UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 638 March 23, 2011

Humble Experience Design

"Rockstar designers wanted: apply within! Do you have that rare combination of godlike talent, relentless drive, and the epic portfolio to prove it? Then join our team. We promise not to drag you down or hold you back. You'll only work with clients who truly 'get it,' and on projects that give you the prestige you need to build your personal brand and land that next great gig when it's time to move on!"

Now, before anyone gets too excited, please note that yes, this is a fake job post! But I want to suggest that it's not too far off from where things are headed—and that's not a good thing.

Let's consider this notion of the "rockstar" designer. Since when did rockstar status become a prerequisite for employment in our field? Is this really a helpful concept? As R/GA's Nick Law points out, we have a tendency to fetishize craft in our industry. This can lead to beautiful work, but it can also distract us from what's really important about what we do and how to do it well.

Focusing on so-called rockstar designers propagates what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "talent myth," where finding and nurturing star talent becomes a primary way to outperform and ultimately beat the competition. As Gladwell points out, this approach is no guarantee of success, and in actual practice has often led to downfall.

Moreover, when attracting individual talent is a primary competitive differentiator, chronic churn is inevitable. According to preliminary results from the 49 Pixels Project (a "report on Canada's digital media workforce"), almost 60% of digital media professionals have had their current job for 3 years or less, and over 25% have been in their present position for less than a year.

Escaping to a better job with bosses, co-workers, and clients who finally "get it" can be an appealing, though often elusive, prospect. But could it be that our collective frustration says more about us than those who are supposedly holding us back? For example, presumably clients "got it" when they sought out UX design services. And yet we often struggle when it comes to working in a consultative and cooperative mode.

Finally, we can see a pervasive—and for some, almost compulsive—preoccupation with building our own personal brands. Social media gives designers the means to promote and project their exceptional selves out into the world, but even within personal networks, seeking out credit and recognition can become a full-time job. Taken to an extreme, these pursuits lead to resentment, eccentric turf wars and exaggerated claims that consume energy and help no one. (Though, they can make for good comedic fodder.)

It's time to confront some of the dysfunctional norms and biases that have snuck into our industry: in particular, tendencies towards egocentricity, entitlement, and even narcissism.

Let me pause here and be the first to admit that I'm as implicated in all of this as much as anyone else. At the same time, one of the coolest things about the UX design community is our ability to learn collectively and spur one another on. So it's in this spirit that I'd like to approach the idea of better design through humility.

Humble experience design may have a nice ring to it, but to get beyond platitudes we need to be prepared to work against a powerful cultural current. High self-regard and even narcissistic behavior is not only accepted, but encouraged as a necessary ingredient for success in our competitive landscape. But studies show that these patterns tend to backfire as they lead to overconfidence, excessive risk-taking, resistance to learning, and relational conflict (see The Narcissism Epidemic for a fascinating discussion of this evidence).

When it comes to designing experiences, cultivating a humble approach is absolutely essential. The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

Humility is about knowing what you don't know, and when it comes to dynamic, interdependent, multi-platform systems, there are an awful lot of unknowns.

Humility is also about empathizing with the people who use our designs. This is particularly important when we set out to motivate and shape behavioral, perceptual, and emotional habits and patterns. Finally, humility is about working cooperatively with others in ways that challenge singular authorship and allow us to create experiences that can truly have an impact.

So how do we get better at humble experience design? Here are three suggestions:

First, set yourself up for consistent, honest, and open critical feedback. This can come in many forms and from different sources, ranging from co-workers and clients to users and actual performance indicators. True feedback can be painful because it jumps past all of the care and cleverness we put into our design decisions and focuses relentlessly on the outcome. Avoiding or ignoring feedback can be tempting, but don't do it! Don't cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn about your own limitations, to create something that's bigger than yourself, and to ultimately grow as a result.

Second, embrace collaboration as a core part of your design process. Without a doubt, the best work of my career has been done in the context of an intensely collaborative process. This means giving up control and undiluted credit in order to gain a broader, more grounded perspective. As the experiences we design become much more integrally tied to our clients' business models, working closely with them in a participatory way becomes crucial. This will require a more deliberate and facilitated, less ad-hoc engagement model with our clients.

And third, build up others in order to enrich everyone's experience and succeed collectively. It can be tricky to work at being more humble through self-regulation because this requires focus on oneself, which is often the problem in the first place! So focus instead on those around you who are in your sphere of influence. What are their natural strengths and how can they flourish? How can you help them succeed and look good? Imagine a work environment where this kind of dynamic was built into the core culture.

