Good designers create beautiful mockups and care about typography. Excellent ones foster teams and environments that produce outstanding solutions. Designers accomplish that through three activities.
Solving a problem includes collaborating with engineering, customer support, sales, marketing, operations, and other roles. The process sometimes leads to conflicts because people hold diverse opinions on what the priorities should be. Designers, supposedly the endless pools of empathy, should be the first to step back, and ask why is this happening.
Many people in other roles don’t know about design thinking, user-centered design, psychology, and similar areas. However, designers can teach basic knowledge through conversations and various activities (for example, asking to observe a usability test or take part in exploratory research). Educating takes time, but it is a necessary step toward a healthy long-term collaboration.
Designers usually find solutions for clients or stakeholders, and their users. It is rare that designers fully understand the area in which the problem resides. Just look at medicine, law, music, commerce, or civil engineering; it could take years, or even decades, to grasp the complexity of each discipline. The only way to come to a solution in a short time is to guide experts through a design process.
Facilitation is challenging because people provide a lot of information and not everything is important, so designers have to weed out the bits that are irrelevant to their task. Moreover, experts in a field often know what they want but not what they need. Wants and needs sometimes overlap, but when they don’t, designers should steer conversations in a way that brings their clients to recognize their needs. This technique is more useful than saying, “You’re wrong; this is what we need to do.”
Although everyone starts with the goal to find the best solution for a customer, life gets in the way. Leaders compromise when deadlines loom and resources tighten. Every person feels comfortable when working in his or her area of expertise: engineers care about elegant solutions, code quality, and technical details; product managers worry about upcoming features, the business landscape, and competition. However, who represents the people using the product? Designers do.
Representing end users in this situation is not defending your position stubbornly—even if it sometimes helps—but talking about business benefits with a user-centered approach. This means designers should understand the goals of different corporate roles and be comfortable with business and technical vocabularies. Although “creative types” usually dislike to communicate in this style, it is necessary to know how to do so.
The three activities run in parallel and are inseparable. Communication and humility are their fuel. Skip one activity, and you will underdeliver; do all of them, and you will be on your way to success.