A while back I addressed a local UX meet-up in SoCal, a rather enthusiastic crowd. The talk was about UX processes and outcomes; it was well received, as it sparked good questions and ample discussion. Afterward at the happy hour, an attendee—a young-ish man exuding a hipster vibe—approached me. “Thanks for your talk!” he beamed. “I just love how easy UX is. Anybody can do it, regardless of their training!” Well, that was a truly tongue-biting moment for me. I offered the tightest of smiles and wished him good luck. Although he probably needed something much more than luck: a more nuanced perspective on what being a designer (and UX skipper navigating stormy waves) truly demands. That encounter made me wonder: Through what lens did he somehow misinterpret what I was saying? And why did he think “doing UX” is easy?
Regarding that, there are two things I want to mention. First, let’s face the fact that a mini-industry now thrives on quickly and conveniently training new entrants to our field, very much leaning on a simplistic survey of “doing UX.” Yes, hiring UX designers and HCI professionals is finally valued by companies large and small—awesome! This has prompted a rise in multiple ways of becoming a UX designer to fill immediate open positions, which are at an all-time high. Consider recent ads for “easy” online certificates, DIY video courses, and six-week bootcamps, all promising to train someone to become a capable designer of complex experiences, from mobile to VR and beyond. Such programs may offer some assuring illusion that it’s simply a matter of performing the right steps of user-centered design (UCD) to ensure delivery of a good design per customer needs and client goals. But such a survey of tactics is really a review of the grammars—the atomic elements of words, sentences, paragraphs, and their mechanics—that are required before developing a rhetoric, a voice of your own, that expresses a rigor of thought in an artfully balanced manner. This, of course, takes years!
I am not talking about so-called soft skills, but rather certain latent capabilities that make up the hidden designer, enabling what truly matters.
Second, I’m reminded of a moment in grad school, toward the end of my first semester, when our professor—highly esteemed in the field per his own background in rhetoric and philosophy—took a moment to challenge us once more. He scribbled those canonical UCD steps on the whiteboard and asked, “If someone walked into this room right now, then read and performed these steps: Is that person a designer?” Obviously there’s much more, a certain x-factor seen in the long-term mastery of design itself, with all its messy imperfections, particularly in dealing with the ultimate variable: people! To be an effective practitioner of the arts and methods of human-computer interaction, you must know how to deal with people and their invisible baggage.
I want to be very clear: I am not talking about so-called soft skills, but rather certain latent capabilities that make up the hidden designer, enabling what truly matters. To be effective at meaningfully enabling change for a service or a product, a UX leader must wrangle with complexity, amid swirling tides of ambiguity, all the while striving for some humanistic or aesthetic quality—even virtues. This means being able to confidently extend beyond the grammar of UCD tactics toward the rhetorical art of strategic guidance. It’s about playing three intertwined roles: an interpreter, a therapist, and a philosopher. Therein lies how design’s power can be truly felt, and yet humbly so. Let’s take a closer look…
We are often thrown into situations where product managers and engineers have already identified a few problems and codified some jargon, with lists of functionality and assorted assumptions around the competitive landscape, customer markets, and so on. Decisions have been made behind closed doors, or at other levels in the company, which have evolved into Strongly Held Beliefs™. Then there’s the unfamiliar domain itself, which requires deep immersion to understand its behaviors, constraints, and patterns. But what does it all mean, for you and the team, toward achieving goals and priorities?
Well, as the designer, who is an outsider, you must perform certain sensemaking activities to grasp what is happening—organizationally, culturally, and tactically. What are the rules of the system? Is this the right frame for understanding? So you make artifacts like architecture diagrams, engage in card sorting and site visits, and draft sketches and wireframes—not to define a solution but to interpret implicit assumptions and expectations, expressed as perceptive forms (posters, models, diagrams, etc.) so as to stimulate debates with stakeholders, often caught in their own bubble of jargon and opinions. Your work is done from a posture of verifying and clarifying, born of real curiosity: “Is this what you meant, and if not, what’s missing? Help me understand.” Indeed, product and tech leads often hold fuzzy or unspoken notions (and biases too!) in their heads, but they need someone to articulate them and also to challenge them—although they may not realize that. This goes for users and others on the outside too, per the product or service ecosystem. From grappling with a domain’s contours to the team leads’ requirements and biases, designers must engage with people as interpreters on a journey of shared understanding.
In so doing, you may find yourself playing another role: that of a therapist. Indeed, product development is a messy, fraught situation of compounding pressures. It’s highly volatile, since you’re dealing with people with differing agendas—that’s always a challenge! It’s not because people are bad, but rather because people are imperfect—emotional, passive aggressive, egotistical, selfish, insecure, and so on. (This range of imperfections applies to everyone, including us designers, by the way!) That always adds crinkles to supposedly straightforward UCD processes. It’s never a clear, easy path, despite what we’re taught.
