Those who believe that great design speaks for itself are likely not in the problem solving business, and that results in dumb design. Product design problems are messy and twisted, and the only way to get them untangled is to talk them out and get teams aligned on the path forward. Designers, often eager to fight for their seat at the so-called table, underestimate the training it takes to win over the Devil's Advocate in a work session or presentation.
Design work needs to be strategically presented, and conversation delicately controlled. Beside being data analysts, interaction gurus and code junkies, every product designer needs to have a bit of a salesman in him. Not the slimy let-me-tell-you-what-you-need type, but more of a smart conversationalist, who plays to his strengths and knows how to shut down doubts in his audience.
These skills can be developed through deliberate practice, much like any other facet of product design. A smart presenter knows when to push back, when to give in a little, when to go for the close and when to crack a joke.
Prepare for the Inquisition
Preparing for battle is where it all starts. We know, there are no wrong answers in design. Just don't say it to the naysayer. A blurted-out euphemism can open up a designer to an onslaught of skepticism.
Assuming a designer can charm his way past the Devil's Advocate is a rookie mistake. Being prepared for the worst, every single time, is how designers win meetings. He has to know without a shadow of a doubt why he's placed that button on the left and not right, or why he's laid out products in a grid instead of a carousel that a manager suggested. Coach designers to speak with decisive conviction, like the expert they are. But more on conviction later.
To know their stuff, designers have to learn the stuff. And not just designers, but design managers as well. Being hungry for design information sets designers (and managers) up with a comforting knowledge base, so they're able to pull out a poignant proof point at a drop of 'Are you sure..?'
We call it being design literate and make a daily ritual of hunting for great work and research, documenting it across our library of resources, including Design Quips for data and Design Triggers for behavioral patterns. Sharing these resources with each other and the design community, we want to make sure no designer goes into presentation without hard evidence to back them up.
Attack is the Best Form of Defense
When a designer is well versed and design literate, the power of knowledge is on her side. She should use it, like a sword! Don't make the mistake of assuming an audience knows why something is designed the way it is. A well-timed 'because' statement clearly explains the decision, preempts scrutiny and positions her as thoughtful. For example:
We'll provide a detailed confirmation page at the end of checkout, because customers like having a sense of closure.
The designer should never try to wing the presentation. Not many of us can come into a meeting and speak lucidly off the cuff — and we've met them both. Instead, she needs to do her homework. What does the design do for the business? Did she hear something in user interviews that supports her decision? Is there research she can cite? All the materials should be prepared ahead of time, and key points that need to be made, should be written down.
Then, anticipating a roadblock is better than reacting to one. Has the stakeholder asked about a certain feature (say, checkout flow) in the previous presentation? It's best to address that elephant right away. Setting up the call with 'Today we're discussing the product presentation and will be tackling checkout flow in the next round' gives them assurance that their request has been heard.
Survey the Landscape
Being ready with solid reasoning and articulate presentation is an awesome plan. But people are unpredictable. Maybe they feel their job is on the line. Or maybe they're having a personal crisis. Or maybe their child is running a fever. A designer can't prepare for it all, but he can watch and listen for cues in tone, expression, posture, and steer the conversation accordingly:
- Is your point of contact hesitant to give feedback? They might be doubting the designer or themselves. Have the designer double down on the proof points and ask specific questions, like 'Do these dropdown options make sense?' or 'Does this contact form give you the information you need?'
- Someone getting aggressive or confrontational? The designer should stay calm and positive, and ask them about their concerns. She shouldn't push back. Just listen. These concerns will need to be addressed later, definitely, so make sure he's made a note and preempts the attack next time 'round.
- Did the phone go completely silent? The team probably put you on mute and are having a side chat. This is the time for the designer to ask more questions to understand where the hiccup happened. The team might have misheard or misunderstood something. Or maybe the designer misspoke. Tackle it head on and course-correct. There doesn't need to be an answer right away. It's OK to say, 'Great question. Let us look into some research on the subject.' As long as the team feels heard and reassured that an answer is coming, everyone is moving in the right direction.
- Is someone leaning back or checking their phone? Their body language says they've disengaged or lost interest in what the designer is saying. She can bring them into the conversation with a specific question. Call on them by name. 'Bill, do you think this headline is accurate?'
- Emotions taking over and running high all of a sudden? A designer can bring them back down by making himself the butt of a joke. We've seen our chief instigator Bryan run around the room flailing his arms to break up the tension and get everyone laughing.
Build Confidence Along the Way
And now back to conviction. Great presentation starts with confidence. And if the designer is already confident in her work, then she should work on showing confidence in her voice. There are a few tricks here, too:
- Talk lower. If her pitch is naturally on the higher side (like mine), the designer can practice talking at a lower one. She'll instantly sound more confident, like magic.
- Talk slower. It's easy trip on words when the brain can't keep up with the mouth. Slow down, pause between points. It'll make the designer sound more thoughtful.
- Don't end statements on high note, like a question. It's a super common mistake, and an easy one to curb by paying attention to the voice.
- Don't fill time by repeating a point twice. Instead of building confidence, it actually does the opposite. Repeating a statement makes the designer sound unsure, like she's trying to convince everyone, including herself. It's another mistake we often see (and personally struggle with). It takes a conscious effort to break this habit.
Don't forget that a presentation is also a conversation. Designers should engage their audience. Encourage contribution. She should get off the high horse and build up the team. She should validate their suggestions and avoid a hard 'no.' Instead of 'Yeah, we thought of that too,' encourage them with 'That's a cool idea,' or hear them out and offer to look into data that resolves the question.
Designers shouldn't worry about not being the holder of all awesome ideas. Inviting collaboration brings the designer and the audience to the same side — if anyone is taking sides here — and works to the designer's advantage in the long run.
The Moment of Victory
Knowing when to put on the boxing gloves and when to take them off is how a designer learns to move work forward. By being prepared and versed in design, he shows commitment to his craft. Then, being an aware presenter helps him get naysayers on his side.
As designers practice these skills, listening and speaking with purpose, they'll find the right mix of tactics for every presentation. Being attentive and articulate. Repeating how design addresses particular goals of the project, how it solves particularly tricky user problems. When they hear the audience repeat their words, you know you've trained them well to win against the big boys.
There's more where this came from!
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