How to Articulate Design Decisions—Interview with Tom Greever
In the interview, Tom explores the subject of articulating design decisions and gives you communication tips every designer should know.
As a designer, how can I describe my work to a client to be sure that they understand my perspective and proposition?
This is a good question, in that it illustrates one of the most common problems in communicating design—which is to communicate your own perspective and proposition. That’s not necessarily the right goal. For one, it is unlikely that a stakeholder is all that concerned with your perspective. They may be, but even so, their primary concern is going to be communicating their perspective to you. So you see, if both parties are more concerned with their own perspectives, it becomes difficult to arrive at meaningful decisions.
The first step is to work hard to understand their perspective so that you can present your work in that light. What are their goals? What do they want out of this project? How can I help them get what they want? When you make this mental shift where you are presenting your work in such a way as to solve a problem for them, then you are much more likely to be successful in communicating it.
What kind of communication patterns should I use for this kind of conversations?
There are several different ways to make these conversations more effective. One is to focus a lot of effort on listening—don’t interrupt them, try to hear what they’re not saying, focus on the problems they’re trying to solve rather than the specific piece of feedback they give, ask good questions… I go into more detail into all of these and several more in my book, but they’re all geared toward effective listening.
Another one, which I find to be especially helpful, is one of the steps of communication from Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People—called Appeal to a Nobler Motive. In other words, we should present our work in such a way that we are appealing to something that they want too. That’s the nobler motive; the thing that we both agree is important. It could be a metric, like improved conversions on an eCommerce site or engagement on a community-based product. But whatever our overarching goals are for this design, we need to remind our clients that we’re on the same page and point to that as the thing we’re both chasing after. Often, conversations get bogged down in details that don’t contribute back to that goal and so this is an effective way to make sure we’re aligned. People will share subjective feedback about design. By making sure that our design is focused on an agreed-upon goal, we make it much more likely we’ll also agree on the solution.
Could you describe your ‘IDEAL’ framework for articulating your design decisions?
Sure. I created this ‘framework’ simply as a way to quickly remember all the parts and pieces we need to remember in these conversations. This isn’t a mathematical or magical formula that guarantees success. It’s just a device to help us be better at communicating the important stuff.
I - Identify the problem
D - Describe your solution
E - Empathize with the user
A - Appeal to the business
L - Lock in agreement
The key to this particular approach is the last one, lock in agreement. Too often, we leave meetings without a clear sense that a decision was made or with some ambiguity about who is doing what. So I always encourage people to be direct in asking for agreement. Summarize the solution and say, “Do you agree?” so that you can get a clear yes or no. If they say no, it’s not a problem—but let’s take a step back and figure out why.
Again, this isn’t a formula—it’s simply an ideal way of describing your work to someone else. You may not be able to do it in that order. You might skip one. That’s ok. The important thing is to help you remember each part. But also remember that if you don’t lock in agreement—if you don’t get that L, then all you have is an IDEA.
Do you have any tips on how to prepare beforehand for a perfect client meeting?
First, it’s important to realize that a ‘perfect’ meeting is more about getting agreement and deciding on solutions than about your performance or eloquence. The meeting is a success if you walk away with clear decisions that will create an effective user experience, even if that solution is different than what you initially expected going in. My point is, it’s not about nice-looking slides as much as it’s about making good decisions.
That said, the best way is just to practice—at your desk, in the mirror, with a friend or colleague. I will sit at my desk, type up what I expect to say, and then read it aloud as if I am in the meeting. This always (always!) uncovers part of my thinking that I didn’t even know was there and helps me find the right words to express my meaning.
What is the most common mistake designers make while articulating their decisions?
The most common is not taking the time to understand our stakeholders in a way that will inform what we present and how we present it. Going back to your first question, we make assumptions that they need to hear our perspective or that they even care. When you go into it with your own ideas about what needs to be presented or with the mindset that you’re there to share your own perspective, you end up creating a meeting where the stakeholder is either tuned out and bored or the more aggressive ones will interrupt you and say, “Hold up, this is not what I wanted…”. In order to get someone to agree with you, you have to understand what they’re likely to agree to in the first place. And until you understand their perspective, you won’t be able to present your work in a way that’s meaningful to them.
Do you agree with the statement “to be a great designer is to be a great communicator”?
Yes, in fact I think communication skills are what set apart good designers from great ones. I know very talented designers who have not ‘succeeded’ in their careers because they were unable to get people on-board with their vision. And in those cases, it seems like a wasted opportunity. If we can’t convince people to trust us with our solutions and agree to move forward, then there’s almost no point in us being there. If we can’t get people to agree with us, then our designs will never see the light of day—they’ll never have the opportunity to be used by real people. You could have the most ‘innovative’ design in the world, but if your stakeholders don’t understand what you’re trying to do and won’t agree to move forward with it, then you might as well have stayed home that day.