More of You and Less of Me: Better Design Through Humility

Knowledge / Inspiration

More of You and Less of Me: Better Design Through Humility

Continuous Design
UXDX Community USA Series: UX Process 2022

Your team could spend years crafting and adapting the most effective design process imaginable. However, no matter how tried and true your process may become, it will always fall short of your best work if it lacks one key element: humility. When designers build their process on a foundation of humility—elevating the needs, perspectives, and gifts of others above their own—we will finally produce the kind of work that truly makes us proud. But practicing humility can be hard to do in our fast-paced, results-driven, me-centered industries. In this talk, we'll begin by exploring how me-centered thinking can infiltrate our design process, concluding with a self-evaluation. We'll then continue to see how humility can transform the way we research, ideate, and design. Finally, we'll walk away with practical steps on how you and your team can introduce humble, human-centered decision making into each step of your design process.

All right. Well, thank you all so much. Yes. My name is Tyler Edwards. I am the senior designer at PIXO in Urbana, Illinois. So we're a software consultancy who specializes in creating websites and apps and systems that put people first, very simply said. It is an absolute pleasure to spend this time with you all today. So thank you so much for your willingness to have me and for your willingness to spend this time with us. This is wonderful.

So today, we're going to be talking about what I believe is the most critical attribute of an effective design process. And it's not better software and it's not Scrum or Agile and it's not a new kind of design system. And those are all great facets. But it's far more foundational than any tool or technique we could adopt. And it's humility. It's humility. And now you might hear that and think like, okay, sure. Thank you. I was maybe looking for something a little new, a little more practical, but I guess this is fine. Okay. But hear me out.

This topic grew out of an effort to define our own design process at PIXO. We wanted to answer the question of how can we do our best work more consistently? What makes our process most impactful? And the deeper we dug into these questions, the more we uncovered this common thread that all of our best work that we had done on all of our projects, all of it has been directly connected to the amount of humility that we employed on the project. When we had shifted our mindset from being me centered to others centered, our work would radically, radically improve.

I believe this is true for all of us, whether you're a UX designer or a visual designer or an engineer or a project manager or anyone else on a team like ours, incorporating humility into your process is the key to doing your best work. So when we build our design process on a foundation of humility, when we elevate the needs and the perspectives and the gifts of others above our own, we will produce the kind of work that truly makes us proud.

So here's what we're going to do with our time together this afternoon. We're going to start with an understanding of what I mean by humility and why it matters. Then we'll talk about how me centered thinking has actually been hardwired into our professional lives from even a very young age. And then we'll follow up with a quick evaluation just to see how pervasive it is in our roles today. And then finally, I'll offer some just some practical suggestions for how you can introduce others centered thinking into your own process. And we'll use our pixel design process as a roadmap. We do that. So let's get started. N

ow, when we hear that word humility, I think many of us equate it with having maybe a low view of yourself, right? Like it may be considered humble to think little of your strengths or your position or even your value as a team member. But it's not quite right. You see, true humility, it's not a diminishing of your capabilities. It's actually a recognition of your inabilities. You do have many strengths. You are a worthy and equal member of your team. That's true. And at the same time, you are not the end all be all source of success, right? You know, you're only a piece of the puzzle. If we're going to work in humility as as professionals as UX designers, visual designers, as whomever, then we must see how dependent we truly are on the people around us. That's the heart of humility. It's acknowledging our great need. It is an all encompassing focal shift from ourselves to the people around us from being me centered to other centered.

You're gonna hear me talk about that a lot being me centered to others centered. So do this with me. Think about your own team for a second. Think about them as a body. If UX is the bones and designers are the skin and engineers are the organs, then it would be pretty foolish of you, say the designer, to say, no, thanks, body. I don't need your help. Of course you do. You're just a pile of skin without the rest of your team. And that may seem obvious, right? Of course I need my team. I'm not a developer or a project manager. I'm a designer. I can't do what they do. I do what I do. Right. But if we insist on doing what we do in a vacuum without inviting input and critique and collaboration, then we will inevitably sabotage the entire process. Me centered design elevates the priority of your own contribution as it minimizes the work of everyone else. You'll come out of every project with great wire frames or great mock ups, but just a lousy product. And that's just your team.

What about the people you're designing a product for? The end user, the audience. You know, when we work out of a me centered mindset, we completely cut the most critical voices out of the equation. We believe that our expertise is sufficient when they're the real experts, right? They're the ones who can offer the most valuable input from the very beginning. Wilma was just talking about this in her talk. They're the ones who will use your product long after you finish building it. And when we design without consent, we're the ones who will be able to do that. And when we design without considering their needs, their experiences and the overall impact our work may have on their lives, and we're going to we're going to miss the mark every single time. So when I design out of a me centered mindset, the truth is, I'm only designing for me. And I've said this a lot in the past, but what I do as a visual designer, I'm painting pictures when I do this and I'm painting pictures for the for the great gallery of my own design achievements. Now, I could care less about how positive of an impact it may have on the lives of others or how I might lift up the talents of my team. I'm only concerned with what others think about me.

