Presenting our designs to clients and stakeholders is a crucial part of being a designer. The better we present, the better we can persuade stakeholders and get buy-in for our ideas. That’s why, at Modus, we recently ran a design campfire focused on design presentations. We each took turns telling stories about good and bad presentations we had witnessed. From these stories, we wrote a list of best practices for presenting designs. These best practices have helped us get buy-in from stakeholders, build great case studies, and gather actionable feedback to improve our designs.
1. Start with a Thoughtful Design Process
You have probably heard the saying garbage in, garbage out. This definitely applies to your presentations. No matter how much you prepare for a presentation or how pretty your slides are, you risk losing your audience if you don’t follow a thoughtful design process.
- Before you present your designs, immerse yourself in the problem you’re trying to solve. Study all data you can find or collect about the users’ needs, relevant design trends, the state of the market, and anything else you can use to support your design decisions. This way, explaining the why behind your design decisions will be second nature.
- Support your design decisions with data — qualitative or quantitative. If your data comes from a third-party source, make sure to check that the source is reputable and cite your references.
The more you prepare, the better your presentation will be. However, despite this step’s importance, many designers skip it.
- Don’t try to wing it. Instead, practice your presentation ahead of time.
- For routine check-ins with a client, it’s often enough to just jot down a few key speaking points and spend fifteen minutes rehearsing your presentation.
- For longer, more complex presentations, a proper dry run with a mock audience helps fix timing issues or unclear messaging. Your mock audience can provide feedback on how to improve the presentation.
- Try to anticipate your audience’s response. Where might they object or have questions? How will you respond? You can’t consider every possible response, but this exercise will help you practice thinking on your feet.
- If you’re collaborating with a teammate during the presentation, clearly define your roles. For example, who will present which slides or user flows? Who will share their screen?
3. Know Your Audience
Part of preparation is knowing your audience. Tailoring your messaging to your audience’s attitudes and needs will help you be more persuasive.
- Find out who will be attending the presentation ahead of time. What are their roles? What will they be looking to get out of the presentation? For example, if you’re presenting to the c-suite, remember that their time is limited and precious. So stick to your most salient points around business outcomes; only go into your design process in detail if they ask.
- Avoid technical jargon unless your audience is familiar with it.
- Understand the audience’s way of thinking, how they work with people and their approach to the project. Message your points on their terms, not on yours. For example, if your audience is primarily business folks, focus on the business benefits of your design approach. How will the design drive revenue or increase retention?
4. Focus Your Slides
Your audience’s attention span is limited. Focusing your slides on the critical points to your story helps them digest the content and stay engaged.
- Limit the text on your slides to only critical information and speak to the rest. Again, this requires preparation. If you have a lot of content, split it into multiple slides.
- Get visual. Images and diagrams can portray complex messages better than words.
- Write your slide headings as key takeaways.
Situation: You’re designing an e-commerce site. Your slide shows a graph of task success rates for a usability test. The task to checkout as a guest shows a high failure rate.
5. Make a Direct Ask
When presenting, you may need something from your audience. For example, you may need them to make a decision, provide feedback, select one of your design options, or provide funding to continue your project. In any case, be direct about what you need from them.
- Before you even start discussing your designs or the problem to be solved, clearly state your goal for the meeting. What do you want to leave with? Do you need the audience to choose one of the many options that you have designed? Do you just need general feedback? Or maybe you need the audience to formally approve the designs. Either way, explicitly state your goal at the beginning, so the audience knows what you need from them to move forward. Better yet, state the goal in the meeting invite, so your participants come prepared and in the right frame of mind.
- Inform the audience where you are in the design process. Are you 30% done or 90% done? These numbers are imprecise, but they cue your audience to focus on the big picture or detailed feedback.
- Be specific about what type of feedback you are looking for before you present any design work. Also, clearly state what feedback you are not looking for. For example, if you have already gone through multiple revisions of a style guide, you can state that the styles are “locked” — signaling that you’re not accepting feedback on them.
6. Start a Conversation, Not a Sales Pitch
Design presentations are not sales pitches. Instead, they are an opportunity to start a conversation with the audience — to get their feedback and learn. While you should still back up your design decisions with data and sound rationale, you should also be open to new learnings that may change your thinking or send the design in a new direction.
- Build time into your presentation for the audience to react and ask questions and for you to answer these questions.
- If the client asks a question you can’t answer, it’s okay to say you’re not sure, and you’ll research it and get back to them.
