Designers, want business leadership to take you seriously? Speak their language.
As designers, it can be difficult to convince others, particularly business leadership, of our designs. We know from experience that good design is powerful and, in many cases, necessary for success. It can be a challenge to demonstrate to leadership that our design decisions are not something we made on a whim or for the sole purpose of creating something pretty. Great designers make design decisions based on what they know through trial and error, data, and user feedback. That’s because awesome designs serve a purpose that usually extends beyond “looking good”.
The quote below has been stuck in my head for the past few years, communicating a struggle creative design professionals deal with daily: Effectively communicating design choices with business professionals is hard.
“For designers to succeed in business, they need to shed the perception of being a design expert and portray themselves as a business consultant who knows design.”
“Design Leaders Must Act Like Business Leaders”
by Marcin Treder (Medium.com)
It has taken me a few years to fully appreciate the significance of the above quote. As I’ve matured as a designer and director, I’ve found this quote to be largely accurate. Here are some insights I’ve learned for transforming how you can approach communicating with your client more meaningfully.
Perception is a problem
Some people reduce the job of designing to the job of making things “look pretty”. And, in a way, they’re right: designers do make things look good. But we do so much more. Whether it’s a digital platform, physical product, or graphic design, “prettiness” often takes a backseat to functionality, as hard as it is to admit that.
The fact is: beauty is subjective. Each design decision should have a rationale behind it in order to be effective. Design should solve a problem, not simply make the same problem look better. A solution that’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous but distracts its users, is difficult to use, or communicates the wrong message is a bad solution, albeit a good looking one.
I’ve seen designers present their solutions to clients, pointing out color palettes, font choices, and the subtlety of a shadow. I get it, we’re proud of our work. But the visual merit of the design is the last thing a business leader needs or wants to understand.
Instead, we need to change the conversation. Focus on communicating the impact of your solution. How does your solution influence user-insights, analytics, and business goals? Explain to your clients how your font choice enhances readability for your audience. Point out how your design aligns with users’ mental models. Support your awesome design choices with facts and research. You still get to create beautiful work you are proud of, but you also elevate its worth in the eyes of your clients. Not to mention, there’s the added bonus of avoiding the inevitable complication when a client decides that they don’t like the design because orange is their least favorite color.
Craft your client interaction like they’re your user
But what do we do when user objectives and business goals don’t perfectly line up? I used to regularly say that I “champion the user”, meaning I designed solutions with the user in mind, often at the cost of those tricky business objectives.
That is short-sighted. Don’t do that.
Experience design focuses on addressing the user’s pain points, enabling customers to achieve their objectives with little to no frustration. This is great, but if we only focus on our solution’s target audience, we neglect our other less-obvious user — the client. Customers experience our solution, and our clients experience the process of creating that solution. Therefore, experience design should encompass the whole process, not just the solution itself.
Apply user-centric design thinking to your client interaction. What are your client’s pain points? How can you communicate better with them? What are their goals? How do we best support them through the design process?
You might already be doing some of this, but it’s one thing to try and meet your client’s needs, and another to focus on their needs the way you would a user. To craft an optimal client experience, it’s critical to communicate effectively with your business leaders through empathy and observation.
So, by all means, continue to “champion the user”, but champion your client as well, and witness the positive difference in your process.
Know your audience
In Marcin’s original article, he expressed the benefits of business leaders having a design background. But there’s also something to be said about designers having a business mindset. You don’t have to be a business leader to practice business logic in your role.
As a design consultant, I collaborate with business leaders and their supporting teams every day. Our solutions often refactor existing business processes and take advantage of new technologies. And while my superpower will always be design, it’s part of my job to temper a mismatch in language between designers and everyone else.
If I want business leaders to understand the worth of my designs, I have to translate design intent into business impact. The field of design is laden with jargon not commonly understood by non-designers. On top of this, my clients have their own vernacular built on their organization’s business practices and culture. Supporting your client’s needs with clear communication in language that they’re familiar with, helps to alleviate friction and foster understanding between you and your client.
