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Photo courtesy of my Product partner, Joff Redfern

The one critical skill most designers overlook

Alastair Simpson
Jul 24, 2019 · 7 min read

Most designers spend a ton of time learning about the latest design tools. Or debating the latest and greatest interaction design patterns. If you went to design school, you likely were taught all about colour theory and type. As a designer you need to be great at all of these core skills of the design craft. But, when was the last time you spent any time learning about or practicing your communication skills? I bet it was almost never.

Communication skills can make or break any design project that you’re working on

I fundamentally believe this. I have seen designers with great work, communicated terribly and it hurts me.

And yet there are many, simple communication frameworks out there to help you as a designer frame your work in a simple way and communicate the value you are delivering to customers and the business. These generally come from the world of sales, which often (rightfully) gets a bad rap. But look past that fact, and they offer simple framing techniques that anyone can follow to help you present your design work with more confidence.

The art of the pitch

Communication professionals (Salespeople 😉) use a workflow known affectionately as the art of the pitch when delivering their message. This breaks down into 6 stages.

  • Set the stage
  • Create awareness
  • Create need
  • Create urgency
  • Evaluate choices
  • Resolve final risk

All sales and marketing people will follow a flavor of this funnel (AIDA is another common one). And it is VERY useful for anyone communicating anything to follow this model as well, like at a design critique.

I will break down the model above with a practical example; A designer presenting work at a critique for a new onboarding flow to their product.

What are you there to deliver and what can your audience expect? This is important, so that you match their expectation with what you are about to deliver. In a two way conversation it gives you as the presenter a chance to change the presentation if there is misalignment between you and the audience.

I will present a happy state customer flow for a brand new customer on boarding to our product, not someone who has been invited to join an existing product.

This simple sentence helps prime your audience about exactly what to expect — the happy state — not any alternate flows. If they expected something different, they can call it out early and you all don’t waste time at an inappropriate review. You are setting the stage for exactly what is to come and ensuring that any feedback is relevant to this specific flow.

This part is key. Now imagine it is Thursday afternoon, your team have had meetings all week. They all have different priorities. And you now you want to present your latest work to them at design critique. How engaged are your team? They are probably tired and focussed on other things. And they probably are not super keen to see your onboarding flow.

You have to create awareness of the what you are about to show and why it is relevant and important for them to care about.

How do you do that?

You need to create a relatable frame for what you are about to share that as many people in the audience can understand. What is a simple, real world analogy that you can make to make what you are sharing relevant for your audience? Consider giving an example of a real world situation that ALL of the audience can relate to.

Remember how overwhelming your 1st day at your new company felt? Lots and lots of information to take in! Thats what our customers feel like when they experience our products for the first time, overwhelmed and confused…

Everyone can relate to the above situation and so it brings home the emotional impact your customers will feel when onboarding to your product.

You’ve created a relatable frame that your team can understand. Now it is about solidifying the real need for the thing you are presenting. Whilst the frame you’ve created is useful, the need or painpoint is what makes people want to use something. The great Charles Eames has these wise words;

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design

In our example, qualitative or quantitative data can be a great way of bringing home the need and the painpoint.

30% of all customer feedback relates directly to complexity in setting up our products. Here is a customer quote that is very representative; “I just couldn’t figure out how to get your product setup for my teams workflow”

OK, so once your audience are aware of the thing, they understand the need, now you need to create urgency with them. You need to rally them to take action. Why is focussing on this thing more important than everything else that is going on around the company?

Psychology can help at this stage, for example social proof. Psychologically people will follow what others do. In the context of presenting design work, you could reference competitors who are following a similar design pattern you want to adopt (So long as you have tested that in your context that pattern is relevant).

The best tactic here though can be loss aversion. Your team should be naturally upset if you are losing customers due to a problem with the design.

We lose 90% of evaluators within the first 30 minutes…that’s 3,000 real people per week, or ~XMAU and $XM per year.

You will notice that in the example above I have extrapolated out the numbers to really show what it means to the business.

The first percentage number on its own could be meaningless. But the last number when you put it against real dollars to the business is impactful.

It again pulls on the loss aversion thread, we are losing $XM per year. Speaking in terms of the business is essential as a designer.

This part in communications can be key and is often missed by people delivering design work. Obviously whatever you are presenting, your audience always has a choice. They don’t have to agree with what you are sharing (And healthy disagreement can be essential in the design process). Everyone also comes in with their own opinions about products they already use. So rather than let the audience make up their own mind about evaluating their current product against the one being presented, take it head on.

Comparing the thing you are presenting against other alternative work is clever. Because in the absence of any context, the decision to go ahead with your design choices is binary: either the team will will believe you or they won’t about the size of the problem. But when framed as a choice between a few options your team will naturally want to pick one.

You are driving the audience to a decision point by making them make a choice.

So how can we achieve this in our example? Depending on your situation you may want to take different paths.

We spend on average 3 months building features customers never find as they leave within 30 minutes, yet we won’t invest a single 2 week sprint in this simple onboarding?

The above example may help if you want to convince your engineering and product partners about the value of what you are sharing, compared to other feature work. Or you might want to get alignment over a particular design direction.

Which one of these directions do you think solves the customer problem most effectively and why?

The above example helps you narrow down on a design choice and also encourages feedback on each of the directions you have explored.

Final stage now. As a presenter you are attempting to ease any lingering doubts the team may have about moving forwards. As a presenter this is the hardest part, as you are trying to close your audience and get agreement on your direction. You really want to persuade your team that you have done your homework and moving forward is as risk free as possible.

At this stage many of us make the mistake of asking the question….shall we move forward?

A better way to drive to a decision, is what is known as an assumptive close; Here is how we will move forward.

The designs have already been tested with 100 customers against the current baseline and our competitors. It performed positively. When can we start implementing this?

In this example you are assuming that the team will move forward by stating “When can we start implementing this instead of “shall”.

And thats it folks. This framework is super helpful when thinking about presenting just about anything. And communication can make or break any design project, so practice it deliberately. Take the time to work on this important skill. Remember though, it won’t help you sell shitty design work! Putting up excellent work that solves real customer and business problems is key.

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Cross-post with Atlassian’s Work Life

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