Mea Culpa; Learn From My Mistakes

With this post, I am exorcising the ghosts of mistakes past and present frustrations. The future will be perfect; it always is.

I’ve been at this for 20 years, as part of the first wave of Web UX professionals in Canada. Statistically, I’ve earned the right to make a lot of mistakes. I know that I’ve done a good job in supporting my teams and creating good user experiences. This isn’t about trashing myself or even berating myself for a lack of perfection. It’s about sharing what I consider to be my biggest mistakes and what I’ve learned from them. After this post, I will move on to new topics.

Coming into 2015, I am feeling very discouraged about the state of digital user experience offered to customers in Canada. Despite so much news about the importance of customer and user experience, the need for customer empathy, and the role of design in business, there are still few companies that demonstrate direct connection to their customers. They say they do, but really, hubris reigns.

We knowingly and unknowingly participate in what I’m calling the “user perspective illusion”. This is the illusion that we will design a great experience for our users by following best practices, or competitors’ practices, or our own best guess at good design based on the plethora of seminars we attend and reading we do; that we don’t need to talk to customers. (Where will we find the time? There’s so much reading to do.)

I fear that said articles and news I’m reading are just UX practitioners talking to other UX practitioners. We are trying to reassure each other that what we’re doing is worth it and that we’re making progress. Are we? Or is the real story that we are choosing to believe our peers’ highlight reels?

This is my lowlight reel. There are three overarching professional themes that I have no intention of continuing:

  1. Not getting out of the office
  2. Not managing my boss enough
  3. Accepting the wrong job

1. Not Getting Out of the Office

I’ve spent 20 years fighting for a seat at the table for my UX brethren and me. It seems that once I got that seat, I was reluctant to move! As a result of not having customer and user data or even anecdotes, I had no data to combat product management and development decisions based on other data.

At times I’ve let my frustration spill over; not often, as getting things done depends on good relationships with project peers.

  • Too often, product managers assume that they know what problems users want solved, rather than doing some basic customer research to find out if they’re even solving the right problem. Then they assume that they know how to solve the problem as well. It’s hubris again, probably arising from the golden era of the sanctity of MBA opinions.

I’ve spent 20 years fighting for a better software development process that recognizes that:

  • People creating the software can’t assume that they know how their users will accomplish their goals using their software
  • Users’ perspectives need to be given prime importance in the conversation.

Along the way, I’ve sucked and blowed: I’ve over-promised by saying that Design had the answers to customers’ problems without talking to customers. I have participated in the user perspective illusion. I believed that as designers’ we could empathize with our customers and put aside our own mental models, without talking to customers.

I was afraid to dive too deeply into user research because I didn’t feel I had enough experience to understand how to do it the right way. I didn’t want to be seen not understanding it.

I was afraid that usability studies coming back would show that we hadn’t produced the perfect design expected from us. So little of business is based on experimentation with customers that imperfect testing can be seen as a failure, or spun as a failure. Direct marketing probably has the most history, and success, in playing out ideas against test segments before launching to the full market.

When executives and product managers asked for research, we did it, but I rarely initiated the request: part fear of failure and part fear of rejection. This is my biggest ick.

We need to say to our clients, “We are passionately devoted to solving problems for our customers. We have educated ideas on how to do that, best practices to follow, and methodologies for validating our work as we go, but no, I cannot say to you that I have the answer right now.”

Our clients need to be good with that.

Read Lean UX. Thanks Mohamed Hashi for bringing this book to my attention. Going forward, I want users and customers to look at everything!

2. Not Managing my Boss Enough

Sadly, I have believed without question when I was told that “user experience is very important to the organization. You will be supported by executive.” Do question. Talk to your boss a lot. Get him/her on board.