The fact is, we've been hardwired with a me centered mindset from our youth. This is deeply ingrained in each of us. As a kid, there I am as a kid, I was at the center of the universe, right? I was the main character of the story. And when it came to the thoughts and the plans I had for my future, like many of you, I was consistently asked the question like, well, hey, what do you want to be when you grow up? You know, what are you going to accomplish? What kind of future will make you most happy? All aspects of life had me constantly preparing for the kind of career that would ultimately define and fulfill me. And that was equally true in college. You know, I went to school for graphic design where every project I worked on had me functioning as the only team member and the client and the audience, which mean me. And it was always my vision from the beginning to the end. And so we work our whole young lives towards a career with this emphasis on me.

Then all of a sudden, we get hired to work alongside others, being informed by others, creating things for others, asking questions of others. And it's truly incredibly jarring. And I'll tell you, my heart just aches. When I consider all of the effort I poured into elevating and guarding my reputation as a professional designer over these past 15 years. So if we're going to effectively introduce humility into our own process, we have to first acknowledge that me centered thinking and how it pervades our own lives currently. We need to reckon with the influence of the me centered world around us.

So this is what we're going to do real quick. We're going to take a quick test to probe our own me centered tendencies here. So I'm going to put these questions up on the screen, read them out loud to you to consider. There's just four A or B questions. And if you got some notes pulled up, maybe try and just jot down your answers and we'll see how you fare in the end. So you ready? This is real quick. Let's do this together.

So when working on, I say design, when you're working on wireframes, you're really working on anything. Do you invite people in to regularly critique your work or do you wait until everything is just right before you share it with others?

OK, next one. When researching a future project, do you speak with potential users to understand their needs or do you rely on your own experience and your own understanding for direction?

Do you consider your client or the stakeholders to be an ally, someone to partner with or someone who will most likely get in the way?

Then when you receive critical feedback, do you take it as an opportunity to improve yourself and your work or do you throw a fit and determine all of the reasons why they are wrong?

All right. How do we do? Do we have more A's or more B's? If you found yourself with more B answers, that's great. We're definitely we're confronting some real, you know, me-centered patterns there, but I'm so glad you chose to be honest with yourself. If you have all A's, then I'm afraid that you need to humble yourself and think again. I am joking, but I'm confident we're not hitting the home runs here, right? I know I'm not. So now that we've got a better understanding of how pervasive this me-centered thinking can be, how can we practically keep others at the center of our work as design professionals?

So here's what we'll do with the rest of our time. We're going to walk through PIXO's own design process. And with each phase, I'll share some thoughts and some practices we typically utilize to help us keep others at the center of our work. Now, PIXO, our process consists of four D's. Discover, define, design, develop. Pretty simple. I'm sure you've got something like this as well.

So we'll begin with discover. So at the very beginning of each project, our team works really hard to learn all that we can. Who's the client? What are their goals? How are they represented? How are they represented visually? Who's the audience? What are their needs? So on and so forth. We become students asking every question we can, leaving no stone unturned. So how do we work to keep others at the center of that discovery phase?

First, we direct all of those questions towards actual people and not just any people, but the people at the heart of the project. Again, Wilma was just hitting at this and I really love what she had to share. But big picture, we'll schedule a kickoff meeting for the whole team to engage with the client and the stakeholders at large. We establish weekly meetings to continue our discussion and lay a foundation of trust. We make plans for each of those meetings to include some kind of exploratory activity like messaging card sorts and design inventories. We conduct interviews. We ask the client to clearly define the audience and direct us towards members of that audience that we can actually speak with.

Now, as the designer, specifically as the visual designer, it is my immediate temptation to disengage from the discovery phase. I'm just here to kick out mockups, right? And absolutely not. That's a me-centered mentality. Rather, we as designers must walk alongside our content strategists, our UX designers, our researchers as they do the hard work of research. We need to ask to participate in their interviews with audience members, be an observer at each activity and listen intently to the conversations they're having.

Here's my other me-centered tendency in the discovery phase. I'm quick to assume that my eye for design is far better than the client's. I can whip up something from my own imagination without their input and it'll be right on target. Don't even worry about it. But that's absolutely untrue. I am just now entering this project where they've had a vision for this product for months, if not years. It's my job to help materialize what they already visualize. So we must conduct activities that help the client communicate their vision in a visual way.

So one activity that we like to use is we call it the gut test. So in this activity, we invite a diverse group of people from the organization to review 15 to 20 different examples of designs, say if it's a website, designs from around the web. And with each example, we ask our participants to answer the question, how accurately does this design represent your vision for the new website?

