Prioritising people in the design process

If we want our projects to run smoothly, we need to involve our clients, teams and users throughout the design process.

A lot of people think that a designer’s work is limited to pixel-pushing. Of working behind the scenes, creating layouts and prototypes.

That’s a big part of the job, sure. But it’s the end result of a longer process.

At Pixel Fridge, we see the design process as a way to help our clients & teams come to an agreement on what the product needs to achieve. After all, what is a design if not a culmination of decisions around things should work?

Crafting the right design involves balancing research findings, input from stakeholders, and a careful understanding of the project’s goals. All of these things feed into what we produce; be they wireframes, designs, or fully interactive prototypes.

Collaboration is key

We’ve worked with dozens of designers over the years. What we’ve come to realise is that the ability to collaborate effectively is as important than any technical proficiency or artistic flair.

Good design doesn’t happen in vacuum. This is because a designer’s job is to solve other people’s problems. The problems of our end users of course, but then there’s also those of our teammates, clients & other stakeholders.

In our view, designers need to demonstrate some essential people skills : 

  • Leadership. To push teams towards making decisions.
  • Empathy. To understand the project goals, which can often go at odds with their personal views.
  • Diplomacy. To seek balance and compromise between the (often conflicting) priorities of stakeholders.

Designing for humans first

I was lucky enough to get an education in web design through my university degree. This prepared me for the technical elements of the job. What I was wasn’t at all prepared for was working with real teams, and real clients. 

I still remember the first time I presented a design that went down like a lead balloon.

In my head, the work was spot-on. It used all the right research, and best practices. In my view it answered the brief perfectly. That’s why I couldn’t get my head around the why the client wasn’t happy.

It was infuriating! Why couldn’t they accept that I knew best? They were paying for my advice as a web professional, so why weren’t they taking it? When this happened a few more times, I realised that perhaps I was the problem. I’d been so wrapped up in my ego that I’d neglected to think about the other people on my team. What about the challenges they were prioritising? 

Letting go of our design ego

Let’s put ourselves in the clients shoes for a moment. It’s not surprising to hear that every client has their own personal objectives and motivation during a project. They’re generally being put under a lot of pressure by their own bosses or investors. Their necks are on the line if things go wrong.

Our designs are a major factor in whether our clients will meet or fail their objectives, so it’s only natural that they’re anxious to give input. 

It’s the same with every other project stakeholder. Everyone has their own individual goals and outcomes for the project. These are going to be at the front of their minds throughout the design process. 

  • Developers may prioritise performance, and making things fast.
  • Marketing may prioritise campaigns and promotions being at the forefront.
  • Compliance may prioritise observing and following laws and regulations.
  • Users want to complete the tasks that brought them here in the first place.

And so on. Everyone involved in a project has their own priorities. Designers need to join these dots, and prioritise people in their process.  

Start early with a workshop

The key to success is getting everybody involved early. 

At Pixel Fridge, we like to start any project with a discovery workshop. There are a few topics to cover in this workshop, but a big portion will always be dedicated to understanding the team’s objectives. 

That’s why everyone comes along to this. Not just designers and developers, but all of the stakeholders on a project. We want someone there to represent each kind of person involved.

The key to success is getting everybody involved early. 

A discovery workshop is the ideal opportunity to get everyone involved in the design process right from the start.

We ask everyone in the session what they’re looking to achieve through this work. We then work through prioritising all of these goals as a group. To understand which needs are shared, and which ones conflict. It gives us a feel for what’s really important for the project.

This is valuable for a few reasons. The most obvious is that it guides decisions around how we structure the user experience. Beyond that, it also helps build the team relationship. The workshop puts the whole team into ‘collaboration mode’. People take greater ownership of the design, contributing their own thoughts & feedback. It sets a precedent for further communication and co-working later in the process.

The activity also highlights any potential conflicts early. If teammates don’t agree on project objectives, it’s best to get those debates out of the way now. This way we eliminate any uncertainty of indecision before we waste time pursuing a design route that isn’t quite right. 

These topics and themes can also be revisited in future design discussions. When we share deliverables like wireframes and prototypes, we can call back to things we raised in the initial discovery workshop.

Share early & often

Beyond that initial workshop, it’s good to keep the whole team involved throughout the design process. This involves sharing early and often.

Rather than present each deliverable with a grand unveiling, we take our clients & teams on the journey. This involves sharing sketches, wireframes & concepts as we go along. This can be as simple as firing over an email every now and again, or doing some impromptu screen shares. If this isn’t enough, tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams are also invaluable. They’re a great way to discuss in-progress assets, and get feedback. 

As things progress into interactive prototyping, we usually share a live link to the latest version. We’ll continually update it throughout the process, so team members can always check in and see how things are developing. Sharing early means that nobody is going to be shocked when we reach the more polished stages.

Effective design means making decisions. By planning the user experience, we make the calls that allow the product to meet its objectives.

When we share design assets, we do so with a link that every team member has access to. We encourage stakeholders to check back regularly, and make it clear how they can share their feedback.

One last thing. When sharing design work, translate the details and don’t try to bamboozle everyone with jargon. We do our very best to communicate in plain english and drop all of the impressive sounding industry lingo. This way, everyone is on the same level and doesn’t need to feel awkward asking for translations.

Clarity is so important to us that we’ve made it one of our values.

Design = decision-making

Effective design means making decisions. By planning the user experience, we make the calls that allow the product to meet its objectives. 

To that end, every stakeholder should be contributing to the process. People without any formal design training can still share amazing insights that positively affect the final results. It’s the designer’s responsibility to factor these insights into their work.

If you’d like to learn more about building better relationships with your clients and project teams, we would strongly suggest Mike Monteiro’s writing. Design is a job and the follow up You’re my favourite clientare great places to start. 

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