Why understanding stakeholders is essential for design leaders | Interview with Tom Greever


Tom Greever

Communication is essential to design. Whether graphic, web based, interior, or industrial, a successful design communicates its identity, form, function and purpose clearly to the user.

Yet before a design reaches those users, the reasons behind the design itself, and its potential in terms of costs, profits, manufacture, appeal and marketability will be scrutinised by clients and stakeholders seeking a return on their investment.

Resolving this tension between the different concerns, indeed the different languages, of the creative and the commercial sides of a business is at the heart of the thought, writing, and work of Tom Greever, a UX designer, executive design leader, consultant and one of the key speakers at Design Skillnet’s Design Leaders Conference 2024. He is also a passionate believer in how better communication yields great design.

“As an industry, we understand the practice of user centred design, but often fail to apply that same kind of thinking inside our organisations for the business and our stakeholders,” says Tom. “I think there is a great opportunity to apply user centred design thinking to our communication and processes inside our organisations.”

Understanding design

Since the early 2000s, a significant shift has taken place at managerial and C-suite level in understanding the importance of design as part of the overall business. Tom traces this shift to “everything from Apple’s comeback 25 years ago” and Microsoft and Google subsequent refocusing on design. “A lot of business leaders saw the value of that and that’s evidenced by the growth of the industry over the last 10-20 years,” he says,

The realisation has been a boom to the design industry, but across his more than 20 years as a designer, Tom noticed significant differences in the career trajectories of those who “presented their work in a way that made sense to others” and those who did not.

Tom realised designers needed specific support, tools and techniques when communicating design to a non-design audience, and has developed these ideas through his work, lectures, and widely acclaimed book, Articulating Design Decisions. Essentially, it boils down to: “We have to have enough understanding to talk intelligently with other people who have a different perspective.”

Different perspectives

Tom’s key ideas on how designers can communicate with stakeholders centre on empathy; rethinking attitudes and assumptions; language; and using the principles of UX design as a source to draw from.

“The same way we would be expected to have empathy for users and customers, we can apply that thinking to our stakeholders,” he says. “If we can think about our work from their perspective, it makes it much easier to share it with them in a way that makes sense to them. Too many people go into these conversations from their own perspective: ‘Because I value UX design, because I value the research I did, I will describe it to you in those terms’, whereas a business person is more likely thinking about KPIs, the overall goals, or even making more money and meeting a deadline. We have to be prepared to present our work in that kind of a frame and you can’t do that unless you understand the perspective of the people you are working with.”

Negotiating such differences requires a balance of confidence in yourself and openness to others, and the removal of any ‘I know better…’ attitude.

“You can be confident in your expertise without discounting or invalidating other people,” says Tom. “I can be confident in my ability to solve a problem, while also recognising there are other smart people in the room, and I absolutely want to use their expertise and ideas as inputs into my own process.”

Striking this balance can result in success for designers, especially as clients and stakeholders admire leadership and want to see it in those they work with. As such, they generally respond well to design leaders who communicate a sense of clarity and certainty.

Changing mindsets, changing language

As well as empathy, Tom believes it is vital designers to have a ‘“Yes” Mindset’, but this does not mean being a ‘Yes Person’.

“The first word out of your mouth should be ‘Yes’,” says Tom. “Leading with a Yes opens others up to hear what you are about to say and reminds them of the areas where we do agree before we get to the parts where we don’t. I can always say Yes to someone’s excitement, passion, expertise, and lending their time to me, while also being crystal clear about what I think the right solution is.”

In terms of the language used in meetings, Tom advises designers to avoid words such as "like” and instead replace it with “work”.

“‘Like’ is a subjective word,” he says. “It’s easy, almost instinctual for people to use ‘like’ when looking at something visual in nature, whereas whether or not something works speaks more to the effectiveness or usability of whatever it is we are looking at. So, when someone says, ‘I don’t like the way this looks’ or ‘I don’t like the solution we have’, it’s an opportunity to say ‘What doesn’t work about it?’ That fundamentally gets to the problem we’re trying to solve.”

Criteria for measuring success

In adopting these approaches with stakeholders, Tom cites alignment, impact, and support as the criteria designers can use to measure the success of such meetings.

“If you go to a meeting and people are asking questions that aren’t directly related to the goal, or they want to make a change that doesn’t appear to solve the problem, there is a good chance you are not aligned,” says Tom, “so we need to get realigned before we move forward."

“Next is agreement on the impact we believe we are going to have on the users or on the business. If we are in agreement on what that outcome is, then theoretically we are headed in the same direction."

“Fundamentally, this all builds up to support for our work. Agreement to move forward is the ultimate measure of that. Getting that support, at the end of the day, is the most important thing.”

The value of trust

Trust between designers and stakeholders, and stakeholders trust in the innovation and creativity of designers is key to designers helping clients and stakeholders lead brave creative decisions within their own organisations.

“Trust is something you are not likely to get right out of the gate,” he says. “It does involve a lot of education and advocacy for our craft. Eventually it gets to the point where you are able to say to leaders, ‘I hope you can see the value we bring and I’d like your permission to be able to lead this, for you to trust us with some decisions so we can take the product and the company where it needs to go’. That takes time, it takes a lot of effort, and good relationships.”

Learn more about Tom Greever’s approach at his presentation at the Design Leaders Conference 2024.

The Design Leaders Conference takes place on Thursday February 1st in the Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin.

Book your ticket for the conference.

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