5 Tips for a Better Design Phase

Communications in business, generally, should be designed for optimal readability by their audience, to cut risk. Miscommunication in business is bad. This means you we need to put some think-time and design-work into your plan-related communications.

If you and your organization haven’t circled back around just yet, to make sure you’re doing it right, this article might offer food for thought on how to initiate a design phase retroactively.

I’m not suggesting something overly complicated — just some simple suggestions and things to keep in mind, to help you set the wheels in motion, and direction on where to steer once you’re moving.

How to Initiate a Design Phase

First, you need a recognition of not having done this before. That’s all. If nobody has purposefully and skillfully designed the data visualizations that your organization is using today, that should be enough to make an argument. Just ask if it happened, and if the answer is “No,” politely and humbly propose you or someone else put some time into it.

Executing the Design Phase

In his book, Good Charts, Scott Berinato advocates heavily for “Talk and Listen,” in various forms:

Talk it through with a trusted colleague or mentor. If you’re not sure what it is you want or need to do, or you just want to bounce thoughts off somebody else (two minds are almost always better than one), schedule time with someone you respect to talk things through. Although this may not give you 100 percent clarity, you should be able to achieve some level of progress toward the goal, just through some spit-balling.

Get specific. Make sure you have written down what it is you’re trying to communicate, in bullet-form: why, where, how and to whom, at a minimum. This will allow any conversations you have to be much more productive.

Listen and take notes. In my experience, the smartest people I’ve ever met are as smart as they are because they know they don’t know everything; they realize there is always something to learn, and for that reason are good listeners. Berinato also makes a great point when he recommends that you attempt to pay attention to how you describe how you envision the information. The “visual words and phrases that describe how you see the ideas” can help give you direction on what may be your approach to the visual.

Whiteboard. As you begin to narrow down how you think you want to create your visuals, it’s time to sketch. This may even be happening during your conversations. Make sure you have a whiteboard and some different colored markers available at all times to help you iterate in real time.

Use paired-prototyping. Probably the most important exercise, and one that needs to be considered a part of your design phase. Try to avoid doing this as a part of any actual presentation of real data. Inevitably, you’ll be presenting your ideas to your audience, and they may be requesting changes. Paired-prototyping allows your audience (the people who will consume the information) to team with you (the data/tools/visualization expert), so that you can iterate and optimize on the final product. My own company’s product makes this super easy. I like to have OnePager up on a screen in the room, and then my source file open on my laptop. As changes arise, even in the data, I can simply update my visual and see the impact those changes have. This also helps the audience get to know what my tool can and cannot do. It also helps the audience buy in to the design you’ve brought to them. In the end, it will largely be your design, but allowing them to put their stamp on it will make them feel like they can jump right into the data once it’s presented in the real forum.

Remember, the goal of the exercise is to make sure that the visuals you’re putting in front or your audience are getting the information they need across as quickly and efficiently as possible. If your audience must study your communications to consume them, you’ve done them a disservice. As Berinato also says; “Simplicity is Courageous.”

In the end, everyone you are communicating to should be better, more often and more broadly informed than they ever have been before. As your company improves on how its actuals measure against its estimated outcomes, they will have you to thank.

Have your own design phase techniques? Share them with the MPUG community in comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared on OnePager’s “The Blog,” here.

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Written by Jay Leslie
Jay Leslie carries with him 15 years of project management experience within the cable, telecom, construction and software development industries. The spectrum of projects and programs that Jay has managed throughout his career is broad and deep, enabling him to help clients implement Chronicle Graphics software -- including OnePager -- in a multitude of applications. His employment history includes positions at Narvaes Construction, Leslie Brothers Construction, CSG Systems, Echostar Satellite Services, Comcast, and Level 3 Communications.

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