Presenting design? Use stories, not real estate tours: a conversation with Jane Austin

Jane Austin is one of the most inspiring product design people I've ever met. She's a sharp product thinker and builds happy, productive design teams (great interview about her journey here). Jane and I helped to build a hundred strong design team together.

She asked me recently why I wrote my new book, Death by Screens: how to present high stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale. Here's an edited version of that conversation.

The idea for the book

What was the trigger for writing the book?

In 2012, I joined a company called Clearleft, and they placed a very high value on strong communication. Everyone was given lots of time to do it well. We were given lots of examples; helping to run UX London, I was exposed to really amazing speakers. It was in the DNA. After I left the company I built design teams (including with you), and I started to notice an enormous difference between the quality of design communication between organizations.

The high quality communication I'd been around wasn't there. I noticed that early-career designers had often never delivered a high-stakes presentation, as you do at an agency. The ones who had, were much more comfortable presenting to stakeholders, and telling stories.

When I started in design, almost all UX was being done at an agency. We didn't really have many mature, internal product teams around. I think it’s a good thing that’s changed, but for an early career designer, it does mean that you've had less exposure and practice at being a strong communicator. My book takes some of the things that I've learned and gives it to people who perhaps haven't had the experience, or aren't around the people doing it well.

Yeah. And it's interesting because do you think junior designers even know that this is a problem? I think people don't even realize they need to know it.

It's a bit of a bet, if I'm honest! I'm hoping that there are plenty of designers out there who realize that the one thing that is going to define their career upwards is the strength of their communication skills.

And what's the most important communication skill? Is it presenting or writing, particularly in an asynchronous world? What do you think about the balance of those two and what have you got to say about writing?

That's a great question. First of all, in the book I say that presenting is not everything. It isn't the way you should be dealing with a lot of stakeholders. It's much better to have more informal, frequent, low stakes meetings; it's more collaborative. But there's plenty of designers who are in situations where they are only meeting stakeholders occasionally and the presentation is the only format. To answer your question though, I think there's a set of connected skills.

Writing is a bedrock to a lot of other things. If you're working remotely or asynchronously, it's probably the one thing outside of the design itself that you should be getting good at. When it comes to a wider organization, if you're having to persuade people about your ideas, then we also need presentation skills.

Those two skills are highly interconnected. If you had to pick one, perhaps writing is a more useful foundation to other things. But as I say in the book, you can be the greatest designer on the planet, if you can't stand up and sell your work, that is going to be a huge barrier to the rest of your career.

This is true. And how does confidence play into this?

It's a huge thing, something that I worked really hard in the book to help people with. There's a lot of advice about how to gain confidence and how to manage how you feel. I will be honest: I got to take a lot of this stuff granted. My father was a radio presenter. I did a lot of theatre when I was a kid, so I got a lot of practise standing up in front of an audience. I still get nervous, but I guess that's a good thing. People say, if you weren't nervous, you wouldn't care.

Yes, that's very true. Well, people perhaps are a bit neuro-divergent or struggle with the storytelling, or maybe struggle with reading the room. Have you thought about the sort of slightly different way that people would interact with each other, or how many tips around this?

There's not a huge amount in the book about in-the-moment reading the room. But there are methods in the book which I've included to try to puncture some of the formality. Because that's easier on you and the audience if you can do that up front - people will speak much more candidly if you can create an informal atmosphere.

To learn what people are really thinking - often the best way is to structure the feedback. If doing it remotely, where it is very hard to read the room or make it informal, then you ask people to take a moment, write their feedback, and then deliver it. That often will encourage them to do it kindly, or be a little bit more constructive or honest with it rather than it just being on you to read the signals.

Presenting design is often a bit of a real estate tour: 'here's a button, here as a header'.
But they have to talk about what job the design is doing.
Jane Austin

Stories, not real estate tours

With junior designers, I've often seen them presenting design as a bit of a real estate tour. Here's a button, here as a header. But actually, they have to talk about what job the design is doing. And to do that, they have to understand the kind of commercial aspects of the design: what it's for or the KPIs. How much should a junior designer understand the commercial environment they're working in, and why is that important if so?

I think most commonly what I've seen is that there just isn't enough clarity around that - and not just with designers. And so what I would encourage designers to do, is to learn what good strategic direction looks like. And then once you've found that, it's really your job to remind people and bring people back to the outcomes.

