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Thinking Out of the Box

Come Talk to Me: Communication in UX Design – Part 2

Markus Weber
Markus Weber
January 24th, 2011

Communication is essential to UX design. As with other contexts, communication can be impaired by – sometimes very subtle – influencing factors, some of which were described in part 1 of this article. This second part of the article deals with additional aspects that can be detrimental to communication, such as (unconscious) language barriers and the “human factor” in UX design.

UX does not stop at the United States border

Teams working on UX design projects, e.g. in large organizations, may consist of team members from different countries and therefore have different native languages. In addition, project stakeholders that team members get into contact with may also speak a variety of native languages. Still, “UX lingo” is heavily influenced by English. Even though there are local equivalents to terms such as “usability,” “user experience” and “interface design” (such as “Gebrauchstauglichkeit,” “Nutzungserlebnis” and “Schnittstellengestaltung” in German), UX practitioners sometimes involuntarily switch to the English terms, which often sound more professional than their local counterparts.

While this may not be much of a problem within a UX design team that has established a common language (see part 1) or within a team of English native speakers, communication with project stakeholders whose native languages differ from English may be impaired. Even when those stakeholders understand the English terms, communication may suffer on a more subtle level. For example, some people may display a certain aversion regarding the usage of English terminology. In those cases, UX practitioners making extensive use of English “UX jargon” may come across as “wannabes” who use fancy language to impress – this impression can distract from the fact that their arguments are sound. (“Okay, now that we’ve got our head around ‘usability,’ they are starting with this fancy ‘user experience’ talk. Do we really need all this English stuff?”) Therefore, it is important for UX practitioners to keep an eye on these (sometimes subtle) language issues and adapt their communication accordingly, especially when it comes to communicating with stakeholders who lack a UX background and who do not speak English natively.

Leave your ego at the door

Communication takes place within a social situation. As described by psychologist Paul Watzlawick, it has a content and a relationship aspect. Getting the content aspect right is a basic requirement for any UX practitioner; they should know what they are talking about. But to communicate efficiently, they must also know how to handle the relationship aspect.

Take, for example, a project meeting to present and discuss the results of a usability test. On the surface it’s about communicating results in a clear and understandable manner. At its core, though, the communication is about errors, problems and shortcomings (and remedies), which are discussed with people who have stakes in the system and who may be responsible for those issues.

Not everyone in the room will have the same perspective on all the issues, which becomes especially clear in meetings that are attended by developers and management simultaneously. UX practitioners prepared to communicate only on the content level may suddenly find themselves in a situation that is out of control and in which arguments are exchanged that are about more than the obvious issues. Developers may be blamed for the faulty implementation of a feature and respond by blaming management for deciding to have the “useless” feature implemented at all.

In such a situation, the UX practitioner is challenged to assume the role of a moderator who can resolve issues. Otherwise, in the worst case, arguments – even though valid – are rejected with the corresponding negative consequences for the project. If the UX practitioner lacks the social communication skills, getting all the facts straight will not be enough to ensure buy-in.

Summary

Communication has diverse facets that must be taken into account.

Oftentimes, it does not take place face-to-face but via deliverables, which must be crafted and introduced carefully to make sure that they can speak for themselves at times where the author is not present upon reception.

Even when people use identical words, this does not guarantee that they refer to identical concepts. It can therefore be helpful to explicate concepts, e.g. in the form of a project glossary.

One should also be aware of the fact that, even though “UX language” is dominated by English, that it can be a good idea checking for local terminology in order to communicate more efficiently with people who do not speak English as their native language or do not have a UX background.

Finally, UX design is about human factors, but is also influenced by those factors itself. Therefore UX practitioners should be aware of the social aspects of working in a UX design team and adapt their behavior accordingly to achieve desired project outcomes.

This article is partly based on material by the author that has been published in UPA’s User Experience Magazine 9(4), 2010

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