The 5 stages of design grief — and dealing with them

One fine day, I came across an idea for the perfect solution to a problem that has been bugging the company for a while. I went all out on it in “Ocean’s Eleven” style - laying out the plan of research, analysis, brainstorming, ‘wireframing’ and the works. In the end, I created a design framework which I was confident would make a particular task easier for the users.

I presented the concept to all the stakeholders concerned; everyone was on board with it, and it was included in the roadmap. After the usual round of coding, testing and pixel perfection, the new design was released to the audience. I kept my eyes on the data for the next few days, looking for signs of positive change as a result of the new design.

To my consternation, the usage patterns & data were showing the exact opposite of what I expected. People noticed the new design and understood its utility, but they tried it only once, and then continued using the previous approach to perform this task. In short, they did not follow the path I had expected them to take after the new framework was introduced.

To me, it felt like my ‘grand plan’ was falling apart to pieces, like all of Wile E Coyote’s plans.


When you put so much thought and effort into a design, and it backfires in your face big time, you tend to go through the 5 stages of design grief.

Denial

“I’m certain it’s just a hiccup. My plan’s so good, it’s just that people haven’t tried it out properly.”

Anger

“I definitely had made very clear flows and rules for the design. Someone’s screwed up somewhere, that’s for sure. I will go and give the product manager an earful… when the time is right.”

Bargaining

Me: “Hey man! Something’s not working out. Let’s try this way — surely things will improve...”

Him: “Nopes. We can’t push to production now. Wait a couple of weeks.”

Me: “Pretty please… with sugar on it. Just this one thing.. ok?”

Depression

“Nothing’s working out. Everything I’ve learnt so far has come to naught. Design may not be for me, after all…”

Acceptance

“Ok fine. I’ll take another look at the whole thing, and see where things went wrong. Maybe it isn’t so bad as I thought. ”


Dealing with the aftermath

I had worked on this project at a relatively early stage of my design career. Since then I have had a lot of time to reflect on what went wrong and how to avoid these mistakes in future. I was able to use my humbling experience to shape my future design projects, which are now more aligned with the business requirements and goals set in the roadmap and are delivering the intended results.

I am sharing some of my learnings, for anyone trying to figure out how to deal with such a project ‘crisis’ (of sorts).

1. There’s no right or wrong in design

I was too affected by this project, given that I had put a lot of thought and hard work into the design. Eventually, it struck me that what made sense to me did not seem so to the other stakeholders, who evidently saw the design from an altogether different angle. I was actually on the right track regarding my design, but was not able to articulate the plan in a way understood by others.

Flesh out your final design with a prototype and test it with users. Run user-research to get feedback from people who’ll actually use it - see if it works and fits their mental model.

Iterate till you get it right, & then hand-off to the other stakeholders with a documentation of your observations from user testing.

2. Involve other stakeholders early in design

To avoid the gaffe presented in previous point, it’s always a good idea to show your progress to the other co-workers who’ll be involved in the project. You can benefit from some of their views, in particular the limitations & constraints they could face when making your designs live.

In addition, it pays to get feedback from our peers in the design team, even if they are not involved in the project. Our fellow designers can open up new avenues for your project, which you might have overlooked or not thought of before.

3. Use data to lend credibility to your design

I had used data for my own purposes in this project, but had not thought to take it further during my interactions with the other stakeholders.

Always document the current data for the product you are working on. By conveying the possible impact of your proposed solution in the form of numbers, you can get other stakeholders to align with your design goals and avoid any confusion or misunderstanding on what the end result should be.

Here’s an example of using data to drive your design presentation. Do not make up numbers, and you must be able to clarify how you arrived at the final figures.

22% of the users use this feature for performing this action, leading to a 18% conversion rate. By introducing this concept to supplement the current action item, we can look at a 6% increase in number of users, leading to a 27% conversion rate.”

4. Always look at the big picture

I was so focused on doing my work, that I did not realize how the design and execution would impact other moving parts of the product. I came to understand how things changed, when using my design for an actual use case, and immediately noticing what users would have to go through when using it.

It is imperative to have a holistic view of the entire product and how your solution will fit in the scheme of things.

By doing so, this reduces the chances of a negative impact on conversion, should things go down south. Be prepared, always!

5. Know your role as a designer

“Design is what ships in the end, not the sketch files.” Our responsibility as a designer doesn’t end with hand-off to the developers; it goes all the way till the product is live in the best form possible, and even beyond that. We need to keep a constant eye on how the final solution is performing, and spotting incremental areas to improve upon as the product runs its course.

Iteration is a very crucial part of design, be it before release or after release of the product. No solution is ever good enough, and there’s always scope to improve upon your design later on.

You can make your design process a mix of proactivity (trying a new approach) with reactivity (using existing user insights & data) to elevate the current solution to a better one.

6. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not OK to repeat it.

When we end up with something that doesn’t work out the intended way, we should scrutinise the reasons for this and have a frank discussion with the other people on how to rectify this. If we choose to let sleeping dogs lie and go on to the next project, it could snowball into a bad user experience for the rest of the product unintentionally.

Design is very contextual, and there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. It is always about learning and unlearning a lot of things, trying to do the right things at the right time.

Document your learnings, and share it with the rest of the company. Make people aware of the shortcomings in the product, and encourage them to give ideas for corrective action. I make it a point to be open to everyone’s ideas, but use my best judgment and gut feeling to decide the next course of action for my project.


I will admit that there’s a lot more work for me to do as a designer, but following these steps has helped me maintain my composure under pressure and be able to be more effective and efficient in subsequent projects. If you have any more ideas on how to deal with a project that didn’t work out well for you, please do leave a comment below.

A huge thanks to Gaurav Mathur and HV Pandya for their suggestions and reviews. Some of their insights and learnings have been added in this article.

You can follow me on twitter here.

Like what you read? Give Prasanna Venkatesh a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.