UXing with a stutter: communicating design ideas when the words won’t come

We talk a lot about the real-world challenges we face in creating meaningful digital experiences. It’s not easy driving disruptive new products to market or connecting customer experiences across complex systems. But sometimes the biggest hurdles are not technical or organizational, but personal.

I’ve had a stutter for as long as I can remember. People have a hard time believing this because I speak fluently in everyday conversation. Only when I am anxious, nervous or very excited does my stutter spill out.

The Stuttering Foundation defines stuttering, also referred to as stammering, as “a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (lllllike this), or abnormal stoppages (no sound) of sounds and syllables. There may also be unusual facial and body movements associated with the effort to speak.”

Presentations can be a pressure cooker

As an experience designer working in client services, stuttering adds another layer of anxiety to high-pressure situations—a simple design presentation can be paralyzing. Coping tactics such as avoiding troublesome words are not practical when you need to communicate complex concepts and details of a user experience. You need to be very clear and precise in order for the client to buy into the structure of the site, the information architecture, and the proposed interactions.

This can be daunting for anyone. For someone who stutters, it can seem impossible. My palms get sweaty, I get flustered, and I stumble and rush through the presentation, craving that finish line like a marathon runner. Unfortunately, a lot of the meaning behind what I’m trying to convey slips my mind as I focus on simply completing the presentation so I can be done with speaking.

I’ve created my own rituals to deal with this necessary part of my job. I create thoughtful bullet points outlining what I want to say ahead of time and remind myself to speak slowly and take breaths. But it takes only one word that my brain will not allow me to say, or one interruption I didn’t intend, to throw all of that preparation out of the window.

As a stutterer, when I am interrupted and taken out of my cadence, it’s really hard for me to get back into it, especially when I am anxious, with added pressure about doing a good job and impressing an important client. It’s difficult to convey complicated ideas and interactions on a website when you’re struggling to simply say the word “feature.”

When one word overshadows the work

I’ve had several instances of what I would call bad stuttering, most of them involving client presentations. They all start the same: We introduce ourselves, the “floor” is passed to me, and I begin my presentation. I’ll start by explaining the reason we are here and then dive into whatever work deliverable we’re discussing that day (sitemap, user flow, wireframe, etc.).

One instance I can recall clearly was a wireframe design presentation to one of our clients. I had several ideas I was excited to share with them. I began by taking my time, explaining the header and utility navigations in detail. Now, for some stutterers, certain words feel impossible to say at the moment, so we use another word instead to convey what we mean. In this instance I could not say the word “utility,” so I kept referring to it as the top navigation.

The client eventually got confused when I called the “main navigation” the “top navigation,” and they stopped me mid sentence to ask me to clarify. Seeing my struggle, a coworker jumped in and clarified for me, but the panic and anxiety had already set in and I was on my way to one of the worst presentations I’ve ever given. I tried to pick up where I left off and slowly began to explain the “main feature area” of their website. But because of the confusion I kept getting interrupted with questions.

When I experience a block with a client, I feel bad for them because I’m making the situation awkward and uncomfortable, and I feel bad for my team for not being a team player. It’s a bit self deprecating, but the feeling that you’re somehow not pulling your own weight is hard to live with.

Getting beyond the tips & tricks

There’s a wealth of information out there for stutterers, but it can be hard to find tools that really work. Common tricks for overcoming your stutter—such as singing, whispering or speaking in a stage voice—not only sound and feel unnatural, but rarely produce long-term fluency.  Luckily, I’ve found several resources that truly help, most notably a speech therapy group that meets weekly to practice techniques such as mindfulness. Together, we are learning how to get past the panic and communicate more effectively, even in high-stress situations.

Other useful resources include:

Podcasts. StutterTalk is the first and longest running podcast on stuttering. Host Peter Reitzes who openly stutters, takes an open and honest approach to the problem. In each episode he talks to a different guest about a topic related to stuttering. I love that the host himself is a stutterer because he humanizes stuttering in a wonderful way.

Another great podcast is Stuttering is Cool. Started by Daniele Rossi, Stuttering is Cool is a self help book and podcast that focuses on living with a stutter but truly living, not allowing your stutter to dictate how you live your life.

Apps. “Proactive Speaking” is a mobile speech training app with inspirational videos and talks about managing your stutter. “Stuttering: Simple Techniques to help Control your Stutter” is a similar app with a corresponding book that promises, “The embarrassment of stuttering can be behind you if you follow these simple steps.”

YouTube videos. I really enjoyed the short “Let me finish: A Stuttering Documentary,” which interviews three stutterers about their experiences with speaking fluently.

Getting to ‘yes’

There are so many obstacles to making a great digital experience. Team dynamics, business goals, budgets, the list goes on and on. My stutter is just one more thing I have to manage as a user experience designer. Over the years, I’ve tried ignoring my stutter, pumping myself up to shake out the anxiety, laughing at myself, rushing through presentations. I’ve tried it all. Maybe it’s time to accept my stutter as a part of me instead of something I need to hide.

What obstacles do you face in communicating your ideas—and what suggestions do you have for overcoming them?