Why we should spend more time understanding our co-workers

In an ideal scenario, design decisions are made by designers with the end user in mind while leaving their own bias outside.

In reality though, design decisions are made collectively by a group of people. And most members of this group have little exposure to users of the design.

Behind every product there are people

Design decisions are made by the people who build the product. Not by the user. So when designing a product, it seems equally important to understand the people behind the product (your co-workers) as the people in front of it (users).

So doesn’t it make sense to apply the same set of user-centred methodologies to understanding your co-workers as to understanding users?

In my current project, it took me 4 weeks to get what this project is about. While this can have multiple reasons (e.g. bad communication), the main lesson I took away is:

Always start with understanding your co-workers when joining a project.

What to learn about your co-workers

It pretty much goes down to the same things you would try to find out in a user interview. Just a imagine you’re creating a persona for each of your co-workers:

  • Goals
    Which goals did your co-workers set for themselves?
    Which goals come from their managers?

  • Tasks
    Which contribution does each co-worker make to achieve these goals?

  • Strategies
    How exactly are they trying to achieve their goals and accomplishing their tasks?

  • Needs
    What do they need to accomplish their tasks?

  • Pains
    What are they struggling with in their current task?

  • Motivation
    What makes them get up and start work every morning? Where do they want to grow?

  • Fears
    Which fears may drive their decisions?

It sounds very time consuming, but it’s worth it.

If you understand the people behind a product, you’ll understand why the product is built the way it’s built.

Positive side effects

Besides, you will probably get better along with your co-workers. On the one hand, everyone appreciates to be listened to and understood.

On the other hand, gaining insight into your co-workers’ behaviour will enable you to deal with them in a much more empathetic and understanding way. You will be able to support your co-workers in situations of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

After all, empathy is the foundation for a productive working environment where people communicate effectively, support each other and grow together.

Team size matters

Of course, getting to know every single person of your team becomes a long endeavour if your team is 100 people big. Obviously, you should concentrate on your direct surroundings, the area where you have an impact.

Start with 5 people you work closely with and see how far you get. But also don’t hesitate to reach out to people you don’t directly work with, but you want to learn more about.

It’s still about business

In case someone is asking you why you spend so much time drinking coffee with your colleagues, just give this as an answer:

Behind every product there are people. A lot goes wrong when the relationships of those people are driven by misunderstanding, lack of empathy and competition rather than cooperation.
As long as my job is to design a successful product, my job is to mitigate these risks by investing in healthy, productive relationships with my co-workers.