Episode 4: The importance of stakeholder management

Profile picture of Nate Felt

This episode of UX Leadership by Design, the podcast by and for UX leaders, is brought to you by Fuzzy Math, the award-winning user experience design consultancy. In this episode, our host Mark Baldino chats with Nate Felt, a Senior Product Designer at Amazon, about stakeholder communication and management. As a designer, it’s easy to focus on creating great UI and deliverables, but when transitioning to a design leader, communication and selling design ideas become crucial skills. Join us to learn from Nate’s experiences and find the right balance between design output and communication.

About Our Guest

Nate Felt is a Senior Product Designer at Amazon where he measures human behavior and interaction. Nate’s goal is to discern people’s motives and goals and he uses this information to help improve the technology we use. In addition to 6 years studying psychology and 6 years studying communication technology, Nate has been in the Bay Area working in UX Design for the past 12 years.   

Topics Covered

  1. Transitioning from a design practitioner to a lead role
  2. Non-traditional paths into UX design
  3. Importance of digital storytelling in UX design
  4. Psychology & counseling skills in UX design
  5. Sales skills in UX design
  6. Collaborating with stakeholders in UX design
  7. Design thinking and problem-solving skills in UX design
  8. Importance of empathy in UX design
  9. The role of UX in the internal partner ecosystem
  10. Identifying champions for UX in different parts of the process
  11. Tips for identifying advocates for UX
  12. The importance of passion and decision-makers in UX advocacy.

Resources & Links

Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience by Tom Greever

Connect with Nate on LinkedIn

Connect with Mark on LinkedIn

Fuzzy Math


Mark Baldino  0:00  
Hi, folks, and welcome to UX leadership by design, the podcast buy in for UX leaders. I'm your host, Mark Baldino. This podcast is and always will be brought to you by fuzzy math, the user experience design consultancy that brings consumer grade UX to the enterprise. fuzzy math delivers award winning digital product design, and partners with internal UX design teams to augment, grow and scale their impact. I'm also founder so I'm a bit biased. Today we are fortunate enough to be talking to Nate felt a senior product designer at Amazon, nature's advice on a familiar topic, stakeholder communication and management. And as we discussed, I think as designers, we feel design output, our UI, our deliverables are the most important thing. But when you make a transition to a design leader, you start to realize that how we communicate or how we sell design ideas is actually the most important skill set. But it's certainly a balance, and there's lots to learn from Nate's story. So let's go.

Hey, how are you?

Nate Felt  1:06  
Good, Mark, how you doing?

Mark Baldino  1:08  
I'm doing well. Thanks for joining us on the podcast today. It's much appreciated.

Nate Felt  1:11  
Happy to be here.

Mark Baldino  1:13  
Well, you know, as typical with these, these sorts of conversations would love to get a sense of, you know, your UX journey bit about your current role. I always like to dial in on when people made the transition from being a kind of a design practitioner into the lead role. Sometimes it's really dramatic. Sometimes it's slower. Sometimes I don't even realize it's happening. But you know, given that we're really targeting design, UX design leaders would love to know that that sort of part of part of your journey in particular.

Nate Felt  1:40  
Sure, yeah. Happy to talk about that. So I think like a lot of people in the field, I did not necessarily have a direct path into UX. So my initial goal was to create movies or commercials, I was wondering, do I need to be a video production. I did some video work in the past for a couple of companies for some local radio, TV, I did have a local radio station. I was on the blamer Oh, 7.9. And so I was into broadcasting. And which is, I think, relevant in the sense that it tells it's all about digital storytelling. So being able to tell a story, to share a vision. And then I ended up actually taking a different track, I end up pursuing psychology, got my Master's in clinical psych, and I did some counseling for juvenile offenders. And then the economy crashed. And I ended up wanting to try a different route. So I ended up going into a little bit more of a technical role, combined with entrepreneurship. And that actually led me into the role I'm in today. So I've been in this field for about 14 years in the Bay Areas where I am located. Companies, both small and large, just doing the UX process. And it's changed names a couple of times over the years. I think I started it was usability engineer, interaction designer. Now, I'm a product designer and manager now. But yeah, it's been an interesting, interesting journey.

