Effectively managing stakeholders through uncertain times

One of the things we at Grand Studio love the most is a good problem to solve. The most interesting problems for us are the elusive ambiguous and complex problems that are packed with the most uncertainty. Indeed, the more challenging the problem, the more rewarding it becomes to solve it.

Keeping our clients confident as we move through the rough and tumble of the uncertain problem space and delicately into the solution space, in a way that brings delight, is a part of what makes our jobs interesting as consultants.

Uncertainty can creep into a project at any time, like a heavy fog resting over a vast valley. Thankfully, we’ve found there are often some common questions that, once answered, can clear the fog and get us all seeing the path clearly again.

What problem are we trying to solve?

Understanding project goals probably sounds obvious, but this becomes more important especially as new stakeholders enter a project. When there’s uncertainty about what we’re doing and why, the purpose of a design engagement can become totally lost.

Something that works well for us is a conceptual model that can morph through a project. Basically, some model that’s understandable enough for anyone to grasp with a little voice-over so it can bridge any information gaps related to goals and scope.

Another alignment exercise is going through the process of creating strategic principles for a project. These high-level principles are often used to help stakeholders and designers align on what a product should do to satisfy business and user needs. If you and your stakeholders can agree on these, then you can reference them in the future to inform your design decisions.

Goals, scope, and principles might shift (hopefully not too dramatically), but at least you will have this tool in your back pocket to help communicate what they are and why.

What do we know, or not know?

It’s good to identify early on in a project what information you have and what information you need. A lack of information can lead to a situation where you have more questions or assumptions than answers; moments like these can feel overwhelming and can cause unnecessary uncertainty for everyone.

Set time with stakeholders to transfer knowledge and better understand the problem space, identify the questions you still have, and how you plan to answer them. You will probably find that your stakeholders will have their own questions that they wish to have answered as well!

Maintain an inventory of any lingering questions that you have. Over time, you can use these questions to keep a pulse on what you still need to learn. Document answers to those questions, along with any follow-up questions you might have. The more questions you can find answers to, the better.

Illustration of a man and woman having a conversation

Who do we need to speak with?

Uncertainty runs rampant when we have a lack of information (or worse, misinformation), and there is often a vault of knowledge that someone somewhere has is in their heads, or in a document. Part of a design consultant’s role is facilitating the conversations that need to happen to make that information available.

Interviews with users, experts, or other stakeholders are great ways to gather information and answer questions. In some scenarios, a workshop can be an interactive way to tease out information. We’ve also found that some interviewees respond well to an email or survey with a generic list of questions. A lot of it depends on whom you are speaking to and the nature of the information you need.

Invite stakeholders along for the ride when you are seeking out information, and give them space to ask questions of their own. Giving them space to contribute to the final design of a project can help them feel valued and invested in a solution. If stakeholders cannot participate, regular share-out reports are great ways to keep folks informed about who we have spoken with and what we have learned, and how these findings impact our designs.

When should we discuss _ ?

Communication is the secret sauce that ties all of this together~ too much of it might inhibit your teams ability to make progress, or worse, annoy the heck out of your stakeholders. Too little communication might make your stakeholders feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or out of the loop. Setting expectations and working relationships early on can help facilitate this balance.

Uncertainty can creep in really fast when there’s a lack of communication, or poor communication. No communication at all can be really damaging to a relationship. A stakeholder might urgently want to discuss something- perhaps a big change at their organization, a change in requirements, or a new strategic initiative- so opening up space for those conversations is important to making sure everyone is on the same page.

Stay flexible, and remain transparent about what communication styles are working or not working, and tinker accordingly.

How should we deal with change?

At some point during a project you might find that the goals have changed, you have new stakeholders, your requirements have changed, or your communication cadence is no longer working. More often than not, change becomes associated with uncertainty.

Things will change during a project and being flexible enough to adapt to those changes with the right strategy is a big part of successful consulting. Be transparent with your stakeholders about what changes have been made that might effect the project objectives and scope. Have fun with change and find ways to spin it into new opportunities.

Have fun!

The final piece of advice I can give for design consultants is to have fun. Make your relationship with your client a partnership–keep it collaborative, interactive, and ask questions. Make spending time with your team the highlight of their week!

