Designers: stay sensitive

Adapting a company culture to make room for design is no small feat. It starts with things needing to look good, but the real change culturally is in putting emotions in the room. Things have to feel good. More importantly, things have to feel good for different kinds of people in different situations. People different to us, with needs, motivations and pains that we cannot conceive unless we have empathy for them. Being sensitive is required. Sensitivity is a superpower, and is a major pre-requisite for empathy.

Company cultures have typically been uncomfortable with any show of emotion, especially strong emotions like joy or sadness being freely shown or experienced in the workplace. Being in a leadership position in many places still today means dampening down your feelings, and keeping a pokerface. If you show emotion in these positions, you run a high risk of being dismissed as weak. If people perceive you as being weak, they may be less likely to see you as a leader. This obviously is a complete sham. It keeps the leadership ranks full of people afraid of emotion, which is pretty dangerous if what you want is great design.

Good designers are switched on, excellent at the craft, and highly empathetic. They have very different values and traits compared to engineers for example, and business people. That’s not to say that anyone is right, wrong or better…just different. What is problematic is designers being asked to tone down their emotions.


You can feel angry when the design isn’t up to snuff, and you can feel disappointed if you didn’t get to weigh in, you can cry because sometimes it’s hard and that helps, and you can laugh loudly and have a little dance…just because. Being in touch and comfortable with your own emotions keeps you sensitive enough to have empathy. It’s not something you just switch on for user research sessions. It’s all the time, because you’re human.

To complicate matters, not everyone wears their emotions on their sleeve and not everyone experiences emotion in the same way. Some people grew up in environments where “keeping a stiff upper lip” and “getting over it” were the main ways of dealing with any kind of strong emotion. This means that you have adults who have no idea how to deal with having a strong feeling.

When something is sad or you’re angry, it’s only negative if you have no idea what to do with the emotion. If you know that being sad is a great way to connect to others, and that anger can be a great source of energy if you harness it well…then you’re going places. If not, then you’re likely to be avoiding feeling any of these things, especially at work. They will make you feel vulnerable. Work should be somewhere where it’s ok to feel like that. It’s a good thing. It allows you to connect to others. Brenee Brown’s now famous talk on ‘The Power of Vulnerability” is a great introduction to the topic.

So that we can design software that is beyond functional requirements we have to feel what it’s like to experience various things through the perspectives of different people. This is super tough. You don’t just look at a mockup and go “Larry would feel awkward about that interaction. It would make him question the purchase and he would feel guilty about spending the money.” You have to step into character and feel your way through this, through his eyes. If you’re not sensitive enough you’re going to find this very hard, and that’s how we get clumsy design decisions.

Designers: keep strong — stay sensitive. Bring emotions into your workplaces, and be prepared to educate. Show that it’s possible to be sensitive, resilient and successful…all at the same time. Don’t go changing on us, we need you as leaders.

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