Mark Baldino  3:12  
Yeah, that's I think I've shared all of those titles at some point. Sometimes it was like make it up as you go. Because no one really knew what to call you. I, I spent the longest time and as an as an information architect. And that stuck until like the mid aughts. And so that was, you know, a big part of my career. And then UX as a term became more kind of accepted, and people started started using that. So what I've talked to a lot of people, I've had a lot of folks that work for me or designers, I've worked alongside that, that have a psychology background. I sometimes think the parallel is like, I feel like a lot of musicians are developers. They have like a tech background and a music background. And a lot of us folks have, like a psychology background. But you did like clinical psychology. Yeah. What was the what is there a connection between the two? Maybe things that have helped you in your sort of design career that that you gained from the clinical psychology side of the world?

Nate Felt  4:08  
Yeah, for sure, definitely. I mean, there's a there's a number of different things I've taken from it. I think one of the things I've taken from it is there is a cognitive aspect. In terms of what we do, right, just knowing for instance, that a person's attention span is very limited, you only can keep seven things in your brain, give or take is going to help him in the design process, knowing about color theory is going to help the design process. So there's that cognitive aspect of what humans are capable of, that you are always bringing into the designs in terms of, of just the Hick's Law or or any of those principles come from psychology. I think the other aspect of it which is probably less, which or maybe I even use more is the counseling aspect of it. So I'll just give you an example in psychology that Is this concept of attribution? It's basically how describes how we see people. So we naturally see people in such a way that we kind of assume that anything that they do is based on their personality and who they are. Whereas for us, it's more circumstantial. And so you have kind of this predisposed bias, to automatically assume when someone's kind of coming at you with a problem or solution, that oh, that's just you write, you write it off that that's who they are as a person, rather than it's what they're trying to accomplish based on their needs and their goals. And so just having this background, I'm able to have much richer conversations, I think with individuals, stakeholders, my team, and that's something that you really, UX is just as much about sales as it is about, you know, design and understanding our users. And I just feel like psychology has to be in there somewhere.

Mark Baldino  5:56  
Yeah. Can you talk more about that sales? I mean, you mentioned helping your team under, maybe understand that process. Talking to like, stakeholders, I don't think a lot of designers see themselves as salesperson, salespeople. Listen, I started as a practitioner design started a firm, I'm the Lead sort of like, business development person at fuzzy math. And I still am like, I'm not a salesperson. But what? So first, I'd love to understand, like, we'll talk more about how we have to sell what we need to do as designers to sell. And maybe if you understand this sort of hesitation that people have, because selling sounds, I think selling puts people is off putting to some folks.

Nate Felt  6:36  
Sure, sure. Yeah, it is the I was in retail sales, I understand. Because the idea behind sales, I think in a lot of people's minds is forcing something to someone who doesn't want it. And that's not really what we're talking about here. What we're really talking about, I'm gonna borrow a quote, actually, I like Tom Greer writes a book articulating design decisions. And it's if you, if you're new in the field, most of us I think, had been in the field a while have had to learn this in the trenches. But if you're new to the field, it's a good book to read. But he says the key to being articulate is to understand both the message you want to communicate and the response you want in return. And I think that's why when I talk about that video production background and telling that story, that's really what the essence is here, it's really understanding the message you want to communicate and the response you want in return. And you really need to know your users to do that you need to know who you're talking to. So really, when we say sales, it's really understanding the message, understand the audience, and then being able to articulate in such a way that you able to show the value that you're bringing, and that's really what we're doing, right, where as designers are really, we're our goal. And I might be getting a tangent here, so forgive me, but a lot of people see us as design. When they see design, they think of aesthetics. I often ask when I join a company or join a team, I'm often asked, you know, if I was a, if we were talking about building a house, what role would you see me as? And sometimes I'll, I'm not surprised, but I'll get the term. Well, I see you as an interior designer, design, right? You know, you make things look pretty, can you make this look pretty is often the response I'll get? Yes, I can. But that's not the value that I bring to the team, it's really bringing your good design is really about solving problems. Yes, there's an aesthetic part of that. But in the end, good design is about solving problems, if you don't solve the problem that the user has, it might be an aesthetically pleasing design. But it's not a good design, because it didn't do what it needed to do. And so in reality, I think just getting back to the idea of sales, it's being able to show who you're communicating with whoever that is, how this does that. And that's why I think you have to, you have to be able to sell side, if you want to be successful designer, you could do the all the best work in the world, put it all up on Behance, or dribble. But if you haven't really gotten buy in from your stakeholders and your team, it's not going to go anywhere. Yeah, that's great.

