Hidden stakeholders

My first design project went ok. I was a teenager working toward a spec from my stakeholder and trying to understand the point of what I was making. I was quite green at creating the thing they asked for, but I spent time understanding why they needed it, poked around with the how, and iterated until we reached a point that they were happy. 

Those early design projects were crucial in helping me learn a lot of the inns and outs of making something valuable for someone else. Design—at least in the context I’m describing—isn’t the same as art. I’m not getting paid to make whatever my brain thinks is fun at the moment. There is an artistic element to it, but I also have to balance against whether this thing will meet its purpose and make someone money. 

My early projects had some hits and misses, but overall I loved them and wanted to keep learning. Over time I started to get into the swing of things. I evolved my toolset, gained experience in different types of design, and kept growing. The often mis-labeled softskills for a designer are as crucial as the actual ability to make something on a page. And so I’ve kept learning, year after year; gaining those soft skills alongside my expertise.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and to some extent still learn regularly, is the importance of knowing your stakeholder. The biggest difference between now and before is I’m able to more quickly recognize when I’ve missed the mark and wasn’t working with the right stakeholder. It doesn’t mean I can avoid the problem entirely, but I am catch it sooner and do something about it. 

So, what’s the problem? 

If you design something for a client, and over time think through all the details that matter, you’ll eventually come up with a design that can work. That is, provided that expertise and communication or cultural fit are up to par. 

When that happens there’s a moment where you could ship. The stakeholder has a call to make. 

However—and this almost always happens—when the call to ship the thing is made, a new person pops in. It’s almost like a trope in a fairy tale. The moment a new person is introduced to the project there’s an inflection point. If that new person has the power to force a change on the design, instead of offering suggestions, then you have a problem. You weren’t working with the right stakeholder. The inflection point is crucial, because your stakeholder either has the power to use it and make an informed decision on whether to change things, or they don’t and the entire project will keel sideways. 

This is different from getting feedback; which is a crucial part of every project. I believe feedback in the right context is oxygen to a designer. However, I’ve had too many situations where I thought I was working with a stakeholder, or was told explicititly that my person could make the call on what we designed; only to find out a few days, weeks, or months later that they really don’t hold any power and some new stakeholder will make the ultimate call. When that happens the designer is never in a good situation, and immediately has to pivot in a number of ways; none of which are ideal. 

However, if in the moment when that happens your original stakeholder can stand up and show that they have ownership, and provide cover for you as a designer; well let me tell you, in my book that person is as instant hero and I’d sail with them on any dangerous voyage. They’ve just done something couragous and probably deserve a statue somewhere. 

So if you have the choice to take on a project, and have even the slightest suspicion that you’re not working with the real stakeholder—even if you’ve been explicility that you are—take this advice and try to re-write the situation, or run.