Product/Interface Design, psychology, User Research

Design & the Art of Listening

Give. The. People. What they want! Give. The. People. What they want!

There was a time, years ago, when my friend Jesse and I would chant this little phrase over and over to try to encourage anyone, anywhere, to do something we agreed would be entertaining, funny and maybe a little outrageous. No one could escape the chanting, from our best friends, to strangers ready to have a little fun, to performers at a drag show.

This little phrase, always shouted in good spirit, was such an effective way of encouraging (guilting?) friends, new and old, to do something they might have been too self-conscious to do otherwise. Of course, cheers, high fives and admiration were waiting for them on the other side.

Flash forward years later. Recently, I re-entered a world of design consulting (I’ve dabbled with freelancing in the past but the allure of a steady pay check and full-time office mates to pester always drew me back). While talking to potential clients, inevitably I get asked, “What is your design process?”

After thinking for a bit, I realized the short and honest answer is: I give the people (your target users. Not everyone.) what they want.

This is much easier said that done.  Life lesson: much of the time people aren’t able to tell you what they want right away. Sometimes it takes a while to get the answer; sometimes they aren’t able to articulate it themselves. So how do you figure this out? You listen and you listen some more.

Below are my tips on how to master the art of listening for great design, followed by a video that explains this much better than I ever could:

Be present. Here. Now.

Clear your mind. Prior to a scheduled meeting, do a brain dump to get rid of the details flying around in your mind so you’re not trying to remember your grocery list while your subject is talking. And while you’re at it, clear your mind of any preconceived notions you have about the person and what they might say. Be a blank slate!

And maybe it should go without saying, but turn off all your devices, silence your phone, and get rid of anything that distracts you from simply listening to what the other person has to say. It’s the most important thing at that moment.

Be approachable and compassionate. Let them know you care what they have to say.

Honestly, how is Oprah always able to get people to spill their guts? It’s because she has this incredible gift for making people feel like they’re her best friend. Bill Clinton has it too—people believe he hears them and cares about their issues. That’s how you want to make your subject feel.

Remember that you are fortunate to be having a conversation with a real live person, rather than mucking through user data trying find what you’re looking for. Let them know you’re grateful for their time.

It’s more than what they’re saying.

So you’re asking questions and you’ve got the ball rolling, but this isn’t an interrogation, and you’re listening for more than what they’re saying. Primarily, you’re concerned with the pain points, because opportunities for design and innovation come out of real problems and challenges people are facing. You’ll get your inspiration from paying close attention to them.

But people sometimes don’t know what their pain points are, which means they might not tell you straight out. This is where the interview goes beyond a conversation. Don’t just use your ears, use your eyes and your gut. Pay attention to context, behaviors and non-verbal cues. You may read the answer in their body language. If someone is having a difficult time articulating a thought, see if drawing it might help. When testing an application, have the person open up the app and show you what they mean.

Putting it together.

The information you gain from the interview is your most valuable resource for design and innovation. And you’ll probably find that their answers don’t match up with your previous assumptions. That’s ok! Let these insights drive the ideas, making the innovation actually relevant and useful, not just interesting and novel.

Design isn’t just about solving problems or coming up with cool new innovations and then telling people how much they’re going to love them. It’s about asking questions, listening to the answers, brainstorming piles of solutions and testing over and over again—always with the user in mind. More than telling, it’s about asking and listening.

The O’Jays said it better. So funky! So fresh.

Filed under: Product/Interface Design, psychology, User Research


Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.