Great Designers are Great Communicators

June 25th, 2015
Published on
June 25th, 2015

It’s not easy to talk about design. Every designer has had to justify their decisions to a stakeholder, yet most lack the ability to convince people they’re right. The ability to effectively articulate design decisions is critical to the success of a project, because the most articulate person usually wins. In fact, the difference between a good designer and a great designer is in their ability to not only solve problems with design, but to also articulate how their solution solves it in a way that’s compelling and fosters agreement.

Businesses and organizations today have shifted in their attitude and approach towards design. Where they used to hire designers to make things look nice, professional, and marketable, nowadays, many companies are pivoting to make design the center of their business process. As a result, stakeholders and executives recognize the value of UX design, and they want to be involved.

This wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that while designers are the experts, other people (without design expertise) are now influencing projects and design processes. Now that UX is the center of product strategy, everyone wants to participate in the conversation! The interface that designers so carefully crafted around best practices, user testing, and common patterns is easily broken by well-intentioned stakeholders who don’t have the same depth of knowledge in design.

It might seem like the best ideas should always win, or that great design should speak for itself, but that’s not how these situations play out in real life. Meetings can turn into design-by-committee. Everyone will tell a designer how to do their job. The person who can convince the other they’re right is the one who gets his way. Designers lacking the ability to convince people of why they did what they did end up on the losing side of the argument, forced to make changes they disagree with simply because they were unable to defend them succinctly. It’s enough to drive any designer insane.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to avoid the compromise that happens so frequently in organizational design through better communication with stakeholders. That is to say that designers need to be great communicators to expertly explain their design decisions to the people who have influence over their project. Being articulate about design:

  • Imparts intelligence – designers are smart, but being articulate lets stakeholders know that they have expertise in this area, and can be trusted with the solution.
  • Demonstrates intentionality – the designers have thought about their solutions and are logical in their approaches. With a clear explanation, designers tell stakeholders “this isn’t just a random idea; there is purpose and focus.”
  • Expresses confidence – the designers know what needs to be done and how to get it done. Having a clear, well-articulated position communicates to stakeholders that the designers know what they’re doing.
  • Shows respect – the designers value everyone’s opinions and time enough that they’re well prepared with their explanation. When designers are well-spoken, it shows they care about and value their stakeholders.

Best practices for articulating design decisions

To understand the best practices for becoming a better communicator of design, it’s important to first identify the very basics of what makes a design great. In my experience, great UX design is about three things:

  1. It solves a problem
  2. It’s easy for users
  3. It’s supported by everyone

These three elements are the basics for creating a great user experience that the average person (like a stakeholder) can understand. Projects that fail are usually lacking in one of these areas. When designers can accomplish all three of these, their projects succeed. Here’s a look at each one in more detail.

It solves a problem

This one is pretty obvious. Most UX designers are already accustomed to solving problems. But while designers are adept at finding creative solutions, they’re not always in tune with their thought process enough to help other people understand why they did what they did. This is where intuition is so vital, and why it sets designers apart from the general population: they can solve problems without much thought. The hard part is figuring out what drives that intuition. What makes this ‘feel right,’ and how can we explain it in a way that other people can understand the rationale? To be articulate, the practice of solving problems with design must also be accompanied by an awareness that will help explain design decisions to other people.

It’s easy for users

Making our designs easy to use is also a fairly well understood practice. A user-centered design approach naturally requires that apps and websites are easy for users. After all, a focus on usability is one of the main goals of UX. So in the same way that UX has become a focal point of the organizational product design process, so too has the designer’s understanding of ease of use. Designers know that usability is a core issue to be faced with design, but it can be difficult to describe that to non-designers.

It’s supported by everyone

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to have designs that only solve problems and are easy for users. If no one else on the team supports the solution, then it’s not going to go anywhere. There are other people involved in the decision; it’s not enough to simply create an incredible design. Designers also have to get the buy-in of everyone else on the team. This is where articulating design decisions is critical.

