How to navigate meetings as an introverted designer

A guide to avoiding Design by Committee and other pitfalls

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Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

Imagine that your design mentor has taken a vacation or sick day. As a result, it’s fallen to you to take care of the duties for the day or the week.

There’s a scheduled meeting with several executives to talk about the design of the current project.

Whether by accident or on purpose, one of the executives brings up a new design or idea in the absence of more senior members of the design team. They either are pressuring you to make it happen, or are starting to design by committee among themselves.

What do you do?

First of all, breathe.

Second of all, I hope you’re not reading this in front of them in the meeting. If you are, skip to the bottom.

Because first I need to talk about creativity in the workplace.

Creativity, for many organizations, is a buzzword. Corporations view “creativity” as a nice idea, but in practice it runs counter to what they were taught.

For many executives, creativity essentially equates to risk. They are taking something that is either novel or unproven, which is high risk already, with boundaries that are ambiguous, and putting resources like time, money and manpower into it.

If this creative project fails, then someone is going to take the blame for wasting those resources. They’re trying to avoid that.

But that’s only part of the equation: the other part is that there is the element of fear, especially within tech companies. The cult of personality that arose from Steve Jobs has led to a fear of seeming uncreative.

Executives that have vision and foresight might be seen as born leaders, while those that are deemed uncreative are doomed to middle management.

So people set up these meetings, to split ideation and responsibility among everyone. That way, they’re ‘covered’ from being singled out as the cause of failure or seeming uncreative.

Everyone is brought on board, so that even if one person comes up with an idea, it’s tacitly approved by everyone in the room (otherwise they would have spoken up).

But anyone familiar with design thinking knows that this is a problem. Design-by-committee will never lead to the insights or solutions that you’re looking for. But it’s the safer option.

So a simple design problem, that you’ve probably been trained to solve, isn’t that simple to them. It’s this ambiguous creative problem that has a chance to expose them to risk or possibly as uncreative. They don’t like that.

In the absence of a strong design voice, someone will inevitably speak of a solution that ‘makes sense’, even if that solution is based on web design from 1992.

So what should you do?

You’re going to have to speak up just a little bit, but these things are crucial to say to redirect the flow of the meeting.

One of the most crucial things to do is to get them away from talking about solutions. The easiest way to do that is to get them to focus on the problem (and it’s very helpful for you as well).

People from across your organization, from junior to senior, are taking time out of their day to come to this meeting. That’s the committee part of Design by Committee. You need to make sure that you’re all solving the same problem.

As one person is describing the problem as they see it, another may chime in that they see it differently. Getting agreement on the problem may be just as vital as finding the solution.

One of the most important things to showcase is that you’re actively listening if you’re not speaking. Writing down notes is a way to show that you’re listening and paying attention to the stakeholders at the meeting.

It also is a way to keep the meeting on track. People often don’t know what to think about a ‘design meeting’ if they’re not familiar with UX. As a result, some solutions or ideas that start rolling with casual conversation can be paused if people are aware that their words may be written down.

Inevitably, there is going to be a bit of ambiguity around something in the problem. It’s important that you address that, even if people are ignoring it right now: establishing it as a potential problem avoids defaulting to bad solutions later which just avoid that later.

Establish it as a problem, but also attach a person to it to help make it less abstract. For example:

“The database won’t support that .” (Person 1)

“Who could Answer questions about the database?” (You say)

“Tony.” (Person 1)

“X, you know Tony, don’t you? Can you reach out to him about this concern?”( someone else, they won’t expect you to know)

Bring paper, Post-Its, or index cards if possible. One of the most powerful design tools for problems is visualization. It’s not uncommon, if executives are talking about solutions, for someone to step up to a whiteboard to try and draw what they’re thinking.

Paper sketching shines in these situations. As a designer, having this skill in your back pocket not only builds trust with stakeholders, but gives a low-fidelity visual representation of a user’s idea. Even if you’re a whiz at prototyping software, it’s a really bad idea to create higher-fidelity prototype of someone’s idea.

If you’re not comfortable sketching in the moment, stall. Make them understand that you need some time to elaborate on whatever visuals or description they’re talking about. By delaying the solution-building till after the meeting, you have at least given yourself some more time to work with.

Hopefully these phrases will help you navigate meetings until you’re able to discuss this with other members of the design team.

TWAS, acronym to help you out:

Tell me about the problem.”

“Let me Write that down.”

“Who can Answer that?” or (“Can I Ask a question?”)

“Is this Sketch what you’re thinking?”(Bring paper to meetings!) or “Can I Show you after the meeting?” (if you’re not comfortable sketching)

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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