For many UX designers, discussing design solutions with stakeholders is a source of anxiety and frustration. Our stakeholders hire us to design an experience, admit that they lack any expertise in design, yet frequently express opinions that are contrary to our recommendations or even overrule our decisions. Tom Greever’s book Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience provides in depth advice on how to manage stakeholder relationships and conduct design meetings—all with the goal of clarifying your design intent for stakeholders.
Greever takes an approach that I would characterize as UX for UX. He walks us through the primary venue for explaining design—the meeting—and applies a user-centered design process to the design meeting as though it were a project. Indeed, a design meeting is an experience and, as UX designers, we should be capable of delivering a good meeting experience.
An ever-growing number of leading voices in the UX community are discussing the need for designers to develop not only solid research and design skills but also to develop soft skills that can help them to become valued colleagues.
As Greever relates his experiences with design meetings, it becomes apparent that many design meetings focus on the wrong things. Frequently—and especially at the beginning of a design project—UX designers focus on the technical requirements a stakeholder has defined. Things such as design systems, photography, and branding requirements, while necessary, ultimately do not address the point of why a design project exists in the first place. Projects don’t exist so designers can adhere to technical requirements. They exist to achieve a specific business outcome. When UX designers begin discussing their design projects and their decisions within the context of outcomes and how they support business goals, they are taking the first step toward much more meaningful, constructive conversations on design.
The very definition of design and what is good can present challenges in our discussions. Greever provides several examples of what good design might be—for example, “when nothing else can be removed.” However, traditional descriptions that come from a designer’s viewpoint are frequently superficial and devoid of the influence of outside perspectives. As Greever notes, design is, by its nature, subjective, which is why, when communicating design, UX designers should focus on outcomes rather than matters of people’s personal taste and preferences.
Empathy can sometimes be a controversial term within the UX community. Although it is true that it is nearly impossible for a UX professional to have had the same experiences as a customer or stakeholder, we can certainly gain insights into their motivations and different perspectives.
Greever makes the point that UX designers’ frustration with the perceived dismissiveness of stakeholders may arise from a lack of empathy. Similar to Jakob Nielsen’s observation that users spend most of their time on other Web sites, most stakeholders spend most of their time and attention focusing on other initiatives. The attentional limitations of stakeholders isn’t necessarily a dismissal of our design work. It is more likely simply a lack of capacity.
Our empathy should extend to our colleagues as well as to users and customers. Greever suggests being intentional in our efforts to find common ground with our colleagues. Finding subjects of mutual interest is a great way to build rapport with our coworkers. Even better is asking them for their advice on something they enjoy talking about. This gives them a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and, although people often deny it, they generally enjoy talking about themselves.
Designing a Meeting
Like any good experience, a design meeting should be planned. Greever applies a user-centered design process to the meeting experience and UX design principles that encourage good outcomes. First, let’s be clear about what the design meeting is. It is vital to frame the meeting properly, setting its direction to encourage a desirable result. State up front that the purpose of the meeting is not necessarily to get the stakeholders’ approval or inputs that would change the solution. The goal for the meeting should be to gain stakeholders’ support, enabling them to promote the designed solution. This is very different from typical design meetings and changes their dynamic. Rather than positioning yourself as an artisan who is taking orders from a stakeholder, by controlling the agenda and identifying the goal, you can serve a more consultative role as a designer.
From my own experience, I’ve found this to be the case. In design meetings that do not have a clear agenda or goal, it is very easy for stakeholders to take conversations in multiple, often conflicting directions. Some may give feedback on elements that are not ready for review, so would not benefit from any input at that time. In the end, while a lot of words may have been said, there is frequently more confusion at the end of such a meeting than before.
However, when the UX designer takes control of the design meeting and is clear about outcomes and where stakeholders should direct their attention, everything changes. The team can discuss specific aspects of a design solution that help the design team to move forward. Greever suggests that designers come to design meetings with their questions ready—not just to foil interruptions, but as a way of keeping the meeting on track and ensuring you get the information that would enable you to move things forward. I’ve recently used this tactic and found that, by having my questions ready, I was able to demonstrate that I’d thought critically about the design problem rather than my seeming to run a beauty contest for designs.
Likewise, we need to structure design meetings in a way that is similar to the way we structure any customer journey—remove distractions and design the meeting to reduce the potential for cognitive fatigue. Providing visibility into the current status along the journey can be helpful. Greever suggests utilizing a horizontal chart or timeline—similar to what you might use to show progress in designing a sign-up process. To avoid distractions, knowing your audience, their key concerns, and what they’ll fixate on is critical. Be aware of those things that would draw their attention away from your agenda and remove them.
Early in my career, I worked with an executive who had a public-relations background. He knew very little about design or User Experience, but he knew writing. During one especially disastrous meeting when we were reviewing a brand-new home page and navigation, we got nowhere. Instead of discussing how the navigation had been updated or how the information architecture had been optimized for findability, our executive found a misspelled word in a subheading. This led him to switch to a mode of thinking with which he was very familiar: proofreading. Rather than discussing the user experience, we spent the entire meeting proofreading placeholder copy. However, I did learn to pay attention to what he would fixate on and made sure the placeholder copy had no misspellings.
Greever rightly notes that good design solutions often are not obvious to our stakeholders. While people may be able to recognize good design, without the structure for communicating design intent, good design solutions could become mired in design by committee, scope creep, or any of the many other detrimental things that can prevent good design from being realized.
The existence of good design alone cannot communicate design intent. Ultimately, the person who gives the best explanation or most convincing rationale wins.
Ben’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Read More