Interpersonal relationships are the building block of all human organizations, including (and especially) businesses. The way people treat one another individually, on teams, and in the organization as a whole are directly correlated to the overall performance level of the organization and the quality of the work that it produces. Most businesses operate as multiple overlapping sets of teams, and those teams can include designers, engineers, executives, product designers, marketers, technical specialists, finance, and people filling many other roles. It is vital that designers learn to communicate and work with the people who fill all of these roles.
The basic approach to collaborating with people from different disciplines is fairly simple, and has three key elements:
1. Know what is important to people in this discipline — i.e., what are their values
2. Know how to communicate with people from this discipline — i.e., how do they explain themselves, and how can you make yourself understood
3. Know how to work closely with people from this discipline — i.e., how to get things done effectively and productively together
In part, you gain this knowledge through doing — it is by interacting with people on the engineering team that we come to understand how to better interact with people on the engineering team. Practice makes perfect. However, it isn’t a Catch-22 — there are things you can understand from the beginning that will make your interactions flow more smoothly and more productively.
(A cautionary note — remember that although we are talking about groups of people, each individual is unique and has their own style — so while you may start out with certain assumptions about a person, what they value, and how to communicate and work with them based on what kind of work they do, be sure that you let your experience with that specific person inform you as time goes on.)
There are specific communication and working techniques that can help us as designers to interface more effectively with the various types of teams that contribute to our projects. Let’s look at those types of teams one by one.
Engineers are the people who are predominantly responsible for the more technical side of an operation. Engineers formulate (and follow) design blueprints, they write and test software code, and they build things, often using designs created by other people. How can you communicate and work with engineers most effectively?
What they value: Engineers tend to value objective data, the use of techniques empirically shown to have worked in the past, mathematical or logical analysis, and honesty. On a more emotional level, they also highly value a sense of belonging to a team or organization, and knowing that their work is important, relevant, and useful to other people.
How to communicate with them: First and foremost, tell it like it is! Engineers work with physical structures and natural laws, and they are highly intelligent people who easily detect lies, “spin” and misrepresentation — and they interpret that dishonesty as both personally insulting and objectively dangerous. Speak to them in plain, simple, honest terms, explaining clearly what you are trying to achieve and why. Listen to them the same way — take what they say at its face value, rather than trying to figure out “what they really mean”. Odds are, they said it, and in so many words. When you are describing physical reality, be brutally honest and even unimaginative. Save the metaphors and clichés for meetings with marketing and sales staff.
How to work with them: Respect what they do and how they do it. Engineers work best when they feel understood and appreciated, and they often don’t get that validation in the workplace because many of the people they work with are focused on people-oriented skills rather than the physical nuts and bolts that the engineers deal with. If you recognize the engineers as working with the design team rather than for the design team, and they know you feel that way, you are likely to get their best work.
When possible, remove barriers between the engineers and other team members, emphasizing that they are working in tandem toward the same goal, not separately as separate departments. Include them in the design process by soliciting their opinions and asking for their input on new design features. It’s also a great idea to put them in contact with the end users of the product under design — not only does this give them a stronger sense of what the product needs to actually do, it gives them a sense of ownership in the project and its mission.
Product Managers are the unsung linchpins of their organizations. They are responsible for launching products, features and leading the processes and tasks that need to happen.
What they value: Product managers get pressure from their organization to meet business goals while also meeting the needs of their customers. They are constantly prioritizing projects, meeting with customers and looking for solutions. All in all, it’s a tough job. Depending on the level of the product manager you are working with, they might be a taskmaster or a strategic visionary, or both. In general, they are the decision makers whom their name and reputation is attributed to a product’s success or failure. It’s important they realize the value you bring to the team and that you are actively improving the product.
Another aspect of a product manager’s role is to analyze feedback from customers, analytics, internal teams and prioritize what problems the team needs to solve and the priorities of those efforts. As designers, this is a strength we bring to the team. Help the product manager understand and prioritize this feedback.
How to communicate with them: When speaking to a product manager, you must be able to understand and articulate the business metrics and outcomes of the work you are doing. Why does this feature matter? What business metrics is it meant to improve? How can the user experience contribute to that goal? Products need to meet the needs of your business and your users. Product Managers are are focused on achieving these goals for their company, and your understanding of those are key to establishing a strong relationship.
How to work with them: Similar to designers, product managers come from a diverse background. Product managers can range from business, technical or strategy backgrounds and many others. When you first start working with a product manager, spend time learning how they’ve worked with designers in the past. Have they worked with designers before, or are they used to doing some of the design work? How have designers contributed to their previous teams? What value do they think design brings to their team? After you understand their experience, you can begin to educate them about your process, similarities and differences in how you want to contribute to the team.