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Thinking Out of the Box

Come Talk to Me: Communication in UX Design – Part 1

Markus Weber
Markus Weber
December 16th, 2010

There is a multitude of roles and job titles in the field of UX design. But regardless of what the involvement of someone in a UX design project is – communication is a key activity when it comes to successfully accomplishing many of the tasks in the collaborative domain of UX design.

Whether with users, project stakeholders or within a UX design team, “communication” entails much more than simply talking to respective receivers and making sure that the words come out right. There are certain pitfalls to avoid. This two-part article examines the role of communication in UX design in order to provide information that helps in communicating efficiently. In the article, the term “UX practitioner” is used to refer to the diverse roles in a generic fashion. The ideas described can be applied to in-house as well as external (consulting) UX practitioners.

More than words – artifacts and control over communication

One way of exchanging information in UX design projects is via artifacts such as usability reports, wireframes and the like. With large or distributed project teams in particular, artifacts must often speak for themselves, since the respective author cannot be present upon reception of the artifacts in every case – or control who is receiving the artifact. The UX practitioner should therefore be aware of the fact that, as soon as an artifact is delivered, it can take on a life of its own with corresponding outcomes for communication.

For example, even when wireframes are delivered with the disclaimer that they do not constitute the final design, that disclaimer might go unnoticed when the artifact is distributed within an organization. This may result in serious consequences that are hard to contain once the communication has gone astray. A developer, e.g., who receives the wireframes, may assemble detailed feedback on missing functionality, not knowing that the functionality is beyond the scope of the deliverable. The result is frustration about a seemingly incompetent UX practitioner who has not understood what the system is about – and additional frustration when the developer learns that the feedback was in vain because it was way too early for scrutinizing wireframes on that level. (For more information on how to communicate wireframes, see also “Stretching Imagination: Wireframes and Visual Design“)

Even though communication cannot be fully controlled, there are ways of minimizing the risk of mis-communicating. Ideally, the UX practitioner can manage expectations during the initial phases of the project and during key phases throughout. Dedicated meetings with members of the project team should serve to explain – preferably with examples – the purpose and limits of key deliverables, such as wireframes, to ensure the audience understands them, even if the respective author is not present to explain them. Such an explanation is often skipped, because practitioners with in-depth UX knowledge may not be aware that some people may not be able to properly understand the artifacts and place them within the context of the overall project. Keeping in mind the audience who will potentially receive and interpret the artifacts, and the context the reception will take place in, can help better manage expectations and tailor artifacts according to the respective requirements.

In addition, it can be beneficial communicating crucial deliverables in dedicated meetings, in which at least the key stakeholders and members of the project team participate in order to ensure that they receive their information first-hand and can ask questions directly. This kind of meeting allows the UX practitioner to exert tighter control over communication during key phases of a project.

“What are you talking about, anyway?” Or, get your concepts straight

When communicating, the fact that two parties use the same words does not necessarily imply that they have the same concepts in mind. Communication in UX design projects is no exception in this case and so heated debates may occur about user experience issues that fail to reach any agreement or conclusion when the parties involved are actually talking about different things without realizing it.

Take, e.g., the term “interaction design”. Apart from the fact that it can refer to a process or a result, there are different granularities of interaction design. Whereas micro-interaction design refers to interaction with individual controls/widgets and is more or less blind to the semantics of users’ workflows, macro-interaction design is concerned with the way that users interact with the user interface in order to carry out meaningful tasks and often abstracts from the details of concrete user interface elements to examine the level of screens or screen flows, respectively. (For more information on micro-interactions and macro-interactions, see also “Micro-Interactions vs. Macro-Interactions”)

A clear definition and understanding of key concepts is important for a project not least because the way in which team members implement their roles and responsibilities is based upon their understanding of those concepts. If, e.g., one’s understanding of interaction design tends towards the design of micro-interactions, the inclusion of (user interface) developers may be regarded as required, whereas this may not necessarily be the case when thinking about macro-interaction design.

For a UX design project, in which team members communicate over a longer period of time, a project glossary (e.g. maintained in a Wiki) can be a helpful tool for a shared understanding of key concepts. When in doubt, team members can refer to the glossary to ensure that they are actually talking about the same things as their fellow team members.
In addition, since asking questions should come natural to UX practitioners, there should be no shame in asking someone to explicate their concepts if there is doubt whether all parties are on the same page regarding the definition of an important concept.

The second part of this article will discuss influences of the English language in UX design and the fact that UX design is not just about “designing for emotion”, but can also be an emotional process itself.

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