tl;dr Great design comes from a harmonious balance between ego and humility.
As I continue on my design career path, I look back at my bootcamp days and when I was a student and then a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) for two cohorts thereafter. I discovered my design abilities alongside 17 other students and observed why I enjoyed working with some colleagues more than others. As a TA, I’ve observed why some students had real potential to become amazing designers while others struggled to find UX jobs or were turned away from design altogether.
Let me introduce Robert (name changed). Robert was a 30-something-year-old student who was looking for a career change from Graphic Design to UX Design. He had two kids and had a goal to become a freelance UX designer after the bootcamp in order to have the freedom to travel with his family across South America. Robert had an eye for visual design, as most graphic backgrounds do, but Robert’s unhealthy ego led him to have an incessant knack for never being able to listen to anyone else’s opinions or thoughts, including the TA’s guidance or suggestions.
Throughout the course, he alienated himself in all the group projects as every team member found it impossible to work with him, resulting in half-baked work and aggravated classmates. Every design decision turned into one hour monologues on why his ego’s idea was the right option, meaning less time spent working on the project and a stressful hour before the project was due.
His individual projects “looked” nice given his visual background, but they were half-baked and slipshod works that were neither useful nor usable. Robert’s ego spent all of his time making it look good instead of focusing on what pain(s) the user was experiencing. It meant that he always worked in what he thought the user would want to use instead of what the user needed.
All of our critiques of his projects were the same:
What problem are you solving exactly?
Were all of these pretty features needed for this Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?
How does the tertiary color affect the usability of this primary button?
I wished Robert luck on graduation day.
Now, as a Product Designer who works in pairs (following Extreme Programming methodology) among a sea of talented designers across the organization, I get to experience the opposite of designers like Robert.
I get to work alongside designers who:
Are passionate about solving problems and solving those problems as scientists
Stay focused on being of service to the problem and being committed to finding the best possible solution for those sets of pains that people are experiencing
Recognize what works and doesn’t work from their hypotheses and can also do the same of others in order to “frankenstein” together something truly innovative
Are always curious about learning more from each other’s experiences and the perspective that each person has to bring to the table
Great design comes from collaboration, experimentation, and evidence-based decisions. Great design comes from staying focused on the user and their pains instead of staying focused on having the “right” answer. Great design comes from understanding what works and doesn’t work, and creating a solution that combines all the best decisions together.
Great design comes from a harmonious balance between ego and humility. Don’t get me wrong, you need an ego to be creative and stand up for your ideas, and you also need humility to know when to pick your battles and to know where you need to grow as a designer.
Let me argue that it’s impossible to always have the “right” answer and here’s why: designers are constantly making decisions where the “right” decision can vary depending on the environment, application, and user groups. It’s subjective depending on the pains and problems associated with a certain user. Have you ever met a designer who has worked in every single industry, on every single application possible, for every user group possible?
It’s not about what’s right or wrong. It’s about what’s better or worse for the user.
The hidden gem of decision-making in design is being able to understand that we don’t have to always come up with the “right” decision. If we can understand design decisions from the perspective of “better” or “worse”, it’ll be easier to have discussions and arrive at a useful, usable solution. There’s also the added benefit of being an adaptable designer and teammate.
For example, let’s look at scissors. We have right-handed scissors and left-handed scissors. Could we really say that the right-handed scissor is the “right” scissor for everyone in the world? Could we say that a very sharp right-handed scissor is appropriate for a left-handed toddler? Hopefully not. Hopefully, we’ll stop to ask ourselves “Who am I designing for and what are their pains and needs?”.
Don’t be like Robert’s ego who would have assumed off that bat that right-handed scissors would have been the best option since he is a right-handed adult.
You Are Not Your User
The single most important antidote to an unhealthy ego is understanding that “You are not your user”. If “UX 101” had a different class title, it would be ”You Are Not Your User”. It does not matter if we’ve sat in the exact seat of someone who we’re designing for or if we’ve had a partner who has done the same exact job at the same exact time or anything else that’s closely similar to us thinking that we are right. We should understand that as UX designers, we are scientists testing out our hypotheses & theories, and hypotheses & theories rarely become scientific laws.
I’ve seen this time and time again when someone has had some, or very little, experience doing something related to the problem and they begin to unconsciously identify with the user, usually feeling like they know better than the rest of the team. This behavior stymies the team in collaborating and making a great decision. It clouds judgment, inhibits valuable discussions from occurring, and most importantly, impedes innovative solutions from being developed.
The fun part of working is getting to learn new things and learn from each other which can only happen through conversation and dialogue. Directing others to do something is never a great working style or even leadership style. If you find yourself struggling to hear from other people and their input, try these tactics:
Are you willing to bet your lunch? All your PTO hours? Your 401k?
Ask yourself how much you are willing to bet on how “right” you are. Jeff Patton introduces a way to “grade” your confidence in relation to your hypotheses or assumptions that you have when it comes to making decisions. If you feel only confident enough to bet your lunch, then that means you probably don’t have enough evidence to send these decisions into development. If you feel confident enough to bet all your PTO hours or more, share the evidence and work on your communication skills to get team buy-in.
Stop, Collaborate, and Listen
State your assumption, your evidence that supports that assumption, and try asking questions or identifying gaps of risks that may exist. Don’t wait to speak or have your opinion heard. Say what you have to say and just listen. You want to stay curious about what would benefit the user most. Collaborate with your team and look for opportunities to learn from them too.
If discussions get really heated – as they do when we get passionate about our work – and it’s become difficult to settle between all the evidence, then test it. Create your own wireframes or prototypes and find a common task that can test both flows. Make sure to be clear about what assumptions you’re trying to validate or invalidate before going off and building your own wireframes/prototypes.
I recently revisited Robert’s LinkedIn to see what he was up to and, unsurprisingly, he did not continue his career in UX Design.
Great design isn’t about whipping up the best, prettiest screens. It’s about curiosity, collaboration, and communication, which always comes back to your ego. Recruiters and managers will opt for designers with sufficient skills who are able to work well with others over an A-Star player who doesn’t work well with others, especially when it comes to hiring designers. I’d bet my 401(k) on it!