- Asking your audience questions throughout the presentation can be a great way to keep them engaged. However, don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking questions. Make sure they are relevant and bring value to the discussion.
7. Explain Your Rationale
As designers, we have to remember that the rationale behind our design decisions lives solely in our heads until we voice it. Your typical audience will not be able to intuit the reasoning behind your design decisions.
- Before showing a single screen design, recap the user, product, and business goals relevant to your design. Then, as you present your designs, associate your design decisions with these goals. For example, let’s say you’re designing an e-commerce checkout flow. One of your business goals is to increase how much customers spend per purchase. Plus, research shows that users hardly ever add the additional products you recommend because those recommendations are not relevant to the items currently in their cart.
- Don’t just point out UI elements on the screen. Instead, explain the rationale behind your designs. Why did you design it that way?
- Many design decisions come with pros and cons—state these pros and cons and why you chose the design approach you did. Your audience may be thinking about proposing the alternatives you have already assessed and scrapped. Showing them you have thought through these alternatives builds their confidence in you and heads off unnecessary disagreements.
- If you’re presenting multiple options, with the goal of your audience selecting one, make sure you will be happy no matter which option they choose. If you find yourself secretly wishing they pick option A, then you probably shouldn’t present options B and C to begin with. Instead, just present Option A and explain why it’s a solid design.
- Your rationale should be better than, “This is how Google does it.” Although it’s fine to find inspiration in other products, you should explain why that product’s approach is good.
- Proactively discuss the data behind your design decisions. This can be data you collected and analyzed or from other trusted resources like the Baymard Institute or Nielsen Norman Group. If you don’t have data, turn to established best practices, such as Jakob Neilsen’s 10 usability heuristics. However, be careful with best practices. Just because a lot of apps do something a certain way doesn’t make it a best practice.
8. Tell a Story, Build a Vision
One of our biggest jobs as designers is to get buy-in from stakeholders on the user experience vision we have created. No matter how good your design is, if you can’t convince the business to fund building it, it won’t get built. Storytelling is one of the most natural ways humans communicate and persuade — we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years. So telling a story about why your design will solve users’ problems and deliver business value is your foolproof tool for persuading stakeholders.
- Start by establishing the main business and user needs that the designs address. Then, explain how you uncovered those needs and how you know they are real.
- Explain the process that got you to your solution. For example, you might show that you tried several different options before arriving at the final version.
- When you present your solution to the problem, don’t just walk through the design elements on the screen. Instead, tell a story from the user’s perspective. How would they use this design to solve a problem? In what context would they use it? How do we expect them to feel about the experience? This approach helps your audience empathize with the users and understand how and why your solution will help them.
- Present with enthusiasm. This is hard to do if you’re nervous. Being prepared will likely help you feel less nervous, bringing us back to one of our best practices above. For example, let’s say you’re designing a digital marketplace that allows people to sell homegrown foods.
9. Get the Logistics Right
Sometimes, missing small details can be just as harmful as missing big details.
- If you’re presenting remotely and sharing your screen, turn on do not disturb mode, so your audience doesn’t see any personal or sensitive messages. Check your browser tabs to make sure you don’t have anything open that shouldn’t be.
- Present in a quiet place. This may not always be possible, but try your best. If you expect some background noise, it’s courteous to let your audience know ahead of time.
- If you need the audience to make a decision during the meeting, make sure decision-makers can attend the meeting, or else reschedule.
- Share an agenda as part of the presentation. Better yet, share it in the calendar invite before the presentation.
- For presentations longer than an hour, schedule short breaks at regular intervals. This will help keep your audience engaged.
Following these best practices has made us more successful in communicating with our clients and ultimately building successful products. We covered a lot of ground in the article, so remember these key takeaways:
- The foundation of a good design presentation is a good design process.
- Practice makes perfect
- Tailor your presentation to your audience’s needs
- Keep your slides focused — limit words and emphasize the key takeaways.
- If you need something from the audience, ask for it directly.
- Be open to the audience’s feedback on your designs and expect them to change.
- Use data and best practices to explain your design decisions.
- Tell a story about your design process and how users will find value in your product.
- Lastly, don’t miss out on small details.
Remember that presenting is a skill that takes time to develop. If you’re new to presenting, it might be too much to try to nail all of these things your first time. If so, no worries — I recommend starting with small steps, like getting your story right and preparing. These two things alone will lead to a much more successful presentation.