Collaborating for the users’ sake — Part 1 of 2: Making progress

Hint: It’s about what you can do for your teammates

The (overly-simplified) Design Process

Delivering a solution requires speaking the same language. The language gets murkier when concrete insights travel through abstract methods until the final product is shipped. While in sales, I learned that any language barrier is not conquered by being a smooth-talker. It’s solved by identifying a need, proving you can solve it, and delivering a result.

Shipping a product and getting a sale go through similar journeys because they are full of people trying to help you understand what they need.

As product designers, we are equipped with the language to understand and serve people. We do this by storyboarding, thinking through user states, applying psychology and design principles to spur action, and so much more.

Somewhere along the way in the design process, we are asked to justify our decisions. This comes from engineers, product managers, executives, or all the above. Their asks may range from being inquisitive (“why put that there?”) to being blunt (“we can’t do that”).

Within these range of conversations, here’s how you can create shared language for better understanding:

  1. Serve the person, not the puzzle
  2. Treat listening like improv

Serve the person, not the puzzle

Technology trends are merging professional ecosystems, but we’re always trying to get to know one another. In these situations, the designer’s role is toward design facilitation — i.e. wireframing, storyboarding, etc.

The people we work with outside of design are also balancing their responsibilities (and emotions) with what needs to be delivered. In other words, conflicts will emerge and tradeoffs will happen.

Serving the person and not the puzzle means trying to extract what their goals are for themselves and having the flexibility to frame what we do in that context.

We ask questions intended to find out what they value, or are struggling with to help move things forward.

Consider asking:

  • What outcome are they seeking and why?
  • What is driving their current position?

This helps control the conversation because it helps control ourselves and improves clarity on how to act. This is harder if either side is waiting for their turn to talk.

In these moments, remember this:

“Talking isn’t like playing a round of golf, in which each player takes turns and waits for the next shot. Talking is more like tennis; it’s about active listening, asking questions, and bantering back and forth. After a while, a balanced rhythm emerges.”

— Joe McCormack, author of “Brief: Making a bigger impact by saying less.

How do we become better active listeners?

Treat listening like improv

Product design attracts a variety of introverts and extroverts where “introverts are gears to inspect, while extroverts are geared to respond.” Listening requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding, a.k.a. knowing when to speak up and when to shut up.

It can be thought of like improv…

“In improv, you never try to get someone to do something. That’s coercion, not creativity. You make offers, you accept offers — and a conversation, a relationship, a scene, and other possibilities emerge.”

— Daniel H. Pink, author of “To Sell is Human.”

The purpose isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. It’s to offer something compelling where it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrive at an outcome that appeals to both of you.

If all else fails, try these

We’re all human and when the pressure is on, we can forget how to effectively communicate. In those times, I try to remember these questions to help keep collaboration alive:

  • Help me understand, what led to…
  • What have we tried already?
  • If you could try anything to solve this, what would you try?
  • What are we doing that is getting in your way?
  • What else?
  • How can I help?

Eventually, we’ll arrive at a point when a decision needs to be made. Who’s needed for it and how best to present your point will be covered in part 2.

I’m currently a Product Designer at SaverLife, a FinTech nonprofit that helps low-income adults build their saving habits.

I’m currently a Product Designer at SaverLife, a FinTech nonprofit that helps low-income adults build their saving habits.