How design thinking can improve our communications

‘Content marketing’ has spawned a new industry. ‘Cutting-through-the-noise content marketing’ has evolved to address the challenge of getting information noticed in the continuous noise of ‘stuff’ being pushed out every day. There is lots of advice out there about how to write better content; but rather than effectively just trying to shout louder, I think there is an alternative approach that may help us get our message across more effectively: by applying some design thinking before taking pen to paper.

Noise is a real issue that affects our ability to operate effectively. According to acoustics experts Resonics, noise distracts, increases stress, causes confusion, demotivates. As well as being an issue in an open plan office, I think noise is a real problem for people trying to spot the useful and relevant information in a sea of emails, social media, phone calls, brochures, apps, ad popups and even your desktop operating system pinging messages at you.

Engagement or turn-off?
The problem affects internal communications just as much as B2B or B2C communications. Internal email, project updates, texts, instant messaging and the intranet combine with external messages to create an environment where important information gets missed, or people just don’t have time to read it all.
In the face of all this opinion, advice and enticements to download the latest whitepaper, I find myself switching off rather than being engaged. Which is a shame because I’m sure that, buried in there somewhere are valuable nuggets that someone has worked hard to produce.

How to communicate effectively in this noisy environment?
Advice for being heard midst the chatter tends to focus on content quality. According to digital marketing ninja Dave Chaffey: “as the volume of content marketing grows, the importance of high quality editorial and journalism increases to help cut through the noise … focus on publishing less but doing it better.” Amen to that, but what if there’s not much you can do about the content (eg. you’re sending out a report) or creative writing is not one of your core skills?

The first thing to remember is that the purpose of all this communication is primarily to build relationships with customers, prospects and stakeholders. My current book-of-the-month is “Universal Principles of Design” and it has inspired me to think that applying some of these design principles can help all of us be more creative about how we go about engaging with our audiences.

Here are 5 simple ideas as a starting point:

80/20 Rule:
Focus 80% of communication effort on listening and only 20% on ‘talking’.
For business leaders, walking the floor provides the opportunity to engage employees by being visible and accessible, listening to concerns, asking for suggestions, recognising achievements, and responding to questions. If you can’t literally be out there with customers and stakeholders, spend a bit of time on internal/external forums listening and being helpful eg. connecting project teams to people with relevant experience. O2/Telefonica UK CEO Ronan Dunne would use Twitter to listen to customers; internal forums or user community groups can be equally useful.

Aesthetic Design:
“Aesthetic designs foster positive relationships with people”, (source: Universal Principles of Design). Time taken to consider the first impressions of your business case, user-manual, website or report is not wasted. For example, Sphero makes the BB-8™ robot. It is expensive and it is small, which might invite the buyer-response “Is that it?”. But the slick design of the BB-8 packaging creates a positive expectation of something special inside.
Engaging with someone is much easier when they are starting with a positive frame of mind rather than disappointment. Where it is clear that not much care and attention has been taken in the way something is presented, the recipient will spend time looking for the faults rather than your core message. Where your audience is pressed for time, aesthetic design may help your document get to the top of their reading list.

Consistency of style and appearance enhances recognition and sets expectations. Companies use consistent branding for exactly this reason, but the same techniques can be used to mitigate the risk of your emails or updates getting missed or overlooked.
Create a ‘brand’ for documents that relate to the same topic: it can be as simple as creating a project mnemonic and using it in the subject line of all related internal emails as a flag to stakeholders; or having an icon or consistent colour theme that is used on all related presentations and reports.
A user interface can use this technique to group related information. The AppGate XDP secure access system from Cryptzone uses consistent colour and icons in the user interface to draw attention to important security notifications.

Instead of pushing out content directly or top-down, use existing networks and communities to promote your messages indirectly or peer-to-peer. Building relationships with influencers can simply be a case of giving time and attention: reading and sharing their material, using it in your own publications/reports, or involving them in decisions or process development. Check out “4 Ways to Get Influencers to Spread Your Brand Message” for more ideas.

Desire Line:
“Desire line” is the preferred method of travel or interaction. Posting information on the intranet may be the accepted way of communicating to co-workers or project teams, but is that where your audience actually goes to find information?
Observe how your audience chooses to get information eg. via computer or from friends and colleagues, direct email or from the project office, detailed report or 1-paragraph summary? If they print out every proposal to read on the train home, present yours either pre-printed or in a format that is print friendly. We’re getting used to the idea that if you want people to see your web content, make it mobile friendly because that’s the device that your audience is like to be using. Similarly, as Forrester’s Kerry Bodine points out, just because it’s called an intranet doesn’t mean that the information has to be delivered via computer.

This is only a handful of ideas. If you’re a CX or service designer, what design principles do you use to engage your audience? Is ‘noise’ and issue in your organisation? If you’re running a project, do you have any tips for making sure that your stakeholders don’t miss the information they need?

To outsource or not to outsource?

Running a small business means juggling IT, marketing, purchasing, accounts, HR etc, as well as working for clients. I’m sure I’m not alone in facing the dilemma of whether to do all the tasks yourself or outsource. I’ve been in business for over 15 years and have tended to do the former. My company is not complex, and I’ve managed to figure out what’s been required.

However, this year I opted to call in the help of a design agency to refresh the company’s brand and website. Good project management requires admitting when you don't have all the skills needed to do the job!

Full disclosure: the design agency in question is Head-E design run by my colleague Ian but what follows below is not intended to promote his business in particular. It’s been an interesting experience being on the client side of an outsourced project, and what I want to do here is provide a personal case study on the potential benefits of bringing in specialist help. So, here are 5 reasons why outsourcing was the right strategy for my business in this instance:

  1. Expert Guidance: A key question when outsourcing is whether you’re paying for something that, frankly, you could do yourself. With this particular design & development project, it is fair to say that what has been produced is a much better solution for meeting my business objectives than I could have achieved in-house. The initial ideas that I had sketched out in the brief were limited by my limited knowledge of what was actually possible. By integrating new tools that I wasn’t aware of, a more engaging and information-rich platform has been created.
  2. Design for manufacture: My original scheme for the design of the website would have been a headache to build because I didn’t understand the implications of some of the features that I wanted to incorporate. Through the design process, the scheme was nudged towards alternative layouts that would be a lot easier and quicker to build.
  3. Seeing the wood for the trees: An in-house team is often too close to the subject matter and will make assumptions about the audience’s knowledge or use jargon without thinking. For me, it has been invaluable having a 3rd party prepared to say that something doesn’t make sense, or to point out gaps in messaging.
  4. Professional polish: Not only is the finished site more interesting and feature-rich than would have been achieved had I taken on the job myself, but it incorporates the finishing touches such as bespoke designs and imagery that bring my brand to life and reflect the professionalism that is a core value for my business.
  5. Time: OK, so this is almost a no-brainer. Outsourcing frees the client to focus on doing everything else. For some managers, perhaps doing the job in-house seems feasible because there is a window of opportunity ie. temporarily spare resource. What is not necessarily factored in is the time that will be taken up on the unexpected, such as waiting for tech support when elements don’t work as advertised, or as happened with my site, a page had to be re-built after it seemed to vanish into the ether during testing! So for me, the benefit of outsourcing has meant not being insanely busy trying to develop a website whilst also delivering client projects; and the knock-on effect of that has been faster time to completion.

What is your experience? Do you outsource or feel perfectly happy doing everything in-house? Are there aspects of your business that you would never outsource? I look forward to your comments.


Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.