If you’ve ever worked in client services, you know that every new project comes with its own unique set of challenges. One of which is developing chemistry and managing stakeholders. As UX and product designers we spend a lot of time talking about empathy with our users in order to build a better solution. If we take that same empathy and apply that to who we are working with we can then better streamline the design approval process by presenting our work in a way that resonates with our team and stakeholders.

As we work to change what it means to be a “designer”, we’ve noticed a few patterns in the managers we tend to work with. It’s not just a question of WHO you prefer to work with—it’s knowing HOW to adjust your design process depending on the manager archetype you are working with.

Through our efforts we have identified 5 manager archetypes and learned to collaborate with them effectively. 


1. The Distant Manager

The distant stakeholder is the one who knows design must be part of product development, but she has not prioritized the design effort personally. Her attention is monopolized with another aspect of her job.   

When working with a distant manager you are afforded the breathing room to design and make decisions. There’s a sense of trust that you are hired for your expertise and will do the job well. And with a lot of  designers being introverted in nature this is a dream come true. However, there is a high risk that the final result wasn’t quite what the distant manager expected. Or that the work you did is deemed “great” based on the original requirements,  but is no longer relevant due to a business change.

To streamline the design process, you have to find ways to capture the distant manager’s attention. You’ll need to put in a little extra work to reach out and talk about what’s going on with design. They know that creating a minimum viable (or lovable) product is important, but might be most concerned with the big picture future state.

Appealing to the distant manager’s interests means tapping into the storytelling skills of your design team. If your distant manager is focused on a year or two out, empathize with her and create two designs. One for the needs now, and one that addresses the future target. This will not only get your manager excited to talk about design with you it will also help her communicate her ideas to others. When the design process becomes focused on the distant manager’s wants/needs, you can close the gap and get her more involved.

2. The Micromanager

At the complete other end of the spectrum, you have the hyper-focused manager- the one who doesn’t have formal design training, but wants to be deeply involved in each step of your process.

Micromanagement is certainly frowned upon in business, but we understand there may be some backend politics, bureaucracy, or legacy processes that force managers to fit this archetype. Nonetheless, you have to be prepared to adjust accordingly.

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While active participation in the design process is valuable, it can be disruptive and ultimatly slow the entire process down. In order to keep things moving smoothly, you have to be patient and empathize with what they’re looking for. The use of storytelling can go a long way to bring them along your design journey, informing them on how you came to your conclusions. You can weave in things they mentioned to you and how it affected the design and ultimately the user. It’s important to remember that everyone has the same end goal and you just have to make sure that you stay on the same track and use data to back up your decisions.

3. The Combative Manager

There are many reasons why a stakeholder might become skeptical of the design team. Maybe she worked on a project that failed in the past and carried that feeling into the new project. Regardless, you can’t just go on the offensive to force your ideas across.

The combative manager needs to feel like you are an expert at what you do, so it is imperative to gain her trust and enforce this idea at the beginning of a project. One way you can do this is to start with the right design-thinking processes and make sure you have at least one other stakeholder evangelizing on your behalf.

Once the combative stakeholder sees that people outside of the design team are agreeing with the approach, it will be easier to get approval and move forward.

4. The “I Don’t Understand Design” Manager

These managers likely maintain the outdated mindset that “design is only pretty pixels”. They might ask something like “Why do you need such complicated and lengthy processes when a friend of mine’s nephew could do the the project in 24 hours for much less money." You know your design is worth far more—and you have to get them to see that.

You have to set these managers up with the right tools to understand design. If they simply don’t understand the processes, it’s your job to break them down into bite-sized pieces so the manager can effectively relay the message upstream.

Again, this comes down to your ability to tell a story and empathize with that manager. She may not feel comfortable explaining a major branding/design change to upper management—but if you can tell a story in her own terms, she can take the message and explain why it’s really the best decision.

5. The Co-Creating Manager

Similar to the micromanager, the co-creating manager wants to be deeply involved from the start—but might have some design experience and wants to have a say in every minor piece of the project.

It’s nice that these managers are involved, but their past experience does not replace your expertise. They have their job and you have yours.. If too many people are co-creating a single screen, you just end up with a sub-par mix of opinions rather than one cohesive design.

In these cases, gaining a shared understanding between you and a co-creator about the downsides of lesser designs is pivotal. You might know the best result from the beginning due to a substantial research phase, but you have to go through the 3 or 4 other options to show why they aren’t ideal.

When the co-creator sees these lesser designs, you can work your way back to the best option—the co-creator is happy to be involved in the final decision and the project results in the top outcome.

Managing Stakeholders in Design—It’s All About Building Trust

I’ve mentioned the importance of trust earlier, and I’ll say it again. No matter what type of managers your stakeholders are, your number one objective when you start a project should be figuring out how to build trust. It’s your job to figure out what these stakeholders need for the design process to run smoothly.

Over time and with enough projects under your belt you will develop the ability to identify who you’re working with with little effort —you develop a sort of sixth sense for it.

However, one wrong stakeholder interpretation could derail a project altogether. This is a vital piece of the product development process and, as designers, we have to be ready.

If you liked this article, listen to Dialexa’s Head of Design Research, Sarah Reid, and Design Architect, James Utley, on Custom Made talk using lean design research to get to the ‘the why’ of your product: 

Listen to all episodes of Custom Made for insights and perspectives from industry disruptors and technology leaders.

If you want to learn more about how we run through our own design processes, focusing on empathy for both users and stakeholders, download our free ebook, Designing for Business Outcomes.

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