People skills & collaboration in the world of design

Back in November, I attended DataVizLive, Europe’s top conference focusing on the intersection between people, data and technology, as well as the mechanics, the presentation and leadership in the field. It brings together both leaders and passionate contributors in Data Visualisation, all of whom looking to share their passion for creating, delivering and exploring the future of data!

One standout for me was Steve Hulmes’ talk on the importance of people-skills in data-visualisation. One of Steve’s main focus areas is the art of collaboration, to help improve productivity and to enable designers to make a greater impact when working with data!

My attempts to learn more about the topic revealed a scarcity of material to tap into. As designers, we learn and develop working processes, ones that are discussed in the broader community, whether it’s the latest tools or ways to improve one’s efficiency. However, I have seldom heard about how honing people skills and building relationships can improve everything from productivity to job satisfaction!

Steve’s talk motivated me to learn more about the importance of these skills in the world of design, and to reflect on how I am engaging with the stakeholders I work with.

So, without wasting any more time, let’s jump into it.

Why soft-skills people skills?

Hard skills are the abilities or technical skills required to do a particular job. For example, a designer might need to be proficient in Figma; a developer might need to know Kotlin. People skills are traits such as communication, flexibility and the ability to collaborate with others. These are difficult things to measure.

People skills are often referred to as soft skills, implying that they are less important than hard skills. In many ways soft skills are more difficult to learn than hard skills as they are innate and less measurable.

People-skills refer to personalities, attributes, qualities and personal behaviour of individuals. Soft skills include abilities such as; communication, problem-solving, self-motivation, decision-making, and time management skills (Majid et al., 2012, p. 1036).

Designers must have hard-skills if they want to be able to complete projects from start to finish. However, designers must also develop their people skills if they want to be able to become well-rounded and deliver end-products that are truly user-orientated.

“To be a great designer, you have to master the soft skills. A huge part of the job will involve stepping away from the design software of choice and dealing with people.”

- Co-founder of Charming Robot & Hard Candy Shell. Dan Maccarone

Research suggests that building on people-skills can lead to better job success. Moreover, research around the importance of these skills for education and career success suggests that appropriate people skills can play an important role in a successful career and that these particular skills are highly sought after by employers, specifically when recruiting graduates.

Other studies have investigated the perceptions of business employers on the importance of having different skills. It has been reported that when asked to pick their most favourable from a wide array of skills, up to 80% of those selected were people-skills. These included the ability and willingness to learn, collaboration, interpersonal communication, energy and passion, and problem-solving skills.

Furthermore, research suggests that people skills are identified by a wide array of employers as the major competency in nearly every industry, even in the technical environments that place a premium on hard skills.

So let’s look into some of these skills and why they’re crucial within the design world.


“Design, unlike art, is not just a representation of the designer’s own self or personal ideas. One cannot just get to work as soon as a brief is provided and then submit the design files once the work is done without any communication in between these phases.”

Co-Founder of Semly Pro Surya Ravindran Pillai

From the get-go, designers need to be vocal and ask many questions, even if some aren't met with patience or understanding. I have seen this happen when stakeholders are asked to elaborate frequently.

Working with others in different roles (using other technologies and ways of communication) is an excellent opportunity to develop your communication skills.

Personally, working with developers, business stakeholders and data scientists, I have learned that each individual has their way of communicating. Their mode of communication fits into their role or domain. These are ways of speaking, abbreviations and even humour.

Each person you work with is a reservoir of knowledge, asking questions and allowing them to provide insight is beneficial to your overall productivity and final product. By only reading from the design brief you will miss out.


Put very simply, collaboration is the action of working with someone! Better collaboration can help designs reach their potential and address the requirements of the users.

Steve’s talk stresses that we want to be working with stakeholders and not just for them. Designers and analysts alike are often left frustrated when they find themselves simply working for stakeholders. Symptoms of this may be; requests made last minute and often finding yourself kept out of the loop! It’s important to recognise when this becomes a standard thing.

To both draw attention to and counter this, Steve described two analytical service models; the Passive and the Collaborative.

The ‘Passive model’ of working is when a stakeholder takes over the first three stages and then hands over to the analyst or designer. This is often the ‘can you do this by Friday’ model, as the stakeholder is very busy. Rework is very common with this model due to the lack of engagement and often leads to missed opportunities in areas such as; relationship growth, user research and overall product development.

On the other hand, we have the Collaborative Model. This process has the designer in the loop from the start, which often leads to designs and features being built right the first time, more often than not (saving time and resources). It also embraces better engagement between stakeholders and designers. When there is a strong relationship and better communication there is more opportunity for learning and growth on both ends. This leads to a better understanding of the problem everyone is attempting to solve, and this leads to better idea creation and implementation of the designs.

Collaborative model

If you find yourself working like the passive model there are some things that you can do to help break free.

  1. Get into the Right Mindset Remind yourself that you are here to help the stakeholders. Act as the navigator and not the driver. The knowledge and experience a stakeholder has are instrumental to the development of the designs, make sure to get feedback regimentally and ask open-questions.
  2. Build Credibility and Trust If stakeholders find it difficult to trust you as a designer, then they may feel that they must be prescriptive with requirements (e.g. Use a drop-down menu here). If this is the case, it's important to demonstrate your credibility and while continuing to build trust. By working competently, showing your capabilities, while delivering work that is timely and accurate can help build credibility and trust. It’s important to consider that stakeholders may need guidance through this process, especially if it's their first time working with a designer.

Looking for ways to improve your people skills?

Speak, talk, communicate

Use every opportunity you can to think about how you communicate. When talking to others, think about how you are addressing them and how clear your message is, think about your tone and body language (this may be equally important in zoom meetings, i.e. just because you’re sitting in your living room doesn’t mean we can’t see you roll your eyes!)

Don’t shy away from teamwork

Often in design, you may think it’s easier to solve problems on your own? This may be true in some cases, but working in teams opens up new avenues of learning and helps improve your ability to work with others!

Embrace feedback

“The most basic act of reaching out and letting others critique your design is a sign of a very mature designer”

Vasudha Mamtani Experience Designer at Amazon

Some designers may spend lots of time working on solo projects, and this can result in a lack of collaboration skill development. By inviting peers to critique your designs allows you to get a fresh perspective on things and avoid getting fixated on just one idea! 

Step out of your comfort zone

Don’t like public speaking? Try doing an internal talk on a topic for colleagues. This will help build confidence in the areas you feel unfamiliar with and help you improve, or if that’s a step too far, try rehearsing with a few close colleagues and friends first!

Learn from others

Pay attention to more experienced people around you, whether they be teammates or colleagues in a different role! I often watch how those from the ‘People Team’ communicate and impart information to the wider community. Try watching how others navigate through difficult conversations, this can be a great way to hone your own skills, for when they are put to the test.

Be flexible

Whether you love them or not, some ideas have to be let go, and you need to be able to focus on new ones! A new feature request or a change in scope may challenge your current design, so it’s important to be open to going in a different direction.

That’s all from me, I’d like to hear about your experience around honing your people skills, and how it’s benefited your stakeholder relationships, while hopefully building your confidence and allowing you to grow as a designer. As always, feel free to give feedback on the post and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!


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