By Stewart McCoy

Using design to unblock stakeholders

As designers we are uniquely positioned to show people the future. We can visualize a website, an app, or a new logo, and define constraints, features, and interactions, whereas others can write bulleted lists and whiteboard diagrams. Where others can react to and debate opinions in the abstract, we can anchor conversations in the reality of what could be. A picture is worth a thousand words, as we well know. (And a prototype must be worth infinitely more.)

It’s not always that easy, though, because designers are often organizationally positioned below decision makers. Whether product managers, agency leads, clients, or design managers, we often rely on others to provide us with goals, requirements, and measures of success. And more often than not, the details are fuzzy because the problem is poorly understood, there is little data or research, or the stakeholders themselves are in disagreement over which direction to go.

Which is where design comes in as a tool for persuasion, used at the outset of a project to accelerate definition and gain consensus. I’m sure most of us are aware of, practice, or have at least heard of iterative design. Design by it’s nature is iterative. But I think most of us could still learn a lot in the way of mastering this art. Instead of waiting on stakeholders, or trying to lead them through a haphazard whiteboard exercise which may or may not clarify the situation, we can use design to explore and anticipate directions, make up our own minds about the possibilities, and recommend directions to stakeholders, both unblocking ourselves and taking the driver’s seat.

And being in the driver’s seat, it’s our responsibility — as those who can show the way forward — to explore and create the best possible designs for the users and consumers of our work. We shouldn’t take shortcuts because of low internal expectations, low client budgets, or legacy design. We should, however, be responsible for setting new standards and using our tools of persuasion for rallying our teams, and championing those we design for; design first, define later.

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