Business

Dealing With Your Ego and Embracing Empathy in UX Design

It’s in your best interest to separate your work from your ego… and this article will explain why, and how.

What artist doesn’t feel a personal bond with their work of art? It is, after all, their work – the product of their own ideas, time, and effort. Its success or failure relates directly on their own worth, and so is invariably linked to their ego.

What does this mean for UX design? Nothing, because UX design is not art.

At least, not completely. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s important to make this distinction – thinking of UX design as its own art form will undermine the other, more concrete motivations behind it. Sure, UX design is artistic, but it’s closer to a business, or even a science, than something you’d see in a museum.

I say this about UX design for the following reasons:

  1. It serves business and user goals beyond self-expression.
  2. It is the product of a team effort, not an individual.

The fact of the matter is, as a designer, viewing the product as your own work of art will hold you back from the best possible result. It’s in your best interest to separate your work from your ego… and this article will explain why, and how.

The Ego

It’s natural for a designer’s ego to affect their work. They’re creating something from nothing based on only their best judgments – in a sense, they get to play god. It’s because of this “birthing” that there’s almost a parental responsibility over the end product.

But, for the sake of what’s best for the end product, sever the umbilical cord. It will do better on its own in the real world without those parental ties.

The more you think of the product as yours, the less you think of it as the product of a team. The product will benefit best from teamwork and collaboration than it would being dominated by a single, ego-driven individual.

I’m not saying to not be passionate about the project. In fact, I encourage passion – by all means, pour your heart and soul into your work. And I’m definitely not advocating for design by committee – the design lead must have the final say, but that person must first consider the advice of the team.

The line between being passionate and being possessive is the ego. The best way to stay on the right side of passion is to take a more objective approach. This means, recognizing the secondary needs, and relying on data over personal opinion.

1. Recognizing Secondary Needs

At its heart, art is its own goal. Fine, many artists throughout history have catered to their patrons or the current climate of their industry – but for UX design, the secondary goals in art come first. That’s the difference.

Remember that good designers don’t defend themselves – they defend the user. It’s not about the best idea, it’s about the right idea.

UX design must first accomplish its external goals – whether its helping users to find the right hiking boots, enticing users to customize pieces of jewelry, or spreading awareness about autism. Art can only be applied to the extent that it better presents content for users to accomplish these goals (I strongly recommend referencing the hierarchy of UX needs).

Personal opinions and ideals must take a back seat in order for the primary user goals to be accomplished. Usability needs must trump aesthetics: what makes a better interface must come before creative expression (although, to be fair, the two are often complementary).

If this seems difficult for you, try questioning your own assumptions and intentions. Are you including this or that element because it will help the product as a whole, or because you personally like it? Is your teammate’s idea better for the end goal even though you prefer your way of doing it?

2. Rely on Data

If you can’t rely on your own personal opinions, what can you rely on? Hard data.

Because UX design is a business venture, it should be justified by business and usability data when possible. Where the artist uses whichever color his intuition tells him, the designer looks to any array of research methods (including moderated usability tests, card sorting, A/B testing) to infer what design decisions work best for users. Of course your personal opinions should still come into play – after all, the data requires interpretation. To prevent confirmation bias in your analysis, remember to refer back to your personas so you stay focused on the user.

Your intuition may tell you that experimental vertical navigation bar you’re working on will really set your site apart from the competition, but the research may say the users find the horizontal one more familiar and therefore easier to use. Going back to our previous point, because UX design serves business first and artistry second, user behavior should always serve as a red flag against your own preferences.

Empathy

Foregoing your ego may leave you feeling lost and without direction – but you don’t need to find your way on your own. Empathy – for your users, for your teammates, and for your stakeholders – fills the void when the ego is removed.

Empathy works best across the board, both internally (collaboration) and externally (persona creation and empathy mapping).

1. Collaboration

One of the biggest hindrances caused by the ego is ignoring your teammates’ good ideas. After all, if you think of the project as “yours,” you might resist anything that makes it look like “theirs.”

Even if you do have the most expertise of your team, that doesn’t mean you know everything. The beauty of working as a team is in inclusion of differing perspectives, and each member’s strengths mitigating others’ weaknesses.

This holds true for stakeholders as well. Your stakeholders provide the business goals you need to keep yourself grounded, in case your artistic head goes up in the clouds.

That’s why you should always treat feedback as a two-way conversation. Even if the feedback is prescriptive, remember that it is still just an opinion. You should always feel empowered to critique the feedback of others, which is why I suggest Dustin Curtis’ 3-question rule. If you want someone to clarify on their feedback, ask them 3 questions – you’ll quickly find out if it’s substantiated or pure opinion.

2. Personas and Empathy Mapping

When trying to empathize with the user, the best practice is creating personas (and using them heavily). Personas are fictional “characters” built from your real user research in order to help keep you on track with whom you’re designing for. They act as a placeholder for your actual user during the preliminary design phases, and come in handy when you act yourself such questions as “Which type of icon would the user prefer?”

Once you have your persona, you can extend their use further with empathy mapping. In this practice, you take your persona and run them through a type of simulation of a scenario they might encounter using your product.

Let’s say, for example, you’re designing a site for buying plane tickets.

One of your empathy maps might be something like Peter (your persona) decides on a whim to spend next week in the Bahamas. You would outline not only how he interacts with the site – which pages he visits, how he accesses them, etc. – but also his thoughts and feelings while doing so – which pages or features he likes most, any features he ignores because he doesn’t understand them, etc.

As a supplementary activity that improves empathy and collaboration, you could even invite team members for a contextual interview in which you interview users in their environment. By being immersed in the user’s settings, you’ll get a better firsthand understanding of their distractions, technological preferences, unmet needs, and other details of daily life that help you think like they do.

For more information on how Cooper handles empathy mapping, read this helpful article.

Conclusion

Your product is not about you. Even if you’re designing your own website, ironically – in this case, it’s still about what you hope the website accomplishes.

As such, it will benefit from less ego and more empathy. Design not for yourself, but for your users and for the greater goals of your project. If your main motivations are self-expression and unleashing your creativity, take a painting class – but schedule it after work is over.

Featured Image: BirgitKorber.


About the Author Jerry Cao

Jerry Cao is a UX content strategist at UXPin, the wireframing and prototyping app, where he develops in-app and online content.