Mark Baldino  9:07  
I want to go back into the buy in concept there. But I love the idea of flipping the metaphor, and asking people where they perceive you are right, versus I'm the architect. And I'm the GC I don't know what the role is that I would say, but I feel like it's more like the architecture role and, and structure and form and function. And then the statics kind of comes later. But I love the idea of kind of asking people not you're putting them on their their back heels, but just sort of like, where do you see me and that facilitates a different conversation than I am this and you must see me as that. And I think it's an interesting sort of flip there. What I mean stakeholder management, stakeholder conversations, you can use the term user and I think you were talking about, like stakeholders as your users and I don't always know if I don't want to misspeak there but I don't always think designers think about the stakeholder. They're thinking about the end user the cost Customer, the person who's going to use the software at the end of the day. But when we're talking about sales, it's really about internal kind of sales with with our team are the stakeholders, somebody who has the the controls the purse strings or budget and stuff like that, you know, what's unique about stakeholder management? What do you tell your team like? This is how we need to understand our stakeholders and how to respond to them.

Nate Felt  10:22  
Yeah, great questions. All great question. So we oftentimes when I'm approaching a project, especially one that I don't have a lot of context, or maybe I'm new, I'll do stakeholder mapping. And I do include users in that. So a stakeholder mapping is just getting a good understanding of who's going to be impacted by this project, who's going to have a say, in this project, I might even do a RACI. And understand, you know, what role they're going to be involved with in that time. RACI, I think it's been a while responsible, and formed consulted, just the different basically, how you're going to be presenting information to them will really also determine what impact they have on your project, which is why I bring that up. But then there's could be a number of different roles, in addition to your user, that you need to tailor the message to. So for instance, if I'm talking to like an executive, or a manager, that is looking at a project, my goal in this case, is they're very busy. So I want to get them up to speed as quickly as possible, present this solution as clearly as possible, getting to the point, and really bringing it back to how it accomplishes the goals that they care about. Whereas if I'm talking to an engineer, my message is gonna be very, a very different message, right, they really care about not having to do rework, you know about being efficient, making sure that the, what they're doing how it ties back to code efficiency, so it's gonna be a very different message. So what I try to do with my team, is really make sure that when they're going to any meeting, they know who they're talking to, they know kind of where that person is coming from. And then they tailor the message as such. So you're not going to have a one size fits all, a presentation approach, you're going to do some background, you're going to do some research on that person, you might even talk to maybe it's going to be very difficult meeting and you need to talk to a couple of people beforehand, to get their buy in or to get their approval. So that when you come to that meeting, you know, it's going to be successful meeting, you're prepared, you're to have those conversations, how does your team respond to that, like, hey, we need to tailor our message, we need to I don't know if you use the term sell. But we need to be sort of like presenting our ideas and with slightly different purposes in mind, depending on the audience, because I think sometimes designers feel like, No, what I'm doing is representing the voice of the user. And what I've done is I've done my research, I've synthesized it, I've built this, or I've designed this part of the application. And I feel strongly that it's research backed, and it's Voice of the Customer voice of the user, this is the right way to go. And it's it's more that approach. And I'm I'm guilty of doing it all the time. So like this more consultative tailor your message like it's, I feel like some people wouldn't be offended by it, but would be like, No, that's not human centered. That's not using user centered, we're now making amends for other folks within the organization. 

