I’m very excited to announce that I recently began work on a book called the UX Team of One, to be published with Rosenfeld Media. In it, I explore the real life organizational situations that UX teams of one face. One important part of UX work (whether on your own or in teams) is the tricky interpersonal stuff that's sometimes referred to as “soft skills.” In today's newsletter, I look at one aspect of soft skills for UX: how to introduce challenging design ideas without creating challenging relationships.
If you'd like to support the UX Team of One, please take five minutes to complete this short survey. (You don’t have to be a team of one to reply. All perspectives are welcome.) Thanks in advance, and please enjoy the newsletter.
Leah Buley — email@example.com
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Soft Skills for Hard Conversations
User Experience is one of those curious fields, like dentistry or auto repair, where people pay you to point out problems. Except when making something from scratch, you're usually designing in order to improve or replace something existing. And that “something existing” is often the result of decisions made by other people who you just might have to work with.
Without having participated in those decisions yourself, it can be tempting to write off legacy designs as the result of poor compromises.
But let's be honest. Usually, the product you're working on has been developed with much dedication and thought by other people. Nevertheless your job is to point out the flaws, inconsistencies, and things that simply don't make sense in light of user or business goals.
One way to ease the sting of recommendations that challenge the status quo is to do advance work with the people who will be impacted and give them an opportunity to give their input, ask questions, and think about the changes.
Below are four techniques for getting feedback in a way that is respectful and welcoming of the different perspectives that contribute to our work. Just because your feedback is sometimes negative doesn't mean your relationships have to be.
The Meeting Before the Meeting
I was on a project once with a manager who set up pre-meetings with all of her senior executives prior to the big “design reveal” meeting. At the time, it seemed to me like a lot of unnecessary conversations, but it had a magical effect on the big meeting. When we pulled out the designs and started explaining our logic, the senior execs smiled knowingly and nodded their heads in the affirmative. There weren't any of the puzzled “I'm thinking about it” expressions that I was used to in these sorts of meetings.
Too many episodes of Mad Men had perhaps led me to believe that a good idea artfully conveyed will amaze and astound people, winning instant support. But that's TV. In real life, people need time to think about and question new ideas within the context of what they know to be true. Taking time to preview the things you'll be sharing in a pre-meeting can give people that opportunity.
John Maxwell explains in the book Leadership Gold, “most people are down on what they're not up on. That's just human nature. They're much more positive when they are in the know. When you give people information that surprises them, their natural first reaction is often negative. If you deliver surprising news to a group of people and the most vocal and most influential react negatively, then the entire group is likely to go negative.”
If you only have time to talk to a few people beforehand, focus on a few key people: the major decision maker; the person with the most informal influence; and the person who is most likely to be negatively impacted by the work.
Don't assume that an email will suffice. To be sure that people have seen your design ideas and have really considered them, it's best to have a face-to-face conversation (or voice-to-voice, if that's your only option).
Make it casual, but also don't be afraid to permit silence. You don't have to spend the whole time talking or defending your ideas. Giving the other person time to think and respond is what the pre-meeting is for.
1. Think about an important design review that you have coming up.
2. List the following meeting attendees:
• the most senior decision maker
• the person with the most informal influence
• the person most likely to have questions or reservations
3. Set up a pre-meeting with each of them the day before a big meeting to give them a preview of the design work and invite their one-on-one feedback.
4. If the reviews go well, you're golden. If not, consider delaying the meeting.
The term “listening tour” is a little folksy, but the idea is shrewd.
Listening tours are commonly used by people who are running for office. Basically, it's a road show to meet people and learn about their priorities. It also has the benefit of building name recognition and visibility, which is probably why politicians like them so much.
In The Place at the Table, Deborah Kalb et al. explain, “the responsive, appreciative inquiry that characterizes effective listening tours creates an atmosphere in which team members can begin to consider the possibilities ahead for them.”
Another way to think about this is as a working group meeting. This is great if you have some ideas you want to run by people but they're not really at the point where formal review is appropriate. A working group is a looser, open invitation for people to come and give feedback.
It can be helpful to clarify what you will do with what you learn on your listening tour. During his campaign for president, Barack Obama used what he learned on listening tours to develop state-specific plans for his post-election period. Similarly, you could write up what you learn in a UX landscape assessment that explains the current conditions and constraints within which your project or product operates, and analyzes opportunities for future UX work. At a minimum, it will give you awareness and sensitivity to the issues that might impact how warmly new designs are received or how widely adopted.
