Listen Up

How does Automattic incorporate “listening” into its design process?

Two weeks ago Automattic had its annual all-company in-person gathering in Whistler, British Columbia. I got to catch up with dozens of colleagues and meet dozens of new ones. One of my favorite things about distributed work is the melting pot of perspectives it creates. I love trying to detect accents and guess where people are from. It’s fascinating to encounter the subtle similarities and differences across cultures, and to be reminded of the staggering breadth of experiences around the world.

With all of the conversations happening at a company gathering I quickly realized that I could be a better listener. Sometimes when I get excited I interrupt people to share a spontaneous idea. Sometimes I feel too shy to reach out to someone new and learn about their experience. When I manage to overcome that shyness or curb my enthusiasm, that’s when the power of listening becomes clear.

This was particularly true during a conversation with John Maeda, Automattic’s Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion. I was describing some of the challenges I face leading the Jetpack design team and he looked wistfully into the distance and said, “You need to go to India.” It felt very non sequitur, but it got me to start listening. He then invited several Indian and Sri Lankan Automatticians to join the conversation. I listened to Hari Shanker describe the WordPress market in India, the tech blogging scene there, marketing strategies for companies breaking into that market. I listened to Omkar Bhagat describe his experience running a WordPress agency before joining Automattic. I learned about the concept of jugaad, essentially a hack or makeshift work-around from Mahangu Weerasinghe (he’s also given a great talk about jugaad and WordPress).

So I’m going India next month and giving a talk (if accepted) at WordCamp Nashik on listening.

To prepare such a talk, I asked designers at a8c how they incorporate listening into their design practice. I received great feedback and learned a handful of design tools. Here’s what I heard in no particular order:

Tammie Lister shared her experience with listening to the open source community while working on the Gutenberg editor. I learned from her that reading reviews, user-submitted issues and other user feedback is valuable, but most important is letting those users know they were heard through thoughtful and timely responses. Let’s call this ‘active open-source listening’.

Mark Uraine shared that for him listening goes far beyond hearing. I learned from him that it is important to open yourself to other kinds of signal when communicating with others. To look for visual queues, subtext, body language, and context. Let’s say that listening is more than sound, it is sharing an understanding with another person.

Ballio Chan shared the importance of listening at the very first stage of the design process. I learned that he seeks to absorb everything he can from a diverse group of people at the start of a project. This gives him more information, creates more context, and let’s him start designing with respect for the end user. Let’s call this falling in love with the problem instead of the solution.

Jeff Golenski shared his sense that most conference talks are one-sided and two-dimensional. They are lectures instead of dialogues. There may be an opportunity for questions at the end, but that only provides the speaker more room to lecture. What if a talk was a call to action or a request for comment that enriched both speaker and audience? Let’s call this interactive public speaking.

Ashleigh Axios shared her experience visiting India before starting at university. She traveled alone mostly outside of larger metropolitan areas. She learned some basic Hindi, but found that her limited language ability forced her to be a listener rather than a speaker. I have had that feeling in Spanish-speaking countries, where I pick up only the gist of a conversation. Instead of speaking Ashleigh shared social cues, gestures, train rides, smiles, songs, and snacks with the people she met. Let’s say that a language gap can still yield an experience overlap.

Maria Scarpello shared that listening to customers is only one facet of insight. It is just as (or more) important to observe their behavior (directly or through data) to fully understand their intentions. This is especially true if you do not have a shared vocabulary with the user or client. Let’s call this “hear what I do, not what I say”.

Brie Anne Demkiw shared how she avoids bias in the design process by assuming her assumptions are wrong. By attempting to invalidate her hypotheses she can effectively counteract confirmation bias. She mentioned the expert/apprentice model and finds it helpful to act as apprentice when conducting user research. The end users will always be experts at being brand new to a product, finding its bugs, or falling into gaps in the experience. Let’s call this listening for beginners.

Davide Casali shared from his philosophy and psychology experience. He checks his bias by suspending judgement and remaining present in the conversation. That presence lets him be aware of his emotions, ideas, and past experiences, but prevents them from clouding his perception. Let’s say it’s possible to hear in a vacuum.

Martin Remy, our head of data, shared his interest in listening for questions over answers. Charts and tables paint compelling pictures of data that lead us to conflate correlation and causation. He pointed to an example ‘customer data flipbook’ as a way to visualize all possible correlations in a given dataset. Listening for alternative correlations in the data and ultimately turning those into questions can lead to more dimensional answers. Let’s call this letting data ask all the questions.

Take my word for it, you’ll learn a lot from listening.

Follow up, check out my talk:


By Rick Banister

Designer at Automattic


I really enjoy the concept of gathering the insight of multiple folks on a subject and curating + sharing it in this fashion. Good stuff, Rick.

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