Designing with/for “people”

It’s a truism to say that designers in the broader UX practice must have well-developed “soft skills” to be effective in the field. I gotta say, that trite phrase irks me, if only because it implies something less-than-substantial, almost an afterthought of ephemeral squishiness to tack onto the “hard skills” of… exporting precisely cut Retina-optimized graphics? Hmm. Dubious.

Whether slicing graphics for a mobile app or defining the parameters for a user study or mapping out various task flows, you are dealing with people. From co-workers like Devs and PMs demanding those graphics and workflows, to executive sponsors asking for metrics to end-users and partners with their use cases, you are necessarily engaging to varying degrees with people. People who are flawed, emotional, distracted, temperamental, or insecure. People who have hidden agendas and ulterior motives, who are driven by complicated arrays of motivators and demotivators at home and work. People who live amazing yet difficult lives. People who say one thing, do another, and believe something else completely—all rich with invisible layers of complexity and contradiction. People who object, project, personify, influence, and manipulate in many crazy insufferable ways. People who are quite simply passive-aggressive or flat out cynical and rude.

Well, our jobs are not easy when you look at this way! Design is all about handling the most complicated, messiest creatures on this planet (humans ;-) —which makes it incredibly challenging and paramount to learn how to deal with people.

It’s not some “soft skill”, it’s a vital skill for living, working, learning, growing. Knowing how to navigate, persuade, interpret and facilitate with a diverse range of personalities to advance your and their goals— that’s an essential ability for any successful designer. And it’s one that takes countless painful lessons and near-death tumbles to develop “working with and for people” into an intuitive, personal art at the core of your design practice. Because without people, as egregious and difficult and damning as they can be, there wouldn’t be a purpose to design in the first place. 

So how do you deal with people –aside from the Draper method of drinking it away? ;-) Patient observation, calm self-reflection, level-headed mediation, and candid, authentic conversations with bonafide interests surfaced, are some key elements. All backed by a wry, healthy skepticism, and a measure of self-confidence to keep yourself grounded yet wary. Just like slicing graphics, it’s a practice that requires…practice!

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