The most important lesson I’ve learned as a UX Designer

Jonathon Juvenal

The company I was recently working for kept running out of money last year so I had the opportunity to do a lot of job hunting in 2018. Luckily I’ve been working hard on my portfolio for a while now so I was getting call backs. But when I finally got past the HR call, the hiring manager call and actually went on site to meet the team in person they all had one very important question they asked before anything else. It went something like this: “so… your portfolio is awesome, but… how do you handle it when we can’t do what you’ve designed?” Then they would hold their breath and wait for my answer.

I’ve been working as a ux designer for twelve years now and for more years than I care to admit I gave them the wrong answer, not in the interview but on the actual job. After all the software skills and the good looking portfolio there is one life or death attribute you have to have to get a job as a designer: you have to realize that your job is to help other people realize their vision, not yours.

Your job as a designer is to help other people realize their vision, not yours.

Coming to terms with that reality is critical to your career. It’s critical that you see the situation from a different point of view than your own. The reason the interviewers asked me how I handled push back right off the bat is because they’d all been burned many times by designers in the past. “Yea, we had a guy here but he kept fighting us on every little thing and he would never compromise. It got so bad I didn’t even want to talk to him anymore and I dreaded any meetings he would be in. It made my life and everyone else’s a living hell so we had to let him go.”

Phase 1 — Fighting

I remember early in my career putting in all the effort, studying all the books, getting the education and then sitting in horror while the companies I worked for broke every single thing I’d ever learned. I panicked, I freaked out, I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just a few bad decisions here or there, they weren’t doing anything I was taught at all!

They had hired me to make things beautiful, inspiring and something people loved. But they weren’t letting me, they were actually getting in my way. What’s worse, what they really wanted me to do was to just do exactly what they told me to do. It was infuriating and I didn’t know what to do. I saw no other course of action but to fight back.

I fought back at every little infraction, every time they misspoke or broke one of the rules I’d learned about design I corrected them, shut them down, set them straight. It was rough for them and for me, I didn’t like doing it at all, it wasn’t who I really was, but if I was going to do what they hired me to do I had to do it.

Needless to say, all that fighting, yelling, resistance and nasty emails got me absolutely nowhere and worse it got me fired again and again. Here’s one life lesson nugget to pass on to you, there are people I used to work with who only knew me as that difficult version of me. Today they are in positions to give me a job when I need it but when I contact them they refuse to talk to me — and I don’t blame them one bit.

If you find yourself going down a similar path, stop right now. It doesn’t work, it destroys relationships, it makes your future a lot more difficult and worst of all the product still won’t be any better for it.

If you find yourself going down a similar path, stop right now.

Phase 2 — Coming to terms with reality

Ok, so fighting wasn’t working and worse I wasn’t getting as many job opportunities as I did before. I had to change something or my kids weren’t going to get fed.

I started by accepting the facts in front of me. The people I worked with from the CEO to the engineers didn’t know what I knew about design, ok. Fighting in any form just made them stop listening, ok. So what did that leave me?

The first thing I did was I learned to hold my tongue. And it was hard. Everyone at the company was still making a thousand mistakes but I was determined that I wasn’t going to say anything about it. This took time but it was actually the easiest part of this phase.

Something else started to happen then too, because I wasn’t talking I started hearing what people were saying. I started to notice something I was too busy to notice before, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one fighting.

So I started to watch everyone else fight. I watched all the people at the table try to fight for what was most important to them. I analyzed what they said, how they said it and why they thought it was so important. I learned a really important lesson, I learned that different people at the company had different jobs and that those jobs caused them to see things a very specific way, a way that no one else at the company seemed to understand. I learned that everyone in every department knew things none of the other departments knew and that they were just as frustrated as I was that they couldn’t seem to do their job.

So I started spending more time learning what they knew. I did more than listen to them in meetings, I went out of my way to make friends with them no matter their position at the company. I read the books they read about their job, I went to lunch with them, I got to know them outside of work, I learned what motivated them and what drove them.

Then something started to happen. I started to speak up in meetings again, but much differently now. I forced myself to talk in other people’s languages, not mine, not design, I started addressing their needs and treating their needs as an objective observer seeing the bigger picture. Sure I still blew up now and again and I got frustrated a lot, but with deliberate practice those blow ups became fewer and fewer and even more important, people started to listen to me.

