To effectively solve a design problem, you need to understand it fully. Makes sense, right? Yet between limited budgets, conflicting requirements and tight deadlines, how often do designers apply a “just get it done” approach and neglect to clarify a problem completely?
Too often, I fear.
That’s where design leadership skills can have a positive impact. By investing just a few minutes, expressing design leadership can help you deliver a more useful, higher caliber product.
If you’ve met me, you know I don’t mind being the most annoying person in the room. It’s because I ask a lot of questions, which can sometimes test the patience of those in meetings with me — people who want not to be in meetings. I am aware of that, so I choose my words carefully.
I’m not asking logistical questions about schedules and deadlines, rather questions about the why and wherefore of the design that impact the effectiveness of the final outcome. My aim is to get people — my internal team, my clients and my users — to articulate their thoughts and feelings honestly and in detail.
It’s important for me to really pay attention to what my audience is expressing, directly or indirectly.
As a designer, this inquisitive behavior serves me well. I’m vigilant about gathering requirements and analyzing a design problem fully. At the same time, I truly care about the priorities and feelings of the people involved in and impacted by the project, and try to consider them all in seeking a best solution.
That’s why it is so important to me as the team leader to expose and explore all the relevant requirements and feelings. Doing so leads to a higher quality design. And this is exactly what design leadership seeks to achieve.
Empathy is Central to Powerful Design Leadership
Fundamentally, the key instinct that all effective design leaders possess is empathy with stakeholders, clients and users. While certainly there are many more skills necessary to be a successful leader, empathy is the building block upon which design leadership is founded. Without this core instinct, design leadership can become just a hollow set of management tools that deliver little value. Asking a lot of pointed design questions is the starting point.
Ask Probing Questions, Even if They Make People Uncomfortable
Sometimes designers confuse being polite with empathy. They are not the same thing in the context of design, where empathy is about getting to honest thoughts and feelings. Here’s what I mean. Say a client asks for something. As the designer it is your job to execute the request. But how you make that happen is the difference between quality and mediocrity in the outcome.
Say you’ve created a two-menu design for your client’s UX — a primary menu for the main content and a secondary menu for support information. You get a call:
Client: I want to make a change to the menus, combining them into one.
Designer: Um, ok. That’s easy to do. Why do you want to combine the menus?
Client: (Avoiding the question) It works if we do that, doesn’t it?
Designer: (Without pressing for a more illuminating answer) Well, yes it does.
Although you consider the original split menu a better design solution, you agree to the client’s request with little protest because the task is simple, the customer wasn’t forthcoming with a reason, you don’t want to seem impolite and you just want to wrap up this job.
But, taking the time and having the courage to probe a little deeper will help you understand the real issue and ultimately create the best outcome.
Like in this scenario:
Designer: Yes, I can make that change. But it may not work as well as the original layout.
Client: It seems like a minor change to me.
Designer: It’s a minor change to make, but it will impact the overall design. So before we make the change, let’s be sure it makes design sense. Indulge me for a few minutes. What problem are you trying to solve by combining the menus?
Client: Well, we need to add a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen and I thought this would create space for that. Plus, marketing said the original design was a little cluttered. They love the design but want it to be more consistent with our brand. I was trying to make things easy with this simple change. I don’t want to make more work for you.
Ah ha! Here are the reasons the customer is asking for a change: to make room for the disclaimer and create a cleaner look. With this information, you may determine that the client’s request to eliminate the second menu is indeed the most effective solution. Or, you might decide that a different solution would be better.
But, without probing your client’s motivation you would not have the insight to understand whether accommodating your client without question best solved these issues.
Design is not an arbitrary process or an exercise in expressing style. It’s about finding a good solution to a potentially complex problem. Operating with a deeper understanding allows you to solve design problems more effectively, and ultimately deliver better products.