Last week, I outlined various ways that designers can communicate during projects using design. This week, I wrap up my list with more ideas and tips.
There are many things that can cause a project to be initiated. Ultimately, it comes down to a problem that needs to be solved. Delivery of this discovery happens in various ways, and is communicated with even more variety. For example, it could be a glaring or subtle business need, a user need, or a response to the market.
At an in-house position, this could be a focus provided to you by product managers who continually work to fill gaps with your product and plan the roadmap ahead. It may be a user researcher regularly bringing issues to the table for prioritization, customer service, or your own advocacy.
Presenting the discovery falls on your shoulders in the case of user or customer advocacy. This is where it’s important to present what you have found and why it matters.
Let’s use, for example, the case of generative user research. This can be as simple as asking some users what their day is like and finding gaps that align with business goals. First, it is important when you communicate your findings that you can collaborate to distill the difference between user ideas and identifying problems/actual solutions. Second, how you communicate your findings could be designed in a creative way. As in any design project - use context to figure out what solution works for your audience. Concise user stories usually work well for everybody. But, how you present it can vary with imagery, data, color and even video. In many cases, a well-designed Trello system can do the trick.
It is too often assumed that when a project is initiated, a problem has been spotted. This is not always the case. It is not only OK, but important to ask questions when presented with a goal. With a shared understanding of the problem you will be solving, there is less risk involved in the time spent on it. This is good for everyone. This doesn’t mean you need to be a pessimist when a new project arises. Far from it. Be enthusiastic. Compare any ideas to something you have seen, making the presenter feel confident that you know what they are talking about. The way in which you communicate your sharing, understanding, and any concerns will pave the way for collaboration, trust and ultimately meeting goals as a team.
This could mean that you design a diagram or re-structure a user story to share your thoughts in an impactful way that emphasizes the original goals, with your concerns addressed. I have found it is always better to push back when you have had some time to think about a possible solution than to simply push back on the spot without another answer. Note: This does not mean you have to hold a meeting. Try to think of how the way you’re designing your point can be used without much explanation if it is passed around for consideration. Make sure it’s mobile.
Research and Design
When I talk about research, I’m not always referring to user research. Any time you start a design project there is research involved from competitive research, generative research, trends, business/organizational clarity and even industry research. You can’t begin to ideate without knowing how this project fits into the bigger picture.
Your research should be shared with others to help forge a direction ahead. Whether you are converging team research in a collaborative environment or presenting a formal report to a CEO, you want to be as concise as possible. This could mean that you forgo a text-heavy “report” altogether and use diagrams (I suggest lucidchart.com), examples of trends that consumers (or whoever your audience is) might expect, and a summary reminding everyone about the stories your users embark on on a regular basis. It’s important to not only convey your ideas you think will be impactful to explore, but the process ahead, and your understanding of the goals. This is once again, an opportunity for design.
Ownership and Buy-In
This is a huge one. I’ve seen designers (and made this mistake early on as well) who thought they were on the same page as stakeholders and did not prioritize collaboration within the process. Others assumed they would have more of a hand in the project than the designer utilized. This oftentimes is simply due to assuming shared understanding of process and ownership. This always results in some surprises and often a lack of support for your ideas no matter how well-founded or presented.
A great example of this is when designing with technology. This is why agile methodology has been pushed in recent years. The earlier you can solicit ideas and concerns from all stakeholders in a project the better. Think of stakeholders as anyone who will touch the project, even if that means there is one representative per group. This can simply be early sharing of your research and direction, gathering thoughts and keeping the overall project team updated periodically.
You may think this sounds like common sense, but it is very easy to take the design and run with it until you feel you’ve hit the perfect solution. This can be the case even if you have user validation. When you wait too long for team and stakeholder buy-in and throw it over the wall, the ownership stays with you. Nobody wants to build something they are not proud of. And, oftentimes this approach allows little if any time for concerns to be brought up and remedied. The implementation will end up bastardized just to meet deadline because nobody else is as invested in your vision, doesn’t understand something, or worse - you run out of time all together. Get buy-in early and you can move with confidence.
Some of the ways you can do this are similar to presenting research and design. Just consider the group you’re addressing and be aware of their concerns before, during and afterward. Make it known that you view everyone as a valuable team member. Things will not only go smoothly for you, but it will ultimately benefit anyone using your solution. If you open up to feedback early on, you will gain insight that you have not considered. Insight that will ultimately improve your designs.
Prepping for critique
Another way to maximize your design thinking during the design process is to prepare teams for critique. Before you get together for any phase of the process, design an easy-to-digest outline of what you (or your team’s) goals are. Make the format clear. A popular format that I think is effective is:
One person gets to speak at a time. It may help to specify who will start and who will finish either by role or at least by team.
The person or team receiving the feedback on their design can take or leave the advice.
You could probably sketch this out to make it light, yet visual.
I think most designers are comfortable in this area. We are trained to focus the most on using design to create a solution and present it. But, I think it’s worth taking a step back and considering who our audience is. This is where wireframes are a great example to use early on. Information architecture and Interactive design and intent can be conveyed without spending any time on color. The best place to start is paper. There are even some fancy sketch pads for different niches like UI Stencils and UX Kits. There are many other options which a quick Google search can pull up for wireframes. Starting with paper sketches allows you flexibility with how you want to digitize for collaboration or buy-in depending on your situation. I use MyBalsamiq and LucidChart for low fidelity wireframes, flows, diagrams.
For my final solutions in a more polished form I typically use the following tools:
Dropbox for sharing files
Google Docs and Google Sheets for collaborative editing of documents and raw spreadsheet data
Adobe InDesign for well laid-out documents that are text-heavy
Adobe Illustrator for icon design and other vector graphics
Invision for Prototyping
Zeplin for passing off assets with a style guide
Pattern / interaction guide
Squarespace when I need a one-page site for inquiry forms, events or a microsite walk-through on the web.
Utilize sound color palettes. Don’t settle for default color palettes in charting software. Even the most boring diagram can be pleasing to understand with a little creativity. Skillshare has a class dedicated on designing cohesive color palettes – an extremely versatile skill.
Design can be used to educate others which will result in better solutions as a team. Use these opportunities to share your knowledge about users, techniques, and creativity.
The Common Thread
In each piece of communication, you’ll notice that you need to constantly prove how this benefits your client’s business and/or project goals. This doesn’t have to be persuasive.
Look at any opportunity to communicate as design and you will not only come out shining, but your team will grow in confidence with your understanding of projects. And, you will become a better designer, faster.