Remote Workshops: Design & Facilitation

Our work requires collaboration with clients, and this is best done in person. Since that hasn’t been an option for a while, we’re all developing new ways of getting the information and feedback we need from our client teams.

When you’re designing in complex enterprise spaces, you’ll encounter a common problem: No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, or how focused your research is, you’ll never know as much about the problem space as your client. Knowing this, our team took a co-authoring approach with our client team on a recent project to collaborate most effectively, particularly in the wake of remote work and COVID-19.

It took us a while to narrow in on the best approach for our dual teams, but ultimately, a combination of focused, structured homework assignments and collaborative workshops was the solution. Hopefully some of these tactics will save your team some time and headaches.

Illustration of four figures representing potential workshop participants. Three have checkboxes next to them while one does not.
Not all participants may be available, interested, or right for a particular session. Image by Noun Project and Dave Roth.

Participants

Who attends, when and how becomes extra important when dealing in scenarios that are more out of your control as a facilitator. In general, we crafted and used these heuristics to get as successful a meeting as possible.

  • It’s important to have the right people in the workshop, but just as important to limit the group to people who are essential. For our project we found that 3–5 clients was the sweet spot.
  • Understanding the client-side hierarchy, areas of specialization, and domain ownership can be tricky. As we became more familiar with one another it got easier to politely ask the question “who owns this decision?”
  • It’s almost impossible to collaborate with a client team that is either unwilling to engage, or unclear on their role. In order to bring clarity to roles & responsibilities, we just spelled it out — “we’re looking for feedback on these pieces today, and this is the form we’re hoping that feedback will take.”
Icon of a pencil on an open notebook
Homework is a powerful tool for collaboration and preparation. Image by Noun Project and Dave Roth.

Prep work / Homework

People are usually drawn to read what they see on the screen, so preparing them ahead of time is a big help. In order to accomplish this we would let them know what we’d be talking about ahead of time, how it fit with the larger project plan, and why it mattered.

In early July we started giving the client team homework that typically took the form of minimally-designed spreadsheets to be filled out ahead of time and sent back to us in time for us to transcribe their answers into a Miro board. This is likely to have helped in three ways:

  1. The client team was thinking about the problem space in a detailed way ahead of time
  2. The client team saw their thinking in the work we were discussing
  3. It shifted the conversation from “what do you think?” to “does everyone agree with these points?” This shift to establishing alignment accelerated our process dramatically.
An illustration of a map showing the path from a red x to a green x
Know where you’re going. Image by Noun Project and Dave Roth.

Setting expectations through context

At the outset of each workshop we set the context in three ways:

  1. The goals of the conversation
  2. A listing of assumptions that informed the workshop
  3. A clear articulation of how the workshop fits into the larger project, and what will come next

Along the way we would also remind them of comments and decisions they’d provided earlier.

An illustration of a screwdriver, wrench, and hammer
Choosing the right tool is everything. Image by Noun Project and Dave Roth.

Tools & Methods

Our early workshops were designed to be participatory in Miro. We had limited success with this, and found ourselves devoting a fair amount of time to explaining the platform.

  • The remedy for this was to document their homework in Miro just before the workshop, and to bring it to life during the workshop with active conversation and documentation.
  • We used Figma for a few workshops, and while this worked fine it didn’t feel as fluid as Miro. In the end our toolkit was Excel, Miro, and Zoom.

Behind the scenes we made some important decisions about the choreography needed to support the workshop:

  • One person to share their screen, limiting screen hand-offs
  • Collective note-taking either in the Miro board (if the client likes to see this happening), or in a separate document (if the note-taking is distracting)
  • Scale the Miro board for maximum visibility and focus on Zoom
  • Timebox workshop activities ahead of time
A line connecting the numbers 1, 2, and 3, with 4 next
Don’t forget to connect where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Image by Noun Project and Dave Roth.

Connecting the workshop to next steps

During our early workshops the client team would often get hung up on the “why?” of the workshop, and the time it took to justify our workshop methodology became counter-productive.

