible?

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Well, it’s because people tend to leave that time open so they can step away from their computer and decompress. Often, that time manifests itself in what we call lunch. This presents a moment of decision: should I schedule my meeting invitation at lunchtime, at the expense of people taking time to consume food or, frankly, do whatever they want to do during that free time? If I want to be compassionate and respectful, I should find another time.

The UX Design Process

Now, let’s shift gears a bit and talk about design, considering an extremely macro-level, generic UX design process, as follows:

  1. A project comes into the queue.
  2. Before pencil touches paper, there’s a discovery process that includes user research, user interviews, a competitor analysis, content strategy, and so on.
  3. There’s the actual tactile process of sketching, prototyping, producing design artifacts, testing, and iterating.
  4. Finally, the actual development and deployment of the product occurs, which might involve refactoring that is coupled with progressive enhancement.

Let’s look more closely at #3: Behind the scenes, another factor is driving those artifacts and informing their output: the connection-based side of the project that #2 drives. Without the inclusive human connection—listening, learning, questioning, evolving—our products would be exclusionary, narrow-lensed, biased, and unintuitive.

So, when we say mobile first, for example, we’re bringing empathy into our work. We’re being compassionate toward human beings by designing in this manner.

For example, is someone engaging with a mobile experience while holding a smartphone with one hand on the subway? Is the user interacting with a vital workflow in the midst of a crisis? Must users manage their account information while working on an archaic terminal, on a noisy factory floor? Or are they working in an area with low reception or poor bandwidth? The possible challenges that users face are infinite.

Zooming in Further

Let’s get even more micro and think about why we create personas in UX design. Across discovery, user interviews, and other research, we put ourselves in the shoes of others to understand what they want and how they feel. We’re building empathy for those for whom we’re creating products. We give personas a soul through discovery and user interviews, then ultimately, bring a journey map to life in the same manner.

There’s an intrinsic synergy at play here: empathy and compassion—in both our cultural interactions, as well as the manner in which we create. We must show compassion toward our coworkers and teammates, as well as toward those for whom we’re creating during our design process: it’s about people first.

Providing Positive Feedback

How else can we apply this mindset? Sometimes culture meets design in very explicit ways—such as during a feedback session or a design review. When we align the delivery of critiques to project goals, data, or test metrics, we’re grounding them in objective, actionable discourse that is conducive to evolution—for both designers and their work. In practice, this could manifest as the following positive feedback:

Subjective approach: I like it!

This is nice to hear. It can be affirming or feel good. But what then, after that hit of dopamine? How can I leverage “I like it” moving forward?

Objective approach: This is successful for the following reasons…. Or, this aligns to project goals or test results or data for the following reasons….

Successful ties feedback to supporting points such as project goals that confirm why a given approach works. It’s less “I like it because it’s blue” and more “I appreciate how you integrated blue as the primary call-to-action color among the rest of colors in the client’s brand palette; it organically draws the user’s eye to areas of action.”

Giving Negative Feedback

On the other side of the coin, negative feedback might take the following forms:

Subjective approach: That sucks.

This is a bit of an extreme example, perhaps, but the point is this: feedback that is a variant of “Eh” or “I don’t really like it,” yields zero growth for the recipient.

Objective approach: This doesn’t achieve user or project, or business, or environmental goals for the following reasons….

This feedback is conducive to the recipient’s evolution—in the work, tactics, and strategy. If I’m able to see where my design isn’t aligning to foundational research and our learnings from it, there’s the opportunity for growth. This is less “I don’t like it because it’s blue” and more “we learned from our accessibility testing that reversed white text on the blue tone you’re using doesn’t pass WCAG AA standards. Have you explored other options?”

Being Open to Evolution

Offering feedback from the stance of humility and respect for the individual and his or her approach—rather than shooting from the hip—yields an opportunity for evolution.

Let’s be real—we’re all friends here. Receiving any feedback, even if it’s the most goal-focused, objective, humbly delivered feedback, can sometimes be challenging to digest or even to entertain. Whether you’re advocating for human beings in design, for connection, or just for whatever you think would be most successful, design feedback can be personal because you made your design. You poured yourself into it—even when you’re creating a product at the enterprise level or you’re focusing on data-informed design.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t defend your work or thought process—not by a long shot. I am saying, make yourself present and available to receiving objective feedback. That’s what it’s all about.

So, just as with our design work, the reason why we talk so much about empathy and strive to connect is because what we’re creating is bigger than us. The ways in which we engage with one another must be complementary. Feedback helps us to evolve our work and ourselves. This is the definition of respect. 

Vice President, Human-Centered Design and Development at bswift

Founder and Creative Director at pseudoroom design

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Justin DauerJustin is a multi-faceted designer, author, and speaker. Over the past 20 years, Justin has immersed himself in tangible and digital media. A perpetual student of design, observation, and the creative process, Justin builds teams and cultivates cultures around the perspectives and skillsets that designers use daily in their work: empathy, objectivity, and creativity. With Josef Müller-Brockmann and user advocacy claiming equal parts of his creative heart, Justin graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), earning a BFA in Visual Communications. He is the author of the celebrated book Creative Culture: Human-Centered Interaction, Design, and Inspiration and speaks internationally on culture and design.  Read More

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