Working with stakeholders, from various teams and levels of influence, is a significant part of a content designer’s skillset. Sometimes it can feel like we spend most of our time in meetings discussing individual sentences, or endless email threads over this or that word. And it can, more often than not, be the hardest part of our responsibilities.
I’ve written about working with stakeholders before, and how to work through getting feedback, including my article Don’t be precious: accepting edits and feedback. But as I’ve grown and progressed through my career, I feel my approach has changed.
Get them involved early
This is crucial. The sooner they’re involved the less contextual explanation is needed. If stakeholders can see how your product has developed over time they’ll have a much broader understanding. Rather than showing them an end result and attempting to second-guess they’re suggestions or post-rationalise early decisions, they can come to those decisions with you.
Also, show them those early rough drafts. It’s easy to fall into the trap of only showing them highly polished final outcomes. But if you can explain clearly that this is the beginning of a much longer design process, one they’re part of, then you can get that important input at the beginning. This way you won’t have written precious content, words you’ll unlikely want to change, that have missed crucial points or important meaning.
Respect their expertise
There can be a lot of pressures: deadlines, meetings, coordinating with design and devs. But this doesn’t mean your stakeholders are any less important. It’s easy to forget they’re not fully involved in everything your project is moving along. Sometimes, in the fits of writing, it’s easy to forget where our expertise ends. So remember to show humility — you’re not the subject matter expert. And make it clear to the stakeholders you’re speaking with them because you need their input.
But also, respect your own expertise. Demonstrate boundaries and make it clear the sort of feedback you’re after: technical accuracy, customer detriment, precise meaning. Not opinion on word choice, sentence structure, or whether there should be a full stop or not!
This step is a bit easier, but by no means less important. By not only involving them early, but regularly you’ll build a rapport and a more organic way of working. This will make things easier, but also make them feel more comfortable and part of the process.
This will also help your content and designs develop in a much better way, getting the right input at the right time. It’s better than just having a load of changes dumped on you at the end.
Of course, you’re listening to your stakeholders’ feedback and suggestions. But it’s worth also listening to the words and phrases they use.
You might find you’ve emailed a stakeholder to explain a concept and you’ve received an overly technical, formal reply. You then have to strip this back, understand it and write it in a way that makes sense to your users.
But by talking out loud, rather than typing, you often find stakeholders describe the concept in a much more human way. They’ll often use words and phrases that are more user friendly. So take note of these and see if you can mix them into your content. It’s also a good way to show them how they’ve contributed.
This is the hardest one. Sometimes you just have to compromise. It’s tough to take, but to make progress and get somewhere near user friendly, there are occasions where you have to meet in the middle.
I’ve had experiences before where it’s felt like I’ve lost. But this shouldn’t be a competition or battle. We’re all trying to get to the same result. But sometimes we have different ideas of what that is. You have to weigh up the things you think your product can’t do without, and those that you can let slide this time. Concede these and, more often than not, you’ll get the others.
The ultimate result of this isn’t content that half way meets your goal. It’s a bridge closer to the stakeholder’s side. What does that mean? It means next time your working relationship is a little bit easier, there’s a little bit more respect for what you do, and you’ll find they’re more willing to listen to you next time.
Progress is made step by step.
There are many different ways to engage with your stakeholders. These are just a few I’ve used that have helped me. My ways of working with stakeholders is developing all the time, so this is by no means a perfect list. But by making these small changes we can foster better working relationships and better advocate for content design and user experience.
Have you got any tried and true ways of working with stakeholders? Feel free to put them in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for making this a better skill.