Designer as interpreter & therapist

One essential truth of being a designer that I’ve realized over the past 15+ years of practice — with startups, large corps, and agencies — is that it’s not really about the the design itself. Of course, you are totally expected to deliver a well-crafted, thoroughly thought-out, and deeply empathetic or contextualized solution that speaks to business goals (i.e., metrics and OKRs). That’s simply a given, in terms of the deliverables and outcomes produced.

That’s the job.

But the implicit — and I’d argue greater — value of a human-centered designer on a cross-functional durable team is how that professional is striving to deliver against a deeply personal aspiration, which involves constant, patient, alert-in-the-moment collaboration with non-design peers — Engineers, Product Managers, Sales, Marketing, Support, etc.

Those collaborations inevitably involve sensitive, perplexing, and outright fraught conversations— i.e., conflict! Ugh.

But this is where the designer serves a profound complementary role. Not as some 11th hour savior with a “magical solution” (umm, that’s a fun myth) but instead as (a) an interpreter of various projected perspectives (borne out of organizational or personal agendas) and deeply felt values or beliefs (i.e., a “point of view”) via aptly communicative forms (sketches, diagrams, prototypes) for iterative deliberation of latent assumptions…and also as (b) a therapist (!) facilitating volatile dialogues that expose animosities, misunderstandings, contradicting beliefs, even bad (read: “counterproductive”) approaches per years of misguided habits.

The point in this case is deeply listening to the grievances exposed, while enabling the teammates to reflect a little bit themselves in a hospitable manner. Often they just need to air it all out in a group session, away from emails and Slack channels! Yes, it’s indeed a therapeutic activity, helping them see a better way, coaxing them along a messy journey, assuring them things will indeed work out (i.e., their goals will be achieved…if they work together for shared aims!) …And the designer can/should support them towards cultivating team trust or rapport, optimism and hope for a better way, and belief in the value of a humanistic approach that everyone can benefit.

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