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How to beat the Designer Stereotype

May 1, 2009 By Nishant Kothary

Rant Alert: I am a fellow-designer who is tired of having to constantly fight the “designer stereotype” (I’ll explain this term up ahead). This is a fair warning that I’m about to vent and it’s just my opinion (this is the opinions section, after all).

I have a pretty broad definition for “designer”. I define it as an individual who thinks and cares about the experience others have when they use a product, and subsequently, focuses on systematically improving that user experience. I will be talking about software and web designers in particular.

I define the “designer stereotype” as the often-true perception that designers are difficult to work with & walk around with a big fat chip on their shoulders.

We’re bitter. Want to know why? (I love leading questions).

I shall now bash the rest of you, i.e. you folks who don’t really care to improve the user experience for a product. After all, any self-deprecating post must begin with a healthy emotional outburst.

We’re bitter because you have abused and marginalized us for a few decades now. Your absolute lack of empathy in accepting user experience and aesthetics as an integral part of the software development process has effectively murdered our designer souls over and over. We’ve felt and continue to feel abused by your silly and compulsive need to meet artificial deadlines which you achieve by saying, “Yeah, we don’t have time to spend on design.” You know what sucks about this? Every time you do that, and believe us, you do it a LOT, we have to go along with it fully knowing that we’re going to piss off customers. You’ve heard of customers, right? They are also known as “human beings for whom you’re building the very piece of software”.

Yes,you make us repeatedly stare into the face of the irony of forgoing experience design – undeniably the most important aspect of a software product – despite the fact that experience design is synonymous with,”Hey, why don’t we build something that people would like to use!” Seriously, think about it! To put it into perspective – have you ever found yourself saying, “Man, this phone is so tough to use and I hate it?” Well, it’s because some ignoramus like you decided to ship it anyway despite the fact that everyone who played with it during usability tests said it was a piece of crap. You reap what you sow, I guess. Yippekayay.

There, I said it and it feels good. Let the flames begin. Or, read on.

So, this begs the question – if the world is doing such injustice to the wonderfulness (yes, that really is a word) that is a designer, then aren’t they the real victims? Good question, and I have a really simple answer. In an ideal world, sure, they are the victims. But last time I checked, this is the real world. The way I see it, the real world is full of awful situations. You either fall in line and work with that reality to incrementally improve it, or throw a hissy fit, stomp your feet and affect nothing other than your already decaying morale.

The thing is, yes, there are loads of people who don’t get this whole experience design thing, and why should they? It’s this weird, amorphous, touchy-feely, non-deterministic, often subjective thing that we don’t really do a good job of describing (we == everyone but Bill Buxton; yes, I’m still in love with the man). But, it is what it is and the first step is to accept the reality that most people don’t get it and give up the pent up animosity and destructive arrogance.

So, if you’re a designer, let it go. Seriously.

Let. It. GO!

Here – let’s hug it out. *HUG*

Better?

OK, now for the silver lining. There are a plethora of folks who *do* get it, so let’s stop punishing them and let’s start educating the others, shall we? This rant is not entirely gratuitous or futile, for I would like to share a set of practical tips to get you waking up in the morning singing, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.” (you can always count on the effing genius of the Beatles lyrics).

Here we go:

  • Don’t assume the worst about people

    When you walk into a room assuming that everyone in there doesn’t get it, you’re doomed. You’d be surprised at how often I’ve seen designers (and non-designers) do that. It’s the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. They just assume that the person across from them at the table doesn’t care about doing the right thing for the customer and could never possibly grasp the self-declared advanced world of design thinking. If you find yourself feeling this way, you are suffering from deep bitterness and I suggest you take up drinking to drown it. I’m kidding, of course. Really, what you need to do is consciously change your default behavior to assuming the best about people. Do whatever you need to do to make this change; different things work for different people. The point is – if you seek failure and disappointment, you will find it.

  • Assume everyone is ignorant

    Notice, I didn’t say “stupid”, but “ignorant”. A common phenomenon shared by our bitter breed is to assume that everyone around you undestands the subtleties of your thought process despite the fact that you’ve never vocalized most of it. We think differently and things that are ridiculously obvious to us are not at all obvious to others. The practice of good design pivots on the critical act of communication. As a designer, you have to communicate constantly without making assumptions about what’s obvious and what’s not. But don’t do it blindly. Watch, listen, perceive and communicate appropriately. If you’re a good designer, the first three are innate sensory qualities you are likely gifted with.

