How do you keep stakeholders informed and included during a user experience (UX) design process? Short answer: Be generous with representations — sketches, mockups and prototypes — right from day one of the design process.
Yes, that’s right. I’m telling you that, in the context of tight budgets and short deadlines, you should be generous with your skills and talents as a designer or developer.
Rich representations are one of the hallmarks of an intelligent and successful design process.
And, the surprising thing is that it can save your project from going over budget and past deadlines, by preventing misunderstandings and flawed decision-making. The exact thing you are trying to prevent by truncating the number of representations in the design process — saving time and budget — can come back to bite you in the end in the form of changes and redesigns.
Every stakeholder is different but the timeless adage — a picture is worth a thousand words — applies well here. It’s a safe bet that many stakeholders are not trained designers and as such, do not have as good visualization skills as designers.
As designers we’re able to pre-visualize ideas in our heads pretty effortlessly regarding various options for how a user experience will look or feel, and use that skill to make design decisions. Stakeholders on the other hand are probably doing a lot less visualization — perhaps even seeing nothing in their mind’s eye — yet are still asked to make decisions.
It’s polite meeting behavior to follow along in a discussion and assume the best outcome even if it’s unclear what a verbal description fully implies. Stakeholders may be uncomfortable speaking up. So help them out by offering visual support. Sketches and prototypes naturally show more design detail than a short verbal description can get at, and, even more importantly, they elicit the emotions associated with a design.
Words are a different medium from interactive graphics and they can only go so far in their UX verity. Where you might normally think you can just talk through variations in a design, actually creating sketches of them to see impacts before committing to decisions can have a positive effect on decision making.
The value of representations carries over into coding. Investing a little time in design variations that stakeholders (and designers) can try with hands-on interaction can have a positive effect on the design success.
We’ve established why visual props are helpful to stakeholders and that making design decisions in the absence of visuals is not fully fair to them. There is a second issue, which is how to tap into stakeholders’ ideas and include them more actively in the creative process. They are, after all, often the originators of an idea for a project and hold the larger vision of its success.
The solution to utilizing stakeholders as design co-creators also involves using your design skills to glean and visualize their design ideas for them since they can’t necessarily do it themselves. By considering a range of design options, you’re ensuring that all parties are likely to feel more confident with the design choices in the end.
As the designer, your job is to not only end up with a design that you believe is successful, but also to make sure that stakeholders believe is successful because they were a part of the creative process.
By the word “sketch” I don’t mean the stereotypical rough pencil-on-paper drawing, although you may employ those. I mean sketch in its true meaning of a fast representation. In truth a sketch can be done in any medium. User stories could be considered word sketches of people. In this case I mean a fast representation that makes a UX idea visible. It can be done with physical drawing, Photoshop, Illustrator or even code.
Designers often believe it is impossible to sketch with tools like Photoshop because of the instantly slick nature of their output; they fear that others can’t tell the difference between a sketch and a finished design and that will be confusing. This really is a minor communication issue that can be easily clarified.
With tight budgets and short deadlines, we all look for ways to cut corners and get to “done” as fast as possible. You may think you don’t have time for this luxury of rich communication and collaboration with your stakeholders. I would argue that if you don’t give stakeholders a means to fully understand the proposed UX design from the beginning, in the form of sketches, mockups and prototypes, it usually comes around to bite you at the end.
More visible options early usually means fewer changes later. All in all, putting together quick sketches takes little time compared to making changes further into the process. A little work now saves headaches and delay later.