Becoming Better Communicators

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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.

About the Author

Inayaili de Leon

Belfast-based Portuguese web designer and author Inayaili de León is Lead Web Designer at Canonical—the company behind Ubuntu—where she focuses on establishing and evangelizing the brands’ visual direction online. Through her blog and articles for sites like 24 Ways and Smashing Magazine, she has established herself as an advocate of clean, semantic HTML and CSS. Inayaili is a member of .net Magazine and Smashing Magazine’s Expert Panel, and the author of Pro CSS for High Traffic Websites (Apress, 2011), a book that explores the challenges of working in large teams on websites that receive considerable traffic. She loves cats and naps.

20 Reader Comments

  1. While you do make some valid points I feel that a developer who is not actively participating in learning is certainly a sub par developer.

    Additionally a team that is unwilling to speak up when they do not understand something is not going to be very productive.

    While it is good practice to reduce jargon, I believe a minimal expectation of a developer within the same company would be to google the phrase “IA Card Sort” to actually learn what that means.

    If googling fails then they should ask the originator of the document about what that phrase means.

    Perhaps the failure of this to occur suggests a poor corporate structure; questioning and curiosity should be part of any development team!

  2. @tesmond: I agree a certain degree of curiosity is vital for the work we do, for both designers and developers. All I can add is that the developers I’m referring to in the example are developers as their background, but not in this specific role or project – they did not do any of the development, but were in fact the stakeholders and users of the final product. Hope this makes sense 🙂

    @lan99: There are certainly lots of times when meetings, phone calls, emails etc. are a waste of time, I think the way to fix that takes a lot of work but is worth it. I think the type of phone calls I mean are the ones that actually save you time and at the same time create another bond – which is the main focus of the article and is what digital communication makes us lose. Regarding your article, you mention as a solution “religiously answering emails as soon as you get them” – wouldn’t this be an even greater distraction/interruption?

    There can be excessive communication very quickly and very easily, from my experience though it’s usually the lack of it (or of high quality communication and understanding) that leads to not only upset people but less than ideal final work.

  3. Thank you for this article. It has a lot of good points. Simple, but very easy to overlook in the day to day. I especially enjoyed the quotes and now have a few books to add to my “to read” list.


  4. Inayaili, thank you for this article.

    What ways might you suggest to disarm resistance from some members of a distributed team of teams, who do not want to think that people who _make_ Web sites need similar effort in communication as people who _visit_ Web sites?

    Some have a temperament which prefers obscure and complicated to clear and simple: How much of an accomplishment can it be, if any designer or developer can understand what I did?

    Some react emotionally because when you explain IA card sort, they realize they might ought to explain X Y Z jargon?

    Nevertheless, the silent majority of ordinary competent team members do collaborate better when communication is better, though they might rarely say so, if they even realize it.

    Is it an application of the Dale Carnegie quote to find _seemingly effortless_ ways to invest more effort in communication to help the majority, yet avoid offending the “pride and vanity” of the minority?

  5. lan99, I guess “religiously answering emails as soon as you get them” should be a clerk’s job, not that of a designer or developer–else, there’s not much development.

  6. Perhaps it went without saying that, even when you did not define IA card sort, because it is an accepted jargon term, if you said what you meant and meant what you said, at least you empowered people to find the meaning (as mentioned in comment 1).

    Too often in a corporate structure, terms like IA, for example, come to mean anything, everything, and eventually nothing. If communication is muddled in the large, you need more strength and grace to swim against the current, when you improve communication in the small.

  7. @hannahfhudson: Thanks! 🙂 It’s always great to have a good list of “to read” books!

