Communicating User Experience

By Igor Geyfman

Published: April 7, 2014

“There’s another job that … often gets overlooked or neglected: effectively communicating all of the hard work that you’ve put into the design to the cross-functional team on which you rely to bring these interactions into reality.”

You know that wonderful feeling when you’ve created the perfect prototype. You’ve done everything by the book. Personas, check. Customer-journey map, check. Task-flow analysis, check. Usability studies, check. You’ve dotted every user experience i and crossed every customer delight t. Now, it’s the moment of truth, you’re presenting your uber-prototype to your cross-functional team and expect that they will all bask in your user experience brilliance—except they don’t. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think that they all hated it—probably because they’re all stupid and just don’t get it. The truth is: They’re probably not stupid. Most likely you’re right that they don’t get it—but that’s your fault.

I’m going to share two oft-heard statements with you. If at least one of them sounds familiar, you should read on.

Statement 1: “Yeah, I understand what you’re saying, but we really need to focus on conversions. I just don’t like it.”

Statement 2: “There’s no way that we can code this. This is too hard, and it’s going to take too long. It’s impossible.”

Typically, one of a UX designer’s main jobs is designing interactions, creating task flows and wireframes in the process. These core deliverables drive many projects and day-to-day activities. However, there’s another job that is just as important, but often gets overlooked or neglected: effectively communicating all of the hard work that you’ve put into the design to the cross-functional team on which you rely to bring these interactions into reality. In this article, I’ll focus on communicating with two specific types of team members: business people and developers.

“To succeed in communicating our designs, it is merely necessary to turn our empathy toward our colleagues in other disciplines.”

In many ways, this communication job is harder than creating designs. It requires a lot of soft skills that can vary widely from person to person. There’s a secret here though: even though communication is hard, the main trait that we need to succeed, empathy, is common among UX professionals. A lot of articles and books have been written on empathy and user experience. Most of the time, however, we turn our empathy toward the customer or user for whom we are designing a solution. To succeed in communicating our designs, it is merely necessary to turn our empathy toward our colleagues in other disciplines.

The best part about turning our empathy toward our colleagues to develop effective ways of communicating with them and gain their understanding is that we already have the techniques in our UX toolbox. The three techniques that I’d like to cover in this article are:

  • becoming a developer or business person
  • building a colleague-empathy map
  • doing participatory design

Becoming a Developer or Business Person

“It would certainly help to learn what it takes to develop your design or manage a product.”

To gain a really deep understanding of your users, one of the best techniques is to actually become a user. If you want to design an ecommerce purchase flow, for instance, it’s very helpful to become a customer and experience the process. Doing this works equally well for both you and your colleagues. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a developer or a business person. But it does mean that it would certainly help to learn what it takes to develop your design or manage a product.

An effective way to start is by dedicating time toward learning the basics of business or software development—or how to do the work of whatever role you want to communicate with more effectively. You could do this simply by reading a book, taking an online course, going to some introductory meetups and events, participating in a workshop, or maybe even by earning continuing education credit at a local university.

No matter what tack you take, be sure to apply what you learn in real life. If you take an HTML/CSS course, dust off your old wireframes and build them yourself, for real. I think you’ll be surprised by how differently you’ll look at your prototype after doing that. Or, once you’ve read a marketing book, think about one of your cool startup idea and how to apply your newfound knowledge toward making your concept shine.

If you don’t know where to start, simply do some ethnographic research with team members that you respect, and ask them for some good starting points. As you apply your new skills, ask them to review your work and assess your progress. Not only will quality feedback help you to improve your skills, your colleagues will respect for your willingness to broaden your horizons. Plus, people feel good about helping people learn things they’re passionate about.

Building a Colleague-Empathy Map

“You should track what your colleagues are thinking, feeling, seeing, saying, hearing, and doing, along with their painpoints and aspirations. Start by observing and talking to your teammates within the context of their work.”

This is a more advanced exercise, but one that is well worth the effort. It’s very much like building an empathy map for a customer. You should track what your colleagues are thinking, feeling, seeing, saying, hearing, and doing, along with their painpoints and aspirations. Start by observing and talking to your teammates within the context of their work.

You’ll need a rich set of data for each empathy-map dimension. The best time to engage with your colleagues is while privately sharing your work with them. You can ask them for honest feedback on a specific topic or things in general. Dive in to learn what really matters to them at work; understand their worries, preoccupations, and what they want to achieve. Ask them about the conversations they have with their peers or their boss about their work. Find out what professional publications they read.

You can also fill in some parts of the empathy maps through observation—for instance, what their environment is like and what a day in their life looks like. You can observe what they say and do, noting their attitudes and behavior toward other people. What are their conversations like with their peers, with you, and with their boss?

Lastly, it’s important to build a list of your colleagues’ painpoints and aspirations. This will help you to identify opportunities for tailoring your communications to them in a way that preempts pain and shows them how your design proposals align with their aspirations. Don’t just put this map away once you’ve finished creating it. Keep adding to it, referring to it, refining your insights from it. Empathy is an ongoing process, not an artifact.

Doing Participatory Design

“By allowing your non-design colleagues to participate in your design process, you’ll gain a new and deeper understanding of their thought patterns.”

It can be quite scary to let people into your design process. There is a sense of ownership and pride in creating something, so allowing people to participate can seem off-putting at first. But that kind of thinking needs to go. As a UX designer, you do not have a monopoly on good design ideas or insights. By allowing your non-design colleagues to participate in your design process, you’ll gain a new and deeper understanding of their thought patterns.

Beyond improving your understanding of your team members, participatory design offers a multitude of benefits, including knowledge transfer, concept buy-in, and getting ideas that your team might never have generated outside a participatory-design session. The best part is that there is a great deal of synergy between empathy mapping and participatory design. These sessions are perfect for fleshing out key parts of your colleague-empathy maps.

There are a number of specific ways to implement participatory design with your team. One of my favorites is Todd Zaki Warfel’s Design Studio Method. This method is a bit expensive to implement, but if you use it as a foundation and effectively tweak it to meet the needs of your project and suit your team dynamics, you’ll find that the results are very satisfactory.

Hopefully, you’ve noticed that none of these three techniques happens in a vacuum. All of them involve having in-depth interactions with your colleagues. This is helpful because we should never view communication as a one-way mechanism. At its best, communication is always a dialogue. Also, increasing your interactions with your team members will help you to build greater rapport and trust, which is key to effective communication, not to mention establishing fruitful work relationships.

Once you’ve applied these techniques to become a better communicator, you’ll probably notice that your uber-prototype was actually missing something. At the end of the day, these techniques are not just about communicating better; they are about gaining deeper insights into all of the dimensions of successful project execution. Not only will you see improvement in the way you tailor communication of your design to each audience, you’ll gain some entirely new perspectives on your designs because the inputs that you’ll receive will be so much richer.

So go forth, turn your empathic powers toward the people consuming your designs and becoming a more well-rounded UX professional. Please think about what other UX tools you could leverage toward this end and share them in the comments.

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