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Empathy fail: Mistakes UX designers make

In “The top mistakes UX designers make: the writeup,” Scott Berkun shares common errors about culture and attitude that designers and user researchers make. Sadly, most of the mistakes seemed to result when we fail to have empathy for our colleagues. The following summarizes just a few of Berkun’s points that I found particularly interesting and distressingly familiar:

  • Never make it easy: Berkun notes that we fail to make usability usable and often become the “UX police,” a hostile role that no one appreciates. We are trained to function as lone practitioners rather than learning the skills to be full members of teams that we more often work in. We need to make the effort to fit into the organization culture.
  • Forget your coworkers are meta-users: Related to the previous point, we deliver what we do in formats that are hard to consume and put to use and often omit the kinds of details that our development colleagues need.Image of dartboard with the dart almost off the edge
  • Vulcan pretension: A failing of research is to insist that we should only ever offer data and never our opinions. However, we have insights to offer that may come over the course of our work, so we should be comfortable offering our opinions, distinguishing them from data, where they make a valuable contribution.
  • Dionysian pretension: This is the design corollary to the Vulcan pretension. Berkun defines it as “the dreamer mentality as an excuse for not having to do the thinking required to make an idea real.”
  • Don’t know the business: We need to keep in mind the company goals and business drivers. “Having a better UX doesn’t guarantee anything: many market leading products are UX disasters.” We need to understand all the factors that lead to or divert from success for the company.

After identifying these mistakes, Berkun advises the following to correct them:

  • 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

Berkun presented this at the Puget Sound SIGCHI meeting in January, and the Q&A from that meeting is included in his post. A valuable point from that discussion:

“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.”

Since most of the listed errors happen when we fail to empathize with our colleagues, a first step to moving past the messiness as well as for following Berkun’s advice is to recognize our teammates’ needs in the same way we strive to understand the people who will use our products. Indeed, Berkun notes that they are our “first users,” relying on our work to do theirs. We must see things from their points of view and endeavor to provide real value to them from our contributions to the team.

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