A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Becoming Better Communicators

As designers, we pride ourselves on being great communicators. We go to extreme lengths to communicate with users in a language they understand, enabling them to engage with our messages and feel like they’re part of a story we built just for them. Yet, we do a poor job of communicating with those whom our work requires us to talk to every day—and we need to, and can, get better at it.

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In fact, as much as we consider ourselves designers, significant parts of our working hours are actually spent communicating with one another. At least, mine are. Here’s a list of tasks I perform on a typical workday:

  • Log onto IRC (the way people at Canonical—the company behind the Linux operating system Ubuntu—communicate with anyone who’s on the clock) and greet my colleagues.
  • Check my e-mail; reply to some, save some to deal with later.
  • Log onto Basecamp; check my to-dos, update some notes, and comment on a hot thread.
  • Make a quick phone call to my manager to get the daily update and clarify priorities.
  • Log onto Onotate, a tool we use to provide feedback on designs and wireframes; read feedback I received on my designs and provide feedback on others’.
  • Do a bit of designing based on feedback and planned tasks; upload them again for quick reviewing.
  • Meet with my team via Google Hangout to discuss a particular ongoing project.
  • Reply to the e-mails I left for later.
  • Do some more designing.

Sound familiar? Whatever your specific situation, I’d bet much of your days are spent communicating with other people, too: talking, writing, being silent, smiling, frowning, asking, answering, listening, and, at worst, yelling.

Good communication skills are what allow us to sell our work, justify our decisions, and stand behind our positions. This (along with doing good work) is how we gain the trust and respect of colleagues, bosses, and clients—something every design professional aspires to. And it’s why all these little pieces of communication we constantly deliver are so important.

So what’s so hard about communication, and how can we get better at it?

Digital communication

We hate our inbox, but don’t know what we’d do without it. We have chats on Skype. We have back-and-forth conversations on Basecamp. But most of these communication channels don’t really satisfy us, make us feel better, or dissipate our concerns. On the contrary, they often seem to make us even more anxious about work. Why is that?

People need human contact and interaction to flourish.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls the interactions that make us happier “human moments”—being in the physical presence of someone and having her emotional and intellectual attention—and argues that not having enough of them can lead to oversensitivity, self-doubt, rudeness, and worry.

Why? Because digital communication makes us miss all the benefits that come from communicating to while being in someone’s physical presence:

The human moment, then, is a regulator: when you take it away, people’s primitive instincts can get the better of them. Just as in the anonymity of an automobile, where stable people can behave like crazed maniacs, so too on a keyboard: courteous people can become rude and abrupt.1

This sounds incredibly familiar. All you need to do is think of Twitter.

Hallowell explains how the human moment increases the release of hormones that promote trust and bonding, which are at lower levels when you’re not in the presence of another person. These hormones make us less prone to worrying or overreacting.

Digital communication removes all the cues that mitigate worry. As more and more people work like I do, alone from home offices, without much face-to-face interaction, it’s important that we’re aware of this both in ourselves and others.

So what can we do about it?

One answer comes from 37signals, which hires great talent regardless of geography and encourages others to do the same. In their book Rework, founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson report that meeting in person is important for remote teams.2

I work remotely from my home in Belfast, but I meet with the rest of my team in our main offices in London at least once a month. Then, not only do we have lots of meetings and face-to-face discussions, but we also make time to grab a cup of coffee, have lunch, and basically just interact casually—something that simply doesn’t happen when you have to type out everything you want to say.

Other teams within Canonical are fully distributed, and they tend to meet every few months for about a week at a time. This is usually when a project is getting started or nearing launch, because close interaction and immediate answers are so critical during these times.

The phone used to scare me, but since becoming a remote worker, I actually hope people will pick it up to ask me something instead of writing an e-mail. And even better than that are tools like Skype and Google Hangout. My team tries to have at least one “hangout” every week, sometimes every day of the week. Regardless of what you’re discussing, relating expressions, gestures, and a space to faceless e-mails or IRC messages will make a difference.

While many good things come with working from home, such as no commute and being able to truly focus on a task, moments of loneliness inevitably assault me every now and then. This makes it critical that both parties—the remote worker and the main office—try to make those at a distance feel like they’re part of something.

Even if you’re not working remotely, it’s very likely that someone you or your company works with is, or will be soon—which makes it crucial for healthy communication that you consider how to create bonds and develop trust without interacting every day.

Emotional creatures

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Human beings desperately seek approval, dread condemnation, and thrive on appreciation and encouragement. Not you or I, of course—all the others.

One key point Carnegie makes is that people are prodigies at rationalizing their decisions and actions. From the most merciless criminals to devoted grandmothers, we all tell ourselves—and others—that it’s not our fault.

The problem, of course, is that as professionals we must be accountable for our own shortcomings—as Andy Rutledge makes clear in his book Design Professionalism:

Perhaps most importantly, professionalism means, in every situation, wilfully gathering responsibility rather than avoiding it.