But communication goes a step further. Empower your client to communicate your work as well as you do. Your point of contact answers to someone else, who in turn is part of a larger team. Your presentation of the solution may be stellar, but remove that presentation one or two degrees and the context for your solution becomes diluted and less powerful. As the solution often balances user needs with business needs, the loss of context will put your solution in jeopardy.
Arming your client with the knowledge of how business insights drove your design choices will help your client codify, comprehend, and present the solution to all stakeholders within their organization.
Tenets for good client communication
Here are a few tips and tricks to help put these ideas into practice. My hope is that these guidelines will have a big impact on your process the way they have on mine.
Simple and direct word choices
Stay away from jargon and explain concepts as simply as possible. Communicating concepts and ideas that tie back to business practices will improve your conversation and hone in on your intent.
Be the expert, but don’t be condescending
Look to educate your clients about your process and its benefits to them. Speaking with authority and clarity is key to good communication, but be open to feedback from their point of view.
Know the time and place to bring up the details
Tailor your conversations to the audience. Don’t delve into needless details that distract from your core message. While the details matter, they can often distract your audience from what is important to them.
Be proactive, not reactive
Have an answer before the client has even asked it. Stay hungry and look at a solution from all angles. Only reacting after receiving client feedback can erode your position as the expert. By objectively looking at your solution from all sides, you can clearly explain certain choices and benefits of variants of your solution.
Build trust through collaboration
Involve your clients in key meetings and working sessions. Transparent communication with regular check-ins, status updates, and staging areas for project work will empower your client, and reassure them throughout the process. Remember that your client is looking for you to be the design professional and take the lead.
Define and follow KPI’s
Work with clients collaboratively to define metrics of success. Key performance indicators (KPIs) help drive the design team’s decisions, providing quantifiable justification of design solutions to business leaders. KPIs offer a middle ground and common language for design and business teams to reference.
Balance passive and active communication
Too much active communication can become a bother, while too much passive communication through project management tools and email might seem elusive. Learn to find balance, using different communication methods for specific uses. I choose my method of communication based on urgency:
Notes in project management and emails are the least intrusive.
Instant messaging and Slack for somewhat time-sensitive issues.
Conference calls and in-person meetings demand attention and should be used for specific purposes.
Set Clear Expectations
Your client, most of the time, will not be anywhere near as technical as you and your team. Set a clear calendar of deliverables for your project, explaining their purpose and what they need to pay attention to. By letting them know what to expect, you minimize the unknown and avert potential anxiety. While you may be in control of the project, that control and confidence should be clearly communicated to the client. Focus on outcomes while highlighting critical decision points and not the intricacies of the design and development activities.
Create solid documentation for handoff
The business audience will not want to delve into all the details, but internal design teams, development teams, and the supporting crew will appreciate your hard work. Capturing the intended details of animation, interaction points, and your design system will help others execute your design and scale your design in the future.
Having a clear log of decisions made during working sessions and review meetings is essential. Follow up with email or project management software to reiterate important details. This ensures that the solution stays on track and that you understand what needs to be done.
Don’t be afraid to stand your ground
Stick to your process. It’s okay to say no to something out of scope. It’s also okay to defer to a later sprint. Prioritize your client’s wishes, but not at the expense of a high-quality solution that you know meets the objective. Remember, you’re the expert.
Agustin Sanchez is Director of Experience & Design at Wayfinder, a design consultancy focused on digital solutions.
Anna Frazer is an Associate Experience Designer and Content Specialist at Wayfinder.
Wayfinder is a full-service digital experience design agency that plans and conducts research to design and develop websites and web applications that educate, enable, entertain, and entice your audiences. Since 2004, Wayfinder has collaborated with individuals, new ventures, and large enterprises to solve problems that matter and design digital experiences that make a difference. Wayfinder is a proud member of the NMSDC and FSMDC.
Discover more about Wayfinder at wayfinder-ux.com, connect with them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (786) 268–9504.