August 2021
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You have spent years getting this far — going to university, taking regular courses and workshops, going to conferences, reading countless books, articles, and listening to weekly podcasts — only for a stakeholder to steamroll your design expertise.
Here are 11 techniques for improving your communication skills and getting your designs approved.

There comes a point in every designers career where their role is less and less about Sketch or Photoshop, and more about communication and persuasion. I’ve spent the last few years learning how improving soft skills can make you a better designer.

Imagine you have spent years getting this far — going to university, taking regular courses and workshops, going to conferences, reading countless books and articles and listening to weekly podcasts — only for a stakeholder to steamroll your design expertise.

Most designers have encountered this, and mastering a few communication skills can help avoid it in future.

Communication for Designers

In his brilliant 2015 IXDA keynote, Mike Monteiro said that “humility is incredibly expensive”. If you haven’t had a chance to check out his incredible talk already, I highly recommend you do so.

How we present our work, and how we discuss it with stakeholders, is key to getting it signed off. So I have written my 11 communication techniques to effectively presenting your design work. Why 11?

So let’s get started.

1. Lay the Ground Work

If you’re going into a big meeting with a stakeholder: prepare, prepare, prepare. Be able to explain every pixel and defend your decisions.

Try to anticipate what the potential reactions will be. Think about what their objections might be, based on your experience, and have your answers ready. This will save you having to follow up later.

Be clear on what information you will need from them. If you don’t want them to critique the copy or the images, inform them so. For example:

“Here is the new onboarding screen so far. The graphic is from a stock image site, so we can of course change that later, and we will also review the copy with marketing. What I would like to you focus your attention on at this moment is the registration form. Notice how we have removed some of the optional fields to make the checkout process faster for our customers… “

You will need to direct your stakeholder to where you need their feedback and sign off. I’ve been in so many presentations where the product owner gets hung up on images and copy. It’s your responsibility to steer the discussion, and keep the communication on point.

2. Invite Your Support Network

If possible, see if you can bring a few team members who will likely back you up if you are dealing with a difficult stakeholder. It is extremely helpful to have a network of coworkers who can support your claims with data, experience or research. Having other people in the room who know the problem and agree with your solution can tip the scales in your direction.

3. Focus on What Works

You’re solving a problem for your users or customers, not trying to design an app you like. Take opinions out of the room — only talk about what “works”, not what you like or dislike. Once you bring subjectivity into the dialogue, the conversation will be reduced to what someone likes, and the HiPPO will probably get their way.

Keep bringing the conversation back to the problem that is being solved. You need to be sure that your solution is going to bring the product closer to solving a particular problem.

For example:

“I don’t like that we’re using a price slider here”

“We were able to AB test this, and discovered the slider worked much better.”

This is science, not an art competition. Keep your opinions out of the discussion and you should be able to keep the communication on course.

4. Pause for a Second

Let your stakeholder talk without interruption. They might repeat themselves, but that will give you an understanding of their concerns. When they have stopped talking, pause for a few seconds. There is no need to begin talking as soon as the other person has stopped.

Take a few seconds to fully understood what has been said, and take the time to form your response. Pausing for a few seconds can have a powerful impression:

  • it will give the stakeholder the impression you have really been listening, instead of waiting for him or her to stop
  • it’s going to make your response sound more considered and measured
  • it will give you a chance to relax any emotions you might be feeling
  • responding too rapidly can make you seem hostile, and you don’t want that

Pausing for a second is a great communication technique, it will show that you’re really listening and will give you time to prepare a response. Now we will look at how to reply.

5. Lead with ‘Yes’

After you have paused, you want to keep the communication positive. Where possible, lead with yes.

Sample script:

“Yes, I agree that the animation for ‘add to cart’ should be updated. We have a release coming up soon, should we postpone implementing the new sorting feature so that we can get this in?”

This script will not only make sure you are clear that the stakeholder wants a revision of the animation, but you have also made them aware that this change will push something back. Everyone can make off-the-cuff remarks in a meeting, but make sure that everyone is aware of the consequences of those remarks.

When you lead with a ‘no’, it can sound defensive, and we want to keep everyone on the same side. Stay positive. Marie Forleo also has an excellent tip for completely changing the dynamic of a conversation that is growing hostile.

“Responding to any confrontation with the words ‘you’re right’ is instantly disarming. It immediately turns down the heat.”

– Marie Forleo

6. Don’t Separate Yourself From the Stakeholder

As I mentioned in the previous point, you are all on the same side. You are all working for the same company. Silos in a company are dangerous because they lead to internal conflict and disagreement.

Avoid using phrases like “well, as a designer…”. These phrases are going to separate you from the stakeholder. You’re on the same team, working for the same company. Avoid creating a separation between yourself and the stakeholder. Instead, focus on what works (as mentioned in number 3).

7. A Question Isn’t a Change Request

This one comes directly from the 2015 IXDA Keynote that I referred to above. When a client or stakeholder asks “why is that button there?”, they are not necessarily suggesting that you change it. They may just be curious and asking a question.

If a stakeholder asks a question, don’t immediately jump to recommending a change right away. This is going to make you look like you haven’t fully considered the design in the first place. Show that you have thought this design through and calmly tell them the reason your design rationale.

Them: “Why is that button orange?”

You: “Because on the Android app and mobile website, we have used orange for this button.”

Move on to the next point.

8. Repeat their Statement

This is a very simple technique for getting clarity over their feedback. If the client or stakeholder is making multiple points, you want to let them talk. When the discussion is finished, wrap up the point by confirming what was said.

“So, just so we’re clear, you would like to …”

This is a great communication trick because it forces the stakeholder to articulate clearly what exactly they mean. It also allows you to close the point and move on to the next item on the agenda.

9. Stick to the Agenda

Things can go off topic. People can start rambling about what could happen next quarter or next year. For the sake of clarity, keep to the agenda. If the feature is to be implemented in this quarter, only talk about this quarter. Keep communication clear by focusing on what is needed from you at this moment.

10. Keep Note of What is Agreed

The person who has the notes is the person with the power. If your stakeholder is likely to change his mind, you will have notes to back up what was agreed on. I have made this mistake before — agreeing to things but not keeping notes. I’ve also been on the opposite side of the fence — having the notes to back up what was said, when the stakeholder started changing his story.

It’s good to have notes in your record anyway, to keep track of design changes and why they were made.

11. Focus on What’s Next

So your focus towards the end of a review session should always be on the actions or take-aways from the meeting. The last few minutes of a meeting can sometimes trail off into discussion about a completely different topic, but this is the best time to focus on the action points for what is next.

Sum up what was agreed and what will be done before the next meeting.

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