Later in the project we shifted to a “just trust us” approach, and this worked well. In order to set their minds at ease with the time we were asking of them we were careful to connect the workshop results to next steps. One of the ways we did this was to close each workshop with a high-level review of “what we decided today.”

Following this listing of “decisions made” we would take a look forward, and share our thoughts about how the results of the workshop would inform or drive the work-to-come. We found that this reminder was often needed multiple times during the workshops, but would help to orient the entire project team in the most important tasks in front of us.

  • Inevitably issues came up that were important but had to be set aside. In order to be sure we were keeping track of these ideas and concerns we created a “rabbit hole” document that we shared with the client team.
  • Finally, we made it a point to refer to the workshops when presenting our recommendations. These recommendations took the form of detailed spreadsheets documenting visit types, and end-to-end diagram illustrating activities, participants, and outcomes, IA, and wireframes.

Every client team is different, and every project presents unique challenges. Having said that, these insights are likely to find their way into our next series of remote work sessions, regardless of the client team or project.

Being remote challenges the level of empathy required to make others feel heard, appreciated…

2020 has been challenging so far. People around the world have had their lives turned upside down as restrictions have been placed for human-to-human contact due to Covid-19. Here at Grand Studio, we have been able to experience first-hand some of the struggles that have come with trying to maintain a human touch with challenging constraints.

Since Grand Studio’s office is located in Chicago, one of the cities in the United States most impacted by the pandemic, it poses an interesting case for how a growing agency has learned to cope with big changes.

A portrait of Diana Deibel

Diana Deibel, Design Director

Diana, How has the pandemic impacted your work at Grand Studio?

The biggest challenge has been personal. I have a four-year-old at home and a partner who also works. We share an office and parenting responsibilities so every morning we negotiate meeting time-slots so that one of us can be with our toddler while the other attends meetings or does work. I’ve had to shift a lot of my personal (non-team or meeting) working hours to night time when I only have one job to do instead of two. I consider our two-job household to be very lucky and privileged. Everyone is healthy, but it’s still hard as h*ll to get everything done when there are more responsibilities around the same time.

What has your team done to adapt to the pandemic?

As a team, we’ve adapted to using online tools (Freehand, Miro, Zoom, Hangouts, etc) more often- though we were already using them in a lighter capacity with remote clients and on our Work-From-Home Fridays. We’ve made a point of extra communication- for example, letting people know where we’re at on something, what we’re thinking about, what we’re doing, and when things may change. As a team leader, I’ve also made a point of checking in with my team more frequently as well as made a point of being silly and goofy in our group communications. In-person culture can get pushed aside during a separation or stressful time, and that’s one of the things people love most about working here.

What are three lessons you’ve learned during this time?

  1. Care-giving support (childcare, nurse aids, etc.) exists for a reason. It is simply untenable to be working full-time and care-giving full-time. It’s okay to voice that to your team and others to let them know your capacity and when you can get your work done. Historically I’ve not been great at setting boundaries or asking for help, and this has pushed me to do those.
  2. People need to laugh. Yes, your team needs focus and clarity, but inject some humor and levity into your interactions. We are all struggling in one way or another. Creating an environment where people can uplift each other while being productive is a good practice that will help prevent burn-out and keep retention. Gif it up!
  3. Your authentic self is your best self. No one has time or energy for the facade right now. It’s been beautiful to be on such a human level with other team mates, our clients, research participants, and others. We are all in sweatpants with cats and kids and Roombas walking around the backgrounds of our virtual meetings. When we can acknowledge that, it creates a bond and allows us to trust one another to create our best work.
A portrait of Katie Palmer

Katie Palmer, Director of People

Katie, What’s it like managing Human Resources (HR) during a pandemic?

I think that every HR leader is in uncharted territory. Juggling ongoing changes to mitigate risk, and making sure all employees feel safe and supported, all while considering the safety and well-being of each designer’s family, the Chicago community, and our clients is really challenging. I believe that part of what makes every designer at Grand Studio so special is their drive for solving complex problems. I have learned so much from them on this front and what may have seemed impossible to me before, is now a welcomed challenge. Despite all obstacles, there have been opportunities for growth and connection, and while times may be uncertain, we are in it together.

