Are you listening before talking?

I make websites. Also, I believe in the sacredness of every aspect of life. What do those things have to do with each other? I’m always trying to figure this out. Here’s what’s currently percolating.

Recently I’ve been turning towards deeper and broader listening as the first step in the creative process. As I visual designer I make pretty digital things. Websites! Infographics! Reports! People tend to get really excited about that part – lots of oohing and ahing and feeling good.

However, I fear we too often neglect the most important part of the process: listening. Lucky for me, I’m currently creating websites for organizations that have allotted time and budget to ask questions of the people they are trying to reach before they begin creating their communications in earnest. What this looks like practically is allotting time and budget for interviews, focus groups, user testing and surveys. Even a little bit of listening can bring important insights.

Although it may seem obvious to start with the people you are creating a product for, it often doesn’t happen that way in nonprofit communications. Taking the time to listen can often feel unaffordable. The website gets launched later than you initially wanted. The budget is bigger when you give time to interviews, focus groups, surveys and user testing. Staff time increases as steps are added to the process.

Yes, it is more costly to add a listening and research phase to any communications project. But what is the cost of NOT doing it? A few things come to mind:

  • Spending time and resources on communications that aren’t actually achieving what they are intended to
  • Websites and other materials that land flat for their intended audiences
  • Continuing a pattern of ignoring and failing to center the needs and voices of the people who are already sidelined

Those costs are huge. For me, deep listening is a start to embodying the change I want to see. I don’t think we need to shoot for perfection, but I’m doing what I can with my tiny website-creating corner of the universe.

P.S. I’m still searching for the term that feels most appropriate for this deep listening phase. The typical terms – audience research, market research, empathy mapping, design thinking – all sound jargony. I’m thinking “listening-with-our-hearts-to-people-that-need-to-be-heard-and-creating-from-there.”