Mark Baldino  13:12  
But did you get any pushback like that? Or how does? How do you get around some of those issues?

Nate Felt  13:17  
Yeah, not, I think what you're saying is, or what you're bringing up is a good point. To be clear, to put a box around this really what I'm saying is really the communication style and the approach, when it comes to actually designing what you're designing, I do completely agree that you need to know, you need to design 100% for the user in mind, we don't want to, we don't want to design for really any buddy, or we don't want to get distracted by anybody else. Like I can't tell you how many times I've been on doing design work. CEO or VP comes in and then says, Well, I think this should be this doesn't seem right, maybe this should go here, or this should be blue. Right? That, that what I'm talking about really is how to have those conversations in very meaningful way to not get derailed on the presentation of a design. But it doesn't actually the design itself. You really do want to be really always thinking, what's the problem I'm trying to solve? How is this benefiting my users? And you know, what's their backstory? I think, I think it was Maya Angelou that said, you really don't know where you're going until you know where you've been. I love that. And that applies to a lot of what we do design. I'll give you an example that I'm currently working with. I work under FTBS for Amazon. And so right now I'm solving financial problems. And some of the problems I'm solving have never been solved before. They're brand new. We've done things very manually. And now we're looking to automate a lot of that. Well, the user group that presents really unique challenges because some of the solutions while may be still digital, are not It's cloud based, they might not, they might be done in a very different way. And so what we're looking to do is really know, first of all, what what's the history? What's the user have been experiencing in the past? What's their pain points? What's the problems? How can we think of a brand new way to do this. And then now, then once you have a good understanding there, then when you're having these different conversations, let's just say project managers who I'm talking to, project managers are going to care a little bit differently about what engineers or they're going to be caring about their timeline, they're going to be caring about their schedule, they might be caring about somebody being unique and innovative. So again, it's more like tail, taking the design that you have, and then tailoring the message around that, to see how it solves those specific pain points. That that, that customer, I want to call them customer here, but meaning it could be your product owner, your project manager that I'll just call me a customer, but that customer has, and you know, you're doing it in UX already with your with the design. Now you just need to do it with the message as well. 

Mark Baldino  16:03  
Yeah, that's great. It's great. I think people use the word empathy a lot. And we empathize a lot with our with our users. And and we need to empathize with everyone that we're working with and understand where they're coming from. And as you said earlier, how to tailor your message towards them. How do you see like, some of your internal partners in in the process, you've talked about engineering, talked a little bit about kind of business? I'm assuming product is involved project management? Like? How what do you see the role of UX in that ecosystem of internal partners? Who are your greatest champions? Or do you find certain champions for certain parts of the process and other champions and other parts of the process? What's it ecosystem? Maybe like, either in previous work experience in or specifically at Amazon?