How have you and your team adapted to not having everyone in the same office?

The team at Grand Studio is very fortunate; before the pandemic, we worked remotely every Friday, so in regards to equipment and communication, our transition was more comfortable than most. I think the real challenge has been making sure everyone feels supported during this time. We are facing the rare problem of juggling our personal lives and work-life in a way that no one could have anticipated. I think we have added a more intense level of understanding, flexibility, and human connection to our culture, even through video chat as we get a deeper glimpse into each other‘s lives.

What are three lessons you have learned during this time?

  1. Google is a godsend when your toddler decides to jam a pea up their nose.
  2. It is okay not to be okay. Parenting and working are incredibly hard and messy and will interrupt your day. Know that you are not alone, and cut yourself some slack. Do not be afraid to let your team know how you are doing; chances are they are also feeling overwhelmed and alone. Remember, we are in this together.
  3. Connection is important. Not only at work but in your personal life, reach out to people you miss and haven’t spoken to, check in on your friends, neighbors, and family. These times can feel so incredibly isolating, but this is a rare chance to reconnect and make space for each other.
A portrait of Drew Gold

Andrew Gold, Chief Experience Officer

Drew, what challenges have you experienced running a design studio during the pandemic?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing us is inspiring a fun and caring culture across the virtual barrier. Not everyone is experiencing or handling the shelter-in-place mandate with ease. People can feel isolated or more disconnected, which can be felt from time to time. Especially with new hires, they are coming into a slightly different company experience than we would normally provide to them when in the office together.

As far as our client relationships go, I don’t think I’ve noticed much of a drop-off considering we were already working remotely with a few of our clients. The one area that has become more challenging is conducting research remotely, where an in-person connection with participants would go much farther.

How has your team adapted or changed due to these challenges?

Things like team socials and company-wide socials on video-chat can be helpful but I think we’re still trying to find our footing in getting everyone involved, creating more enthusiasm, and doing all we can to make people feel like they are a part of something great. Our teams are getting on video chat more, having more conversations, and are looking to better communicate visually with each other in order to build alignment. It is definitely a persistent challenge, but our teams are rising to the occasion.

What are three lessons you’ve learned during this time?

  1. Being remote challenges the level of empathy required to make sure people feel heard, feel appreciated, and feel connected to the experience we are trying to create.
  2. The safety and well-being of people in our company is of the utmost importance. We are a small group. At some point we will need to handle going back to work in person. Those decisions need to be treated with the highest degree of sensitivity.
  3. Finally — taking time for yourself is important. Even more important now that work life and home life seem more blended together. Our project timelines and client requests definitely push us to continue working through lunch, through dinner, or to find random pockets of time to continue working. It’s important for us to not only re-calibrate expectations with our clients (who are likely experiencing the same work/life balance issues) but to simply set aside time for ourselves so that we can continue to maintain those two worlds.

Conclusion

Though the pandemic may eventually end, the values we embrace during this time will hopefully persist- some of those values for us include patience, safety, connection, humor, authenticity, and empathy. Despite the odds, many people have been able to live with a smaller carbon footprint as well. They say every cloud has a silver lining, so even though this pandemic has not been easy, we can still carry something positive from it into the future.

Using Voice Interfaces in Emotionally-Fraught Industries

I’ve had the pleasure (and pain) of working in several high-stakes industries like healthcare and finance, and one truth rings out across any high-stakes scenario: people get super emotional. Unsurprisingly, they particularly get emotional when it comes to their life or livelihood. However, it’s interesting to note that, from a product design perspective, we don’t often address those user emotional states in our design. But the market is begging for emotional help. As an example, in finances, 62% of the growing market says that money is a stressor and 87% of them claim feelings as the reason they don’t talk about it.

62% say that money is a major source of stress, 87% don't talk about money because of feelings
(Hello, opportunity gap!)

At this point you might say to yourself: OK. I could address this gap in any number of channels, but if 87% just said they don’t want to talk about, why would I consider a channel whose entire interface is conversation? The secret here is wrapped up in a 2014 study done by the University of Southern California. Researchers brought in about 200 people to interact with a therapy bot they’d built and divided them up into two groups: one which was told the bot was entirely automated with no human interaction or oversight, and another which was told the bot was semi-automated and a human would be operating it remotely. The participants who thought they were talking to just the bot were far more likely to open up and reveal their deeper, true feelings.

