Stakeholders are People Too

October 20th, 2015
Published on
October 20th, 2015

Jim worked for me several years ago. He was a young, enthusiastic designer, building a brand-new platform for a non-profit to further a mission he believed in. His ideas were strong because his user-centered approach taught him to always put the user first, but he was also arrogant. When stakeholders and executives raised questions and provided criticism, Jim became defensive. The stakeholders didn’t understand, he thought. “You’re not the user,” he reminded them. But because Jim didn’t address their concerns, the stakeholders heard his rationale as nothing but excuses.

In the end, funding for Jim’s project was cut and he lost his job. He understood his users, and he was talented, but because he had no empathy for his own stakeholders he wasn’t able to help his end users. He didn’t understand the people who held the key to his success and, as a result, lost their support.

It’s an unfortunate (but true) story, and it demonstrates what I believe is a key ingredient missing from many designer’s skillsets: the ability to empathize with the needs and expectations of stakeholders.

Empathy Drives Behavior

Empathy is a big buzzword in UX right now. There are books and blog posts espousing the idea that if designers can develop true empathy for users, then they’ll build better applications. That’s true, but what about stakeholders? Designers need to empathize with product owners, business analysts, and even executives too, if they hope to get the support they need for their projects to succeed.

What makes empathy so valuable is that it is goes beyond mere understanding. Empathy is the ability to share in another person’s experience so much that it creates motivation to act. Empathy is what drives people to defend civil rights injustices. It’s the reason there are events to raise support and awareness for cancer. It causes people to care so much that they’re driven to action. Empathy is the ultimate form of understanding.

Developing empathy for stakeholders means looking at the project from their perspective, in order to let go of the defensive and protective feelings that often surround a project. Empathetic designers accept that stakeholder suggestions are based in reality, and are important. When designers have empathy, they not only understand the stakeholder’s perspective, but they’re actually driven to action: they want to make changes to their designs because they feel the stakeholder’s pain as well as the user’s.

That doesn’t mean that a designer should do anything and everything a stakeholder suggests. It simply means that the priority for communicating has shifted from a position of defense to one of solidarity. Stakeholders and designers are on the same team, accomplishing the same goals, and espousing a common vision.

Developing Empathy

Developing empathy for another person is mostly about getting to know them. Designers must take the time to understand their stakeholders’ roles, personal interests, and preferences in order to effectively meet their needs. The process toward empathy involves simply remembering that stakeholders are human, asking questions, creating shared experiences with them, and considering their needs in a way that contributes to the relationship.

Remember They’re Human

The first step is simple: remember that stakeholders are human. Often, people on teams are dealing with stuff (life stuff, work stuff, or relationship stuff) that can take their focus away from the current project. As a result, their attitudes and responses may have more to do with what’s happening outside of a meeting than what they’re providing feedback on.

Designers need to take a step back from the project, just long enough to stop and think about the people on the project. Call to mind their faces, names, and roles. Each one of these people is a unique individual. They have feelings, emotions, and a past that impacts their present every single day. Their most important relationships are outside of work: friends, spouses, parents, or children. When they’re finished for the day, they’ll go visit family in the hospital, shuttle kids to athletic games, or watch TV alone for the rest of the night.

Designers must recognize that the way people react to their work might not have anything to do with the designs at all. As often as needed: stop, take a look at the people on a project, and remember one thing: they are human. Making this simple mental shift helps us have patience for others, focus on meeting stakeholder’s needs, and remain open to new ideas. As a result, designers can respond to feedback productively. It is the first step toward creating a sense of solidarity.

Ask Questions

One of the best ways to develop empathy for stakeholders is to ask them questions. Use the same techniques from user interviews to understand stakeholder’s needs. Avoid closed (yes / no) questions, but don’t overstep normal social behavior. Keep it simple and let them share what they’re willing. Start with general questions like:

  • What good movies have you seen lately?
  • What do you have going on this week?
  • So what’s new?

They may seem obvious, but these basic questions are too often ignored, and can be used with anyone in any situation. To take it a step further, ask them about their personal interests in a way that demonstrates listening:

  • How did your presentation go last week?
  • Is your son/daughter feeling better today?
  • I know you like astronomy. Do you have any advice for buying a telescope?