Is it possible that our success as designers depends not only on how we design things—the ideas, processes and methodologies we employ—but also who we are as designers and the values we share? As the UX design field continues to evolve and mature, we have an incredible opportunity to develop something that matters. Humble experience design is about getting over ourselves and focusing on what's really important: our teammates, our customers and the people we design for and with everyday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

David Gillis is an Interaction Designer at Teehan+Lax, a Toronto-based company that helps clients define and design great user experiences in the digital channel. He is a regular contributor on the Teehan+Lax blog and you can follow him on Twitter @davegillis.

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Comments

39
30

Thank you so much for writing this in a much more eloquent way than I ever could have.

Through two years of graduate school and a year working in the UX design field, I have always felt like a second-class design citizen because I don't have a design ego. But every non-design titled person I have worked with has always commented on how they find me easy to work with because I don't fit their expectations of "those creative types".

I have learned to focus on collaboration and building up others as you say, and have found that I have been able to craft an environment in which good design can take place. This is much more important to me than creating "rockstar" designs that can't be implemented or that nobody "gets".

A colleague of mine and I refer to this rockstar/individualistic design person as a "Design Keeper" - someone who has been trained to think that good design comes from one individual. Surely designerly judgment can be a valuable thing that resides in the individual, but it does little good when paired with an ego that removes any doubt or open-mindedness.

But we believe that everyone has a contribution to make to the product, and it is imperative that organizations recognize the ways in which everybody affects the outcome of that product. We as designers have the skill set to help facilitate this - and that is where our value lies - not in being the "keeper" of the design.

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I think you've addressed something very important here. There is plenty of emphasis on self-advancement, self-promotion and aggrandizement. Going a step further, I would ask how does our work enrich who we are as people in all areas of our life. As a relative newcomer to the field, I don't qualify for "Rock Star" status yet, but I find working collaboratively, sharing ideas, and continuely trying to improve much more enriching.

35
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This is the best thing Ive ever see!

31
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The reason this industry is thriving is because of risk takers, not a bunch of drones sitting around singing kumbaya. I agree, nobody likes to listen to someone who thinks they are God's gift, but in my experience, those who can, do, and those who can't, become experience designers.

33
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An article touting the demerits of "rockstardom" and the reeking bullshit that wafts from it and they go to an RGA guy for a soundbyte?

29
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apply within and applies to all!

34
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There are not many who think about how designer should act in the same way as you do David. well, I reckon they should. The paradox is that those showing off are mostly very good, the best ones however are usually the most humble ones. Every designer has to be a bit excentric, but he should reflect it into his work.

28
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Beautifully written piece, David. Left unchecked, our self-love as a profession can rapidly get out of control. Over-hyping of sometimes downright ordinary work across social networks gets very wearing, very quickly and too often during the day I feel the urge to type: "Okay, so you're a designer. Get over it and get on with your work."

28
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What an amazing article! This is the kind of text to be bookmarked and revisited often, so I can keep me on my toes.

Thank you!

32
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Hear, hear.
Lots of research also shows that things UXdesigners spends hours and weeks working on, is not really important in the end. To create and build flexibly and sustainably requires cooperation, and you cannot do that if you are a rockstar.

33
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Great article and one on a subject that I have badly missed, particularly over the last few months. I think being humble comes with experience as it is likely you have made a few bad mistakes over time and hopefully learnt from them and got wiser.

But your concluding point about exactly 'who' we are as people is at the core of it I feel. Does the person have empathy, commitment, passion and a sense of humour? UX deals with issues that are not simple but require simplicity and that requires a character that is a little different. As business 'gets' the value of UX more rockstar attitudes will surface. But I feel if it isn't in you as a person, humble design just can't surface...

37
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I agree with you on that one, Dan. Joh, I lifted that quote from Nick from this video (which is amazing, by the way): http://www.hillmancurtis.com/index.php?/film/watch/rga_profile

39
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David,

Thanks for the great article. I've seen the "rock-star" syndrome take effect several times in places I've worked, and honestly have had much better success in projects where I've worked with individuals who are more humble in their approach (projects are more pleasant also).

The reference by Nick Law of "fetishizing our craft" also interests me - do you have a link to an article where he talks about that?

Thanks again,

John

22
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I think the idealism we all share towards design creating a better environment for everyone is a huge factor. I know I find myself getting frustrated when clients don't listen to what I say, but that doesn't mean we need to stop educating them about the successes we believe design can accomplish. Great article and advice for staying humble.