As a user experience designer or researcher, you’re always listening:
- For inputs that inform the design process
- For design feedback
- For insights that catalyze your empathy
- For understanding technical or business constraints
Listening is an essential skill for user experience design. At the risk of contradicting myself, it may be the most important skill.
(Note: I use the terms “listening” and “hearing” to mean any mode of perceiving or acquiring information from a person in real-time or near-real-time. Even when reading messages in Slack or watching body language on a video call, I’m “listening”.)
It’s kind of weird, but modern humans have identified different ways to listen. Wikipedia describes active listening, empathetic listening, and reflective listening. All involve paying attention to what is being said, but the techniques vary because they have different intentions.
None reflects the approach that I take as a UX designer. None covers the intention I have when listening.
Curious listening is the mode of listening I use to learn from people. Whereas active listening is meant to benefit the parties in conflict or in turmoil, for example, curious listening benefits the participant (a user or stakeholder), me (the designer), and the product itself.
The intent of curious listening is to uncover, gather, and internalize information useful to the design process.
There are three aspects to curious listening:
- Exploration: Digging into things someone says to learn more
- Demonstration: Showing that you heard and understood what was said
- Self-Care: Ensuring you are ready and capable of listening
All three rest on holding genuine curiosity for the topic and the person’s perspective. I admit that this might not always be true. In product design, with myriad reasons for talking to people, genuine curiosity may not be at the top of the list. Curious you may not be, but you may have to fake it for the good of the project. These techniques help you tap into (or emulate) your natural curiosity.
Exploration: Learning More
If the primary intent of curious listening is learning, its core assumption is that everyone on a team has something valuable to teach. So, there are things I do to ensure I give people the space to plumb the depths.
Prompt with insights
Just yesterday I was talking to a user who described a familiar process in a new way, which made me think of a new metaphor for the process. I shared the metaphor, and he built upon it. Sometimes when I do this the participant corrects me. I share not to introduce a better way of framing a topic but instead to invite clarity and criticism. Sometimes the best way to prompt is just to say, “Tell me more about that.”
Indulge occasional detours
The demand for both designing-at-speed and staying on task discourages us from indulging in topical detours. But when you listen with curiosity, you’re listening without an agenda, without a care whether you adhere to the scope or follow your script. You let curiosity be your guide. When someone says something I’m genuinely interested in, I say, “Can we explore this a bit?” or “I’m not sure this is relevant to our current project, but I’m really curious about this.” Detours built rapport with the participant and at the very least help you see the world from their perspective. Detours may or may not reveal that one crucial insight about your project, but you won’t know unless you indulge.
Demonstration: Showing Comprehension
One of the best ways to get people to talk is to validate the things they say. You don’t have to agree with them, but you have to make them feel heard. I’ll say something like, “Let me make sure I understand…” and then repeat back what I heard. Reflection is a common technique across listening strategies. Curious listening relies on the notion that a person’s ideas are fodder for generating more ideas. Reflect their ideas back to them and they give you more insights.
Capture insights visually
One way I show that I’ve heard is by capturing the things the say in a way they can see them in real time. Sometimes this entails writing on a whiteboard and others it means screen-sharing or projecting my text file with notes. Either way, seeing me parrot their words empowers them, creating a sense that they’re driving the conversation. Seeing their thoughts form on board or screen triggers additional thoughts. It gives us a way to go back and elaborate on topics they glossed over.
I always thank people for sharing their ideas. This isn’t after every answer they provide, but it’s also not reserved for the very end. Saying, “Thanks for that insight, I never thought about it like that before,” gives someone a boost and signals that you find their thoughts valuable. “Thanks” is a natural transition, like “Thanks for elaborating on that topic. I want to ask you about this other thing.”
Self-Care: Staying Engaged
Listening — and I mean actually grasping what someone is expressing and processing it — is exhausting. Exploration requires that you understand so you can encourage them to elaborate. Demonstration requires that you process in real time so you can meaningfully signal they’ve been heard. Exhausting. I do a couple things to take care of myself during a conversation:
Decide to listen
Yes, listening with curiosity (and genuine humility and respectful skepticism) is exhausting. But for me, it’s equally tiring when I’m expected to be “on,” to present my own ideas or tell my own story. Knowing that a conversation is purely a listening exercise adjusts my mindset: Understanding my role and responsibilities in the scope of this conversation sets my mind at ease. I can focus on listening well, and not worry about anything else.
Admit to distractions
The mind wanders. It happens. When I know I’ve missed something, I ask again. Sometimes I cover for myself by saying, “I want to make sure I understand what you just said, can you say it again?” Sometimes I come clean and say, “I wasn’t able to focus just then. Can you say that again?” It reminds the participant that there are humans at both ends of the conversation and gives you the space you need to do your part. As a bonus, getting someone to say something twice usually encourages them to elaborate.
Six Curious Listening Techniques in One Place
These aren’t the only six techniques I use when listening curiously, so don’t @ me. They’re the ones I’ve featured here, now in one convenient copy-able list.
- Prompt with Insights
Use an insight to ask the participant to elaborate further.
- Indulge Occasional Detours
Take a moment to explore a topic that might not be in scope.
- Capture Insights Visibly
Reveal your notes in real time to prompt and encourage further thoughts.
- Express Gratitude
- Decide to Listen
Make an explicit decision at the outside that this conversation is, for you, a listening exercise.
- Admit to Distractions
Own up when you missed something.
Listen with Curiosity, but also Humility and Skepticism
Curiosity is one of the three core creative mindsets: attitudes and modes of perception that are crucial for doing creative work. Alongside curiosity stand humility — our capacity to participate without letting ego interfere — and skepticism — our facility for not taking everything at face value.
Listening with humility means not judging what’s said as right or wrong, good or bad. Your role is not to editorialize, but instead to ensure you have a comprehensive picture. Listening with skepticism means not buying into unspoken assumptions, but instead leaving no stone unturned. I call my technique “curious listening” because I think curiosity dominates the attitude: a genuine interest in learning something new.
I still think it’s funny that modern humans felt the need to manufacture modes of listening — Active Listening and Reflective Listening and Empathetic Listening. Here I am adding Curious Listening to the mix. We’ve come up with so many ways to do something seemingly simple and “natural”, but I can see the value. By framing a conversation not just as an interview, but as an invitation to listen and learn — to flex curiosity — our attitude toward both speaker and subject matter and changes. We become not just a consumer of new information, but a participant in it, which we can take to the design process.
Thanks for reading! I thrive on your 👏 so please spare a clap or two.
Also, I teach in-house workshops on collaborating effectively on multidisciplinary teams, facilitating design conversations, and running discovery projects. If any of those topics (or any others) sound interesting for you and your team, please get in touch.