My hypothetical talk for design students, based on a few years working at one of the best UX studios in the world.

The other day I got an email from Erik Stolterman, which got me thinking how nice it would be to get back to Bloomington one of these days and check in on the HCI/d program. With life and work and all the trip probably won’t happen soon, but our correspondence made me reflect on the talk I would like to give to current design students, based on what I’ve learned in my last few years in the industry.

I don’t have time to prepare this talk, let alone give it, but I feel if I did it would go something like this.

An introduction.

For the last 2 1/2 years I’ve been working as an experience designer at Adaptive Path, one of the top UX studios in the world. Every day we go toe-to-toe with IDEO, frog design, Hot Studio and other big wigs in our bids for new project work. I have good friends at each and every one of these studios, and more besides. We all do excellent work. Sometimes Adaptive Path lands one of these projects and I get to work on it, and other times my friends do. That’s just the way of the world.

I am a consultant. I work at a consultancy. That means companies come to me because they’re scared shitless about something and want me, a so-called design expert, to help them find the right path forward. Sometimes it’s finding the Buddha nature of a product. Other times it’s crafting and communicating a strategy for a product that does not yet exist.

Always, it is the pursuit of articulating and bringing to life the ideal experience of a product. Frequently that product is actually a multi-channel service that touches myriad users, customers, departments and stakeholders.

Always, I am working with clients.

Over the last couple years I’ve learned a lot of things. It’s been a painful experience, as is any true personal growth. I would like to share what I’ve learned with you, dear students, so when you go out and walk the path I have walked, you might have some idea of what to expect.

I sure thought I did. And I sure as hell was dead wrong.

This job is 20 percent how great you are at design, and 80 percent how great you are at working with people.

Being a great designer can give you a hell of a good head start, but if you can’t work with other designers, if you’re not good at interacting with clients and stakeholders, if you can’t show respect for operational, political and business constraints, you will always be limited in how much impact your designs will have on an organization.

Communication is absolutely key.

If you can share your ideas clearly, concisely and effectively, you will do well. If you cannot do this, you will need to work on it. Trust me. You will need to work on it. This goes for communicating with clients, as well as project managers and your fellow designers.

When someone is talking, they’re telling you something that’s important to them.

There’s the words that are said, but there’s also the motivation behind the words that are said. Your job is not just to hear and respond to the words, but understand why they’re saying those words, and speak to that. You know that empathy we are really good at extending to our end users? You need to apply those same principles to the people you work with, other designers and clients alike.

In the end, your client needs to be the strongest advocate for your design.

When you’re a consultant working with a client, there will come a time when your engagement ends and you move onto the next project. Your client, meanwhile, will continue to own your work in your absence, advocating for it within their organization, shepherding it through development into launch, and continuing to maintain and iterate on it.

Your job isn’t to be the genius. Your job is to get the best design possible out into the world, where it can affect people and bring about real change. This applies whether you’re designing an actual digital product or articulating a five-year organizational multi-channel strategy. The most powerful force for making this happen isn’t your skill as a designer, but the sheer will of your client, their belief in your design, and their desire to see it realized.

Ultimately, your design lives and dies with your client. The more you can involve them in your process, the more you can instill in them a sense of ownership, the better the chances of your design making it through the organizational gauntlet. If you can transform your client into an advocate for your design, they will move mountains to see that it happens.

You are always selling your design.

Your design work isn’t done until you’ve sold it through to the client. The word “sell” gets a bad rap. I don’t mean “sell” in a sleazy used car salesman kind of way. I mean “sell” in that you are authentically communicating the value of your design in a manner that resonates with your audience.

Pace yourself. It isn’t done when you’ve posted the deliverables, but only after you’ve walked through the deliverables, and you’ve gotten all the heads in the room nodding.

No one but you is going to sell your design work.

Again, this job is 20 percent design, 80 percent selling design. Whereby “selling” I mean “getting people to rally behind the idea you want to be realized.” Notice how I didn’t say your idea or your design. As much as possible as a design consultant, you need to pass the title of ownership to your client. Not necessarily intellectual or creative ownership, but gut ownership.

Always anticipate the next step.

Let’s say you present your design work to a C-level executive team. It goes better than you ever could have expected. They love it. They want to build it. Which part of it, you might ask? All of it. (trust me, this can happen).

For the longest time, I was under the impression that if my design work is good enough, if I communicate it well enough, that someone better and smarter than me would take it over and shepherd it into existence. The terrifying and exciting thing is, this does not happen.

What’s next?

You need to have a clear answer to this question. You’ve been living and breathing your project for so long that you are the authority on it. Any great leader at any organization is going to realize this, and you know what? They’re going to ask you what needs to happen next in order for your project to move forward.

In conclusion.

My talk would have an awesome conclusion where my last slide would say “And one more thing…” and I would walk over to a coat rack with a sheet over it that was on stage with me the entire time and I would pull off the sheet and wouldn’t you know it’s not a coat rack at all but AUSTIN CLEON HIMSELF and so my conclusion would be Austin giving his awesome talk How To Steal Like An Artist from UX Week 2012.

Does that sound good?