1. Schedule some lunchtime meetings.
2. Make an open invitation, and let people know that you want to hear their concerns and perspectives on the design changes you're responsible for.
3. Start by asking attendees to explain how they see their role impacting the product or project.
4. As the conversation develops, also ask about frustrations or concerns.
5. Save time to ask attendees about their vision for the project or product. If you're completely successful in your work, what will that look like from their perspective?
I read somewhere that new managers tend to over-communicate up and under-communicate down. That is, they spend too much time talking with their boss about what's going on, and not enough time talking with the people who do the work.
The same can be true for people managing a design process. I've done it myself plenty of times. I focus mostly on the person who sponsored the project, or the person who's in charge of it. I apply all my powers of communication and persuasion to making them happy with the design. I forget the people who really have to live with it—the content writers who will wrangle the CMS every day, the developers who will build the logic to handle all the complexity, or the call center reps who will receive phone calls from the people who actually use it.
These colleagues are your best allies. Not only can they help you make a design that will really work for the organization and the people who will use it, they can also give you the vote of confidence that will make the people in charge happy.
So, when you're planning reviews and communications for a design project, it's helpful to think about everyone whose work is impacted by your design decisions.
And then, get in touch with them.
They could be good candidates for the meeting before the meeting or a listening tour. You can also include them in more basic ways: by letting them know about discussions and decisions that are being considered that could affect their work. They'll appreciate being informed, and it can help them feel that they're part of the design process, not just beneficiaries of it.
1. Make a mind map of all the disciplines or departments that touch the product that you're working on.
2. Add to your map the names of the people who make things run in each area on a day-to-day basis.
3. Keep your map somewhere within arm's length.
4. Prior to major decisions or communications, pull out your map and ask yourself, “who would want to know
5. Get in touch.
Negotiation Prep Work
If you've done all your advance work and yet you've still reached the point when a disagreement seems unavoidable, it's time to brace yourself for negotiation. That doesn't mean you have to arm yourself for battle, though.
My first unavoidable disagreement with an important stakeholder I handled terribly. I got him on a conference call with a room full of other designers present for protection, and I blurted out what I had to say as quickly and firmly as possible. And then I ended the call as quickly as possible before the stakeholder had time to even make sense of what had just him.
He called me back privately 15 minutes later and gave me a well-deserved earful for blindsiding him, for not approaching it as a discussion with compromises and tradeoffs to be made, and basically for launching whatever I had to say like a grenade over the wall and then running away. I realize now that he was tremendously fair to be so honest.
What was really going on was that I was scared that if we got into a real discussion, I wouldn't be able to hold my position. This fear came from not fully understanding what my position actually was, and from feeling like I couldn't really anticipate how he'd respond.
These are natural concerns, but if you do a little negotiation prep work, it's really not so difficult to anticipate the reasonable objections that another person might make. It also makes you more confident that you know what really matters to you in the negotiation (versus which areas you may be very happy to compromise on).
Take 15 minutes before a tough conversation to ask yourself a few questions and imagine the other person's view. It can make all the difference between a conversation and a pitched battle.
1. Leave your desk for 15 minutes (the change of scenery helps).
2. Find a comfortable spot, and on a piece of paper, answer the following questions (which are adapted from negotiation training provided by the American Management Association)
• With this conversation, what do I want to achieve?
• List all the parties/groups who are impacted by this issue.
• If I get everything I want out of this discussion, it will look like this:
• If I get the bare minimum that I need out of this discussion, it will look like this:
• If I get what I want, the outcome for me (or the part I care about) will be:
• If I get what I want, the outcome for them (or the part they care about) will be:
• My basic argument/strategy/logic is…
• Some reasonable objections they might make are…
• Three possible alternatives if we can't agree are…
• Some statements that might come in handy are:
3. Call up the person you need to speak with (or find them in person) and say that you have some thoughts on which you'd like their input.
Between contrarian and yes man, it's sometimes hard to find a comfortable middle ground. The middle ground comes in recognizing that conflict is a fact of human interaction. Learn to expect it, and you will be a better designer.
If you’re interested in supporting the UX Team of One, please take five minutes to complete this short survey about your job and the type of environment you work in. You don’t have to be a team of one to reply. All perspectives sought. Thanks!
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Join us at our new digs for cocktails and conversation while we watch the sun set over the western hills from the roof deck.
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