We’re in the midst of a digital renaissance. With the rise of startups and transformative tech companies like Apple and Google, the user’s experience has never been more important. That means that the humble designer is suddenly essential to the experiences of billions of people.
And we designers have risen to the challenge. As a young designer, I delighted in exploring new tools, developing my processes, and working with cohesive design teams. I spent hours crafting my skills, from wireframing to sketching, and even attempting to master Photoshop’s innumerable keyboard shortcuts. I figured the more skills I had, the more techniques I knew, the better designer I’d become, right?
As I got older and gained experience, I realized that none of these things were the main contributing factors to great UX design. Despite the rapid rise of fancy new tools, it became more and more clear to me that the secret to creating great user experiences lies in something more fundamental: the ability to listen. After all, the foundation of great design doesn’t start on an art board; it starts with a problem.
But listening is easy, right?
Conversing a daily part of the human experience, it’s how we communicate. Because we do it so often, it’s easy to think that listening is a skill we’ve mastered.
But here’s the thing: listening isn’t the same as hearing. You can hear the sounds of what someone says, but real listening requires focus on both verbal and non-verbal cues. It means paying attention not only to the words someone says, but how they speak, and the way they use their language, voice, and body.
…we’re doing a lot of hearing, but not a whole lot of listening.
According to numerous studies on the way we communicate, we spend 60 percent of our time “listening,” but only retain 25 percent of the information that comes in. That’s means we’re doing a lot of hearing, but not a whole lot of listening.
To make matters worse, we live in an age where our attention is constantly being distracted. In our perpetually “connected” culture, there are nearly 11 million things fighting for our attention every second. The result? We impatiently crave instant soundbites, replacing the art of conversation with personal broadcasting.
In this environment, it’s easy to miss the insights we need to solve problems in a meaningful way.
So, what’s the solution?
As you’ve probably already figured out, there are many types of listening and not all listening is created equal. The subtle art of listening includes everything from critical listening—where you evaluate and analyze—to empathetic listening—where you listen to understand a person’s emotions.
In design, the most helpful type of listening is conscious listening, otherwise known as “active listening.”
So how can we learn to consciously listen?
In his TED talk “5 Ways to Listen Better,” sound expert Julian Treasure shares an effective framework called the RASA—Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, Ask—method. I’ve heard designers from Nike to Nickelodeon swear by its ability to help them get the insights they need during the design process. And using this in my own career, I’ve found that whether I’m doing client research or getting user feedback, the result is the same: my clients feel understood, I get the insights I need and, best of all, I connect deeply with the problem I’m tasked with solving.
The four steps of RASA
Treasure describes “receive” simply as “pay attention to the person.” But the word itself is evocative. When you’re receiving from someone, you’re not simply sitting near them while they talk. Instead, think of this step as a the state your mind should be in as you listen: open, curious, and analytical. Receptive.
If you’re open to receiving during the discovery process, even the sometimes frustrating process…can be extremely fruitful.
Every UX project begins with a discovery phase, which is the perfect opportunity to get a deep understanding of the problem that needs solving. If you’re open to receiving during the discovery process, even the sometimes frustrating process—like when your client rambles off in a vague direction—can be extremely fruitful. As the designer, it’s your responsibility to find the insights within your client’s words, even asking the same question in multiple ways if that’s what’s needed.
When listening, it’s obviously not enough to sit in front of the other person like a stone cold statue. Great listening means showing appreciation through encouraging sounds or gestures to show that you’re engaged and present. For Treasure, “appreciate” comes in the form of small noises like “okay” or “mm hmm.”
Feedback is the lifeblood of our industry, and the more engaged and appreciative you are with your user, the more honest and meaningful information they’ll give back to you. Think about subtle gestures like facing your client when listening, nodding in agreement, or verbally thanking them as they share with you.
Think about a time that you shared something personally meaningful with another person, and they reflected back what they heard to you. Feels pretty great, right? When you take the time to summarize and reflect key ideas back to the other person, it shows them that you’ve fully understood what they’re saying. Treasure suggests starting with the word “so” to indicate when you’re summarizing someone’s thoughts back to them.
At the end of the discovery phase—or even throughout, if it’s appropriate—be mindful and ask thoughtful, open-ended questions that drive the conversation deeper. This is where the importance of active listening is really emphasized, because it’s impossible to ask meaningful, relevant questions unless you’re fully present and listening to the other person. By asking the right questions, you can glean insights from your users that will help you truly solve their problems.
Putting it all into practice
Having a simple framework like the RASA method has helped me stay committed to developing my most important skill as a designer: my ability to listen well. It’s helped me discover that when my client feels truly heard, they are willing to go deeper and share more than I ever imagined, helping me develop the solutions that meet their core needs.
And the great thing about conscious listening is that it doesn’t just apply to listening to others; it applies to listening to ourselves as well. Don’t be surprised if, as you start creating the space to really hear what’s going on for someone else, you simultaneously develop self-awareness and the ability to critique your own work with an unbiased eye. And your design work? It’s only going to get better.