But our irrationality isn’t all bad. Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University who writes about behavioral economics, has noted several experiments that prove that humans will work harder when their efforts are acknowledged and their work is appreciated and meaningful than they will for financial gain alone.3

It’s normal for irrationality, emotions, and cravings to influence our behavior in the workplace. Understanding this is the first step to communicating with colleagues. When you see that someone feels discouraged, you can quickly offer a few positive words. When you need to make a point in a meeting, you can avoid remarks that would blame others—remarks that only make people uncomfortable and create animosity. If you do need to point out a mistake, you can choose to do so in private, and also communicate that you trust your colleague to do a better job next time.

Considering others’ feelings might not sound like your top priority, but it’s important to understand that the faintest insight into how we actually think, what motivates us, and what makes us disagreeable will only improve communications and, in turn, influence the responses and value we receive back.

A shared vocabulary

As designers, one trap we typically know how to avoid is assuming that a user understands our jargon. Yet we do this to everyone else around us: other team members, clients, and people in our company who aren’t designers. When these people don’t seem to care about what we’re doing, we write them off and say, “they don’t get it.”

It’s a lot easier to blame other people than to admit the obvious: We don’t really know how to get our point across in a language those different from us will understand.

Sometimes, we can even have a laugh about it.

A few months ago, my team was working on a project in conjunction with another, more developer-focused team within the company. Even though we had prepared several documents illustrating the project plan, which involved various research and discovery steps, we felt this other team didn’t completely grasp our role, as they’d occasionally send us things like “finished wireframes.”

My reaction was the same as most designers’ would be: I brushed it off as failing to understand the discipline of design.

I was wrong. A member of the other team eventually explained that when we showed them research plans filled with words like “IA card sort,” that meant nothing to them. If we wanted everyone’s buy-in, we had to do a better job at explaining our jargon, as Mike Monteiro explains in Design is a Job:

It’s your job as a designer, and a communication professional, to find the right language to communicate with your client. When you say a client doesn’t “get it” you might as well be saying, “I couldn’t figure out how to get my point across. I am a lazy designer. Please take all my clients from me.”

It’s funny because it’s true.

We want people to care about design as much as we do, but how can they if we speak to them in a foreign language? It’s important that, as we do with any user, we find a shared vocabulary and empower everyone else to become evangelists for our cause.

Once we took the time to actually define all of those funny words in our research and discovery phase, we turned the other team into advocates for design—people who, armed with a shared vocabulary, can and will spread the word of design within their own networks. In this case, that network was extremely important to us: other developers within the Ubuntu community whom we desperately wanted to engage with in our design process.

All this takes work, yes. But aren’t showing and communicating what design is all about?

Building a narrative

We like to create stories for our users—narratives that are engaging and compelling, that delight them and make them feel like they’re part of something. We want them to feel invested in us, our products, our sites. We want to bring them along on a journey we carefully curate.

We think, “If I were this person, what would I want to feel once I land on this site? What would I be thinking? What would make me stay?” We consider their point of view.

Then we step into a meeting and expect everyone to consider ours.

Instead of showing your work to your colleagues with a few mumbled words and a shrug and expecting them to get its sheer brilliance, it’s important to involve them from the start, making everyone feel invested and part of the solution. Map out the future you see in front of you, and make them walk the same journey.

My team is responsible for the design, build, and maintenance of Canonical’s main websites, but we also have some involvement with several other peripheral sites—for example, consulting on design or providing front-end development. Because we’re called the “Web Team,” we’re generally the first to hear about problems with any of these other websites, too—even though we don’t manage them.

Instead of quickly dismissing those complaints, I find it a lot more interesting to try to understand where they are coming from. Why do they think something is wrong? What would a better solution look like for them? Clarifying what our responsibilities are and explaining the obstacles my team is facing at that particular time (such as too few resources, impending release deadlines, or technical constraints) also improves the conversation.

Sharing a vision for where we want to be in a few months’ time and how they will benefit from it brings other teams along. And when everyone participates or at least understands the process, they’ll also better understand how and why you got there.

Final words

We know we need other people to do our jobs well. But we often say this—to ourselves and to everyone else—without taking the time to truly listen to, be inspired by, and understand the reasons behind others’ words or actions. We desperately want everyone to understand our motivations, to see that we’re upset and tell us something positive, to listen to us and marvel at our wisdom—yet we rarely bother to reciprocate.

People fail to get along because they fear each other, they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We already have the right tools to communicate with one another effectively. We just need to put the same effort into communicating with colleagues as we put into communicating with users. When we truly understand our colleagues and respect their needs, we will build stronger, more trusting relationships within our teams and organizations—and better design because of it.


  • 1. From “The Human Moment at Work” by Edward M. Hallowell (Harvard Business Review, January 1999). The article is behind a paywall, but you can preview or purchase it.
  • 2. See more in Rework's (Crown Business, March 2010) chapter “Hiring” in the section “The best are everywhere.”
  • 3. In The Upside of Irrationality (Harper, June 2010), Ariely describes an experiment where three groups of participants were asked to solve as many sheets of word puzzles as they wanted, with decreasing compensation for each subsequent sheet. In the first group, participants wrote their name on each completed sheet before turning them in. Facilitators would give them an approving nod, and then place each sheet on a pile of others’ sheets. In the second group, the facilitator would place the sheet on the pile, minus the name and the nod. In the third group, facilitators would take and immediately shred each sheet—no nod, no name. Those in the first group completed many more sheets than the others for the same compensation; the only difference was that their work was acknowledged.

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