Finding balance: giving in vs standing your ground

October 5, 2020

Having expertise within an area comes with its challenges. This is especially true within both design and user experience where all people have strong opinions. An opinion isn't the same as knowledge though, but not everyone is able to tell the difference or even acknowledge which one it is that they possess.

In my Slack group, Matt asked me if I had any advice on dealing with a customer who pays you to design a product exactly in the way they feel it should be. I think it's safe to say that anyone that's been in this industry for a longer period of time have had a client just like this.

The easy way out is, of course, to just say that they're paying you and however they choose to use - or ignore - your expertise isn't really for you to decide. Just let them pay you and go on living your life. However, this approach isn't really viable in the long term. We do better work when we do work we're proud of and, more importantly, we feel better when we get to do work we're proud of. I think there's a clear distinction between only shipping work that's "perfect" for the client and work that you have pride in. So, getting paid and shutting up really isn't the solution, is it?

The other side of this equation is self-knowledge. Do you have all the information? Do you have the required knowledge about this industry, it's customers, and habits? In every project I've ever worked on, the client knows more about their industry than I do - if not, they're likely to go out of business very soon. I believe it's really important to be a bit self-critical as well, realizing that it's unlikely that you have all of the answers.

That said, they've hired you for your expertise and knowledge. So, being able to communicate and distill those years of experience into something that the client can understand and respond to is ultimately your responsibility. As I mentioned in my last post, one of the books I'm currently reading is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Scott, who also worked for Apple under Jobs, writes:

“Jobs articulated this approach more gently in an interview with Terry Gross: “At Apple we hire people to tell us what to do, not the other way around.”Radical Candor

While it might take some time to spot the cues, aim for clients that hire you to tell them what to do not the other way around.

What's important

I was initially going to name this post "How to pick your battles" which I think in theory is true, but I dislike the use of the word "battle" as it assumes that there'll be a winner and a loser. At the end of the day, there should be only one winner - the product you've created. So instead of picking your battles, think of when it makes sense to listen and when it makes sense to speak up. A process that I've found especially useful when discussing product decisions is the Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck by Cap Watkins (edited for brevity)

For the most part, our relationship worked pretty well. At times, however, I'd find myself in endless, circular arguments with Andy on how the product should function. What are the rules for when an item can be reviewed? What about problems with an item? How long should a single review impact the overall average for the shop? Should this flow be two steps, or should we consolidate down to one? Between the two of us, we could easily spend half an hour debating these topics, both advocating for our different points of view and trying to convince the other that we were right. And while most of our topics merited the scrutiny, at times I felt like he was pushing back on something extremely small and inconsequential, which in turn led me to push back even more.

One day, we were going a few rounds over a small detail (I can't even remember what it was, honestly) when Andy suddenly brought the conversation to a halt:
Hold on a second. I'm like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?
I'm probably a six-out-of-ten,
 I replied after a couple moments of consideration.
Cool, then let's do it your way.

I realized two things at that point. First, sometimes Andy just likes a good, healthy debate (to ensure that we've thought through everything). Secondly, I was frequently out of touch with how strongly (or not strongly) I felt about a particular topic of discussion. Regularly, I'd find myself impassioned more towards the ten-out-of-ten side of things, mostly because I wasn't stopping to think about the scope and importance of those topics.

Ever since then, I've found myself more and more rating both my feelings and the importance of any particular decision on that same one-to-ten scale. Is the decision non-critical and I don't actually care that much one way or another?

Interestingly, it turns out that many, many of the decisions I'm a part of day-to-day and week-to-week rate pretty low on the scale. It's rare that I find myself beyond a five, which is probably right. Someone said to me once: if everything is an emergency, then nothing is. Similarly, if I'm a ten-out-of-ten on every single decision I'm ever a part of, how can anyone know or trust me when I say something's very important to me? Having an internal barometer for what's important and what's less critical is incredibly useful for helping others trust your responses to ideas and proposals.Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck

Finding balance

Thinking about decisions through the lens of a framework like that can help you make better decisions not only in work, but in your personal life too. I'm particularly proud when clients highlight this about me, like Elsa from Karma who've I've recently worked with:

If you dislike working with consultants as much as I do, you’ll love working with Anton. He was challenging when appropriate and accommodating when necessary.Elsa Bernadotte

So instead of thinking about how to win the argument, think about which ones are important. Once you understand what you feel strongly about, you'll be able to focus on these specific points more clearly through actually listening to what the other party is saying and distilling your reasoning more clearly.

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