What's Not to Like?

Is it possible to be too likable?

In the early days of Mule, we worked on a major redesign project for a mission-driven media company. For the first few weeks, it seemed like our client relationship was magical. Every meeting was a delight. We sailed through Discovery and some early structural and conceptual work. Then we got into the heart of the visual interface design and everything went pear-shaped.

We’d have a design review meeting that seemed to go reasonably well. Then we’d receive pages and pages of highly detailed and somewhat contradictory written feedback from the client team. We’d get on the phone to talk it through, then we’d make some changes, have another meeting and wash/rinse/repeat. When we got to the point of narrowing down among options, the client would go along with it and make some choices. With their words, they would say “We’re heading in the right direction. Great stuff!”, but something felt off. They sounded more and more frustrated and kept providing weirdly specific feedback and asking to see more and more minor variations.

This went on for a few increasingly mystifying and stressful weeks during which the client team insisted everything was great except for everything that could just use a little refinement.

Finally, we got the executive director on the phone alone.

“We can tell something isn’t right. What’s going on?”

“Wellllll…to be frank, folks don’t think the design is going in the right direction.”

“You said the design was great and, in fact, signed off on it.”

“We were hoping you would show us something different.”

“Well, you know, if you keep telling us something is working, you will only see more of that thing.”

“Everyone likes your team so much. They were worried that negative feedback would kill your momentum.”

“You know what kills our momentum? Burning 6 weeks circling the wrong solution.”

Once we got the truth out in the open, we came up with a feedback protocol to get us back on track. It included a list of very specific questions and activities, some of which felt remedial to the client team, but they still trusted us enough to go along with it.

The next iteration was a winner, and the resulting design system served the client successfully for several years.

We added a new step to our typical process in the form of a small speech to be delivered at every kick-off.

We are designers. Helping you meet your goals is our job. Your honest feedback throughout the process is essential. Do not hold back. We will let you know what sort of feedback is most helpful at every point and what to focus on. If you are unclear on anything at any time, just ask. Do not worry about hurting our feelings, or making us repeat something we’ve already said. Negative feedback is more helpful than positive feedback. If something isn’t working, tell us immediately or you will only see more of it and we will burn through a pile of money. However all feedback must be based on the research and the goals of the project, not personal opinion.

So, as often happens with this sort of work, something going really wrong contributed a significant process improvement. Many people really do need permission to speak candidly and ask questions, and most people don’t know how to deal with design feedback, especially designers.

People are terrifying

In school we learn that there are facts, grades, and authority figures. This leaves us ill-prepared for most practical human interactions that include multiples sources of information, competing goals, and shifting sources of status and influence. It takes effort to be more excited about doing your best work together than anxious about what other people think of you. This is especially true when what are often the trickiest parts of the job are lumped under “soft skills.”

Separating feelings about people from assessments of their ideas is tough.

People are awesome

There is nothing better than working on a good team when it works. You learn more and you do more and you feel good and you know that your colleagues aren’t going to let weak ideas get out into the world.

This takes everyone admitting they are better together and pitching in.

One of the most collaborative projects I ever worked on was with a client team in Madagascar and a development partner in India. Everyone knew that coasting was impossible and miscommunication was likely, so we all really paid attention, asked questions, and supported one other, while being candid with critique. You don’t need to be in a special room with special collaboration furniture. You just need clear shared goals and good intentions. Just.

Goals and roles

It is impossible, truly impossible to collaborate without everyone knowing their goals and roles. You can’t win a game of volleyball if some people on your team think they are playing lacrosse. But once you’re in the middle of a confusing mess it’s a rare person who will raise their hand and say “Wait! Which way is our goal and what am I supposed to be doing with this stick?” Nope. Most people will just keep their mouth shut and try to prevent the stick from getting visibly tangled in the net.

Clear roles mean that everyone knows why they are on the team and no one feels like they are trying out again every time they open their mouth.

Consensus is not collaboration

It’s easy to mistake one for the other. Consensus can feel a lot more comfortable until it doesn’t. A consensus-driven process optimizes for everyone agreeing. Eliminating conflict takes precedence. A truly collaborative process allows everyone to contribute towards achieving a stated shared goal. You can work side by side with someone for a decade and never truly collaborate. A lot of teams are more comfortable sacrificing the goal than probing the disagreement.

It doesn’t matter if everyone agrees. It matters that everyone working together knows how to manage disagreement in a productive and respectful manner.

An explicit process and an external standard are both necessary to separate good candor from bad conflict.

C’mon, don’t get happy

“Happy” is not a project status. It doesn’t matter if the client is happy or the manager is happy, or even if the team is happy. I mean, no one should be miserable, but the whole point of spending time together is to do good work together. It’s helpful to establish this early on. A while back we worked with a client who was trying to decrease systemic rural poverty. “Do real good, not feel good” was what he’d always say. It’s hard not to conflate happiness with progress, but it’s hard to make progress if you do.

Asking questions will never feel as good as having answers. Critiquing doesn’t feel as good as creating. (Unless you are a bad person doing a spite crit.)

The happy path to better design is the one that both invites participation and rewards honest assessments instead of fearful acquiescence. What’s not to like about that?

Photo credit: Hug by Jiunn Kang Too CC BY-SA 2.0