Designing for Common Ground & Understanding

It isn’t all up to designers (that would be impossible!) but designers should be playing a greater role in considering the experience of conversation, similar to widely established expectations for designers’ role in the design of products or services. Trained in disciplinary research across psychology, computer science, linguistics and anthropology, designers in these roles can support organizations whose values and missions are built upon openness, loyalty, and innovation. Careful, focused, and purposeful conversation is a vehicle for achieving these goals.

In our pursuits for “fruitful difference,” Mary Parker Follett writes: “Difference based on inaccuracy is meaningless” (Follett 6). This is just as true today (see “Human Needs in Conversation”) where groups of people come together like never before – and need to define and consolidate perspectives before they can ever achieve true alignment around an issue, project, strategy, etc.

As we move toward work environments that are increasingly collaborative, who is taking ownership for guiding these teams through the chaotic process of early understanding – between each other, the subject matter, or the organization’s expectations? Who is ensuring the data upon which groups begin to share an understanding is accurate, informative, and engaging?

“When approaching a strategic conversation, it’s common for participants to push for agendas that drive faster toward agreement and decision-making than is realistic. That’s a problem because people need time and space to process together the complexity of adaptive challenges” (Ertel & Solomon).

Three Considerations of Designing Conversations to Establish Common Ground


Embrace the tension

Oftentimes, when groups are trying to create unified, broad understanding, members get caught up in efforts to find consensus; essentially, they skip a few steps and begin efforts to persuade. This is a natural human tendency and may reflect an individual or group’s bias towards a particular outcome, especially when that outcome is beneficial to them, such as bonuses, recognition, etc.

Designing conversations strategically, however, anticipates the natural human tendency to resolve tension and “achieve” inauthentic alignment.

“Creative tension is one of the (if not THE) most fundamental principles of design. Great designers have had a capacity to plant a flag on a seemingly impossible future and then found a way to arrive there, inspiring those around them” (Starnino).

One way designers “find a way to arrive” through the tension is constructive criticism. Over the course of our education and practice, even the most soft-skinned of us have developed an appreciation for this invaluable step in our design process, even if it brings a degree of discomfort. Constructive critique challenges our tunnel vision, preconceived notions, our automated responses, and frames our concepts in new light. We know our work is better with it than without it; critical analysis, tension, and redesign are integral parts of any successful design process.

Our team members from other fields may be less experienced in this process and initially, may be less open to it. When open feedback is shared, these individuals may retreat to ‘save face’ (Marsh). Their true feelings may be hidden underneath politeness or evasive tactics. These are often not malicious in intent; in fact, they are tactics mostly employed to avoid hurting another person’s feelings or feeling humiliated in front of others (Marsh).

In The Designful Company, author Neumeier discusses the tension between expression and impression as a tug of war that, if executed adeptly, becomes a bit like an accordion as it moves back and forth. “When small teams or individuals work separately (expression), they bring deep experience to bear. When they work together (impression), they expose their opinions to a wider view. By working back and forth from expression to impression, the result is not compromise but addition. The sum of each session is a measurable leap in shared thinking” (Neumeier 110-11). Much like prior discussion around deductive and conductive processes, the back-and-forth between modes of “expression” and “impression” can build upon one another and create a shared foundation of common ground around an issue.

Allowing an equal flow between modes is an art in which conversation designers must be skilled. Exploring this tension (rather than running from it) is an essential component of forming understanding and can stop any one individual or group of people dominating by jumping ahead and attempting to persuade.



In our day-to-day routines, we often overlook the delicate conversational dances we perform. This is never more evident than in the words and phrases we use as we try to lay the groundwork towards insight. You might be familiar with a few: “Tell me more…” or “Do you mean…” or “Am I hearing you say…”

As mentioned above, humans are naturally drawn to harmony in group dynamics. Our minds and bodies desire a state of equilibrium, and we can—often without realizing it—encourage movement quickly through a discovery phase that lacks any significant discovery. We nod while going “mm-hmm,” we might say “I see” when we do not, we give half-truths, and we circumvent to avoid hurt feelings.

Consider this example in Jessica Marsh’s article “What say it that way?: Evasive answers and politeness theory,” where she illustrates how elusive or polite answers can create a lack of clarity on someone’s intent:

“(15)    A has posted a poem on an internet forum.
A: What do you think of this poem: I want to send it to my girlfriend?
B: You put a lot of effort, and i’m sure she’ll appreciate it” (Marsh 67).

Marsh explains: “…B’s answer could well be taken to implicate, ‘I don’t like your poem.’ However, it is impossible to judge for certain whether this is in fact how B intends A to interpret his/her response” (Marsh 71).