Nate Felt  16:47  
Yeah, good, good question. I think it probably is dependent oftentimes on the company and the culture, because I can say that it's been different people in different roles at different places. So you kind of got to figure out right away, actually, who are your champions, because you might find them in places that you would be surprised about. In my last role, I was working for guaranteed rate, and I found the champions being in product. And oftentimes, you really, you're going to be working extremely closely with product product really owns the end, again, this probably would depend on the company. But in that case, product really owned the complete vision and roadmap for what we were looking to build. And so really being close to them in terms of what that is, and getting synergy in that area, was really important, it's really important that they are, you know, kind of be because they're going to be having conversations that you might not be able to have in the company I met now and Amazon, just because our, what we're doing is somewhat new. I'm the only UX person right now. We are hiring, we're building out a team. But I'm the I'm the only one in this role. And until I have until I can get others to join. And so I, I'm basically need advocates, I need people that can help with the design, because I don't have that bandwidth to to oversee everything. So for me, actually, it's been the engineers, product and engineering, you know, not not just really exciting to see, actually I have product people that are exploring designs with me even getting their hands dirty with wireframing. I've engineers that has picked up. Well, that was product, but I have engineers that have been picked up sketch, and we're having rich conversations, and you're not gonna get that everywhere. So I might be, I might be talking about an ideal use case. But in reality, it really does. I would say to bring it back to the question depends on where you are, but you're gonna want to be really close to product and really close to engineering. Because those two, if they're not on board, you're gonna have a hard time selling it anywhere else. And then, of course, Then who's that executive that you can have that you can go to that you can have conversations with? Again, it may just be about understanding not just what you're trying to give to them, but what are they trying to accomplish? You know, what is this? There might be some parts of politics involved, what is this delivery give them? And then what are they trying to get out of this release? So just being cognizant of that, and yeah, hopefully that that's a good starting point, at least.

Mark Baldino  19:25  
Yeah, yeah. That's, that's great. Any tips on advocacy, advocate identification? Like, it sounds like in the case of Amazon, like us, really designers and engineers, and you know, I don't know if it was different. It sounds like it was different at guaranteed rate, but like, what's, what are some clues tips in terms of like, I'm looking at it, maybe I'm new at a role or I'm working with a new group within an organization like how do you go about finding those advocates for for UX?

Nate Felt  19:52  
Sure. I mean, there's really it's really easy initially, if you don't know and you're new to things I would say right away. Here's one look at who's vocal in the calls whose decision makers in the calls you, you have, if all the engineering is on board, but you don't have any decision makers as well, that's gonna be tough to push that. So decision making, I think making sure. And then also to who's excited about the product who's passionate about the product, I think, honestly, to sell anything, you have to be passionate about it, you have to be excited about what you're delivering. And so people that are going to have passionate about that are going to get people on board and get them engaged. So again, passion and decision makers are both two really good indicators. If you are new to that place, and you're not necessarily sure who should we reach out to.

Mark Baldino  20:39  
Fantastic, I love I love the idea of giving people really concrete advice, as they're looking around the room or listening in on calls or just getting up to speed and then Pair that with your previous comments of do some mapping and understanding of who they are and what their goals and drivers are, what their pain points are. So you can craft your communication as a design lead or as a designer as well, to, to those folks. You mentioned, you're the only designer right now, which I imagine even as you try to grow and scale you're running into, you can only scale Nate so much and and then he's out of time during the day like, how are you? How are you handling sort of your own resource constrained and maybe have other resource constraints that you're you're working under in the current role, but one is just like I'm a solo designer, like, what do you How are you? How are you managing that?

