In the decade I spent as a designer, the most important skills I learned weren’t about user interfaces or color theory. They were about working with people—juggling different ideas, priorities, and personalities. Finding a way forward that everyone can agree on.
Here are two people-wrangling techniques I still use nearly every day, in my career and my personal life.
#1: Ask “The Magic Question”
Many times, clients asked me to make specific changes that, as a designer, I intuitively knew would be clumsy or problematic. (“Can you put a border around that?” and “Can you make that brighter?” were popular suggestions.)
The first few times this happened in my career, I told the customer that their idea was a bad one. As you might imagine, this didn’t go over terribly well.
Eventually, I learned to handle this feedback in a more effective way: I asked the question, “What problem are you trying to solve?” This question helped me understand my client’s motivation. From there, we could work to solve the design problem collaboratively. Armed with my client’s knowledge of their specific domain or business constraint, I could use my expertise as a designer to make suggestions that made better sense from an interaction design or aesthetic perspective.
As my career has moved away from design into the realm of sales and delivery, asking, “What problem are you trying to solve?” still comes in handy whenever somebody suggests a solution that doesn’t quite make sense to me. It helps me understand the other person’s constraints, whether they’re shaped by a budget, a deadline, a people issue, or a quirk of their organization. From there, we can work together creatively to find a solution that works best for the project and everyone involved.
#2: Involve People in Unpopular Decisions
Here’s something I found to be true over and over again: People will accept a solution that they helped create more readily than one that is forced upon them.
Understanding this truth came in handy whenever I was dealing with a particularly thorny set of design constraints. Sometimes, I would prepare a few different design solutions, present the constraints and the pros and cons of each design, and involve my client in helping choose the best way forward. Often, they would choose the one I wanted, or perhaps we would come up with a mashup of my ideas and their insight.
In other situations, instead of preparing concepts in advance, I would present the constraints to the client, and we would work together to sketch the solution from the ground up. Regardless of the method I used, we always arrived at a better solution, with less friction, than the times I presented a single concept to my client.
I use this technique in negotiation and management, too. When I need to share an unpopular decision or otherwise work on a thorny problem, I like to talk face-to-face, post the constraints on a whiteboard, and share some ideas about how I’d like to proceed. Then I ask the other person if they have any alternative ideas or if they feel that I’m missing anything. Sometimes, their perspective uncovers a better solution I hadn’t considered. Other times, we end up proceeding with the proposal I made.
In general, I’ve found that when I approach such situations as a collaboration rather than with a “my way or the highway” attitude, it results in both parties feeling better about the outcome. With this approach, everyone has a stake in the success of the decision because they participated in making it.
Further Reading about the Topic of Influence
Whether you’re a designer looking to manage feedback more effectively or you work in some other area of the software biz, The 7 Triggers to Yes: The New Science Behind Influencing People’s Decisions is a great book for understanding the psychology behind decisionmaking and how to leverage it to reduce friction in your interactions with others.