A designer mediating conversation would be on the lookout for such types of answers and would aid in challenging “B” to expand on their response with verbal cues that solicit additional “needs” in a non-threatening way. Whereas someone inexperienced with conversation may quip “that didn’t answer the question,” a designer experienced with asking questions that draws people out into safe, contemplative spaces can clarify expectations. For example: “I think ‘A’ was hoping you might share your reaction to his/her poem… How did you find yourself responding to it?” might be one way to draw out a clearer response.



Great words don’t equal great conversation. Words need support and we can support conversation with great visuals like never before. People have come to appreciate how important it is to include visuals as part of important conversations, but often these visuals fail to engage or impress. Designers can support efforts to capture the data accurately, translate it to reflect the audience, and revise it when it misses the mark. But first we must understand why it is important designers are present long before they are tasked with simply creating a graphic for a presentation; they need to be at the development stages, and participate in strategic conversation about the topic, the data and the audience.

Judi Brownell’s HURIER model (figure 1) was developed to recognize the six aspects of listening processes: hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting, evaluating and responding (Brownell 14). While visuals also support other steps along a conversation (such as interpreting), they are crucial in helping us remember; in essence, visuals help the data “stick” long after the conversation has ended.

figure 1

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the concept of “stickiness” in his book The Tipping Point in relation to how visuals were integrated into Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues programing to connect with audience in new ways: “We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas…” (131). It isn’t just about processing information; remembering it also contributes to how we accurately and appropriately respond.

Personas and Mapping are two activities that can visually bring information to life-giving data that essential sticky quality that keeps stakeholders engaged and able to remember unique, specific details. This supports efforts to build understanding around a task, project, problem, strategy or plan. Though there are plenty of visual tools designers use day to day, we will focus on how Personas and Mapping can be adapted to keep the human experience at the center of conversational groups.

Personas represent refined segments of people with shared viewpoints, i.e., they are not about one actual stakeholder, but rather a “snapshot of a user archetype” (King).

An example

An organization wants to understand how employees (users) feel about the current integrated software system. They may investigate their users’ experiences through surveys, focus groups and interviews to find that there are three main user “types,” categorized by their specific set of viewpoints on new software. Personas are created based on the buckets most of the employee responses fell into, named “Retirement Ted,” “Cautious Cathy” and “Savvy Stephen.” Ted is in his late 60s, has been with the company for over ten years, knows the current system inside and out, and, regardless of his tech-savviness, he’s hesitant to adopt any new systems in the timeframe leading up to retirement. “Cathy” is leery of updates and new software and anticipates problems that impact her quick processing speeds. “Stephen” always feels new is better, and has been frustrated with some of the limited tracking capabilities of the current, outdated software.

The personas are printed on large sheets of paper and are taped to the wall surrounding the organization’s management and leadership teams as they converse around investing in new software. Ted, Cathy, and Stephen are referred to often as the team discusses benefits, risks, costs, etc. Given the fact that “Retirement Ted” represents a considerable portion of their workforce, they determine the degree business operations would be impacted by new software and frustrated their largest user group. They decide to return to the idea of new software the following year.

The development of personas, in this situation, has also shed light on a glaring gap: their workforce is aging and many will phase into retirement at similar time frames, potentially creating a vacuum with the loss of organizational knowledge and skills. In addition to postponing any new software, the group decides it will form a task force to better understand this newer, more concerning issue pressing the future of the company.

You can see from this (oversimplified) example that creating personas allowed the organization to humanize the users of the software program and resolve it based on a number of factors, especially respecting how it will challenge their employees’ experiences. Additionally, the development of personas and the resulting conversation provided a window another, more pressing issue the organization needs to address.

With only minor tweaking, you can see how a designer could adapt the development of personas to be a valuable visual aid for groups having conversations unrelated to the direct “tangible” creation of a product or service. In this example the personas helped the leadership team make an important decision about timing in relation to a large investment in new software. What may have only been an abstract, non-concrete understanding of how employees might feel about it, the personas allowed the group a foundation of understanding first, so that they may begin finding alignment on how best to move forward.

Similar to personas (and frequently going hand in hand) is mapping. As my post “Tools of the Trade” explains, there are a wide variety of maps designers use depending on the type of work they do or the information they need to gain clarity on.

Conversation mapping is a great tool for designers, though not as widely utilized as customer journey maps, service maps or experience maps. In my “They Said It Better” pop out, you can explore how experts use conversation mapping to extract experiences from groups of people.


What is Conversation Mapping?

Frequently, conversation mapping starts with a “seed,” an often stimulating, intriguing statement or question, as Bruce McKenzie from Future Insight Maps explains. This in turn, elicits (and captures) a variety of authentic responses surrounding an issue (McKenzie). “The conversation map itself enables us to identify patterns which we can work with to leverage improvement in that complex issue” (McKenzie).

“It’s like everybody in a meeting talking at once, but instead of being a gaggle of noise, we’re actually collecting a very rich picture. We start to realize that there are patterns which are embedded – common patterns across multiple disciplines or across multiple perspectives” (McKenzie).