A few years ago, I met a designer friend for lunch who’d just started a new job. My friend had worked for eight years at a consultancy and was now an in-house UX (user experience) designer at a software company.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “The engineers — one in particular — keeps arguing with me. He shoots down my ideas and doesn’t want to build what I designed.”
“Welcome to UX,” I said. “It’s hell.”
It’s a conversation I’ve had more than once over the years, especially among those of us who have moved into software or web design from graphic design. In other roles, I’ve held the power to implement my own work — designing and printing an email campaign or tweaking an out-of-the-box Wordpress site to death. It wasn’t until I got my first job in software that I realized I had a new level of challenges getting a design “out the door.” Now, any design I produce passes through four main audiences: product management, design team, engineers and finally, users.
It can be a process that supports good design, but it can also be an idea-killing machine. Modern UX is trial by fire. Some designers are soft-spoken, avoid conflict and are eager to please. Going head to head with groups of people eager to critique or re-design your work is part and parcel of today’s design process.
Given this environment, how can today’s UX designers cope? I interviewed nine people in the UX profession. They shared their coping mechanisms and tales of woe. I have distilled their strategies for accepting the collaborative nature of the work and turning it to your advantage.
Discuss design feasibility
Engineers are wired to critique a design based on how easy or hard it will be for them to implement. This has nothing at all to do with the actual quality of the design. Instead of discussing a design’s merits, make the conversation about time and effort.
For example, recently we introduced a new feature. There were months of debate about how the feature should be shown. Similar features were shown as radio buttons, so many engineers voiced support for simply adding a new button to the list. It exposed the feature and was easy to implement.
Designers proposed more complex ideas, such as buttons, nested links, tabs and toggles. Early testing suggested some of these patterns were more discoverable. If we’d made our decision based solely on implementation advice, we might have missed out on these better-performing alternatives.
Use critiques productively
At their best, critiques are a safe place to get ideas for improvements from your peers or to re-focus attention on something you overlooked. At their worst, critiques are quicksand with negative feedback pulling you down. The shame of being group-criticized by your peers can rattle even the most seasoned designers. You might feel resentment other designers’ work does not get the same treatment.
To remedy this, ask for a specific type of feedback up front. State the problem you’re trying to solve and focus the conversation around that. If you go through a particularly scathing critique resist the desire to respond to the criticism. “Thanks for the feedback,” is all you need to say. If you feel like a critique is going overboard — “I think I’ve got enough to work with. Why don’t we move on to the next topic?” Don’t be afraid to take control if things run off the rails.
Sometimes, solutions are proposed that involve starting over with an entirely new design or implementing something much more complicated than what you had in mind. Resist the urge to please that person and start over completely. Try to make small adjustments that help solve the problem before committing to an overhaul. If your design solves the problem 90% of the way, don’t chuck it in the bin. Take a pass and incorporate three small changes such as text arrangement or simplification and move on.
Work messy and fast
Writers have a mindset of composing quick and dirty first drafts. Designers should too. One designer I spoke with lamented the amount of time he spent in meetings instead of on designs. “Yesterday, I spent maybe 30 minutes doing actual design,” he said. “I want to tell a story. I want to work on storyboards and personas. It hurts me mentally not to be able to be able to do that stuff. I would love to do a design sprint or even a brainstorm.”
Sadly, these ideas are never going to be proposed by a product manager or anyone else but the designer because it’s not the “immediate deliverable.”But that doesn’t mean they can’t happen. Many of us think as personas as something that must be polished and perfected. But what if they were drawn on a legal pad? What if a customer journey were scribbled on a whiteboard and never brought into a design program? Could they still steer your work in the direction they need to go? If you can read them, if you can use them, they work. They don’t need to be beautiful. No one is consuming them but you, anyway.
I like change. I’ve stayed at jobs for two to three years, then moved on. I’ve always been in awe of people who can last five or more years at the same organization without sneaking out the bathroom window. I’d always felt slightly ashamed about my job shifting until I started hearing about the benefits of moving around in UX.
More than one person I spoke with talked about the merits of changing jobs. “Growth for designers comes from switching companies,” said a designer who was on the hunt. “UX is so big and opportunities are so varied. I have no idea what to look for, but it’s a good problem to have.”
When do you know it’s time to start looking for your next opportunity? One designer knew that it was time for her to make a change when her manager started hitting her up for work after she’d already gone home. “I’d get an 8pm call from my manager to see a design tomorrow at noon. He expected a review at midnight. I’d have four hours to design and review, so he could show to it his manager’s manager’s manager. I wasn’t passionate. I felt like I was dragging myself.”
“It’s healthy to have designers turn over every two or three years,” one manager said. “It keeps things fresh. We become blind. We get into a position where we know the answer. When faced with a problem, we stop producing A, B, C and just produce C. We stop questioning or trying something new. Stop asking for things.”
This can be a tough one because jumping too frequently can keep you from learning how to collaborate with those tough cookies or see small amounts of change add up over time. But if you feel like you’re stuck in a pattern of ill treatment or you’re getting antsy to reach the next level and the opportunities aren’t presenting themselves, start planning your next move.
Disagreement is inherent in the design process. “If everything is smooth sailing, it’s going to be a failure,” one designer said. Come to expect that your work will be never be perfect and that there will always be negative feedback. Take your licks and stay in the game.
Are you the one twisting arms? Letting others win a few battles can help your relationships and pay off down the road. “It took me a long time to learn how to work with some people. I know I need to go sit in their office and listen to them talk. I try to acquiesce.” She stays firm about what she believes in but admits you can’t own every decision your team makes. “Something can feel significant during a discussion, but then it feels petty later,” one designer said. How much later? She said, “It takes about three days.”
Another designer described how he had strong debates with one colleague but would try to have a beer with him after work. “If you disagree strongly, then strongly offer something in return.” Invest time to help a teammate come up with alternatives. “Then you have something to discuss, not just empty emotion.” Hopefully you’ll come up with a synthesis of ideas. “That’s where the real work starts. I embrace that. I call it ‘sparring.’”
“There’s always struggle and strife,” another designer recalled. How did she bounce back and drive change? She created the culture she wanted to be a part of by starting an innovation program with a fellow researcher. “We were like a giant family. I felt like we could do anything. Nobody sanctioned us.” She formed a team of researchers and designers that ended up inspiring several patents for the company. “Focus on creating an environment where people can thrive. The culture is as important as the product itself.”
A lot of UX advice out there focuses on tools and techniques. But it’s working with people that’s the true challenge. Try to exercise diplomacy, tact, and grow a thick skin. Remember, people can also be your greatest source of strength in surviving your career.