    @mpedrotti: Good point. Some people just prefer to not be helpful, and sometimes that might even be me or you, if we’re having a bad day/week/month. I like to think that those people are just being misunderstood somehow, maybe there’s something no one has ever bothered to ask them or taken time to actually listen to them? Sometimes it takes an excruciating amount of energy to breathe and think “this person is not out to get me, let’s hear what she has to say” and I find myself thinking why are they not making the same effort, right? Maybe think of them as a project in itself? Truth is, within an organisation, everyone should be working towards the same goals that in the end will help the organisation move forward, but we seem to forget about that when we’re going about our day-to-day fights and struggles. I hope this makes sense 🙂

  8. You mentioned the problems that come with working as part of a remote team, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the challenges of digital communication with clients who are across the country (or globe). Since client interactions tend to be more formal than our internal interactions, how can we counteract the challenges of not having in-person meetings? Does it mean we should Skype instead of just call a client? Should we build a number of on-site visits into the budget of any remote client? Would love thoughts/suggestions on this!

    To your second point (on emotions), I’d heartily recommend the whole world read Crucial Conversations. It takes your basic premise and provides tools for getting better at potentially troubling interactions with others.

    To your third point, I thought you were Mike Monteiro for a second 🙂 By the way, kudos for bringing both him and Andy Rutledge into a blog post in equally positive lights!

  9. @trosetty: Thanks! 🙂 I find that Skype voice and video calls make it easier to communicate with clients that are across the globe – short and often calls is what I usually do. I’m also usually flexible in terms of time differences too – working a bit later in the day so they don’t have to call me very early in the morning. I know some clients do feel that there has to be at least an initial face-to-face meeting, this doesn’t happen in my case though – a call will suffice.
    I think above everything honesty, being up-front and generally letting them know you’re worried about some part of the project, won’t be focusing on their project for a while for some reason, or other stuff that sometimes just doesn’t feel right about a project should be talked about with no delay – I think clients like to hear about things that are not right, because they’ll trust you’re not seeing things “with your pink shades on” – and will feel more positive when things do go smoothly. Hope this helps 🙂

  10. I wonder if there are two important types of communication that designers can receive. One is feedback from individuals – customers, friends etc. This is anecdotal and subjective – but often useful.

    And there there is a type of communication that is more empirical. For example, the sales figures as a result of an advertisement. Friends and clients can say that they love a design, but that’s little use if the sales figures say that the design doesn’t sell.

    Most designers – certainly the ones that stay in business – are probably very good at the first type of communication. But is there enough measurement of the second type?

  11. @Alex Singleton: Good point, you mean the distinction between feedback and data, analytics, numbers, right? I think a good design process would take both into consideration.

  12. Great, timely article for me. I run a distributed company (while working mostly from home [with a 2-month old baby girl]) and my team (and family) encounters most of these difficult points on a weekly basis. Co-working downtown (San Francisco) at least one day a week helps a lot, and the human interaction with other like-minded, small business owners is so helpful.

    What I have to keep in check daily (hourly) is the matter of email, whether it’s from a project management system or direct from a client/contractor. Responding too quickly to email starts the spiraling pattern into chaos, when email becomes a chat program, degrading into meaningless chatter. Take a step back, and set limits on email. Checking email three to four times a day should be my maximum, and if there’s more frequency needed, make the phone call or move it to Skype/Jabber. #GTD #LESS

  13. @Kevin Davison: Yeah, email can quickly take over your life and become a full time job in itself. I don’t have fixed times when I reply to it, but I am quite reactive, which is not great. Although in my case, I know lots of emails are time-sensitive, and some people treat email as I’d treat a phone call, so I guess you have to adapt. Because I’m home away from everyone, what I try to tell people is that if something is really urgent and I’m not responding, please just call me. May not be a great solution, but at least I know I can focus on something without keeping a constant eye on email, and for me it’s always nice to hear my colleagues voice.

  14. Kevin’s above comment resonates with me (5 month-old boy and 4-year-old girl), as I work from home with my consulting. The email-spiral is never-ending.

    I find it’s necessary to turn-off the channels of communication, and actively turn-on (check-email) when able to completely focus. My client pays more for my attention than he does for my time. 8 hours a day is meaningless if my production is awful.

    Lately, I even turned off email-notifications on my smart phones, to keep that separate, as well.

  15. @unconventure: Yeah, that’s very true. I try to keep notifications to a minimum too, but because I work from home with the rest of my team at the office, my phone is always within reach for any eventuality – I want to be as available as if I were at the office, or as close as I can. My other email account though, I treat differently. I’ve written about it a bit more here

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