What we learn from this and other research similar to this, particularly in the mental health and addiction spaces, is that people see bots as a “safe space” where they can share ideas and feelings without fear of judgment or bias perceived in human interactions.

Tips for Creating a Successful Emotional VUI Experience

How do we create a successful voice experience in an industry we know to be highly-emotional for our users? Well, particularly if it’s your first foray into the space, focusing on bringing user emotions to the forefront in 3 key areas will get you most of the way there.

1. Scope. Knowing what makes for a good use case in voice (and what doesn’t) is key to using the channel to its strength and getting customers to adopt the experience. It is also key to ensuring you’re using voice in the best way for a stressful situation.

For example, let’s say you have a user who runs 20 pet stores around the 5 boroughs of New York and is constantly in their car visiting all their locations. User research may tell you that they are quietly panicking and getting increasingly stressed out with staying up-to-date with profit-and-loss sheets but don’t have the time or ability to in-depth review a bunch of spreadsheets, particularly when they’re out on the road. A voice experience addressing emotions in finance here might look like a skill which eases concern and builds confidence by pulling the data for a particular pet store location which they can access in the car while on their way to that location. A health bot that has thoroughly scoped where they will and won’t help is Woebot, a behavioral cognitive therapy bot for people who need some extra emotional support.

An animation showcasing Woebat's initial interaction
Woebot’s initial interaction (from their website)

2. Context. You can’t design for emotions without knowing the emotional context of your users, so the best way to understand this is with in-person user research (methods like contextual inquiry, ethnography, etc). As you gather your data, plot it out in a journey — even better if you can co-build this with your user. Include the order of operations, methods for making decisions or taking actions, and the feelings people have in each moment.

An infographic showing different emotional inputs and influences
Example of mapping with emotional context

Analyze what’s happening around the moments that create the emotions and ask people where they wish they’d have a guide or friend to talk them through. By doing this you can identify both areas where things are going well and you can potentially replicate or areas where more support is needed. The Wolters Kluwer/Emmi Diabetes Support system is an example of a multimodal voice experience that handles user emotional context really well. (Bias alert! I was on the team that created that system.)

3 Interactions: Tone Consistency. In voice experiences, the interactions are the words and behaviors from both the system and user. At the point of scripting and designing these interactions, it’s important to bring in your marketing team, UX writers, content strategists and anyone else in the organization who may be communicating to your users. It’s imperative that you have a unified voice in the tone and words you’re using in print and in audio. Having multiple speakers or personas creates confusion for users on who your brand is and the values you represent in a good state. The more emotional people become, the less patience they have for confusion and the more abandonment you’ll see.

3a. Interactions: Applying Context to Words. It’s also important to apply the emotional context you learned about in the user research to your interactions, which in voice, is mostly about the words you use. For example, if you learn that people filing a life insurance claim only do so when someone close to them has passed away, incorporate that emotional context into an automated call center you might design in that space. Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many times that kind of sympathy is left behind. Addressing your users with just a bit of compassion and acknowledgement of their emotional context goes a long way in both calming your user’s negative emotions as well as distinguishing your brand as one who truly understands and cares.

Addressing All Emotional States

There are plenty of emotional scenarios in everyday life. You don’t have to address every single one that might possibly come up — and honestly, you shouldn’t. There are scenarios that humans are simply better at handling than bots (for example, you don’t want a bot giving financial guidance and advice — the emotional landmines alone are too nuanced for a bot to handle). And that’s OK. When there are nuanced or complex scenarios that we simply don’t have the technological or design prowess to handle yet, leave it to a person. The idea behind automating with voice and chat is to assist in the easier transactions or in situations where a human interaction could impede the experience or information needed, not to make every single conversation automated.

For those use cases you do tackle, doing some research into the general emotional context of your users’ journeys, planning for those emotions in your the language and behaviors of your interactions, and acknowledging emotional context creates an experience that people trust and want to return to.