When working in UX, one of the most important skills one can have is the ability to communicate. And while that may be obvious, it’s harder than it seems at first. Communication and clarity are skills you have to practice, and your success can be hard to measure. I learned a lot of my communication skills from working with customers at the Apple Store, and they have proven to be translatable across all of my work. Here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped me communicate better.
Don’t assume a prior knowledge
On any UX assignment, you’ll eventually come to a point where you have to communicate a deliverable or an idea with a member of your team or a stakeholder that has a different background than yours. Or even if they have the same background, nobody is like you (yay individualism!), so you can’t assume that the other person knows what you know.
When I started serving customers at the Apple Store, I made the incorrect assumption that people knew how their phone worked to the degree that I did, and that caused a lot of miscommunication and frustration on both of our parts. For instance, some folks I helped at the store didn’t know how to move their apps around the screen. Seems like iPhone 101, right? Realizing that the things I took for granted weren’t necessarily common knowledge forced me to rethink how I would speak to customers, I would have to gauge their level of understanding as one of my first steps. Some people will know a lot about what you’re talking about, and some will know almost nothing, and in gauging that level of understanding, you can know better how to move forward.
It’s best to default to assuming your audience knows nothing about the topic you’re about to speak about, and then be pleasantly surprised that they do. Craft your communications to be overly-descriptive, and when you find that your audience doesn’t need the extra description, you can cut to the chase. However, if they do need that extra description (and some people can be afraid to tell you that), then you won’t leave them high and dry and confused.
Read your audience
Communication is a collaborative activity, and it’s important for the speaker to know the disposition of the audience they’ll be speaking to. Disposition could mean a lot of things, be it their mood, the amount of time they have available, or their level of stress. In order for your communication to really be digested, you need to be able to meet your audience where they are.
Needless to say, while at Apple, I spoke with customers of every different disposition. Some wanted to spend a lot of time in the store, while some only had 5 minutes. Some were stressed out, and some were relaxed. The way I communicated with them changed a lot depending on where they were at the time. For stressed people, I would speak more softly, for people in a rush, I would cut right to the chase and speak a bit faster. This helped my audience better digest what I had to say.
It’s the same in UX work. Some stakeholders have a deadline they’re stressed about. Some team members have all the time in the world to talk with you. Your communication style will vary with all of these gradations of disposition, and when you meet your audience where they are, what you have to say will be more easily digested and retained.
Tell the full story
When presenting work, it’s important to give background and context to what you’re showing your audience. Background and context are variable, and the better you’re able to tell the backstory of what you’re about to show them, the better your audience will understand the actual thing you’re presenting.
Compare, if you will, the following two statements:
“I decided to make that button dark blue.”
“That button was a lighter blue before, but I checked the contrast, and it wasn’t up to accessibility standards, so I decided to make that button a darker blue, which increased the contrast.”
Which one is the better communication? For my money, I would prefer the second, because it shows the rationale behind a decision and makes me feel more informed. Audiences want to feel like they’re in the know, and especially when being presented creative work, everyone benefits from being aware of why decisions were made. Being as descriptive about the backstory as possible will help your audience feel more informed, and will help you communicate effectively.
Three magic words
In everyday communication, we’re always looking for shortcuts or ways to streamline. Any group of people, be it a company, a project team, or a group of friends, naturally creates acronyms, nicknames, or phrases that allude to something more complex. To save time and energy, that jargon is adopted and understood by the team. But to anybody outside that group, that shorthand comes across as confusing or nonsensical.
To effectively communicate this shorthand, I employ three magic words: “Which we call”. For example, when telling someone what a wireframe is, compare the following:
“In UX it’s common to make a wireframe to show the layout and design of the product we’re making.”
“In UX it’s common to make a rough sketch, which we call a wireframe, to show the layout and design of the product we’re making.”
Using those three magic words swiftly explains a term to somebody and makes them feel included and informed. People like to feel included and informed, so using “which we call” can do wonders to make sure you’re fostering understanding and good feelings when communicating with others.
I’m certainly not the best communicator, and I have a lot to learn going forward, but with the few tricks I’ve learned over the years, I have become a much better communicator than before. Meeting my audience where they are in both knowledge and temperament and giving context and clarity are important factors in communicating effectively, and it’s helped me a lot. Practice makes perfect, especially in communication, so if you get the chance, practice a few of these techniques and tell me how it goes!