How to be a better designer

Delivering effective, top quality design requires clear communication, and clear understanding. Ensuring that you understand the problem that you are solving is a job requirement, regardless of what level of design career you occupy.

Ever get confused on a design project when the requirements aren’t clear? What about confusion from an important stakeholder comment in Basecamp or Asana where the comment just doesn’t make sense?

As designers, we must take the initiative to clear up unclear communication. Your design work depends on it.

I found myself in one of these scenarios yesterday with a project. Written comments from the stakeholder just weren’t making sense. Wait, she’s asking for what now? What does she mean by this? I didn’t get it. Another round of written back-and-forths and it still wasn’t adding up for me… time for a new approach….

Good new is, there’s a simple solution to unclear written comments or emails that almost always works.

Put down the keyboard and go talk to the person. Work remote? Ring them up on the phone. It is devastatingly effective.

With my unfruitful thread at work yesterday, taking the initiative to have a face-to-face conversation was very effective. It pretty much always is. And best of all, the approach is dead simple….

As we talked, we quickly straightened out the misunderstanding and collaborated on a solution. We identified other gaps and brainstormed a quick process improvement solution on a whiteboard together to avoid confusion in the future. Less than ten minutes later we parted ways with a stronger relationship, improved clarity, and ultimately an improved solution to the problem. That’s a win in my book.

Here’s how to cut through the mess of written comment confusion and have an effective verbal conversation…

1. Have a clear outcome in mind

Make sure you have a clear outcome in mind when you go talk to the person. Clearly define the problem or misunderstanding that you’re facing and communicate this to the other person. Without a shared understanding of the objective you are trying to reach you may go in circles and waste even more time both trying to reach different end goals with the conversation.

2. Listen

Hear them out. Don’t interrupt them. Let them say what they need to say… without interrupting them.

3. Employ active listening

Sometimes a misunderstanding can be easily cleared up with a little active listening. Repeating back to them your understanding of what they communicated is an extremely effective tactic to improve communication in almost any circumstance, not just design projects. Explain to your stakeholder or fellow designer your understanding. When you say something along the lines of “what I understood you communicating was…”. This gives the other person the opportunity to clarify their viewpoint or correct any misunderstanding.

4. Summarize the conversation at the end

Close the conversation with the agreed-upon outcome of the conversation and who’s doing/not doing what as the outcome. “Excellent, so it sounds like we are in agreement that I need to create another wireframe… and you’re sending over the updated content deck”. This gives the other person another opportunity to correct anything and also ensures you aren’t duplicating effort on the outcome, or worse, nobody taking any action from the conversation.

There you have it. Get out of your introverted shell (if you keep one around as an excuse), off your bottom, and go talk to your stakeholder or fellow designer when important comments or emails are unclear. Getting out from the comfort zone behind your desk or picking up your phone for a real conversation will only improve the outcome and working relationship as the quality of communication improves.

Take the initiative to get clear on the requirements or changes in the project. It’s part of your design job.

As a bonus, you’ll also likely strengthen the working relationship, deescalate any rising tension, and reach a more effective solution, which leads to better design.

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