  • Think in parts, not absolutes

    We’re a binary lot. It’s all or nothing, good or bad, black or white. And, we tend to hold that way of thinking up as a badge of honor. “We don’t conform. We don’t compromise. Only the best for us.” Ask yourself, has that worked for you? Be honest. The other way to affect change (and all credit for teaching me this goes to my wife) is to begin somewhere and etch away at it. Become a part of the solution. Learn to see the value in incremental improvement. That doesn’t mean you forget the big picture and the end goal; it’s always great to aspire to something big. Just don’t trivialize and/or pass up on the opportunity of making small amends. Every little thing helps.

  • Don’t listen to Ayn Rand

    The Fountainhead was a book I read in my early teens and for someone growing up in India who was getting pretty disillusioned by the rampant contradictions of that culture, the book was a savior. It was hope! But it also set the stage for the designer stereotype I was going to fall prey to as an adult. That powerful piece of propaganda is best captured by the operating principle of the hero of the book (an architect, by profession), “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” Sounds sexy, but it’s wrong. You’re designing for clients. Period.

  • Know when to play and when to quit

    I truly believe that one bad apple spoils the barrel. I’ve experienced this personally through different employers and even here at Microsoft. If you’re on a new project, you have to give it your all and the above four points come in very handy in doing that. But despite that, if you find yourself feeling disgruntled and upset quite a bit, you need to step back and evaluate why you’re feeling that way; it’s often because of the people involved, and it’s not just that they don’t get it, but it’s because they are very focused on some hidden agenda (promotion plans, power struggle, etc.) You can choose to confront them, or manipulate the situation to move it in your favor. Or, you can say to yourself, “This is not worth my heartbreak.” Just know that trying to change their personality is usually beyond the scope of the project. Either play the game or quit. Just don’t let yourself get bitter.

In closing, I offer you some reading that inspired this blog post. It is powerful and so true. Read it now and then come back and tell us what you think. If you want to stay in touch with us, follow us on twitter.

The author is a rehabilitated designer who happily coexists amongst non-designers and loves it. He beat a strong case of designer stereotype caused in no small part by a set of bad apples at previous jobs. Every now and then he feels the urge to succumb to residual bitterness, but fights it vehemently because he truly believes it is not the right way to change things.

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14 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

fjpoblam said on May 2, 2009

Yer right. But for one thing. Lemme help. For me, I decided, the natural state is, contentment. It takes focus and concentration to be irritated or frustrated. After 30 years of whatchamaycalldesign, it''s begun to work out. Let''er rip. (Or, er...Gitter done?)

Morten Olaisen said on May 2, 2009

Thank you for some interesting perspectives. I do however think you ought to reread miss Rand. You seem to have misunderstood Roarks remark. What he meant is that his fundamental reason for being an architect is not the housing needs of other people, but hos own desire to build.

However in each specific project of his, he most certainly tries to fulfill the needs of his clients in the best manner possible.

Respectfully,
Morten Olaisen

Morten Olaisen said on May 2, 2009

Thank you for some interesting perspectives. I do however think you ought to reread miss Rand. You seem to have misunderstood Roarks remark. What he meant is that his fundamental reason for being an architect is not the housing needs of other people, but hos own desire to build.

However in each specific project of his, he most certainly tries to fulfill the needs of his clients in the best manner possible.

Respectfully,
Morten Olaisen

Nishant Kothary said on May 3, 2009

@fjpoblam - Amen. :)

@Morten - Thanks very much for your thoughts, and maybe I will re-read Ms. Rand; it has been a while, after all.

What you say about Roark is true, in that, he was passionate about architecture in the deepest way possible. I should mention that I did take away a lot of good things from Roark''s character as they relate to passion, objectivity, and moral character. I''m not saying don''t read the book, in fact, I think everyone should. Though, read it cautiously.

From my recollection, Ms. Rand makes a strong case for never having to compromise on one''s own genius vision. This was the recurring outcome of Roark''s actions in the book: to never question one''s own judgement and vision. She didn''t evaluate the merits of a balanced approach. You could be either Roark or Keating. There was nothing in between.

You can''t be that absolute in a corporate environment or even one where you have several clients involved because there are diverse people and opinions in that picture. As a designer, one should *absolutely* have a vision, but you have to remember that others do, too, and who knows whether theirs is better than yours? Personally, I think the true test of a talented designer is whether he/she is able to identify the right vision, even it if it is through embracing others'' ideas. My designs always improve with user feedback; but maybe that''s just because I''m not as talented as Mr. Roark ;-) Anyway, I''m ranting again.

The greatest point here is that I just don''t believe that you can ever be absolutely sure that your own vision is the right one. This view contradicts my interpretation of Ms. Rand''s writings which says something on the lines of - if one truly believes that he/she is right, then he/she must hold to this belief even in the face of unanimous opposition from others. Some of the most awful things in the world have occurred because of this way of thinking.

