Making a statement: how to control endless design discussions with stakeholders

Most design projects are undertaken by a team of people and in many cases there are also multiple stakeholders. Designers are used to discussing requirements, brainstorming options, sketching ideas and generally working together to develop a solution.

Project stakeholders usually have a very different background and bring to the table a very different way of working. Designers usually respond by trying to keep design discussions away from stakeholders, or controlling how they input into them, but this isn’t always possible. If you have an over-interested client, or work in an immature organisation, then stakeholders may get directly involved, and this brings with it some big challenges.

Business people tend to discuss without being careful to define; they focus on details when there are big picture problems to solve; they are too quick to critique, rather than contribute; too quick to shoot down an idea for its one obvious flaw, rather than see it for the possibilities it brings and try to fix it; too quick to copy slavishly what they have already used (make it like Facebook!); and sometimes they get uncomfortable with the uncertainties of design and try to close out a decision too quickly.

One particular challenge that I’ve been witness to is the enthusiastic discussion where everyone is involved, often agreeing enthusiastically, but as a designer you are convinced that everyone means something different. This is a particular problem when the participants are spread across multiple locations, discussing over the phone.

If there is no option to disconnect from these stakeholders, how can you deal with this problem and turn these discussions in a more positive direction?

This is where your special skills as a designer come in. The requirements may still be completely unclear, the target audience ill-defined and the target platforms undecided. It doesn’t matter. This is the time to be proactive and use design to make a statement.

The key here is that you don’t have to be right. You don’t have to figure everything out. Making a statement is not about saying “This is it”. Instead it is about asking a question:

“Could it be like this?”

What is special is that you make your statement in the form of wireframes and visuals that everyone can understand. They are clear, comprehensible and they are specific. This grounds the argument by providing a clear proposal that stakeholders can agree with or disagree with.  

If they agree with your proposal, great. But that isn’t the point. At this stage disagreeing with it is likely to be just as useful as it starts to clarify what people think is important, what they want and don’t want and crucially why.

Making a statement is the design equivalent of a scientific hypothesis. It turns a nebulous philosophical argument into a specific idea that can be tested and disproved.

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