However, by the essential nature of our practice, we sit at a powerful nexus of overlapping concerns, usually where silos or departments don’t know each other or just aren’t incentivized to collaborate (ahem!). We are trained as systems thinkers and journey mappers to analyze situations from alternative viewpoints and glean insights that lead to discoveries. Our primary focus is helping everyone arrive at a balanced, negotiated compromise, despite an ambivalence of aims or misguided pandering to those in power. And besides, you as the UX leader don’t have a horse in the race. It doesn’t matter whose agenda comes out on top, as long as the user is successful and feeling satisfied while business goals are being supported.
And so we conduct a UX workshop, a valuable tool for getting clarity and agreement on contexts, customers, and outcomes. But the real benefit after five days together isn’t some deliverable, such as a validated prototype or feature list. It’s creating a safe communal place for the inevitable airing of grievances, for openly stating dire dilemmas and hindrances obstructing progress, but in a neutral, facilitated manner, with Post-its and Sharpies! It’s a place where designers ask questions and actively listen, with curiosity and empathy, thus allowing peers to engage directly with each other, while offering constructive guidance and optimistic reframings. I have found myself many times being the proverbial hand-holder, gently nurturing crucial dialogues (which are valuable conduits for relationship building) that such folks simply aren’t used to having. Also underrated is our ability to reduce the “armed combat” mentality by focusing on user needs and drawing pictures. It’s tough and draining, but it works. Patience, observation, listening, detaching yourself from heated moments, allowing personalities to express themselves without dominating or cutting others out—these are vital therapeutic abilities that enable people to be more collaborative and supportive!
The final latent quality of UX designers is a kind of extension of therapy: daring to ask the truly hard questions that befuddle most folks. Why are we doing this? What is the benefit and the outcome? What trade-offs or priorities do we support (and also not support)? These are fundamentally questions of purpose, detached from any specific technology or market metrics, instead rooted in a humanistic sense for principles and values. Such deep analysis is often neither allotted for nor prioritized due to the high-velocity grind of shipping features. Asking why—especially from a designer who’s supposed to be finishing those wireframes for next week’s sprint deadline—risks shaking things up, which can be traumatic for teams who quietly, maybe desperately, depend upon stability to keep things afloat.
Deep analysis is often neither allotted for nor prioritized due to the high-velocity grind of shipping features.
Regardless, being a philosopher is about provocation with a purpose, gazing into the abyss of profound, abstract issues at the heart of a situation and the ripples of consequences for those inside and out, and surfacing what we should stand for. After all, we’re making something that impacts someone’s behavior, attitude, and life! This notion of being philosophical is more vital as ethical considerations are now increasingly at the top of our minds. Is what we’re making fair, just, and good? Does it break democracy, promote destructive self-indulgent behaviors, or activate subtle animosities against groups of people? Whether for an experimental MVP or an updated launch, as UX philosophers of sorts, we need to elevate the team’s perspective on the broader impacts of their products, at social and cultural levels. Another way to think about the philosopher’s mode is as a pursuit of significance and depth of meaning for the feature, product, or service, beyond brand axioms and toward an essential statement of principles. And no, “make it simple” doesn’t count. This demands a persistent pulse taking of core values among the team and with customers. It gets at the heart of improving the human condition by striving for virtues such as beauty, safety, integrity, trust, and harmony.
So, as UX designers and leaders, we function in some hidden ways, as interpreters of assumed intent, therapists encouraging improved dynamics, and philosophers asking questions of deep consequence. Underlying such roles/capabilities is a common thread, that of humility. It’s perhaps now trite to say that as well-grounded, earnest human-centered designers, we embody a humble disposition, of not arrogantly knowing the answers but instead curiously and collaboratively embarking on a journey to learn and wonder. But it’s quite true in practice when working with non-designers caught up in their own assumptive worlds or territorial battles. We should keep trying to help translate a vision, help uncover agendas, help define what we as a team believe in. We are in their service, to enable their success regardless of what we individually or personally may believe, toward achieving compelling outcomes that will invariably demand crucial compromises and difficult decisions. (And yes, do let them take the credit! That’s part of the duty of service as well.) It’s a matter of viewing the work we do truly as a service, carried out with care and diligence so that we all share the fruits.
To iterate to the young eager professional who thought “doing UX” is so easy… Um, no, it’s really not. But it is a worthwhile journey of realizing your hidden abilities for everyone’s benefit once you grasp what’s possible. Good luck!
Uday Gajendar (ghostinthepixel.com) has been a prolific UX designer and leader for mo re than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. firstname.lastname@example.org
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