Fear (of design failure) is the new black
Embrace the fear of failure as your design process’ differentiator
You’ve heard this before.
As the UX Design practice becomes more prevalent in our daily interactions with technology and products, our shared skills as designers have become readily available. The ability to perform ongoing user research, create design concepts and code prototypes has become a given, a norm across the design industry. Aside from the utopic dream of having a team of unicorn designers what differentiates a great designer (be it UX, Visual or Front-end) from a good one?
I believe a great (dare I say true) designer has the ability to not only understand that failure is needed, but embraces the fear of failure as inherent to the design process.
There have been many articles discussing failure as a given in our creative industry (for starters try here and here), but in this conversation I want to focus on our human fear of being wrong and its relationship to feedback and critique. Before we move on, let’s make a distinction between two types of feedback. Negative feedback pokes holes in our design and questions if our design execution relates to a user need. On the other hand, bad feedback targets your creative vision, is based on personal style preferences and can often seem like a personal attack. In this article we’re going to talk about how to make the most of negative feedback. Here we go.
Failure, good. Fear of failure, not good.
The speed at which you execute your designs and experience failure relates proportionately with your product’s success and the revenue it creates. The sooner you fail, and learn from your failures, the better your product will be. Many technology companies and user-centered design studios have made failure and design iterations the core of their practices and collaborative processes.
However, there is a steep learning curve for both young and young-at-heart designers (like myself) in the road to become comfortable with being wrong.
In order to grow as designers and human beings, we must be as at peace with failing as we are with sketching and prototyping. What’s needed is more emphasis to openly discuss how fearful we all are when presenting ideas, sharing feedback and hearing back from our users. Being put on the spot is inherently uncomfortable for people and normally just feels weird. But that distressing feeling should be seen as our body’s way of telling us it just entered feedback mode. If we accept that nobody likes to fail, how do we turn it into opportunities to learn and improve?
Seek for failure in everything you do.
“Yeah I like this, but…”
You know it when you hear it, that inevitable but comes lurking around the corner. And it burns through your soul. Next time you hear it, take a breathe, and take that moment as an opportunity to dig into what your users or stakeholders are saying instead of why they say it. For the moment being, discard any notion of it being a personal attack against your design skills or reason to exist and look for the deeper intent.
As the probing questions keep piling in, we need to grab them as an ephemeral opportunity to seek what can make our idea or experience better and different from the competition.
Something that’s worked for me is documenting the questions you’re being asked by your stakeholders and make them part of your next research session. The benefit is two-fold: you put other’s people’s assumptions to the test and you get to learn more from your users. If users validate your direction then it’s them disproving your stakeholders instead of a you vs them situation. If users don’t then you have more data on where to go next.
Over time we should be the ones probing our design when presenting to others. Ask about any loose ends they can see, comments on how it could scale better or about implementation obstacles we should be aware of. As we become more open with our vision and ability to consider different perspectives of our design, our fear of feedback or user task failure will be as normal as the Sharpie® marker on our desk.
Don’t rely only on internal feedback. If stakeholder input is getting in your way increase your usability testing and/or generative research focus. Nothing ̶s̶h̶u̶t̶s̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ ̶u̶p̶ builds consensus like real users telling us what they think, feel and dislike. Aside from getting better feedback, why should we put ourselves out there?
Failure = growth.
Failure is a lesson you can’t get anywhere else. It’s like having unlimited access to PricelessFeedback.you/forevercoupon. Feedback is the way we bolster our ability to react to problems and ideate a better way. It allows us to flex our muscles and prepares us for the next idea, iteration or sprint. It takes time to replace fear with comfort but this ability, not the tools we use, is crucial if we dare become more rounded UX designers. If we consciously shift the way we digest feedback from harsh criticism to an invaluable opportunity to get into somebody elses head, we can revitalize our creative freedom, test our process and learn from our ongoing failures. Getting amazing feedback and rave reviews feels good, but try not to get too attached to it.
What if being constantly praised means we’re not pushing enough, not creating differentiators or dare I say: innovating?
Positive reactions to our work makes us smile and full of confidence. But we don’t learn much from being “right.” We should embrace those moments were people get that we get it, that we are solving our user needs, while ensuring we seek areas of improvement. If our design is strong and validated internally and externally, then spend some time working on the voice & tone of your product, introduce some engaging micro-interactions or take some time for something different like writing a blog (cough cough). Keep pushing and never get comfortable. What’s next?
Share the fear away.
Sharing is caring. Ultimately, we need to share what we learn with our team mates, make failure normal and the fear of it a thing of the past. If we never hit ourselves against a wall and test were the edges are we can’t give ourselves and our team the chance to evaluate the things we can improve together. Only when we admit we are fearful of failure and the fear of it is a vital part of our collaborative and iterative process we can liberate ourselves from the stigma of personal attacks.
Seek all feedback, but focus on what your end-users want and need. Listen to what they say, how they say it and more so on what they do. Use their input as your guiding light as you navigate through uncertainty and internal biases. That is when we can re-focus our energy towards solving our user’s problems and making their lives a tad better and potentially more fun in the process, for them and us too. What’s the worst that could happen, that we fail?