Playing The Right Role in UX

When to Lead, Listen, and Learn

As designers, it is often our responsibility to be the voice of reason in the room. We are the ones who advocate for the user while adhering to business requirements and stakeholder desires. We are often torn and tugged, caught playing various roles that may or may not be part of our job description. As we move through our projects, client meetings, design sprints, and user tests, it is important to remember what role we are playing at each given time. Compartmentalizing our design hats, while also pulling from our wide array of knowledge, is definitely easier said than done. Reflecting on this problem space, I identified a few areas where we can turn our awareness in order to be the best design voice in any situation.

  1. Recognize your bias

Everyone has personal biases from their education, experiences, surroundings, personality, etc. These biases are what influence our decisions and actions, for better or for worse. As much as the job of the designer in research mode is to decipher human behaviours in a particular context in order create the best suited experiences for the end user, it is also their duty to detect and acknowledge how their own biases may limit their creativity.

Knowing your tendencies and perceptions will allow you to identify the areas where you can help, or hinder, a process. Having a strong belief in an area where you consider yourself an expert could be helpful, but may also prevent creative thinking if you do not allow yourself to be receptive and open to all other commentary, even the statements that seem totally unreasonable. In approaching every project and situation under the guise of a novice, you open yourself to gathering all opinions and bringing them together using your expertise rather than blocking certain opinions out.

No matter how well versed you are in a particular area, understanding how a third party can support your design is critical to the process. The creator of a product or service is never the best person to critique the work. The true, unbiased person is the one who will be using the product or service, and, more importantly, has no emotional attachment or business requirements: the user. Asking the end user what and how they think enables unbiased criticism and quantifiable data to design the best possible solution. The Research is your unbiased third party. It is your ammunition when confronted with design criticism. If the client does not agree your design, start your sentence with something like “the research shows…” and see if they can’t be persuaded.

2. Apply your knowledge

Being an expert isn’t being the stuffy, pompous designer who thinks their word is supreme. Being an expert is an aggregate of honed skills that allows you to accomplish superior quality work in an efficient way. It’s all about applying your expertise in the right way, at the right time.

The true art of being an expert is knowing when to lead, and when to listen. It is always good to start as a listener, accumulating all the context, depth, and personality of a project and its people. Then, when you’ve learned the lay of the land, you can assume your leadership role. Whether its delegating, advising, designing, or any combination, applying your expertise once you have established a foundation will prevent errors, miss-communication, and miss-information.

As in any iterative design process, there is an ebb and flow of listening and leading. Just because you have finished the Research Phase or the Stakeholder Meeting, that does not mean you abandon your listening skills and shut down any future ideas or impressions. A good leader is always prepared and open to absorb the thoughts of other and consider them when making any decision.

3. Seek inspiration

Design is not a stagnant art. As new products, systems, and services emerge, design must adapt to new layouts, technical constraints, and contextual structures. In order to continue to evolve, opening your mind to seeing inspiration in your everyday routine will go a long way in your designs.

If you are designing a user interface (UI), do not underestimate the power of movement. A simple page can be brought to life through motion and transitions. Even the DIY website builders like Wordpress are integrating transition options that make for a more pleasurable and immersive experience. When seeking inspiration, take the time to familiarize yourself with the concept of motion, so that you can think past the static page and bring a deeper level of design to the “concepting” phase.

Use technology to your advantage. There are so many resources and groups available online it can be overwhelming, however, surrounding yourself with inspiration and people to support you embeds a sense of security in your process. Knowing where to look and who to talk to increases efficiency and gets you out of sticky, messy problems, or avoids them all together! It is far too easy to get lost in your own thoughts and designs. Having a sounding board, whether in person or through other examples, allows you the peace of mind to design with confidence.

Here are some examples of tools in technology I have recently found:

  1. Design communities on Slack

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve really been appreciating Slack and the online “channels” of people, namely designers. Not only does our office use Slack to communicate between Toronto and Ottawa, but I also found a fantastic group called DesignX full of designers looking to connect, share, and support each other. It’s a great way to discovery events, and make connections.

2. Muzli Internet Plug-in

A tool I discovered a little while ago is a plug-in called Muzli, by InVision. It puts interesting design tidbits right on your Chrome Homepage. You can skim the pictures or dig in to the content without having to jump to all your fav design websites. If you don’t have a list of design websites, it gives you that, too!

3. Conference & Events

These days, an event can be as big as a conference, or as small as a FaceBook Live video. Although conferences provide the most immersive experience, they are the most costly and time consuming. It can never hurt to ask your boss about attending a conference as part of your continued learning, they just might send you or sponsor the event. If a free ride via work isn’t an option, check out volunteer opportunities. That’s what I did for my first year going to CanUX when I was just finishing school, and now I’m super pumped to be attending for the third year in a row as DetourUX is sponsoring the event (shameless plug, but seriously, this is a well-run, inspirational event, and I encourage you to check in out!).

If you don’t have the budget for a conference and can’t get a volunteer gig, webinars are another, often free option (again, Invision does this well and frequently). If you want something more “in-person”, there are plenty of local design groups that have an evening talk series for a small fee. While many of the “cheap” options like webinars can be repetitive or lack detail, they always provide an opportunity for working on those “listening before leading” skills. Taking advantage of all the free “stuff” online, whether it’s a webinar, google hangout, or Facebook Live chat, allows you to take a step back and just listen without feeling the need to solve the problem. It’s a great way to practice awareness of your opinions and biases, as well as offering the potential to uncover novelty in a subject you thought you knew.

To wrap it up

If you are passionate about problem solving and optimizing your practice, you will constantly want to hone your skills and sharpen your senses. The beauty of design is that it can be found everywhere, in everything. All it takes is a shift in perspective to recognize your biases, apply your knowledge in a helpful way, and constantly seek inspiration.

Looking for inspiration? Here are some website I love:


Design Articles & Resources: