UX Mastery Podcast #10: Design Decisions with Tom Greever

UX Mastery Podcast #10: Design Decisions with Tom Greever

Matt chats with Tom Greever—designer and UX Director at Bitovi, and author of the latest O’Reilly title Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience. Tom answers some questions submitted by the UX Mastery community, and discusses how defending your design decisions can sometimes be more important that the design itself.


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Transcript: Design Decisions with Tom Greever

Matt: Welcome to the UX Mastery Podcast. My name is Matt Magain and my guest today is Tom Greever, author of the book Articulating Design Decisions. Welcome, Tom.

Tom: Thanks, Matt. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Matt: Why don’t we start with you telling us a bit about yourself and your journey to where you are today?

Tom: Yeah, sure. Well, I’m a designer and I have been my whole career, and started out in web design in a corporate setting and corporate environment. I’ve had a bunch of different jobs throughout the years. Now I am the UX Director at Bitovi. Bitovi is a frontend design and engineering consulting company. We help other companies design and build web applications and we’re fortunate enough to work with a bunch of big clients like Wal-Mart and T Mobile and kind of help them solve some really tough problems whether it’s design or engineering. I love what I do. I love solving problems with design and as you noted, I recently wrote a book called Articulating Design Decisions which is very much about, well honestly in some ways, it’s a little bit about me and career and sort of how I got to the place that I’m at now in UX. I think that I’ve realized that explaining design decisions to stakeholders or clients on a project is maybe more important than the designs that I create and it has taken me many, many years to realise the power and the importance of that. I’ve tried to distill all of my thoughts and advice for people about communicating design into the book.

Matt: That’s a really pretty big call to say that communicating the design is sometimes more important than the design itself. That’s a big call. I imagine you’ve—and I haven’t read the book, but perhaps you’ve captured them in there—you’ve encountered some hurdles and made some mistakes and learned along the way the hard way?

Tom: Oh yeah, absolutely. It actually doesn’t take a whole lot to make the case that the way you talk about your designs is more important than the designs themselves. Sometimes people tend to say things like, “Oh well, good design should speak for itself, right?” That could be kind of a comment. Good UX should be like a joke—if you have to explain it then it’s not very good, but the reality is that if we don’t have the skills necessary to convince the people who oversee our projects that our design solutions are the right solutions, then they are not going to agree with us, and they will change our design decisions for us. They will override those decisions or—in a worst case scenario—our designs will never even see the light of day. Even if I think I have the best possible design solution, what good is it if I can’t even put it into production? If the world never gets to see it, then it’s absolutely useless.

That’s why I would say that the ability to talk about design with people and convince them that you’re right is more important than the designs themselves. We see this—you see this—all the time. There are maybe what we would consider subpar designs or applications or user experiences out there that probably don’t deserve to be the #1 bestselling application. We could probably think of a dozen different examples right now of websites or apps that we think are just terrible but are the most popular ones out there. Well, I think that perhaps proves the point even more. It’s far more important that you’re able to convince someone that this is the right thing to do, rather than this is what you believe to be the best solution, because what wins in the marketplace is not necessarily the best design solution. A well-spoken but incorrect sales person in your meeting is much more likely to get their way if you are unable to defend those choices.

Matt: Interesting. Okay so for today’s chat, we put the call out to the UX Mastery community that we were chatting to Tom and we’ve got a few questions from our members of the community. So I’m going to read the first one out. The first question comes from jmarie673. It’s pretty long. I’ll read the whole thing out. It goes like this:

Question: Tom, I would love any advice you have on how to handle a HiPPO. [Matt: I’m guessing she’s referring to the acronym Highest Paid Person’s Opinion and in this case, it’s the chief engineer.] This person often stonewalls in the face of design logic. To clarify, often when I’m presenting designs, he might say something along the lines of, “This is not good. Change it!” When I offer solid reasons as to why it should not be changed to what he wants, he’ll leave reason behind in order to continue defending his point of view and resort to statements such as, “Your reasons don’t make sense. You are wrong” or “I don’t care. That’s not the way it should be done.” I already have my ringers who try to give me as much support as possible and help me when he stonewalls, but because he originally built and designed the product and he is quite attached to his work, it still continues to happen and it’s not helpful in terms of coming away from meetings with sound and actionable items. Any advice on additional tactics I might employ when faced with a stonewall or perhaps some ways to prevent the stonewalling from happening at all? Thank you.

Tom: So this is a very difficult situation for sure. That term HiPPO, it’s funny because I only came across that term just very recently and I would say that maybe one of the first things we need to do is stop calling these people HiPPOs. Even though I get the acronym and what it means and it’s kind of an amusing way to refer to people that we encounter in these situations, I think that this is part of our problem is that we view these people negatively. I’m going to say we don’t have justification for having a negative view of these kinds of situations because it’s absolutely frustrating, but I think we have to do our best to remain positive and to see these people in the best possible light. We have to believe the best about them and not assume the worst. Anyway, let me get to the question. I think when you have a person who holds the keys to the project and especially if they are the person that built it or designed it originally, then they can be very defensive. I mean, we could be defensive about our own solutions that we offer too and so I think it’s understandable that that person would be kind of defensive and not open to change.

The key here though I think is to remember to keep your wits about you. I always recommend practicing a couple of different things to get yourself in the right frame of mind before you even go in these situations. One of those things is to remember that this person is in control of the project. We have to learn to let go of that control, it’s not us. I think if we can let go of that and allow things to flow and recognise that this person holds the keys to our future, then we would be in a much better frame of mind to be able to respond to them because what could happen is when we think we’re in control and we sort of take that attitude, then we do the same thing to them that they are doing to us, which is to be defensive and kind of get upset. It’s going to be difficult to get through to them no matter what and you don’t want to create a fight for control.

Matt: Sorry to interrupt, but to play devil’s advocate, you’re not suggesting that you should just give up and let them have their own way though, right?

Tom: No, never. No, not at all, no. I think it’s just a mental shift. There’s just a switch we have to flip where we realise that we’re not the ones in control of our project. I mean, unless we own the company, we don’t have the final say. There is someone else outside of us and I think that that emotional release is really healthy in allowing us to see the other person’s perspective in a way that we wouldn’t be able to before when we see it as our thing. Sometimes we look at these situations as, “Well, I’m the expert. I have the data. I’m making a logical case. Why can’t this person possibly understand what I’m saying?” And yet that’s exactly the wrong kind of attitude to have. So absolutely, don’t just let go and let have them have their way, but instead, take a posture that allows you to be open to what they are saying so that they will be receptive to what you say because those attitudes and that body language is very easy to kind of communicate even unintentionally.

The next thing that I often suggest is to always lead with a yes. So this is the principle of the “Yes and…” which you may have heard of where every response that you give needs to start with the word “yes” even if you disagree with what they are saying. “Yes, I agree with you that we need to solve this problem.” I’m not saying that their solution is right. I’m pointing out where our common ground is so that their ears are open to being receptive to the solution that I do want to propose. So those two things – letting go of control, leading with a yes – are really fundamental in getting through to these people that are difficult to deal with. But if you’re doing these things and I think this person, it sounds like this person probably is already doing some of the stuff because they made reference to having ringers in the room with you, which is something else I would recommend.

I talk about it in the book but that’s the idea of having other people in the room with you who may be from disciplines or other departments or kind of other areas, not necessarily someone directly on your team that can agree with you and you’ve prepared them in advance. “Okay, I’m going to show this design. Do you believe this is the right thing? Yes, okay then I need you to try them at this point because if you can build that kind of momentum in a meeting like that, then it’s a lot harder for someone on the receiving end to disagree with you if, you know, nine out of 10 experts in the room agree. But it sounds like this person already doing that so when you’re presenting your case and you’re taking real data and you’ve got proven solutions or what you think is good logic and they are still not responding to you or at least they are stonewalling as this person was saying, I think I’d like to suggest that maybe there is something amiss. Maybe we’re misunderstanding the goals of the project, maybe there is something that has changed recently that we weren’t aware of. Maybe there’s just something else going on that we don’t know about. There could be something political going on where this person is just jockeying for the next race.

We’d like to think that people are more altruistic about our products and that everyone has the best interest to the product in mind but sometimes people don’t. So we have to be keen enough to look into these relationships and see if we can figure out what else is going on because if we can figure that out, it’s going to help us respond. Maybe even this person just misunderstands what your solution is. I actually had a client once who misunderstood the use of the term “carousel” and the kind of interface control that that was. She disagreed with what we were suggesting. It wasn’t until I explained it better and showed the difference between the two options we were considering that she realized what we were proposing. Sometimes, those simple misunderstandings can cause the situation.

Matt: So visualising…

Tom: Of course it’s…

Matt: … that everyone was just talking about.

Tom: Yeah. Right, exactly, exactly. Now, it’s also true that this person is just totally unreasonable and that does happen where no matter what you do, they are just not going to agree with your choices. That doesn’t happen as often as I think we think it does. I think it’s more often that there’s a misunderstanding, but in the book, I talked about painting a duck. I tell a story about a designer who was in a similar situation where he was working on a 3D chess game and it seemed like no matter what he did, the product owner on that company always had just one more change. Rather than have to make those changes every single time, he decided to approach the problem a little more creatively and so when it came time to do the animations for the queen, he did everything just like they had discussed, made all the changes with one addition. He gave the queen a pet duck and he was sure to make the duck a little bit out of the way but also kind of obnoxious and kind of flapping and quacking over in the corner. What he found was when it came time to show the designs to this product owner, he said, “Oh, it all looks really, really good. Just one thing, remove the duck and it will be done.” So he was able to remove the duck and kind of move on with the project.

Matt: Very amusing. All right, good. Well jmarie673, I hope that that answers your question. It was a big one but there’s a lot in there to unpack so let’s move on to the next question. It comes from the community member named MyCelestial. MyCelestial says:

Question: I’m a big fan of Tom’s book and love the techniques. I’d love Tom’s experience on getting the team, that’s development, design, production, and other stakeholders, on the same page as an ongoing process such as sharing work in progress, design critics, presentations to a board or team like an open meeting for anyone interested. I’d like some advice from Tom on how to get started on this, what to share. I feel that I have a hard time putting together interesting content.

Matt: What do you say to that, Tom?

Tom: Yeah, so I’m not exactly sure where this question is directed. I think that what this person is asking is like how to create a better culture of design thinking and to create a language around this time that everyone can kind of get on board. That’s how I kind of read this question and yeah, I think that that’s part of our jobs in organizations is to help other people outside of our own direct influence, outside of our design team understand and see the value of design if they don’t already. Fortunately, we’re living in a time now where a lot more companies are valuing design and that’s why we have people that are hired into UX in information architecture and content strategy roles now. We’ve really seen a big shift, I think, in terms of how companies think about design, but in this particular case, I think that you want to do whatever you can to create that energy and to create that moment so that other people can get excited and get on board.

All of the things that you listed there in the question whether it was creating an opportunity for design critics or allowing people to kind of practice for maybe some executive presentations, those are all valuable things that you can set up with your teams and invite people to come. I think where people get most excited about design thinking and seeing the value of design of the organization is when they see how your designs can change things and how they can actually have the intended effect. That’s not easy to do but what I’m suggesting is that I think the best way to build that momentum is to make some design decisions and to collect some data around how those decisions change things for your organization and present them. I think people get really excited, “Oh look, we saw a 10% increase in email newsletter signups because we made this one little change.”

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Run some real quick A/B tests. Share articles that you think are relevant to your product or your organization about how you can do things better. You have to be the champion in your organization. It’s going to take some time and a lot of effort and energy initially to build that momentum, but once I think, once you get it going, I think it will continue and more people will pick up on it and more people will contribute better. At least initially, it’s just going to be a lot of hard work to get people on the same page. As far as design critics go by the way, I would also recommend the book, Discussing Design, which is also published by O’Reilly. It’s similar to the content of my book in terms of being able to create a culture for talking about design and how to do that, but it’s specifically centred around creating a process for design critics for your team. That book has a lot of very specific practices and exercises you can do with your teams to do better design critics.

Matt: What are your thoughts on the part of MyCelestial’s question which asks how do we get started? What I took away from the question was that they kind of know that there’s a bunch of stuff that he/she would like to try but lacks the confidence to kind of try them. Have you got some tips on how they can get over that initial hurdle and feel confident about grabbing the whiteboard marker and doing some stuff?

Tom: Yeah. Well, I think you just have to have that confidence. That’s maybe not the best answer because if this person is saying, “Hey, how do I have the confidence” and my answer is just, “Well, you just have to have confidence.” But here’s the thing and I actually mentioned this in the book. Confidence begets confidence, right? And what we find in psychology research—and I do reference this in the book—is that people who express confidence, even a fake confidence, eventually exhibit real confidence in themselves over the long term. So if you start out believing in yourself and having confidence in your designs, in the process, the things you want to recommend and propose and get started at your company, even if in the beginning that feels kind of fake, over time, that develops into real confidence and other people will pick up on that. If you’re just simply lacking that confidence, other people are also going to pick up on that and they are not going to excited.

