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Designing in the Passenger Seat

There are times where you may not always be in control of the designs or interactions of a product you work on. A challenging situation, one that will make you a better designer.

Imagine a situation in which you have worked on a product team from the start. You understand the customer landscape, you’ve uncovered pain points and distilled research into solid recommendations. You’re ready to start the next phase, but another design team will be handling the flow, interactions, and design of it. Similar to having a vision around renovating your house, but not able to have input into how the carpenters and designers transform it.

You're now in the passenger seat. What do you do?

You're now designing in the passenager seat, what do you do?

I've found six tactics that can be an asset in these situations, and are also essential to have in the field of design. They will provide you with the means to hit the ground running, deliver the product and build strong relationships. Including the side benefit of making you a better designer for it all.

Now the six tactics that I'm going to walk through here may not be game-changers or radical ideas, but I believe  they are often ignored when it comes to the XD/UX/IA fields. The focus has been on improving hard skills - which are of course important and should be focused on - but there is less emphasis on interpersonal skills, that are vital to us having mastery over in order to be successful working with people from various background and situations.

A clear sense of being in control is ingrained in much of the ​UX field. I'd like us to take a look some tactics that can help us do great work, even when we might not be in direct control of the project outcomes.

Active listening and relationship building are our secret sauce

First is active listening, in which you not only listen to what people are saying, you engage with it, you probe, you ask follow up questions, and you dive deeper. You take the time to stop being the one always talking, and take the opportunity to learn more about the other person. In a situation in which you are in the passenger seat, you need to take a moment to listen. A skill that is essential in all situations.

Relationship building is the second aspect, and it is the easiest and most helpful thing we can do to get to know the people we are working with. Go out of your way to get to know them, sit down and chat. For myself, being able to make people laugh has been the most effective means at breaking through the barriers that separate each other. It's all a part of engaging with the soft skills that we all have, but need to leverage your own interpersonal skills to build these relationships.

By engaging these skills we are able to better understand who they are, how they work, and what motivates them. These simple acts will strengthen your connection with them and in turn, enhance the quality of communication you can have with them.

Embrace collaboration for it is our bread and butter

Now, with a healthier relationship and communication lines strengthened, next up is collaboration.

But, if you can reach that level of trust with each other to say “Hey, do you want to check this out…” or “I have a crazy idea”, and work through something without fear of judgment then those ideas have a greater chance to be poked and prodded early on to give the feedback it will need to survive. An idea that has not gone past another pair of eyes, a formal design review, or quick gut-check by someone should be a red flag that you need to jump start collaboration.

There is a 'leap of faith' required to make collaborative relationships with other teams or designers happen. You will need to take the initiative to set up meetings with them or ask for time to discuss and sketch through a problem, or just pull people aside to chat through a user flow. All are helpful techniques to engage in quick, meaningful collaborative moments. If you take the initial jump - and can follow through - the trust level will increase.

By leveraging the relationships you have been building and engaging in active listening, helping to jumpstart collaboration between each other can feel like a natural evolution of the relationship.

Being the first one to put your ideas out there, as you are building those relationships, and reach out to others has gone a long way. Think of it as extending the olive branch. If you have an idea or thought, get one or two people together and have a chat about it, specifically ask for feedback, get them to draw out suggestions or additions.

After that initial step, it can become easier to work together as equals instead of a driver and passenger. And, not only will the greater collaborative environment be heightened, but you will have continued to expand your relationships with those key players.  You can come forward and probe more directly, ask tougher questions, and begin to address the things that you find important.

Research equals currency and relationships equal exchange rate

User feedback or other research coupled with strong opinions about it will get you far most times. But, if you are showing the research to someone who you do not have a good relationship with, the effectiveness of the research will lessen. Yes, it's hard to ignore outcomes of research or analytics, but presentation and audience consideration matters.

If the relationships are not quite there yet, using the research as a discussion point changes the tone from "Oh I have an thought..." to "Hey, we found this and we'd like to chat..." Which provides an opportunity to talk openly about findings and present your opinions, as well as let you hear their side.

It is possible that those that should hear about the research might not see the value in it, those are the people you will need to convince and work on. Setting up informal or formal discussions to walk through not only the research findings, but the reasons why it was important to do, and how you are planning to take action on the research will help to provide them with the context to start seeing the value. The rest will be up to you leveraging those interpersonal skills, especially active listening, to move forward with the relationship.

The stronger the relationship with those whom you are talking with, the farther the research will go, and the more involved they will be with the research and opinions you are presenting. That greater level of involvement will encourage more detailed and probing questions into the research from both sides, helping not only you, but also the overall product improve.

Facilitation and negotiation mastery smooths over issues before they start

Either within a meeting or in a casual conversation, being able to manage the conversation in a strong but deft manner will make all the difference.

Facilitation is not just directing and keeping the discussions in order, it is also being aware of the situation, mood, disposition, body language, and tone of those present. Being able to read the room will help you to steer the discussion in the direction required. Put yourself in situations to take up the facilitation role in meetings or discussions to help you to flex and strengthen these skills. Pay attention to those that you see are solid facilitators and borrow techniques to enhance your own toolbox.

Negotiation goes hand-in-hand with facilitation, it will help to achieve consensus as a whole, and help you understand the value of compromising. To negotiate effectively you have to understand everyone else's viewpoints clearly as well as balancing your own wants and needs. Not to mention including then the pressures of delivery and development. This one is tricky, but I've found that most people have an odd knack for it.

Remember, the same rule for research goes for negotiation, better relationships yield better negotiations. Continuing to build relationships, provide insightful observations, and encourage a collaborative environment will all help to bolster the effectiveness of these situations.

"Why?" is our most powerful tool

"Why?" can have many uses, from getting clarification about higher level strategic discussions to poking holes in business processes and to probing around granular decisions such as a user flow or interaction.

I've tended toward always asking "Why?" rather than holding back, because even if "Why?" helps or harms the situation, at least it shows a willingness to try and be disruptive in a helpful way.

Using other forms of "Why?" within the context of a design review for instance has been helpful, since "Why?" by itself can seem a bit harsh. For instance "Talk me through this flow..." or "How did you come to that conclusion..." have helped by showing interest in the work, and then provided them with runway to provide reasoning.

Don't be a backseat driver

Nobody likes a backseat driver. It will be necessary from time to time to contain your desire to control the situation. Trying to force or explicitly direct in situations can sometimes be costly. It can degrade the relationships you have or want to build, and can disrupt a collaborative and trustworthy relationship from forming.

Take a moment. Breathe. And think about the other five tactics, and how this all can help build up to a better relationship and eventually a much better product.

Alright. Back to the beginning.

Now, imagine again being placed in the passenger seat, but this time equipped with the following six tactics. Doesn't seem too bad now does it?

Everything will be okay. You can design effectively in the passenage seat

If we want to be as effective as possible as UX designers, information architects, experience ninjas, etc., then we should not overlook the more fundamental soft and relationship building skills.

I challenge you to put yourself in the passenger seat, it will be uncomfortable and strange at first, but in the end if you remember these six tactics, you will be stretched and challenged, but in the end you will be a better designer for it.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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