Communicate Like You Design

It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say. It only matters what your audience hears.

I get frequent requests from Product Designers I work with to help edit emails, fine-tune Slack messages, or update presentations.

These are some of the best Designers in the industry, masters at crafting experiences for users around the world, but they don’t feel confident in a message they’re writing to someone down the hall.

This is completely understandable since digital messaging in a professional setting is one of the most stressful communication scenarios that has ever existed. Take an email thread, for example. It isn’t really a conversation between people. It’s text magically appearing on a screen out of nowhere in a different context than when and where it was created. It’s more like multiple rounds of talking at someone you can’t even see.

You can’t do normal things humans have done since we started communicating with each other. You can’t adjust your tone or word choice mid-conversation based on facial expressions or body language changes in the person you’re talking to. You can’t hear the other person’s tone of voice in their response.

So what can you do?

My primary advice is always to just go talk in person, but words on a screen are often the only option. In this case, you should fall back on what you do best as a Designer…craft your message with your user at the center and put their experience, needs, and preferences above yours.

Communicate like you design.

Think of the reader of your message as one of your users and ask yourself: What will they hear in their minds when they read my words and how can I make that closer to what I’m trying to say?

Let’s take an example of a potentially contentious message you’re sending to a partner on another team. Put yourself in their shoes and read your words from their perspective:

Think of the answers to these questions and reread your message in the persona of your reader. Does it still say what you thought it did or do you need to edit some phrasing and add more details?

Also, don’t be afraid to ask someone else to give your message a once over for a second opinion. Great design also relies on user testing and iteration after all!

Next time you’re about to hit send or save, go back through your words and make sure what you meant to say is what your user will actually hear.

Director, UX at Google. Former Microsoft and Disney design executive. Writings here are only my thoughts and don’t represent current or past employers.