Nate Felt  21:32  
Sure, there's lots of constraints. Definitely, when you when I think that I, I'm trying to think of the numbers here exactly. But I know that we ended up we have 3000 people in just in our area of GBs of Amazon alone. And so there's a lot and being that year that I'm the only UX, you can imagine there'll be a lot of demands for time. And so one thing I've had to do to help stretch myself, because I have deliverables and projects like everybody else that I have to get done is to try to teach design as well. So I think in a company like this, when you have so few of you, you need to kind of make, like design advocates or design clones, if you will. And so we had this thing called Lunch and Learn where we anybody can volunteer to speak on topics. And just the one I did with somebody recently was on journey mapping, how to tell us journey mapping stories. So journey mapping is something that you really should always have like a customer map or journey map before you go into designing a product. And not a lot of projects I know do go right into trying to solve the problem without really being clear of the customer's journey. So that was important to us to really make sure that those who are in our team have an understanding of what that is and how to do that. So yeah, I would say teaching is probably a big thing that you can do, helping other people. I did mention before that we have our product, people doing some wireframes. Every other company I've been at, I would abhor that I would be like No, don't touch the wireframes. But now being in this new environment, I have a different perspective of that entirely. And I'm actually it's been very helpful to have already conceptualized wireframes was a product person explored, because that's great for them to get their thoughts and ideas out on paper. And we can have a much richer conversation that way. So they often do the low fidelity and then I would take up the higher fidelity. And not every company wants to do that. But in this case is working on very well for us. And even to have some engineers not a lot, but we have a few that are playing around in Sketch. You know, that's, I think that's a great thing. I'm not I'm not so I don't hold our designs so tight that I won't let people play around in those mediums, because it will help me in the long run if they understand color and how we work in our space just as much as it helps them. When I understand more about the code and the technology that we're building on, we can have a much richer conversation. So I think those are the two things that I do. And then just set expectations, that's always another thing. You know, unfortunately, when there's just one of you, you might be a solo designer and an org or a company. I've done this, in a number of companies where I was the only designer, you just basically have to set expectations that this is what I can deliver. This is kind of what we want to look at. And this is the vision of I see our team going, but just know I'm very limited in what I can do. And this is what I need your help with.

Mark Baldino  24:32  
That's great. That's great. I really appreciate that. I like the idea of sort of advocates or clones, there's, there are skills that we perform as designers that sometimes we think only we can do and you know, I think something like journey map, really clear that that's a shared task, a bunch of bunch of different groups. I applaud you for embracing having other folks do UI design and you know, low fidelity because I think you're right a lot of desire to be like well well not not handy. You know, my, my sketch files over and over in common. So you have comment access, you do not have edit access in figma. But that's great. And as you said, that's one of the things I think a lot of folks are struggling with this design leads is how to scale their team and grow their teams with limited resources and tools and hours. And, you know, I feel like overall, the people look at the global economy and are tightening things up a little bit for, you know, next six months or so. So, I think everyone's kind of working under some constraints. But one of the things that doesn't sound like it's constrained as other folks in other roles that are willing to embrace the UX process and do some work for you, and I think that that's, you know, that's to your benefit, and ultimately to the products benefit at the end of the day. Agreed, yeah. Well, awesome, may want to to wrap up here, it's been an amazing conversation to learn about your journey, but you know, how you are helping your team and other teams sort of with stakeholder management partnerships with other folks bringing people into the design process and sort of teaching I think that's, that's really important. i You did mention communicating design decisions as a resource you recommended. So I'll I'll certainly link in that. Any other resources that are your sort of go twos, either for designers or for design leads you wanted to mention?

Nate Felt  26:12  
I mean, there's so much the nice thing about our space now, and Mark, you probably know this, because it's changed a lot in the last since I've been in 14 years in the space is there's so many people are sharing research, sharing designs, sharing what they what they've done. So I'm on medium, the constantly reading articles about just kind of like new ideas. Sometimes it's just being on dribble, looking at inspiration. But there's no shortage of stuff on the web of this stuff. I mean, anybody that's listening to this already, is probably thinking of how growing just do podcasts and understanding of their craft. And I think that's the right approach. I mean, I would say there's not one source in particular, because I'm constantly on the web, and looking at anything and everything. I think I was just yesterday looking at some YouTube videos of how to just sell sell something specific financial, like how to do some type of modeling, metric and modeling, and how they've done it in this other software. So yeah, again, don't don't limit yourself, the sky's the limit. There's just if you have a lot of desire to grow in our field, there's no shortage of resources out there.

Mark Baldino  27:25  
That's great. Just be curious, I think is the is the curious, I love that advice there. And we'll include a link to your maybe your LinkedIn profile. So if people want to connect with you and reach out and continue conversations, they can do that. But Nate again, thank you for your time today and for sharing your journey and some lessons for our audience. It's much appreciated.

Nate Felt  27:42  
Mark really enjoyed talking to you. Great to be here. Great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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