You have to go into it believing 100%. “This is the right thing for us to do. I’m excited. Hey you guys, come on let’s go run into this conference room over here and I’ve got a discussion. We’re going to look at this product.” Maybe start a book discussion. That would be a great way of doing it. Find a book on design thinking. Do mine or Discussing Design or any other book that you think will be valuable and relevant to your product or industry. Use that as a starting point. That way, you’re not coming up with the content on your own. Actually as part of the book for O’Reilly, we also did a video series and there’s one like a 20-minute video for every chapter in the book. I did that specifically for teams that are looking to work together and kind of discuss this content together. It wouldn’t have to be my video but like in any sort of design thinking and kind of process video training course that you could find out there that you think would be valuable, conference talks that are available on YouTube and Vimeo, find stuff like that that you think would be relevant and just invite everyone to come in for lunch. “Bring a lunch and let’s watch this video together.” That way, you’re removing some of the pressure for yourself to come up with that content initially.

Matt: One of the things that came to mind for me would be if this person is interested in ironing out the kinks for how to run a design critique or if these kind of facilitation activities are kind of new, try them with some friends and some friendly colleagues that you know are okay with the idea that this is your first time running this activity and they can help you kind of adjust it and tweak it, and then when it really matters with key stakeholders, you’ve have kind of a bit of a dry run and then you’re feeling more confident that way.

Tom: Absolutely. So that is one of the things that people who often ask me, “Well, what’s the best way for me to get better at articulating design decisions?” The answer is just to practice. I say that practicing for a meeting before the meeting is the usability test of being articulate. We want to try out our ideas. We’re going to try out our ways of saying things and even if you don’t have the opportunity to gather together a group of friends to kind of practice a design critic as a dry run, you can just stand in front of the mirror and give your presentation to yourself. Just doing that, just hearing yourself talk out loud is going to reveal a lot of your thinking that you didn’t even know was there. It’s going to give you the opportunity to stop and rephrase it a different way and build that confidence that you need to be able to go in front of other people and do it.

Matt: Cool. Okay, the next question comes from Alli. Alli says:

Question: I really hope it’s not too late to address one topic during Tom’s interview and that’s transitioning into UX. [Matt: She is a huge fan of Tom. She owns the book. She owns the video. “He’s fantastic.” There you go.] After observing a strong tendency of teams to become self-organised communities, I took sabbatical from the enterprise where I manage front end management teams and I study user experience through subscriptions, meet ups, conferences, and got certified at NYU. It’s a tough call to find a UX job without a strong personal UX portfolio. There’s no way back. UX is my thing and a longtime passion. What would Tom’s advice be on UX best practices to get into the UX field if all that most hiring managers care about is having 3-5 years of experience and a strong portfolio? Thank you so much.

Matt: I nearly was going to leave this out because it’s kind of a bit off topic but then I thought about it and I realised what better way to make an impression when you’re in an interview than to exhibit confidence in articulating designs. So what would you say to Alli, Tom?

Tom: Yeah, so the challenge of not having a portfolio or of not thinking you have a strong portfolio, I mean, that’s a real thing. You have to be able to demonstrate that you’re able to kind of do some of this work. That’s important and so I think I would encourage anyone to, if you don’t have the opportunity to work on the UX of a specific product maybe because you’re not currently working in UX because you’re a developer or whatever your role is, look for opportunities to create that for yourself. Make up a product. Just be creative and just think of something that hasn’t been done before and write up a case study on what problems are being solved with this and what your design thinking is.

The truth is that all UX is articulating design decisions and I think this is something that we kind of fail to recognize. Design by itself can just be pretty and depending on the genre and depending on the business or where you are, it’s okay to have a design that is just aesthetically pleasing, but user experience naturally demands that we have these explanations for our designs. I think you’re right that the ability to articulate your design decisions, that’s what UX is all about. I think that’s what most people miss on their portfolios. They have a bunch of screenshots with some really glossy looking apps that they designed but I have no idea what their thinking was. I have no idea what the problem was that they were trying to solve or what the issue was that they were overcoming, what matrix they improved when it was all said and done, and I think that takes a lot of more thought and time.

As a hiring manager, I look at people’s portfolios initially. It’s important for me to look at that but it’s a lot more important for me to understand how they are thinking about design. While I want to always know that someone has a demonstrated quality of work in their portfolio, it’s almost always, for me, just kind of a cursory glance. You want to see that they have the basics covered. If they have an in depth case study, I’ll read the whole darn thing, but really what I look for is their answers to questions. Before I interview them, I send them a questionnaire where I ask them just several questions about their thoughts on design and I value their answers to those questions a lot more than I value their portfolio.