In that sense, the difference between a good designer and a great designer is in their ability to not only solve problems but also to articulate how their design solves it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a designer’s ability to be thoughtful about a problem and articulate any solution is more important than their ability to design the perfect solution every time. Often, when other people realize the designers have put thought into their decisions and are being intentional, they’re more willing to trust them—even if they disagree! Designers need to create an environment where everyone is on the same page, so that they can deliver the best possible user experience.

Being Articulate

So how can designers be more intentional about understanding and articulating their solutions? They need to make themselves aware of every decision they’re making and why. Those unconscious choices hold the key to explaining designs to other people and making sure that the designer’s expert perspective remains at the center of the final decision process. If they expect to be successful, they have to be able to answer these three questions:

  1. What problem does it solve?
  2. How does it affect the user?
  3. Why is it better than the alternative?

The answer to this third question is the key to designers getting the support they need in order to be successful. Implicit in this question is that designers know what the alternatives are, have considered them or even tried them, and are prepared to explain why their solutions are better. To apply this understanding to the practice of being articulate, I recommend two simple tactics: write it down and practice out loud.

Write it Down

The best way to be prepared to articulate design decisions is to write down the answers to these three questions. There is something about moving unconscious thought to a tangible form that prepares one to better explain it to other people. Write down the problem and then list the solutions next to it. Here’s an example from my own work:

Problem Proposed Solution
Users don’t realize the filter controls have updated the list of results because it’s instantaneous

  • Move the count of items in the list closer to the filters so the user can see the number change.
  • Briefly show a loading spinner on each checkbox as the user checks it.
  • Add a “Done” button that closes the panel so the user can have a sense of completing the task.
  • Users are not adding to their carts from the “search results” list view. Reduce the number of actions required to add an item to cart from search. One-Tap Add:

    • Tapping “Add to cart” will auto-add the item to cart first without requiring a quantity or other information
    • On tap, the button changes to a quantity incrementer with a value of 1. User can increase quantity as needed.
    • Remove secondary “add to cart” confirmation button.
    • New messaging animates to indicate the item was added.
    • “Ready to Checkout?” call to action slides in underneath messaging.
    • Items with options, like color or size, will automatically select a default but allow the user to change it within view.

    Instead of a table, this can also be accomplished with simple notes, more complex sketches, a list of all the solutions, or a storyboard to demonstrate the effect. The method used for writing down the answers doesn’t matter. The point is to think step-by-step through the flow of every design decision to help you understand and communicate your thought process to others.

    Practice Out Loud

    Another way to be prepared to talk about design decisions is to practice explaining it out loud before the meeting with stakeholders. Designers can practice at their desks, in the shower, or with other peers: any place they’re comfortable. Whether it’s just 10 minutes before a meeting, or several hours of practice for a big presentation, talking through the answers to these questions is invaluable. Expressing one’s thought process verbally often reveals many motivations that were previously unknown. Often, saying things out loud is all it takes to uncover the logic that contributed to the current solution. The more designers practice talking aloud about designs, the more they will reveal their thinking and be better prepared to make a case.

    Next Steps

    In order to better communicate design decisions, designers must make it a regular habit to:

    • Be aware of decisions and write them down – Find the unconscious logic in the placement and choice of UI elements.
    • Answer the three questions – What problem does it solve? How does it affect the user? Why is it better than the alternative?
    • Write it down – making written notes about design decisions is the best way to be prepared to talk about it with other people.
    • Practice explaining the decisions – either individually or with other people, saying it out loud helps uncover the thought process.

    Ideally, this is how designers approach everything they create. The answers to these three questions will form the basis of an articulate response. Taking this approach to design creates meetings that are more productive, decisions that are well-tuned to users’ needs, and a team that is set up for success. In addition, it will help designers to articulate their design decisions, communicate with stakeholders, keep their sanity, and still deliver the best user experience.

    For more information on how to become a great communicator of design, be sure to attend Tom Greever’s upcoming talk at Madison + UX on July 10 and 11, and check out Tom’s book, Articulating Design Decisions.