Defeating Fear to Become a Great UX Designer

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Fear comes in a variety of forms for UX designers. For some, fear of failure or rejection stand out the most. Others spend more time worrying about having too much work to do or learning that their ideas aren’t as good as they thought. There’s also the fear of being held accountable for outcomes and the overriding fear of being fired.

For UX designers, fear can be particularly dangerous because it leads to passivity. Even if the designers themselves aren’t afraid to innovate and experiment with new and disruptive ideas, there may be stakeholders involved who make decisions based on fear and anxiety.

Fear and the Status Quo Bias

There is a concept in psychology called status quo bias that argues people have a tendency to resist change and prefer the familiar over the new. Research has repeatedly shown that losing something inflicts more psychological harm than gaining something provides pleasure. Of course, we don’t need too much data to understand this intuitively; every language is full of idioms and truisms that relate to this idea (“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the road” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”).

Status quo bias is responsible for much of our fear about change. We not only fear changing what has proven to work, but also changing things that don’t work in the first place simply we worry that the alternative might be worse. No one wants to look foolish for trying something different, even if everyone knows something needs to be done.

Overcoming this bias for the familiar is a huge challenge for UX designers. Not only must they overcome their own inherent fear of the unknown, but also find ways to convince other people that a new idea is worth the risk.

Finding out what doesn’t work is often even more valuable than finding out what does work

Find the Right Data

One of the primary ways UX designers can defeat fear is by basing their ideas for change on solid data. With well-researched data in hand, they can innovate with confidence, knowing that their decisions are more than just guesses in the dark. Having that information readily available also makes it easier to convince stakeholders that proposed ideas are worth taking a chance on.

While quantitative data is important for evaluating consumer behavior, many of the big UX questions draw upon more qualitative data. The insights gathered from this information often allow designers to break away from the status quo and create truly disruptive ideas. In order to get that data, UX researchers need to throw out their assumptions about what consumers actually want.

Gathering the right data is all about asking the right kinds of questions. Fortunately, there’s no such thing as a wrong question for a UX designer. In fact, some of the best UX research doesn’t come from questions at all, but rather from careful observation. People aren’t always able to articulate how products or services make them feel, so it often falls to researchers to interpret their behavior to find the answers they’re looking for. While this can present significant challenges for UX researchers, they also have a variety of effective tools and methods that bring valuable insights about potential end users to light.

Champion Positive Failure

Fear is usually driven by the consequences of failure. Most people don’t like being associated with failure because the word itself carries negative connotations. There’s a tendency to regard failure as the opposite of success, but this overlooks the reality that failure is rarely an end point, especially in the design process.

From a more positive standpoint, failure is an important step in an ongoing process of elimination. Finding out what doesn’t work is often even more valuable than finding out what does work. In that respect, failure presents an opportunity to reset goals and expectations. By failing early and often (although hopefully not too often), UX designers can learn when they’re on the wrong track. By acknowledging and sharing those failures, they also avoid falling into the same traps over and over again.

Failure also produces valuable insights. Rapid prototyping focused on getting a minimally viable product into a potential user’s hands as quickly as possible can provide early and definitive feedback that radically reshapes the direction of a project. Preliminary research is important, but oftentimes people don’t actually know whether or not they want something until they experience it firsthand. They may even raise concerns they didn’t realize they had previously. This information can prove incredibly valuable for designers as they work to deliver better outcomes.

Take the Leap

Sooner or later, every UX designer has to make a choice: do they take the safe route or do what they take a chance on ideas they’re passionate about? It’s certainly possible to follow conventional wisdom and deliver outcomes that satisfy clients. In fact, it’s often easier to do this because it avoids conflict and gives the designer something to hide behind if things go wrong.

But this sells the entire concept of UX design short. Disruptive thinking is part of the UX process; shaking up assumptions and pushing the boundaries of possibility are what designers are supposed to do. If designers aren’t willing to take chances, to fight for the creative ideas they have good reason to believe will be successful (or at least become positive failures), then they’re not really engaging in UX design.

Good design is the result of an ongoing, collaborative process of experimentation. It rarely gets things right on the first try, but it also doesn’t become fixated upon a single idea of success. It also doesn’t allow fear to dictate the course of a project. While this can lead to some uncomfortable conversations, good designers find ways to justify their decisions and put themselves in a position to advocate for what the feel is the right decision.

Even if it fails…this time.

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