The top mistakes UX designers make

Last week I spoke at the Puget Sound SIGCHI meeting. Since it’s a group of designers and user researchers, I let them participate in picking the topic, and top mistakes won by a wide-margin. I didn’t use any slides – instead I led an interactive talk, summarized below. Rather than talk about tactical mistakes, such as prototyping or running studies, I focused on the ones we overlook the most, about attitude and culture.

  • Not credible in the culture.  Most designers and researchers are specialists, making them minorities in the places they work. Most training UX people get assumes they are working alone, which is rarely true. This means their values and attitudes likely don’t match the work culture of most companies. The burden to fit in, or to recognize what the culture value’s and provide it, is on the specialist. If you are the best designer alive, but work in a place ignorant of design, your lack of credibility in the culture renders your design ability useless. Being a specialist means you will always be explaining what you do, your entire career, including translating your value  into a language your coworkers can understand.
  • Never make it easy. The first users you have are your co-workers. How easy is it to follow your advice? As a specialist, its easy to become the UX police, scolding and scowling your way through meetings. No one likes the police. Generally, people do what is easiest to do. If your work creates more work for them, they will naturally want to avoid you. Specialists often scowl from ivory towers, where they provide advice that is hard to follow, or sometimes, hard to understand as it’s not in the language of the culture.
  • Forget your coworkers are meta-users. Unless you write production code, you are not actually building the product customers use. You make things, specs, mockups, or reports, that are given to others who must convert your work into the actual product. This means you must design both for you actual customers, and for your coworkers, who are the first consumers of your ideas. Usability reports are often tragically hard to use. Mockups and design specs often forget details developers need such as sizes in pixels, and hex colors.
  • Never get dirty. In many tech cultures there is plenty of dirty work to do: mainly finding bugs and reporting bugs. Anyone can do it, but no one wants to do it, and everyone avoids it. Often there are bug bashes or engineering team events to find and deal with bugs. As a specialist, its easy to go home early while the development team stays late to do the dirty work. If you’re part of the culture, you’d stay and help when there is dirty work to be done. But if you’re a consultant, you’d go home. How do you want to be perceived? For people who don’t know what you do, helping out with the dirty work may be the first way to earn a positive reputation, or to make that first friend or two.
  • Pretending you have power.  Most specialists play advisory roles. They give advice. There is nothing wrong with being an advice giver. The challenge in being an advice giver means the critical skill for success is persuasion and sales. You need to be an expert at selling your ideas. To pretend that you don’t need to sell your ideas, is to pretend you have power. Advice givers should be evaluated heavily on how much of their advice is followed. Giving advice is easy. Getting people to follow it is where your value is.
  • Ignore possible allies. Among your co-workers, one of them loves you the most (or hates you the least). If you are not enlisting them to support your requests, or give you feedback you’re ignoring your possible allies.
  • Vulcan pretension. There are deeply embedded value systems among designers and researchers that are self destructive. For research, its Vulcan: “I research, analyze, and produce data. I do not offer my own opinion ever.” But everyone else does give opinions, and in many cases the opinion of a researcher is more valuable.  Researchers should say feel comfortable saying “This is not based on data, but I think…” which protects the integrity of data, but allows them to offer opinions just as everyone else does.
  • Dionysian pretension. For designers, its the dreamer mentality as an excuse for not having to do the thinking required to make an idea real. “I just come up with ideas for things, its not my job to figure out how to make it work.” This is related to never getting your hands dirty, as all ideas have dirty work required to make them real that must be done, and if the person coming up with an idea does not participate in the process, it demotivates everyone else from wanting to follow that idea.
  • Don’t know the business.  Everyone should know why they have a job. Who decided to hire a UX person instead of another developer? What argument did they make? Find out. Find out how the company makes money and which kinds of decisions are likely to make profits grow.  Having a better UX doesn’t guarantee anything: many market leading products are UX disasters. How can this be? If you don’t know how that’s possible, then you don’t understand how many other factors beyond  UX are involved in your business.

Advice Summary

  • Earn credibility in your culture on your culture’s terms.
  • Make it easy / fun to follow your advice.
  • Design for your developers/managers, as they are the first users of your work.
  • Have something at stake
  • Consider switching to a role with power
  • Seek powerful allies
  • Get out of your office and drop your ego
  • Follow the money

Notes from the Q&A after my talk

Thanks to Emily Cunningham  (@emahlee), here are some questions and answers from the audience.

How do you become credible? (Audience question)

  • Ask your best ally (who is not in your job role) that question.
  • Don’t always change the conversation in meetings to ask the same question you always ask. You’ve become a UX robot, always saying one of the same 3 things.
  • Saying the same things over again and again, but not affecting change isn’t helping anyone.
  • Know and be aware of “what conversation are we having?” for each meeting (tip from audience)

Good Project Managers empower the people in their team. But good project managers are rare.

How do we educate our co-workers of our value?