I would say that if getting into UX is really that important to you, as this person said, “There’s no way back. This is my passion,” well then you’re going to have to find the time for it. If you already have a full-time job and it’s not UX, well guess what, you’re going to be working late. You’re going to be doing stuff on the weekend trying to build that portfolio and bring yourself up to speed so that you can present yourself. Do freelance work. Go to a freelance website and just offer to do some work for cheap or free just to get that experience under your belt so that you can show people that you actually know what you’re doing.

Matt: Cool. The last question comes from Mark Seabridge. Mark says:

Question: Hi, Tom. Working agency side, one of my biggest challenges is being brought into a project at the last minute, often with very short deadlines to meet. This can mean lack of time for research, having to resort to questionable third party research and sometimes being unable to take any research out at all despite pushback, relying on hypothesizing solutions that are invalidated. Although the obvious answer here is to move on, I enjoy the challenge of making change in a tricky environment. What advice would you have for this situation?

Tom: Well, I mean first of all, I feel your pain. In fact, I think that this situation is probably more common than most of us would like to admit because even in my own client projects at Bitovi, it’s often the case that we just don’t have the time or the budget to do what we want. Research and user testing are sometimes the first thing to go when you’re pressed for time. I found though that the value of these disciplines in making our design decisions on projects is best demonstrated just simply by doing them to the best of your ability and with very real constraints. Just doing something and then bringing that knowledge with you to that next meeting. If time is really short, it might mean that you only have 30 minutes to go interview someone or grab some people in a coffee shop, right, and the first few tests like that are the partial data that you can glean from the analytics.
At first, it’s going to feel like a hack and it’s going to feel pretty fake and shaky, but it’s certainly better than basing your decisions on nothing at all. I believe that if you do that, if you do your best to just squeeze in whatever you can that your stakeholders are eventually going to start to get it. They are going to see that value because you’re demonstrating it. Don’t ask them permission to go do a weeklong user test. Just do it first and ask for forgiveness later because you want to be able to demonstrate that value. I think over time, you’ll be able to grow the amount of time and space, and maybe even the budget that you have to do that stuff, but there’s no doubt that many organisations, this is a daily uphill battle. Every day, you kind of have to wake up and decide that you’re going to make this a priority even when other people don’t. It takes time. It takes some proven experiments to really establish it as a regular practice on projects.

Matt: Yeah, I can definitely echo that sentiment in my own experiences where I’ve just realised that we just have to set expectations based on if it’s the first time engaging with a client and they are at a certain point in their journey to enlightenment about this stuff that there’s only so much you are able to do, but as you develop a relationship with them and like you said get some runs on the board for the first project, then the second, third, and fourth project, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to get what you want because you’ve proven that there’s value in this stuff.

Tom: Sometimes it’s about being purposeful about planning these things in advance enough that people know what to expect because I think what happens sometimes is we know that we should do some user tests or we know that we should comb through the analytics and kind of try to find the answers to some of these problems, but we don’t put it on the calendar we just kind of assume that we’ll be able to work it in and we never do. But we will never do that with our vacation time. We would never do that with a holiday or with our time off. That goes on the calendar in advance and our clients know what to expect. “Oh yeah, I’m taking Friday off.” Well, everyone adjusts. I think we need to get to a point where we can do the same thing with doing research. We need to just tell everyone, “Hey, I’m not working on your project this Friday because I’m doing research for your project. Just pretend that I have the day off. I’m going to shut off, Skype, and Slack or whatever. I’m not going to check my email. I’m going to spend the whole day just doing this one thing.” You know that they would adjust for you if you were sick or if you had to take some time off and I think we can develop that same habit. You do that a few times, you’ll start to create that value for them I think.

Matt: Cool. Well, Tom this has been a fascinating chat and some real nuggets of wisdom that you’ve shared today. I really appreciate that. If people are interested in keeping up with what you’re up to online, where should they go to follow you? Do you have a Twitter?

Tom: Yeah, I’m active on Twitter. My Twitter handle is just @Tomgreever, T-O-M-G-R-E-E-V-E-R, and also on LinkedIn, you can find me. The website for my company is Bitovi.com, B-I-T-O-V-I.com and I’d love to hear from you guys. If I didn’t quite answer your question or if you have an additional question based on something I said, please feel free to contact me. My email address is tom@bitovi.com.

Matt: If you post any more questions in the forum thread, I’m sure we can twist Tom’s arm to jump in and answer there as well. Make sure you check out his book, Articulating Design Decisions out through O’Reilly. Thank you very much for your time, Tom.

Tom: Yeah. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate it.

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Luke Chambers
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