So we'll send out an online survey with the images to gather their thoughts. And then we'll have this follow-up discussion with the entire group to review the results. And this is always such an eye-opening activity. I love it. It empowers the client to actually pair pictures with their thoughts. When I say that I want our website to be modern or bold or approachable, this is what I mean right here. So instead of assuming that I know what they mean, they can articulate their vision more precisely.

All right. On the next phase here. This is what we call define. And this is a unique step in the process. It's less of a phase and it's more of a pivot point. When we define, our goal as designers is to synthesize and communicate all we've learned from our research. And then we want to set an initial course for the design itself.

So how do we do that with an others-centered mindset? First, we make the time to share with the client all that we've learned with the discovery findings meeting. So it'd be easy to conduct our research and simply say, like, OK, thanks, we'll take it from here. But how do we know that we're walking away with the right information? So when we share our findings with the client, we ensure that our research is accurate and it's complete. And this is a chance for the experts to call out any inconsistencies or blind spots in our understanding.

Then the other facet of the phase is setting the course for design in collaboration with the client. It is our great temptation as designers to run off with just the first good idea we have and make it a reality. But if we head off in some direction that seems right to us alone, even if it's off by just a few degrees, we'll end up miles away from the client's vision. So we solve this problem at Pixel by using something we call design palettes.

A design palette is just a collage of styles like colors and typography and buttons. And they serve eventually as the visual DNA for the entire product. And so this is very much derived from Samantha Warren's concept of style tiles. And really kind of the same thing, except just a cooler name, I guess. This is a fantastic tool for collaboration as well.

As a designer, I develop three to five of these palettes. Then I work with the client to review each palette and determine which collection is nearing the mark. So together we grab the colors from this palette or the type from this palette and the buttons from this other palette to form a set of styles that the client and I feel best represent their organization and their vision for the product. Once we have our final palette, I can grab my paintbrush and I can just begin designing mockups with confidence, knowing that the perspectives and the desires of others that they've set the course.

OK, finally, we're at the design phase. So how do we as designers sketch and build and specify the design with people at the center? First and foremost, we invite people in. And I'll tell you, I struggled with this for years. When I would design, I was like a train just headed into a long tunnel. I'd entered just a dark tunnel of deep work for about two weeks. And then I'd emerge on the other side with a handful of nearly finished mockups.

But here's the thing. I preferred the tunnel because I didn't want anyone to see my work until it was finished. It wasn't good enough. It wasn't up to my standard of quality. I was afraid to share it. What would others think of me and think of me as a designer? I was guarding my reputation instead of inviting others to help me refine it. I was more concerned about me and less about them. And let me tell you, designer, let people in. Your work is unfinished. It's ugly because it's going to be until it's done. No one looks at a big hole in the ground at a construction site and says, oh, man, that engineer has no idea what they're doing. In fact, the wise engineer says, hey, can you take a look at this hole and make sure it's right? People are going to depend on the building that goes here. And I don't want it to collapse.

We have to die to our pride. You know, that chain inside of us that tethers us to our work, our work and our identity as one, it's got to be torn apart. You are not your design. That is an empty existence. You are a person and there are other people just like you who who stand to benefit from your talents. So use them for their sake, not just your own. Now, how can we do that practically? We do that by holding frequent critiques with fellow designers. Don't wait until it's all finished. The moment you have a rough concept, share it with your team. Invite them to review it with a critical eye. Share your progress with the client. That's right. Even when it's half baked, even if it's quarter baked, if you're feeling unsure about a decision you've made, look to them for their affirmation. I guarantee you the right clients will appreciate it. They'll be more invested because of it.

And then share the design with your engineers, too, as early as possible. Do not wait until it's 100 percent complete and ready for development. Rory was talking about this with the goal of UXDX in the beginning. This is a dismantling of the waterfall. Your design is not 100 percent complete until it's developed. You can't design a website in Figma and call it a website because it's not on the web. I mean, do you want people to be at the center of your design? And we got to invite people in to make decisions with you.

All right. Last one. Final phase of the pixel design process is develop. And when I say develop, I mean that our engineers have assumed the bulk of the work at this point. So the designers are slowly slowing down and creating new things. Wireframes are done. Visual designs are done. And it's transitioning more to a role of reviewer. So how do we maintain an others mindset in the final leg of the process? First, we partner with our engineers. We must remain engaged with our engineers as they turn the design into a real working product. It's our tendency as designers to do what Dan Moll refers to as the dead drop. And so that is we package up our design files, we hook them over the wall to our engineers, and we just hope for the best. Right. Maybe you've done that before.

So we need to schedule regular collaboration sessions where you and your engineers are combing through the working product together. Get familiar with the code yourself and speak in their language. Don't abandon them. Be in it with them. And finally, now that we have a partially working product, we have to invite future users to test it. Go back to those audience members you first interviewed and see what they think. Conduct your user test. See what's working and what's not working from their perspective. Let them critique it and refine it. Remember, it's ultimately for them.