Taking questions to a deeper level shows that there are shared interests. But we can go even deeper. Asking questions about the current project is a great way to understand the stakeholder’s goals and how that affects their reaction to the design:

  • How will you know if the project is successful?
  • What problems with this project are most frustrating to you?
  • What do you think we should stop doing on this project?

Overall, asking lots of great questions is the key to developing empathy for stakeholders.

Create Shared Experiences

Next, designers need shared experiences in order to empathize with their stakeholders. An inability to see the perspective of another person often results from a lack of common interests or experiences. We all have something in common with other people. The key is finding ways to create those connections. Having shared experiences with stakeholders will serve as a reminder that everyone is on the same team, especially when communication breakdowns or misunderstandings happen. It’s much easier to work through a misunderstanding when there is common ground.

There are plenty of simple ways to create these shared experiences. Just going to lunch or grabbing a drink together goes a long way. It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about: work, life, or the latest TV show. For remote teams, check in with people over chat or video just to say hello, like a virtual pop-in at their desk. The point is to remove the ego and the pressure of minute-to-minute work from the conversation. Anything out of the usual context in which the team works while actively experiencing something together.

Finding this common ground can also be as simple as starting a casual conversation. Perhaps they have the latest mobile device, are wearing a popular brand, or have a souvenir from Paris on their desk. Explicitly pointing out common interests through intentional conversations goes a long way toward building empathy. Plus, it demonstrates to the stakeholders that we designers are more than just pixel pushers! We are people too, and if we can build relationships with one another, we will more easily work together.

Consider Their Needs

Finally, designers must consider the needs of stakeholders in order to truly see things from their perspective. Having an attitude that is oriented toward the needs of others is necessary to developing empathy. Doing even a small thing for someone else will make him or her feel valuable. It might mean stopping by their desks, inviting them to coffee, or leaving a note. To take it a step further, offer to help them with a presentation, take notes at a meeting, or provide design feedback. Serving people forces us to see the perspective of other people in a way that would not be possible through conversation only.

When I would visit one of my client’s offices, I was in the habit of leaving a note on Jennifer’s desk when I was nearby. The notes were silly, “Tom was here” or “Jennifer is awesome!” – but later I discovered that she had kept all of them. She told me they always made her smile, so she kept them and read them occasionally. Perhaps because of this, working with Jennifer was always a pleasure and it was always easy to communicate with her on a project. She was one of my greatest allies because I had taken the time to value her as an individual.

It’s also a good idea to give small (appropriate) gifts to build this kind of rapport. Many companies have policies about gift giving and this isn’t meant to be a bribe. However, giving small gifts strengthens relationships by creating personal connections that drive empathy. Once I gave one of my clients a jar of locally made salsa because he had posted online about how much he enjoyed salsa. It was a small gesture, but it contributed to a sense that we were both on the same team and allowed me a view into his world.

Here are some other simple things that demonstrate this same value and add to an atmosphere of empathy:

  • Offer to help with a presentation slide deck
  • Arrive early to a meeting and help set up
  • Bring snacks or drinks to the next team meeting
  • Take a break to walk around the office and say hello to people
  • Buy small gifts for everyone on the team during the holiday season
  • Give hand-written notes to people expressing appreciation

Designers are on a team to serve: to create something for stakeholders that they themselves might not be able to create on their own. The more that designers can communicate this posture of service through doing and giving small things, the better they will be at seeing their projects from the perspective of the people that directly influence their success… and the more likely they will be to succeed.

More Than a Buzzword

In order to empathize with stakeholders, designers must understand the perspective of the people on their project:

  • Remember that they’re human – they have other things going on in their life that cannot be predicted.
  • Ask lots of questions – the best way to get to know people is just to ask them about themselves.
  • Create shared experiences – find ways to work together in other social settings and establish a common ground.
  • Consider their needs – doing favors or giving small gifts goes a long way toward creating an environment that values people.

If designers expect to communicate effectively with stakeholders, they need to use the same skills they use in identifying with users. Developing empathy for stakeholders drives designers to act and to position their designs in a way that compliments stakeholder needs, in addition to their own. At the end of the day, a focus on building good relationships is the most important factor in establishing good channels of communication and a successful design process.