Whether the partners are in-house or external clients, we all must manage business relationships. As design leaders, our ability to show authority in our team’s craft is crucial to our success in business opportunities. Microsoft designer Scott explained to me his interest in “fostering a culture and relationship with partners to share the value that a good design team can deliver.”

Thank you, Scott, for the article topic!

Here are a few techniques I have leveraged to foster long-lasting business relationships built on trust and respect. As always, most of these steps could apply to any leader, but all of them focus on aspects relevant to User Experience Designers.

1. The first impression is everything

I once observed a user accomplish their first usability task with a poorly developed search interface only to try again and again to use the same underdeveloped search for the second task. While other paths to accomplish the goal existed, the user’s initial success caused them to narrow their view. This experience showed me the power of a first impression! Fortunately for designers, some of our user experience techniques can set us up for positive initial reactions.

User research

I often put my UX skills to use before contacting clients by studying the company’s social media presence, blog, and LinkedIn profiles. This research helps me determine what I can expect during an initial meeting and lets the client know I care enough to learn who they are. For extra credit, I sometimes find white papers about their industry as well as potential competitors.

User interview

Active listening is my most important communication skill. By listening to my audience, taking notes for memory, and actively participating in the discussion rather than waiting for my turn to speak, I send a clear message to the business partners that I respect them.

A rose by any other name

The first note I take down during any conversation is name and title. One of my past weaknesses used to be recalling names. Because of this, I try to use a person’s name at least once during each session.

2. Match the culture regardless of country

While first impressions are instant, being a cultural match takes time. For instance, at Nintendo, I had to match myself with three unique cultures: America, Europe, and Japan. The Nintendo Developer Portal was the first genuinely global project I designed, with American, European, and Japanese stakeholders and users.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine

Global initiatives require local compromises

We went through many Mario poses before deciding on the one currently hosted as the logo for the Nintendo Developer Portal. Thumbs up Mario was derogative in West Africa and other countries, crossed-arms Mario was offensive in Japan. In total, we went from 20 poses down to three potentially inoffensive Mario stances across all the nations the portal would access.

Beyond disrespecting a culture, there were also many nuances to consider from tight government regulations in Europe to unique Japanese website design styles. I studied many Asian and European designs and taboos to understand my audience better and presented these findings to the portal stakeholders alongside the UI design to show purpose in direction.

Perseverance is key

With one week in Japan, my design team and I were able to internally sell our design services to gain 14 new global projects. While this may sound impressive, it took three years of building trust across multiple divisions within Nintendo to get the opportunity to pitch our services. This journey required an understanding of the Japanese business culture and a significant shift in my personality. Through this experience, I gained so much more respect for every culture, history, and tradition.

3. The decision-maker is not always on top

While consulting for a client, I found myself in the middle of a design dispute between the company’s Vice President and Program Manager. I sided with the VP. Due to my lack of understanding at that time, I failed to realize that while the VP led the team, the PM hired me. Even though I stayed on the project, the PM cut back my hours and moved forward with his design direction.

Respect your direct manager

Regardless how high up the ladder I communicate, I have found it best to make my immediate supervisor look great in all scenarios. If I disagree with their direction, I talk with them directly, but will not undermine their decision once they have made up their mind.

Strength in unity

This strategy is also a technique I use with my design team in stakeholder meetings. Before presenting a design, team members can critique design features as much as they desire. However, the second we walk into a stakeholder presentation, we become a unified front in total agreement as to not undermine our work.

4. Collaborate across teams

Cross-functional peers can build you up or tear you down based on the relationship. Sometimes friction is caused by the overlap in responsibilities between UX Designers and Business Analysts. Other times, Project Managers refuse to allow time for user research or usability studies. A basic understanding of ownership solves these challenges.

Department OwnersKnow your role

While this is an oversimplification, as long as this is understood, roles and responsibilities become much more relaxed. Now it should be okay for there to be tension between BA and UX because we both realize whom the other is advocating. As for scope concerns, they can also fade by showing the PM how minimal the timeline will be affected by adding user tests, and how much churn development could avoid.

5. Read the room

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Albert Mehrabian’s research produced the “7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication.” While he experimented with a particular scenario in mind, the results still clearly show body language and tone to be the dominant factors in communication.

Defensive Body LanguageDefensive language

Many of us know folded-arms mean defensive attitudes, but few know what to do with this information. If I notice someone throwing themselves back in their seat when she or he was previously leaning forward in interest or crossing their arms defensively during our conversation, I immediately take corrective steps to understand the cause of the discomfort based on what was said.

Feet point towards success

When in groups of three or more, I take time to observe the direction of each person’s dominant foot. In “What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People,” Joe Navarro explains how feet offer valuable clues into a person’s state of mind. Based on the direction the dominant foot is pointing, we can know whom a person is providing their admiration and attention to in a conversation. If most everyone turns toward you, respect is yours.


4 Essential Steps to Nurture Your Design Team

Through posts and LinkedIn messages you asked me to continue speaking about the business of design and the steps necessary to grow as a team. This time, I will bring the discussion in and talk about ways to directly nurture a design team.


Sell and Expand Team on Budget - HeroSell and Expand Your Team on a Budget

Here are a few techniques I have picked up on my path to sell a design team, accomplish assignments with less, and temporarily expand a team when the budget is tight. Most of these steps could apply to any team, but all of them focus on aspects relevant to User Experience Designers.