  • Ask direct questions about accountability, what they consider good design, if it’s Apple then why, what the hiring manager thinks about measuring outcomes and under what conditions other goals will be prioritized over good UX: launch dates, feature sets, technology integration, platform migration. Avoid saying yes to the wrong job.
  • Be prepared to escalate decisions and arguments to your boss for support. I have struggled with asking for help, and still do – who am I kidding – but I’m working on it. The folks on your project team whose jobs and bonuses aren’t dependent on good UX will vehemently argue for different strategies and implementation plans. You need your boss’ help. It’s not about you or your work. These escalations help arm your boss to participate in higher-level corporate priority setting on your customers’ behalf.
  • Ensure that your supporting executives does not have competing goals themselves. Doubtless, they will have competing goals unless they are a CXO and the whole organization is measured by its NPS or other customer satisfaction-based measurement. If you report into IT or an engineering-like structure, your executive may be measured by capital budget used and projects released; Marketing by new customers and new revenue; Product Management by extracting the most profit from existing products in market.
  • Find out what your boss and executive are being measured on. As a good direct report, you should know this anyway. Your job is to make your boss look good. Never forget that. Find a measurement that you can relate your work to directly. If you missed this year’s goal setting, advocate for UX measurements to be included next year.

I supported executives who said we didn’t need to do user research or impact measurement; that budget was better spent elsewhere. I should have fought harder.

  • In retrospect, I believe their response was in small part the user perspective illusion, but stemmed more from concern about drawing attention to how small the returns were on the digital work we were doing. There was no financial return to justify the money we were spending.
  • Their job was to position the brand for a digital world, in an atmosphere that demanded harder dollar value returns and little to no support from the non-digital side of the business.

I went along with measuring the value of my team by the number of projects they released, not the value of the experience created for the customer. What can I say – I supported my boss’ goals.

  • See my comments above on Competing Objectives.
  • See my post on Good Jobs, and working with an organization whose values align with yours.
  • See my previous post on Admitting Powerlessness.
  • See my previous post on Measuring UX.

Going forward, I vow to ask for help, even if I have to reframe it to make it palatable to me as “informing my boss about challenges to a customer perspective for which I need her/his advocacy.”

I’ll continue to work on the whole not asking for help thing.

3. Accepting the Wrong Job

There are jobs you take because you’re afraid of being poor. In UX, the fear is usually unjustified.

I don’t like looking for work and selling myself. I’m not unusual in that regard, but it has led to contracts and jobs that weren’t particularly stimulating for me, or work that was particularly valuable for my employer.

The field is still new enough that employers don’t really know what’s involved; we’re not Accounting or Distribution or HR. We work in a field where far too often it still falls to us as employees to educate our employers as to what we offer and why it’s important.

You are wasting your time trying to change the organization unless you have direct access to the CEO, and reason to believe that the CEO is both receptive and motivated to embrace the power of design. I don’t believe that you can change the organization from below; if your CEO isn’t actively demonstrating that s/he’s onboard with a customer service centric mentality, you are wasting your time. I don’t use those words lightly.

I wrote a post of getting the right job. I believe it. Also, since the last time I looked for a job, Ive become much more comfortable with the idea of looking for work and selling myself. I will put it to the test.

* * * * *

A good life is worth fighting for. May 2015 bring you and yours a greater understanding of what’s important to you, and both the will and capability to pursue a life that honours your values.

Peace out.


2 thoughts on “Mea Culpa; Learn From My Mistakes

  1. I appreciate and respect you for sharing your vulnerabilities, failures and flaws. I know many colleagues would advise against it … “never let them see you sweat” etc but we’re human, not robots. If we try and carry these burdens alone then we’ll never get better and those of us in the profession struggling with similar issues won’t see that their peers have similar issues and assume they have to struggle alone because they’re the only ones.


  2. I’ll tell you from first-hand experience… Whether you’re successful in getting your message heard or not, fighting the good fight makes a huge difference to your team. And that makes a huge difference for the workplace around you.

    Keep up the good examples. The fights you’re meant to win, will get won.


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