Start your presentation with a reminder of the objectives, or ‘whys’: whether it's for users or the business or even the meeting; get clear on those and remind people about them. And then noticing if the conversation goes off topic, you can bring them back to those objectives. Very often they just get lost, or if you're only seeing people occasionally, people have forgotten what it's really about.

And how do you deal with the ‘real estate tours’, like stakeholders giving feedback on button colors and so on.

I've seen a lot of real estate tours. If you're trying to explain why you designed something, and you just talk about components, then you're missing the raison d'etre of the design.

Tell the story of somebody using the design. Instead of a real estate tour, just showing screen after screen after screen, talk about the function. The ‘why’? What is somebody doing, thinking, feeling? That really is the heart of what you should be doing. As I say in the book, it's not so much about the design itself - it's the story you're telling around it.

That also allows for a much better conversation about the design. Because you don't really want to talk about buttons and alignment and typography most of the time, you want to talk about the function and behaviors, the story of use. This way also gets your stakeholder into the mindset of somebody using it, which is probably the best way they can understand it.

How to tell the story of how a design is used

Tip #3: Killer tips for high stakes design presentations

What disasters have you had or witnessed? Things that could have actually been avoided.

I can remember times when I just over indexed on the problems. “Here are all the things that are wrong for users”; it was just kind of like an avalanche of negativity, lots of truth bombs. A way better approach is to be a good storyteller, and giving people positive analogies and metaphors. Also showing how ambitious you are: you want to fix their problems and that you want things to be better for the business.

When I've been watching other designers do it, the most frequent thing I noticed over the past few years was just stakeholders eyes glazing over. It’s really common if you do a ‘real estate tour’ or ‘just open Figma and talk’. No preparation. There's a series of screens and you're just going through what's on them.

Another frequent problem is spending so much time explaining everything, so that there's not really any time for discussion. So I encourage people to edit their structure well, so there's just as much time to have discussions.

Managing interruptions and feedback

Talking about discussion, how do you give junior designers methods to stop people interjecting in the middle of the presentation and save it for the end?

I think it's slightly context dependent. If you've got a very small audience, I think it can be okay if you have a back and forth discussion as long as things don't go too off the rails. Also have somebody whose role is specifically to be a timekeeper and keep things on track.

But then if you have a larger audience, that really changes things, you need to be strict with them and say: take notes while I'm talking, but I'll defer questions until the end, because I want to give you time to input.

And stopping them from interrupting?

It is really a matter of being exceptionally polite and letting them talk a little bit. But then monitor, and if the discussion is going too far off the rails, say, “I'm just wary of time. Is it okay if we just carry on with the design and I can maybe come back to you about that point later?” Those really polite conversational ways of steering the conversation.

What happens if somebody gives you really harsh criticism?

It's difficult on two levels: what is your emotional response to that - how do you stay grounded? And then, how do you give them a decent answer?

A mutual friend of ours, Jason Mesut, always talks about translation. You can start to think about all feedback as a gift, even if it's not valid. Somebody's trying to tell you something that they think is important. Try as much as you can to translate that feedback into something useful. And honestly, just reading a book and taking my advice isn't going to get you to the emotional place where you can deal with a really harsh piece of feedback.

What I do in the book is give people six easy to remember responses. So that even if you are triggered, and even if you don't have a particularly great answer in the moment, you can use one of the 6D responses like Deference, or Determine. The difficult part in those live conversations is thinking of a quick answer- you've always got one after the fact. The French have a phrase for this: They call it ‘L’esprit d'escalier’, which means spirit of the staircase; having a good answer while you're walking away.

By having these stock responses, you can actually say something like ‘Delay’: “would you mind if I get back to you on it? I'm going to formulate a good answer for you about why that is the way it is by looking at how we iterated to this point” I think that is fine. Stakeholders will accept that. You're not a magical wizard who's supposed to have all the right answers all the time.

And continuing with that, do you have any other tips for kind of thinking on your feet or thinking in the moment or being really kind of fluent in the moment?

I think that it shares something in common with user research and interviews. Objectivity, neutrality and curiosity: this is the way you should be operating in those conversations.

I recently got a question during a presentation, with a friend of mine watching. Afterwards, he said to me, ‘that was a spectacularly dumb question they asked, you dealt with it really well’. And I said: ‘I didn't even hear it as a dumb question’. When I'm in that mode, I'm just operating on pure curiosity, and your emotions can mess with that, especially around senior stakeholders.

I know that is really hard when it is your work being questioned. Remember the feedback is not about you: you are separate from your work!

