Exposing design

When you describe a design to a group of people, each person imagines something different. Depending on your story and the individuals, understanding may vary wildly. And if it differs enough, the result is chaotic–unpredictable and often negative.

You need to fit how you show your ideas to different groups of people carefully, and notice when you your story isn’t hitting. For your closest team members you can wave your hands and scrawl ideas on a chalkboard. For people you work less frequently, you need more detail: proper drawings and clean wireframes. For non-technical clients you need even more, polished, functional prototypes and pretty drawings.

When you fail to excite people with your ideas you do more harm than good. They imagine something more or less than what you’re thinking, leaving them disappointed and confused. You give them a different taste than you intended, which you will have to work to overcome in the future. Instead, you need to spark their imagination skillfully, stirring lively, constructive discussion.

A working example

One of the products I’m working on is a refresh for an ancient financial system. We’re working to make it scalable, easy to operate as a web service, and viable as a business for the client. Each of these problems is interesting and fun.

Early in our prototype work I made the mistake of leaking a technical proof to one of our non-technical team members (not the client, luckily). The prototype proved that we could reproduce the legacy calculations accurately, using cheap, common tools and schema design. Technically we were excited about the win, so we showed it around internally.

The problem with technical prototypes is that they lack pizzaz, often intentionally. This piece of the prototype matched the old system design to make it easy to test, but looked dated and out of place in a modern web app. The effect of showing this stage of the work to the wrong people bogged down our shared picture of the product. It killed our momentum and excitement, which took time and energy to recover. The loss was more psychological than literal, but was a cost nonetheless.

The next planned task, of course, was to find the visual styles for these screens, as now we knew that they were technically possible. And the design turned out better than expected, but the win was dulled by the lost momentum and our gains were smaller than they should have been.

More than words

The problem isn’t just in the explanation or the path, it’s in the combination of people, experience, and approach to the narrative. Each thing you show (and how you do it) matters. Each person’s understanding and contribution matters, as they are part of the momentum. Focus what you deliver, think clearly about the presentation, and keep your audience in mind.

There’s a bigger win in showing off the right work to the right people: it forces you to deliver better quality earlier. The risk and of miscommunication is real, and the wins–when you get them–are golden. Force yourself to show off better work, make it a personal goal. Challenge your team to show better work too. It pays off in a multiplicative way, and that’s good for the things you build.