Morten Olaisen said on May 4, 2009

I don''t think Roark would ignore useful criticism and suggestions. The thing is that he simply doesn''t get it that often because of the cultural and intellectual environment he''s surrounded by, and because he is an architectural genius.

As Rand herself stated elsewhere in much more elegant wording, that the truth is the truth nomatter who states it.

Even the chai walla may be right, and I have no doubts Roark would be the first to change his mind.

Even if one is actually open to other peoples rational input, there is of course a remaining issue of what to do with irrational input. As a designer, these are abound, and an occupational hazard of proportions. I think most of us find ourselves in situations much like when Roark was working for Guy Francon. In other words: We have to put up with instructions we occasionally very much disagree with. Which is OK, to some degree and under certain circumstances. Knowing where, when and how to both accept and not accept, is not easy though.

Morten

Nishant Kothary said on May 4, 2009

@Morten - Couldn''t agree with you more on all your points. On the topic of what to do with irrational input, I think that will be work-in-progress for all of us. Like you say, it''s OK to some degree and under certain circumstances to give in to irrational instructions. Definitely worth another rant for another day.

BTW - love this discussion. You can''t read about this stuff in books, so I''m really interested in constructive and practical ways that others deal with such situations.

LC Druid said on May 4, 2009

Wow, I think the opposite is true for every "rule" you just gave. Yours sounds "nice", but I think you''re dead wrong. Anyway, thanks for the post.

Nishant Kothary said on May 5, 2009

@LC Druid - Great! Are we at least going to hear your opinion or are you just planning on trolling?

There is one clarification, though. These aren''t "rules" (I even introduced them as "tips"); they''re just things that have worked for me. The opposite, as you call it, didn''t work for me at all.

So - let''s hear it. Why do you disagree?

Lisa said on May 6, 2009

The Ten Graphic Design Paradoxes, in my opinion, are common sensical. However, seeing them in print can act as a reminder or even a source of inspiration for those in need of it - and I think that''s great.

Also, I feel that, by nature, we are not "a binary lot". For people to try and deal in absolutes, it is a more difficult path and not always the best option (despite what exists in the sexy realm of fiction).

Sean Gerety said on May 6, 2009

I think that UX professionals should have "business empathy" and that we should understand what drives the business. Depending on who you work for, UX design may be a luxury. You have to provide value to the business goals and to communicate that also.

Cheers,

Sean

Nishant Kothary said on May 7, 2009

@Lisa - What''s the saying... "Common sense is uncommon among common people"? :-) I agree with you, though. Seeing it on paper (screen) is a good reminder. And you''re right; by nature we''re not a binary lot. We tend to see the shades between black and white even if our perception is incorrect. I think certain environments and situations make us binary which is what I was alluding to in my post. Really, the manifestation of binary behavior is a symptom of psychological defensiveness. It''s subconsciously designed to protect us from anxiety, but overuse in work environments is rampant and leads to certain stereotypes, e.g. designers are an emotional lot. BTW - I hope it''s clear that I''m not arguing that these stereotypes are accurate or justified; in fact, I think they''re downright incorrect (after all, emotion is not a bad thing).

@Sean - Absolutely agree. There are ways to provide value to business goals and not compromise the UX. One subtlety here is that UX folks often need to help formulate and/or amend the business strategy. Whenever I''ve worked on a project that has blasphemous UX, it''s generally because that product/business doesn''t have a sound strategy or they lost it along the way. That''s usually where the potential of conflict arises - stakeholders find themselves saying, "Why is this designer messing with my business?!" As a designer (of any type), when you''re trying to affect business strategy to improve the UX, you need to do it patiently and perceptively. It''s usually a very touchy topic for the business owner(s).

Allison said on May 13, 2009

I understand these points, but it''s also important to remember that the product needs to work right. My case in point: the iPhone. Yes, it slick and "cool" but the way it works now, no group of emergency workers would ever use an iPhone as their cell phone device in an emergency situation. At least none that I could imagine.

Sidney A said on Jun 22, 2009

@Allison but as a UX designer you have to consider your target audience. The iPhone (general public) has a different target audience than a Blackberry (corporate) than the cell phones that government offices usually purchase for emergency workers... Even then my examples were over-simplifications. If the designers had emergency workers as a target audience than i''m sure the iPhone''s user experience would''ve turned out drastically different.

Spencer said on Jun 22, 2011

This was a great read/rant. I've had some trouble getting over certain designer stereotypes myself. I'd be interested to read the original article you pointed to at the Design Observer but the link is broken. I think they may have restructured their permalinks, so it should still be there somewhere if you're able to relink it.

Thanks for the read!