You can't control much of the world. And the sooner you think like that, the easier it is to operate within that world.
Paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius

Great advice, actually. That's something I've seen designers do a lot. It's taken personally. How does one develop that carapace or be able to emotionally distance yourself from your work?

I'm not sure. I do give tools for managing your emotions, but I don't actually think that there's anything you can read that gives you that skill quickly. It can only be learned in practice. And I think there are some designers who I've seen who've never learned from those moments and don't improve their emotional response to it.

And there are others who do the normal thing of growing up when you get to your thirties: you find that you're just a little bit more mature. For a lot of our work, we're not really in control of it. It's not ours. I refer in the back of the book to stoic philosophy: you can't control much of the world. And the sooner you think like that, the easier it is to operate within that world. You can take better control of it better if you let go. Again, I'm saying this, I know how difficult it is to put it into practice.

But I think even just being aware of it, many junior designers aren’t aware. So awareness, which seems like quite a theme of the book - being aware of how you respond or aware of what the answers are, but the whole context. Have you got any advice about this? I thought an interesting thing is to research your stakeholders. What's important?

It's a small part, but I do say at the beginning, understand your audience and do you take the time to think about what their incentives are, what their challenges are, what kind of person are they? What parts of the design are important to them? Because there might be something in the design which is of no consequence to the goal that you're trying to solve.

The classic one is the homepage. It's probably not the place where a consumer makes their key decision in many cases; it might be the product page. But if you've got a founder, that homepage is attached to their ego. You need to be aware, and be able to respond to that. And maybe you give more detail to something that you don't care very much about, because you know that a stakeholder needs that reassurance.

UX research your organisation.
Jane Austin

I always say: ‘UX research your organisation’.

Yeah, that’s brilliant - that's a much better way of putting it.

Another question because you were talking there about what's important and answering on your feet: should designers know how things get built and be able to talk to that like? What's the level of understanding about complexity and tradeoffs?

As you stretch your wings and you learn more about products and business, you should be able to converse in a more mature fashion about the tradeoffs you've made, or to be generous about bringing other people into the conversation, be it an engineer or a product manager and allow them space to input on why things are the way they are.

There is nothing but value to be gained by getting familiar with the topic of business. Your talks on this are amazing. In that talk you gave at UX Live, I learned a ton of new stuff.

Thank you. Should you be presenting like things that are clickable if it's a journey? Like how much effort should be put into the presentation? We're talking about effort versus value tradeoffs. What's the sweet spot?

I think that's highly context dependent; I don't know that there's a single answer to that. What I try to do in the book was offer a very high effort version to learn from. But at the same time, I know you're not going to be able to repeat this every time with the same level of effort.

But here's the important point: if you've never practiced doing the higher effort version, you can't learn it. You have to try high-stakes. Then apply those methods to low-stakes situations, and do it faster. It's very hard to be a really awesome communicator if you're only practicing low stakes.

The terrifying title

Absolutely. And what's with the title, Death by Screens? Because that’s quite terrifying!

So it's a play on the saying ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Will people get it? We'll see! When you're presenting your design, you are a storyteller. If you just show a series of screens, often stakeholders will tune out, and they won't listen to you. And so they die, right? Metaphorically speaking. And then you die on stage. Because you're not entertaining them or engaging them. It's a dual death!

So can you tell me about some of the research you did, some of the designers you spoke to and what you learned from it? Who did you speak to? What were the themes?

I did quite a bit of research to identify what the most common issues were. And not knowing how to structure a talk was a really common thing. For many it would be going straight to keynote or PowerPoint and just start slamming stuff into the presentation; there was no sort of pre-planning about what kind of story they were going to tell.

The ‘real estate tour’ was really common. I spoke to a couple of people who told me stories about panic attacks. In one case, their manager dropped out of a presentation, and they had to do it with only hours to get prepared. They were thrown in front of a big group of clients, had a panic attack, and had to leave the meeting. Literally couldn't function.

So the remedy for a lot of the stuff I was discovering was just like, okay, well look, I know you can't do this every time, but the preparation process is actually the best way to gain confidence. When you’re prepared, you're more in control, you know what's coming, you're anticipating the questions, you've got a good story to tell, you practiced it a bit. And the more you practise high-stakes, the easier it is to get prepared quickly and think on your feet.

And then secondly, a few emotional tools that are towards the back of the book that you can use to deal with your feelings.

The writing process

That's fantastic. So that sounds like that's what led you to make the book very practical? Is that the case?

