Scott McCall
Scott McCall
February 6, 2018

Design Is a Contact Sport

Take a quick stroll through any tech coworking space or startup incubator and one of the first things you’ll notice are the headphones. Freed from the confines of a cubicle, there has to be something to provide insulation from the outside world, allowing some semblance of personal space and focus. After all, we’re working hard. Speed and efficiency are everything–how else are are we going to “get sh*t done” and ship (or die!) and disrupt the industry?

I remember when I started working in design for a small web company back in the mid-00’s, and the fact that I could work uninterrupted for hours diligently solving problems by designing with my headphones and ever present mug of coffee was a revelation. You see, I came to design from a career as an adolescent mental health counselor, where tech was minimal but interaction was everything. Building and maintaining strong relationships was the work. But I was tired of all this talking and mushy outcomes and I wanted to just sit and think for change.

As a curious introvert, I cherished my newfound peace and freedom to solve problems and think (finally!) and make stuff without the constant distraction, messiness, and pressures of interaction. No time for conversation–I had design work to do. I was paid to think. I was crushing it.

Well, as it turns out, I was not crushing it. Instead, I was wasting a lot of time by avoiding interaction because I could get so much done if I just put those headphones on. But we live and we learn. As I gained experience as a designer, I started to work on more complex problems. Instead of just a screen or a simple flow, I’d be working on a new feature, or an entire ecommerce site with a custom CMS backend. The “right” design approach became much less clear, and the clients deferred to me to make the decisions. There was no research, no vetted “requirements” to guide me except a vague idea from someone in a meeting. “You’re the designer–you figure it out.” And on went the headphones.

The issue here was that I was never able to properly explore or grasp a firm understanding of the real problem (if it even was a problem), or how users might actually interact with my proposed solution. Looking back, I’m not sure how this work turned out–just that the work I did eventually got approved over a series of iterations and shipped. That’s a big problem.

Since then, I have learned. I have changed my ways. I consider research, experimentation, and testing to be crucial elements of my design work. For me, despite the comfortable lure of checking out and getting in the zone while a Brian Eno album streams through my headphones, I have found that contact with humans is a key ingredient in the recipe for clarity. And, developing soft skills as a designer to facilitate this necessary contact is utterly essential to creating impactful design work.

So what does “contact” mean, and how do you approach it? How do you work on these skills? Personally, I’m always trying to find new ways to get better at the skills that make the contact really work. Besides increasing the frequency of contact with users, team members, stakeholders, and clients, here are some things that have worked for me:

Make a Plan

In order to get the maximum impact from contact, design the interaction. I strive to thoughtfully plan and design great interactions with people just as I would approach any design artifact.

This does not mean that I coldly approach face-to-face interaction like I’m going through a punch list of changes planned out the day before. On the contrary, I prefer to keep things fun and not take things too seriously, but that’s also by design. I try to have a clear goal and a well-considered plan for a particular meeting or process that drives to a desired outcome. The soft skills are all the stuff around this structure–the execution. It’s what keeps a workshop exercise moving, empowers the team, puts a nervous interview participant at ease, and gets the best work out of everyone involved.

Developing soft skills is hard and takes time, confidence, and maturity. I still feel like I have so much to learn. But designing a structure and having a plan makes it easier.

Make Meaningful Contact a Regular Part of Teamwork

Diverse cross-functional teams perform better than solo designers, or even solo departments (the UX team, for example) because of the additional skills and perspectives diverse team members provide. This is particularly true when the problems are complex and require a multitude of skill sets to solve.

Many of us are fortunate to work on teams with other designers, but most of us work on cross-functional teams with business analysts, product owners, product managers, developers, database architects, sound designers, and writers. This is a treasure trove of experience and perspective waiting to be used. Regular standups and meetings aside, how often have you deliberately designed and planned interactions with your internal team to take advantage of the unique skills team members possess?

These interactions can be informal get-togethers or larger planned events involving the client: sketching sessions, codesigns with diverse team members, regular design critique, or larger workshops. The key is deliberately getting the right people in the room–lead with a focused initiative and desired outcome, but keep things open enough to get the most from the diverse perspectives.

Setting up sessions like this can feel like it’s taking time away from cranking at your desk, but you end up saving so much time in the long run with a well-designed session and the shared understanding that results from shared investment.

Be Authentic and Transparent

Some lines of work, like politics and advertising, depend on a veneer of polish and presentation. A magical, “big reveal” culture where the client is being “wowed” by the show without understanding the scope of work needed to solve specific problems tied to specific, meaningful goals will always fall short when it comes to great design. Working the room to get signoff is certainly a soft skill, but not necessarily one that will serve you in the long run.

Optics, schmoptics. If contact with users and team members is the way you wish to work, and I think it should be, it is utterly essential to be as transparent as possible about the value this approach brings from day one. Expose your process, make sure the right people are in the room, set expectations for time and workload, and set clear goals for the project and for what you’re hoping to achieve for the business. There is no wizard behind the curtain that automagically produces great work if you just throw enough money at her. Design is a sweaty, time-consuming endeavor and we need all hands on deck. Make no bones about this when setting expectations.

With that in mind, get the client onboard as early as possible. Truly involve them in the process, partnering with them to help them understand what needs to be done. If they’re not able or ready to understand what the design work entails, keep working with them.

Granted, when it comes to client contact, this one might be the trickiest. Your organization can hire and mold its culture based on ideals or business principles, and though there’s bound to be some differences in approach and experience you probably have a good idea of the desired way to work together according to leaders in your organization. Things can be, let’s say, much more open and varied in terms of past experience, skill set, and general approach when it comes to the clients you serve. The flat organizational structure of a design firm can often clash with a more traditional vertical structure where approvals lie with executives who may not be fully involved in the project.

To help remedy this issue, build strong, transparent partnerships with your day-to-day stakeholders through frequent, meaningful contact so that they become design allies.

End Contact

Keep these elements in mind when you’re working, and your soft skills will develop. Practice makes perfect! Interested in working this way? Engage contact.

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