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Assertive Communication Skills: A Foundation for UX Success (Part 2)

In our previous article, we introduced assertive communication skills as a foundation for UX success. We discussed what it means to be assertive as opposed to aggressive or passive, some myths about assertiveness, and reviewed some research about typical growth areas for UX professionals. Go read that article if you haven’t already!

In this article, we discuss some specific tactics for acting assertively in situations that are commonly encountered by UX professionals.

Working with Cross-Functional Collaborators

As UX professionals, we work with cross-functional collaborators such as engineers, product managers, and marketers. These partners sometimes lack experience working with a UX team or lack an understanding of the value provided. This dynamic requires that we advocate for inclusion and influence of our work.

There are two common non-assertive ways to advocate for our work:

  • Passive: Stakeholders are our customers, rather than our partners, and the customer is always right. We are “people pleasers.” We do what is asked and do not voice disagreement with our customers. Examples of this: Design exactly what is specified, solicit and execute specific UX research requests, ignore our training and expertise to deliver what stakeholders expect rather than the best contributions we know we can make.
  • Aggressive: We behave as if only UXers can have valid thoughts about users. We are territorial about decisions and processes we believe should belong to UX.

The key to remember: Assertive, effective communication is respectful of all parties involved and usually leads to improved relationships and outcomes. We become partners by consistently showing that our expertise and work has business value, but we show intellectual humility and recognize that good ideas can come from outside the UX team as well.

In the remainder of this article, we consider some specific problems UXers face and give some skills needed to handle them assertively.

Problem: Overworked UXer; Solution: Saying “No” Assertively

It is very common for UXers to take on too many projects, to the point that they feel overworked. Why do we keep saying “yes” even if our plate is already full? There are many reasons:

  • You might feel guilty for saying no.
  • You consider it your job to say yes to every request.
  • You worry about collaborators perceiving you as difficult or uncooperative if you turn down requests.

The key is to say “no” directly and respectfully. For inspiration, look at how engineers set expectations and manage their time. Many are careful not to over-budget their time and set unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve.

If you ask around, you may find that many UXers have tips about how to say no without saying “no.” In a recent panel at Google, a UX manager told us he never says “no” to requests; he only says “yes… but….” The “but” usually involves deprioritizing some work that was already on your plate.

Think about this scenario:

It is 5 p.m. and Kelly the designer is getting ready to head home. Pat the project manager approaches Kelly at her desk with a request: “Kelly, I have some feedback about your design. Take a look and update the designs before tomorrow’s 9 a.m. meeting, okay? It’s important—the VP will be in that meeting.”

A man and a woman in an office with a laptop. The man is pointing at the laptop and talking to the woman. The woman is looking at him defiantly

Figure 1. “I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too. ‘kay?”

Kelly immediately agrees to do the work. Is this a passive response? It depends on how she really feels about the request. Perhaps she has flexible working hours and is genuinely happy to do the work on this timeline. But if, like many of us, Kelly feels resentful about work being requested but agrees to it anyway, she is engaging in passive behavior that will not serve her or her team well in the long run.

An assertive response would be one that allows her to maintain her self-respect, while also respecting the project manager’s right to make a request—no matter how unreasonable. Here are some examples of assertive responses:

  • Saying no while offering a problem-solving alternative: “I can’t meet that deadline, but what if you list the proposed changes in the slides and we can follow up the mocks via email later in the day?”
  • Saying no while pushing on the timeline: “I can’t work on it tonight, but if you move the meeting to the afternoon, I can incorporate the changes in the morning.”
  • If it is possible to do the work, but she wants to maintain her self-respect and make sure she does not set an expectation that it is OK to make requests like this frequently: “This is a last-minute request, but I can make it work this time. Next time we need to allow more buffer between your feedback and the VP review.”

Problem: UXer Is Intimidated to Speak Up; Solution: Assertively Giving Your Opinion

This is a common challenge for the archetypal passive junior UXer. Offering your opinion, in a meeting or over email, can be intimidating. The audience may seem self-assured and unlikely to welcome dissent. You may worry that your opinion will be unwelcome, especially if it threatens project timelines or assumptions underlying the project.

But as a UX professional, you have evidence-based customer understanding, in the form of design principles or user research, that needs to be shared. You have a unique perspective that will be squandered if you do not speak up. You need to find your voice within the organization in order to advocate for users. However, junior UXers may feel at risk of coming across as aggressive when making a dissenting remark.