Yeah. It's funny: before this I was writing a much more philosophical design book, that kind of went nowhere. And I was encouraged by my writing coach, Rob Fitzpatrick (who wrote Write Useful Books) to be relentlessly practical about this one.

I'm much more of a philosophy person, so it was a personal challenge to go ‘okay, if somebody is in the context, they've got a few days or a week to do a high stakes presentation. Can I give them something that will give them maximum value from page one?’ That is why the book is a guide that you can follow. The idea is that you can prepare by following each chapter of the book, but I don't expect everyone will follow the whole book every time!

What I loved about the book was just kind of like bullet points summaries that you can just click through once you've read it. So I thought that was a really great way of writing it. What made you write it like that?

So here's a bit of design history for the book itself. In the ‘Write Useful Books’ process that Rob encouraged me to use, you don't actually do very much writing in the beginning. It was months before I did any proper writing for this book. You write your table of contents first, and usability-test that. So way before I sat down and did thousands of words, it was sort of clear what the structure was going to be.

That's fascinating. So tell me about the structure: you did research, you found the themes, you brought your own stories, and then you then you kind of had a list of lessons. And how did you prioritize the order?

You read a lot of books where the chapter titles are sort of generic: you might see ‘Research’. You might notice in Death by Screens that the lessons are there in the table of contents. I was testing that early on. And the other idea from Rob was ‘wouldn't it be great if you could learn some lessons just from reading the table of contents’?

That's really true. You get your sense of what it's about. A really usable book. It's got a great structure. It's really usable, but you must have some regrets; everyone does. What would you change?

Oh. I mean, I tried really hard to skip some boring bits at the beginning, but there were bits where I was like, listen, I know I know this isn't the most interesting topic, like writing an inviting email at the beginning of the process.

I thought that was really useful, actually.

What you'll notice is that I get very quickly into the structure of a presentation, with examples. That's almost what I thought would be the most common kind of starting point for a lot of people. Even if you only had a few hours, could you skim some of that structure and use it.

This is true. Do you think you've got to see every junior designer doing the same structure now? Do you think we'll be like people will be in a meeting going ‘oh yeah, there it is’?

I hope they don't take it too literally! It was meant to be an example. And one of the bits of feedback I got in testing the content was, ‘I can't do all of these presentation sections because I don't know them all for my product’. There are sections I propose which aren't necessarily applicable to every project. I hope everyone takes something away from it and messes with it, in a good way, I suppose!

So how long did it take? What was good and bad about the writing experience? How long was it? Tell me a bit more about that.

The book was about two years end to end. Only a year of that was sitting and writing. One of my key learnings from this whole process is that unlike digital design, it is so much more work to get a finished product out!

Kind of one shot.

Yeah, exactly. You spend so much more time crafting the details. I actually prefer sitting down and writing. A lot of writers say it's hard, but I don't have a problem with that. I'm really looking forward to getting back to all of that.

That was going to be my final question. What's your next book going to be about?

I haven't quite figured that out, but I know the kinds of people I would like to talk to!

Huge thanks to Jane for this conversation: Go follow her. She's awesome.

Tell great stories about your design work.

Death by Screens: available now in paperback or ebook

Death by Screens: the newsletter

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

Read more from Death by Screens: the newsletter
A man tightropes between towers of money and cake.

The secret ambitions of Phillipe Petit...? The Amazon Effect Ever heard of ‘The Amazon Effect’ in usability testing? Picture this: you’re testing an e-commerce website for a client. But right when the participants you’re observing are about to buy something, they open Amazon in a new tab. When asked why, they say: “well I always check prices against Amazon before buying.” I’m not here to tell you about The Amazon Effect, but how one might use the story of The Amazon Effect. What if...

Goldilocks stares at the planets

Big in Japan In Japan, the way people read is fundamentally different to how we read in the west, and it's not just the vertical orientation of the lines. You can see sense how reading is different in the design of newspapers. INFORMATION OVERLOAD! (for westerners) The writing systems used in East Asia have turned people into expert information scanners; they can digest very dense information very quickly. If you give a presentation in Japan, it's quite common (and expected) to put everything...

Goldilocks stares at the planets

Education, fables, game design, astrophysics, writing, story structure: they’re all connected by a useful principle you can use to improve how you communicate. Deliberate failure Our schooling has really internalised the idea that the correct answer is the only one that matters. As I write, my twelve-year-old son is being tested again on some topic he told me that he already knows. As teachers in the UK like to say - you can’t fatten a pig by measuring it. As an adult, I learned that failure...