Right. All right. We can catch our breath here for a second. I imagine that was that's a lot to take in. It's a lot and it requires a great deal of hard work, too. This isn't a new tool or a technique to implement. This is a work of personal transformation. This is a rewiring and unlearning. But I promise you, worth it. And listen, I'm not saying this from the summit. You know, I achieved this in full. I am not the divine humble designer here. Not at all. I'm at the base here hoping to change along with you. And I'll end this time with a quote from one of my favorite writers. This is St. Augustine of Hitho. Defining the nature of humility, he gave us this charge. Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plant a tower that will pierce the clouds, lay first the foundation of humility. So thank you so much for your time.

Thank you for listening. My name is Tyler Edwards. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn or head over to our website at Pixotech.com. Thanks for your time.

Rory Madden
Great. Thank you very much, Tyler. So yeah, I didn't answer all A's when you gave me the test. So I have some work to do on my humility.

Tyler
Now, it's real. I find and it's going to be my first question is, I know the concept of early and often sharing and the value. And I know the feeling of, but this is crap right now. And there's no point sharing it because it doesn't get across what I'm trying to get across. So how do you like, I know you're saying share it, but I'm always kind of still saying, oh, well, I'll just do a little bit more because it's so crap now that I have to get it a little bit better before I share it.

Rory
What's your tips for people like me?

Tyler
That's a good question. Certainly immerse yourself. Like, just do it is one thing. Like break the tension of that feeling of like this needs to be perfect before someone, especially even the client sees it. But I know this is another thing I'll reference Dan Molligan. He talks about this in a talk in a book a while ago where he talks about the importance of building ugly. And so we don't even just call our early designs and our early progress ugly. We actually try and keep it as low fidelity as possible for a while. And so the things that we need to grow in that way is speaking more conceptually than we are just trying to refine everything in the beginning. And then also growing in the way that we communicate that to our clients. How do we actually talk about the work? How do we talk about the vision of the work and the future of the work? And so how can we actually communicate more effectively to people on our team, to our clients, that what you see here that are just a couple of circles and some squares and some scribbles and whatnot. Where are you heading with that?

Another thing is making small decisions more frequently. And so instead of waiting until the big pixel perfect composition is finished, which that's the thing we have to do away with to begin with, making small decisions on small things. And so we we're still very much prescribers of atomic design, red frost atomic design, where we want to make these kind of micro decisions along the way. And that's one thing in the process, we're talking about doing design palettes where we're making small decisions on just simply type and color and button styles, like three very simple but foundational things. And when we get a resounding yes on that and collaboration with the client, then we can very simply move on to something a bit more in context. We've got real content that's starting to come in. Maybe we're building out some small components, maybe a certain page type. I'm talking about a website here. And since we've already approved these styles and we're just simply painting with them, it's a lot easier to to get a vision for. And I'd also say just do away with the language of like, OK, but it's not done yet. You know, we've got a little bit more to go. It's a little ugly right now. Don't be afraid of it. Just be confident in where it's at.

Rory
You touched on a point there that I want to dig deeper into. So you mentioned ugly like wireframes versus kind of the fidelity. And how do you deal with because I've seen both sides of this. You show a wireframe to a client and they're like, what the hell am I paying you for? This is kind of pen on paper. And and they can lose track on like because a wireframe is supposed to not lose track on the look and feel. But people do because it looks so basic versus the other side where it's almost pixel perfect. And then they're saying, oh, well, no, they're nitpicking at the wrong things.

Tyler
Oh, yeah. And I and I've been in that situation so many times. I think the key aspect there is being very clear about what we need to walk away with from this time in collaboration with the client. And so if we're looking at wireframes, we make very clear this is not the design. This is not like the front end. It's not the visual design. What we need decisions on today are the hierarchy of concept where where things are existing on a particular page or screen or something. Like be as clear as possible about what is the thing that we are trying to accomplish when we look at this right now. And then hopefully that creates more of a tunnel vision for, oh, I'm not as concerned about all those things I'm already thinking about, because it's so easy when you see something that's unfinished, especially a client who's not quite not always in the same space and thinking in the same way that we can visualizing ahead.

It's really easy to think like, like you said, what am I paying for? Like these are just boxes with like, you know, comics and I don't know if anybody's using comics for wireframes. But yeah, just being just terribly clear about what the goal of that time is. And that's true for visual design as well. We move on from wireframes and we have visual design that isn't quite there when it comes to that high fidelity definition. All the styles are here yet. It's listen here. We're focusing in on this particular component. We want to make sure that it's applying the styles that we've already agreed on from our design palettes. And it's being applied correctly to the way that the content exists.