John Cowen

Artist & designer

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Shut up and listen

27 November 2016

Shut up and listen

As designers we’re taught the importance of presenting our work. That being able to explain the ideas and vision behind a design to a client, colleague or stakeholder is every bit as important as being able to do the work itself. And it’s true — it is essential to be able to do this.

Similarly, we’re taught about the importance of research. To do a good design job — you need to understand the problem and what will be seen as a successful solution. This involves talking to key people, asking questions, watching them use a system and understanding what they want from it. It goes without saying really — that an essential part of this for the designer/researcher is listening. There’s no point asking a question if you don’t pay attention to the answer.

But this simple act of listen doesn’t get focussed on enough.

Too often it feels like we get it at the research stage, but don’t take time to listen from there on.

Designers are described as creative and we feel obliged to live up to this by coming up with ideas and always making suggestions in response to hearing a person’s problem. From my own experiences though I’ve come to realise that often the best role you can take as designer — is to simply shut up and listen. (With the obvious exception of when you’re presenting the designs you’ve been working on.)

Don’t get upset or frustrated if the designs you’ve presented are getting lots of negative feedback. Don’t keep jumping in to defend them. Don’t disagree with the feedback — even when you know it’s flawed. Don’t be precious about your work. Don’t interrupt when people are giving feedback. Just be quiet and listen. I don’t think enough designers do this — and you can learn a lot if you do.

Sometimes you present a design and it gets an immediate thumbs up, you feel happy and reassured you’re a good designer. And if it’s a refinement to an existing product (or whatever it is) — that’s great. It demonstrates everyone involved is on the same page of what this product is doing and where it’s going. However, if you’re designing for a new product — I’d question if an immediate thumbs up is actually such a good thing. If you want to be doing really good design work, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with presenting an initial idea that get, at least some, negative feedback.

If you don’t get some negative comments — it suggests you’ve not stretched yourself. No criticism too often means your design matches existing expectations, and perhaps lacks innovation. Part of the designers job is to have a vision for the product, to explore new and interesting ways to present it to users and customers, to find new ways for them to interact with it that makes it easier to use and also more engaging. Through functionality and emotional connection — we aim to design products that people choose to use over those of our competitors.

To achieve this we need to test ideas, to take some risks, introduce people to unfamiliar concepts and see their reactions. If all the feedback is immediately positive, you’ve probably not innovated enough. You’ve come up with a design that will have a short shelf life.

So when you’re in your design review — present these ideas and explain the design process behind them. And then sit back and listen to the responses. Remember the responses will be from people not trained in design. It can sometimes make the structure of the feedback frustrating — but rather than constantly jumping in to correct or argue with what you feel is bad feedback, keep quiet and keep listening. This feedback is unrehearsed, in talking people often formulate their thoughts and if people are allowed to keep talking as the responses formulate and develop in their head — the outcome can be very revealing.

Sometimes what is said isn’t really the message you need to take away — it’s just that a non-designer doesn’t always know how to describe exactly what it is they do or don’t like about a design (and why should they — they’re not designers). In letting people talk without restriction or interruption about a design — while the specific cause of an issue isn’t described, if you’re listening carefully you can often deduce what it is your colleague is struggling with without them having to explicitly say it.

Of course there are times when the feedback you receive is unhelpful, impractical, would give a poor user experience etc etc … so yes — after listening intently there are times when you need to stick to your guns and defend the design you’ve presented. But don’t assume just because you’re the designer that no one else is capable of giving valuable feedback.

Challenge people with your work, listen to the feedback, respond positively and you are giving yourself the best opportunity to produce great design.

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