good design is the ability to listen

Listening. Do You Have an App for That?



good design is the ability to listen


Post written by Gregory Thomas. 


For purposes of this paper, I will refer to “client” as anyone that is a healthcare practitioner or a patient.


As a designer working in the healthcare arena, I am always looking for the next best technology for problem solving.  I do, however, find myself running parallel to the way a doctor is able to diagnose: by listening to what the problem might be and coming to a possible hypothesis from it.

Nothing is more important than running tests and other diagnostics to glean empirical data, but in order to isolate the problem and validate the assumptions, good questions and better answers relating to specific symptoms are the tried and true tools to an accurate diagnosis.

Designers developing new apps, surgical tools, hospital environments, etc., also need to listen as much as possible to develop the right healthcare products and services. If you listen well, design happens. You can always impose a host of design solutions from the start, but if you don’t understand your client’s communicated needs, then you’ve wasted their time, their money and, in some cases, their well being.

hearing2Good design is the ability to truly "listen" to the client and let them know that you've heard and understood them. Sometimes designers feel they aren't getting enough information from the client or that the client "doesn't know what they want." Perhaps the designer isn’t listening hard enough. On the other end, clients are known to come with preconceived ideas about what they want and only after listening to them are we able to recognize what they really need.

Listening creates empathy. Empathy provides the ability to put you in the “shoes” of others, and in doing so, understand their experiences and see things from their point of view.

Asking questions to discover the client information you need is the most essential part of the process. Sometimes the lack of communication is the client’s way of telling you they are undecided about what they think or know they want.


What happens when the client doesn’t know how to express their thoughts?


The kind of questions you ask a client will have an influence on the type of answer you’ll get, which in turn effects the design process. Every designer has had their share of frustrations in dealing with clients – which more often than not are simple cases of miscommunication.

Listening and hearing are not the same. When listening, you must get meaning from what is being said before you can respond. It’s important to note most people only retain approximately 30-40 percent of what we hear.

Often, you may hear what you’d like to hear, not what is actually said. Everyone brings past their own experiences to a communication situation, even without intending to. When we talk to someone face-to-face we pick up a lot of information besides what is being said: body language and tone of voice
in addition to the words being used.

For many years during the 80’s, my office designed for a number of Japanese firms. Each meeting not only required a translator on each side but a “body gesture reader” as well. Both the client and I utilized individuals whose job it was to record and interpret not only what was explicitly said, but also how it was received and interpreted. The translation documents were then married to the gesture notations to provide an all-encompassing interpretation of our meetings.

As a cancer survivor, I worked with others at USC Keck Cancer Center to help new resident doctors formulate the best way to deliver the news to a new patient. Being told you have cancer is a terrible experience and it is only made worse if it’s not done without proper practice. Usually the patient hears nothing after the words “you have cancer” so this is where all the skills in articulation, body gestures, eye contact and more play a key role in what the patient hears and how they will eventually cope.

Listening and hearing are not the same.In the not so distant past, the tool used most for listening was the telephone, but it also had had difficulty with conversation. Since neither party can see the other (although technology has changed that), we would rely on responses; a cough, a “yes” or long hummmm, so we knew each party was listening.

Because there were no non-verbal signs on the phone, we had to concentrate more on the conversation – for if we missed what was being said, there were no other clues to pick up information from.

Today with smartphones and other devices we’ve brought back the image (video from cameraphone) and even symbols such as emoticons or emojis (small graphics like a happy face, etc.) to help convey mood, affect, and other. But technology still falls short when making contact between one individual and another in exchanging ideas.


How many times have you realized that after a series of emails, it is better just to call or see the person?


In the end, the client who feels “heard” is the client who will trust you. Trust is the basis for good relationships and establishing that “bedside manner” that all healthcare practitioners need to ramp up due to the sterile technology now being engaged.

As a designer who’s worked on a myriad of projects for 40 years, I’ve recognized it’s absolutely imperative that a great deal of the design process be devoted to listening. Good, functional design can only become a reality by listening about history, an understanding of the present, and the desired future positioning of the client’s needs will help create “the next best thing.”




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