Humble Product Design

Get to a better product by getting over yourself.


This is a slightly tweaked version of an article I wrote for UX Magazine several years ago.


“Rockstar designers wanted: apply within! Do you have that rare combination of godlike talent, relentless drive, and the epic portfolio to prove it? Then join our team. We promise not to drag you down or hold you back. You’ll only work with folks who truly ‘get it,’ and on projects that give you the prestige you need to build your personal brand and land that next great gig when it’s time to move on!”

Now, before anyone gets too excited, please note that yes, this is a fake job post! But I want to suggest that it’s not too far off from where things are headed—and that’s not a good thing.

Since when did rockstar status become a prerequisite for employment in our field?

Let’s consider this notion of the “rockstar” designer. Since when did rockstar status become a prerequisite for employment in our field? Is this really a helpful concept? A quick scan of services like Dribbble and Behance suggests a strong tendency to fetishize craft in our industry. This can lead to (superficially, at least) beautiful work, but it can also distract us from what’s really important about what we do and how to do it well.

Focusing on so-called rockstar designers propagates what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “talent myth,” where finding and nurturing star talent becomes a primary way to outperform and ultimately beat the competition. As Gladwell points out, this approach is no guarantee of success, and in actual practice has often led to downfall.

Moreover, when attracting individual talent is a primary competitive differentiator, chronic churn is inevitable. According to preliminary results from the 49 Pixels Project (a “report on Canada’s digital media workforce”), almost 60% of digital media professionals have had their current job for 3 years or less, and over 25% have been in their present position for less than a year.

Escaping to a better job with bosses, co-workers, and other stakeholders who finally “get it” can be an appealing, though often elusive, prospect. But could it be that our collective frustration says more about us than those who are supposedly holding us back? For example, presumably people “got it” when they sought out our creative services and we jumped on board in the first place. And yet we often struggle when it comes to working in a cooperative mode.

Finally, we can see a pervasive—and for some, almost compulsive—preoccupation with building our own personal brands. Social media gives designers the means to promote and project their exceptional selves out into the world, but even within personal networks, seeking out credit and recognition can become a full-time job. Taken to an extreme, these pursuits lead to resentment, distrust, eccentric turf wars and exaggerated claims that consume energy and help no one. (Though, they can make for good comedic fodder.)

It’s time to confront some of the dysfunctional norms and biases that have snuck into our industry: in particular, tendencies towards egocentricity, entitlement, and even narcissism.

Let me pause here and be the first to admit that I’m as implicated in all of this as much as anyone else. At the same time, one of the coolest things about the UX design community is our ability to learn collectively and spur one another on. So it’s in this spirit that I’d like to approach the idea of better design through humility.

Humble product design may have a nice ring to it, but to get beyond platitudes we need to be prepared to work against a powerful cultural current. High self-regard and even narcissistic behavior is not only accepted, but encouraged as a necessary ingredient for success in our competitive landscape. But studies show that these patterns tend to backfire as they lead to overconfidence, excessive risk-taking, resistance to learning, and relational conflict (see The Narcissism Epidemic for a fascinating discussion of this evidence).

When it comes to designing great products, cultivating a humble approach is absolutely essential. The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong.

Humility is about knowing what you don’t know, and when it comes to dynamic, interdependent, multi-platform systems, there are an awful lot of unknowns.

Humility is also about empathizing with the people who use our designs. This is particularly important when we set out to motivate and shape behavioral, perceptual, and emotional habits and patterns. Finally, humility is about working cooperatively with others in ways that challenge singular authorship and allow us to create experiences that can truly have an impact.

So how do we get better at humble product design? Here are three suggestions:

  1. First, set yourself up for consistent, honest, and open critical feedback. This can come in many forms and from different sources, ranging from co-workers and clients to users and actual performance indicators. True feedback can be painful because it jumps past all of the care and cleverness we put into our design decisions and focuses relentlessly on the outcome. Avoiding or ignoring feedback can be tempting, but don’t do it! Don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn about your own limitations, to create something that’s bigger than yourself, and to ultimately grow as a result.
  2. Second, embrace collaboration as a core part of your design process. Without a doubt, the best work of my career has been done in the context of an intensely collaborative process. This means giving up control and undiluted credit in order to gain a broader, more grounded perspective. As the products we design connect into a complex world, working closely with external stakeholders in a participatory way becomes crucial. This will require a more deliberate and facilitated, less ad-hoc engagement model grounded in trust.
  3. And third, build up others in order to enrich everyone’s experience and succeed collectively. It can be tricky to work at being more humble through self-regulation because this requires focus on oneself, which is often the problem in the first place! So focus instead on those around you who are in your sphere of influence. What are their natural strengths and how can they flourish? How can you help them succeed and look good? Imagine a work environment where this kind of dynamic was built into the core culture.

Is it possible that our success as designers depends not only on how we design things—the ideas, processes and methodologies we employ—but also who we are as designers and the values we share? As the UX and product design field continues to evolve and mature, we have an incredible opportunity to help make meaningful things and put them out into the world. Humble product design is about getting over ourselves and focusing on what’s really important: our teammates, our customers and the people we design for and with everyday.