I started to reach a point where I could see the design needs, the business needs, the engineering needs, truly everyone’s needs — all at the same time. And because I could see all the dimensions of the problem all at once I started to see how design fit into that picture. I started to see little windows of opportunity for design that I didn’t see before, not opportunities that cured cancer, but opportunities that made a big difference for this company in this moment.

I started bringing up an idea here or a solution there, something that only design could provide that would help the other people at the table with their goals, something that would help them with the problem of the day and move the company forward just a tiny tiny bit.

In time I killed off the part of me that had to have the product be designed well and in its place I grew a part of me that saw what specific kind of design this specific kind of company needed in this specific situation.

In time I killed off the part of me that had to have the product be designed well and in its place I grew a part of me that saw what specific kind of design this specific kind of company needed in this specific situation.

Phase 3 — Fulfilling my inner artist

But even though things were starting to get better for me and my career there was still something really important missing for me and that was purpose and fulfillment. The designer in me, the person who knew what was in all the books, the person who knew what was taught at school, the person who wanted to create something beautiful was still not happy, not at all.

So again I looked at the facts. In twenty years I’ve never been at a company that created something that matched my inner vision of beautiful, something award winning, or something truly inspiring. So I had to assume, worse case scenario, that I would never be at that company — ok great, now what?

The solution was obvious. If I couldn’t do the work that inspired me at my job, then I would have to do it at home. And so I did. I started spending my free time and weekends doing what I wanted and what inspired me. I started designing the products I wanted to build.

It was not easy, in fact it was really really hard. I had kids now and a life. I was working all day, putting in all my effort at work and coming home exhausted but still trying to find time to pursue my own art. I was worn out but somehow had to magically turn it all back on again. But I pushed through it and I forced myself to do it day after day, then year after year. I’m here to tell you it never ever gets easier, but every time I do it I feel fulfilled and that fulfillment builds bigger over time.

Phase 4 — Design as a service

And that’s when the real magic happened. Because I had found a way to remove my need to create something beautiful from my day job, it was no longer on my mind at work. So I started to ask myself, well why am I even here? Why have a job at all other than to pay the bills? Am I going to start losing interest at work and start being that guy that doesn’t care and doesn’t really contribute? The answer again was obvious and struck me hard.

I’m here to be of service.

Service is a stupid phrase I heard too much growing up. I heard it so many times I just ignored it and had written it off. But I had noticed over the years — in those few moments when you stop and think about the rest of your life — that I had read again and again from people I respected that they had found a great deal of fulfillment later in life, in service to other people. So I thought, what the hell, maybe that’s a thing.

For me service was going down to volunteer at the soup kitchen or helping little old ladies cross the street, stupid stuff I was never going to do. So I started to pose the question to myself, what if I did design as an act of service?

I love design, I love making products and I love the process of designing and creating them. So what if I just spent all my time helping other people do that, other people who also loved creating products but who needed my help to do it?

I love design, I love making products and I love the process of designing and creating them. So what if I just spent all my time helping other people do that, other people who also loved creating products but who needed my help to do it?

So I did an experiment. I said what if when I went to work the next time, I completely removed all my personal needs and desires and focused wholly on what the people at work wanted. I decided that anytime anyone approached me or asked me to do something I would just do it. Yes there is still a voice inside me that is like “oh my God this is the stupidest thing ever,” but the desire to help them is more powerful than that and the feeling of actually helping someone do something they couldn’t do on their own is far more fulfilling.

The experiment only lasted a day, it was so obvious in the first eight hours that it worked that I’ve been doing it ever since.

Could I have done that at any other phase of my life? No way. It’s only because of my entire journey that I can even do it now, so don’t kid yourself into thinking it suddenly turns on, maybe you can just turn it on, but I couldn’t. I’m only here to tell you that it’s there, it’s a thing, it exists and it’ll work for you too if and when you want it.

What about you?

I wrote this article because in my interviewing for jobs in 2018 every place I interviewed at had the same story, “Yea we had a guy, but he was too difficult and he isn’t here now.” More often than not it was a junior designer they were talking about. That got me thinking about how I was when I was starting out and if I wanted to help someone in that phase, what was the most important thing I could tell them?

It’s a really harsh lesson when you face the fact that design is a very small part of the creation of a product and a business, and that yes you will be told what to do and yes you will not be given opportunities to make beautiful things that inspire you and change the world, not even stuff you can put in your portfolio. But there is a way to face that reality and still come out of it doing all the things you thought you were going to do and at the same time still help companies design better products.

Author: Jonathon Juvenal

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