  • Start on their terms. How do you solve a problem they need solved? (Ideally using your special skills, but being useful at all is a better start than being non-useful but a “design expert”)
  • Most people have no idea what you do. Part of your job will always be to give the intro talk about your profession.
  • You can’t do it en masse so divide and conquer:
    • Ask your co-worker, “I’d like to talk to you about what I do so I can get your feedback on what I’m doing.” The next meeting you’ll have one more person (hopefully) on board and who understands what you do.

People want data (observation from audience member)

  • Data gives you credibility.
  • Video clips give you credibility.
  • Anyone can go capture video of the product being used.

Pay attention to how decisions get made:

  • What data works? Is it numbers? Stories? Who yells the loudest?
  • Are you sure decisions are made in meetings, and not in private discussions?
  • Does the VP always make the decisions? Who do you know who has the ear of the decision maker?
  • Seek informal channels – Conversation at people’s desks, or over coffee.

Another Mistake: Never Make It Easy

  • Designers have multiple users along the way, for instance, developers who get our wireframes, with color codes, pixel sizes, or CSS they can reuse, are happy developers.
  • Developers are always busy juggling 9 things they need to get done.
  • Set it up so the devs get some reward every time they work on your design. What positive reinforcement of the behaviors you want do you provide?

Film analogy and design decisions

  • Film has hundreds of people working on it. But there are only a few people who have enormous power.  Out of 500 people, maybe six or seven people have power over the creative direction of the film.
  • Amazon and Microsoft’s designs are an “averaging out” of many people’s input.  (This goes back to the earlier point that design expertise is weighted less than dev expertise).

When there are smart, confident people working on things they are passionate about, there’s going to be unavoidable messiness. There is no ideal team where everything goes smoothly and every decision is contention free.

Inspire people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

  • There’s a thin line between being inspiring and being a jerk. One person’s inspiration is another person’s annoyance. The most inspiring thing a person can do is to work hard on problems they care about that align with what the team cares about, share that work with others, gracefully take feedback, and continually produce.

Related Posts:

What do you think we missed? Leave a comment.

14 Responses to “The top mistakes UX designers make”

  1. Joe McCarthy

    Thanks for posting this thorough write-up (and to Emily for taking such good notes)!

    My favorite observation from your talk: “When there are smart, confident people working on things they are passionate about, there’s going to be unavoidable messiness.”

    Your film analogy – and the benefits of a power law distribution of influence – reminds me of one of my favorite Kathy Sierra blog posts, on the dumbness of crowds: “blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough”.

  2. Michael Belk

    Great post Scott. The crowd looks very enthusiastic. Passion always bring the best in most of us, but if can cause problems also.

  3. Eric Fehse

    regarding the first (and in my view, most central) mistake you write: “Most training UX people get assumes they are working alone, which is rarely true.” I agree that working alone almost never happens. But I wonder what’s wrong with UX education if it lets people assume they are going to work alone. User Experience Design is almost by definition a highly collaborative occupation, involving the prospective users and other stakeholders in every step of the process. Are current UX degree programs really focusing on the “lone designer” who singlehandedly creates the perfect user interface?
    Just my 2 cents…

    1. Scott Berkun

      At a minimum, any student in a creative field should have a senior project where the student works with people with other degrees, that roughly matches what they will experience in the professional world.

      At CMU, where I studied design, we did a senior project where designers worked with computer science students on team projects, where designers designed, and CS students coded. It was likely the first experience each had working with someone with the other’s training.

      Ideally this kind of experience is paired with coaching about likely problems each faces working with other roles, and how to overcome them.

      Sadly many professors are ill-equipped to lead these courses or do this coaching, as they don’t have much experience dealing with these issues. But there’s no reason they can’t invite professionals to participate in the projects and help mentor and advise students on these dynamics.

  4. Bryan

    Wow, this is amazing. A very thorough level of thought went into this and it’s completely correct. I recognized several points that are issues that were holding me back, but I wasn’t able to identify the root cause well enough to fix them. This write-up will change careers if people pay enough attention to it.

  5. steve42


    This is the best damn article I have EVER read on the link from Smashing Magazine!

    This article applies to not just designers but EVERYONE who finds themselves inserted into a preexisting process/flow.

    This is worthy of being printed and framed, told to your kids at bedtime, the lot!


    Favorite paragraph (paraphrased)
    many market leading products are [insert your specialty here] disasters. How can this be? If you don’t know how that’s possible, then you don’t understand how many other factors beyond [your specialty] are involved in your business.

  6. Haical Ab

    Thank you to great article.
    good attitude when talk with team will be helpful to make our design goal successful. Yes easy to give the idea but it’s hard to make it real even that just to help to make it works.

    if I’m not wrong the UX designer should be good to have experience it self for print design or code CSS/HTML. Just to make sure the Idea will be easy to implement to real system when they send to developer to build it.



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