Two women sitting at a table in a meeting room. They look relaxed and participative. One of them is taking notes.

Figure 2. “May I interject?”

Think about this scenario:

Jan, a lead engineer, has a new feature idea for the product. In a pitch to executives, Jan suggests development should be started right away to release at the end of the year. UXer Chris is skeptical about the idea based on recent foundational research he has conducted. But the executives are excited about the idea, and Chris is hesitant to voice his concerns.

Sound familiar? What is the best way to proceed here? Here are some considerations:

  • Chris has a responsibility to his company to share his perspective.
  • To avoid coming across aggressively, he should not speak as the “source of truth.” Instead, he can acknowledge that he is expressing a personal opinion based on research. He should clearly delineate what the facts are based on his research and give his interpretation of those facts as it relates to the suggested feature.
  • He should signal openness to other points of view, including critiques or alternative interpretations of his research.

Here is an example of how he could express his opinion:

  • “I agree that this is a really cool idea,” he says, showing respect for others’ views.
  • Next, he states his personal opinion: “but I am concerned about whether this will resonate with our customers.”
  • He brings up relevant findings from the research that informs his opinion: “In our recent foundational research, I didn’t see any signals to indicate that there is a problem being solved here. Instead, customers were much more vocal about X.”
  • Finally, he signals his openness to other perspectives: “That’s my interpretation of the data we have so far. I think there’s a lot we still don’t know about this. My recommendation is to invest more in learning before committing to this.”

If he can communicate this idea tactfully, he will not be perceived as aggressive or controlling. He is doing his job: Providing research-backed insight to help his company make smart decisions.

Problem: Getting Stakeholder Buy-In to the UX Process; Solution: Making a Request with Clear Motivations and Outcomes

Another classic UXer frustration is the feeling that stakeholders are not getting involved with the UX process. Perhaps they are not making time for UX research or not engaging in design activities.

Through the lens of assertive communication, we can reframe this problem as a request. Implicitly, we are asking stakeholders to change the way they work. This can feel like a pretty significant request for a busy product manager or engineer.

There are a few assertive best practices for making requests that apply in this situation:

  • Be specific and concise about what you are asking for.
  • Focus on specific, actionable commitments.
  • Be clear about what motivates the request: Why is it needed? It is best to provide a positive result that you expect if your request is granted.
Two men and two women sitting at a coffee table in a room with huge windows. They are working together and they have books and notebooks all over the table.

Figure 3. Collaborate and listen…and make clear requests. (Credit: Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst.)

Think about this scenario:

UX researcher Carl feels frustrated that his design partner Wanda has not been attending study sessions. Carl approaches Wanda and says:

“Hey, I’m angry that you haven’t been invested in the research for this project. I put a lot of effort into this and you can’t be bothered to show up. Please get more involved next time, or I’ll cancel the research.”

This could certainly be effective, but there is plenty of room for improvement. How could Carl do better?

  • Making assumptions: Carl is assuming that Wanda does not care about the research. Maybe there is another explanation. He should ask.
  • Be specific and concise: “Get involved” is not a specific request. “Please attend the research sessions” is a specific, observable outcome.
  • The subjective statement “You can’t be bothered” will make Wanda feel defensive and invite disagreement.
  • What is meant to motivate Wanda in this statement: “I’ll cancel the research”? Cancelling the research? If she did not understand the value of the research in the first place, this might not mean much to her. Carl could do more to motivate with a positive reason why it is important for her to attend: “I really want you to be there. You will notice things I might not, and you ask great questions.”

Putting it all together, a more effective request might look like this:

“Wanda, I’d like us to work together more closely on research. For the upcoming study, can you commit to observing and taking notes? I value your interpretation of the research; you will notice things that I might not. This would be the best way for you to make your designs as effective as possible.”

Getting Started

If you want to learn more, pick up The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson, which formed the basis for our thinking in this article. The book is geared more towards personal life situations, but it is full of great, specific tactics for assertiveness.

When practicing your assertiveness skills, start small—find an easy situation to practice. Assertiveness is a learned skilled so allow for errors, but with practice it will become more natural.

Assertive communication does not guarantee that you will always get your way, but it generally leads to better interpersonal outcomes and healthier partnerships with collaborators. Moreover, by letting go of the need to control the outcomes of interactions with others, you can save yourself stress and feel more satisfied in your professional role.