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Design Arrogance Starts with How We Treat One Another

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
September 21, 2015

Part of running a UX services consulting team is interacting with numerous UX design and UI development teams. These teams come in various shapes and sizes and may have different skill levels. Such teams may be part of a customer’s in-house UX design team, an implementation partner’s UX design team, or an external agency. The team I lead at Pegasystems comprises excellent people who excel at both design and front-end development. It has taken me a long time to assemble this talented group, and I am always on the lookout for more high-caliber people.

Putting this UX team together has been one of my greatest challenges, but it has been worth it—especially considering what I originally perceived as the direction in which User Experience is going as a profession. I say “originally” because, while I believed that what I was doing was the correct approach, the validation I have received from our customers has shown me that I am indeed on the right path.

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The profession of User Experience is moving away from pure design and becoming more deeply embedded in the overall process of how we create products and services. That shift requires UX designers who are skilled enough in design to be able to create elegant solutions, but who also have a good knowledge of software development to ensure people can actually put those solutions to use. Designing something beautiful that never gets built is an extreme waste of good design.

Being satisfied with just designing—or having a narrow view of what activities that word comprehends—is a hindrance to the ability of UX designers to grow. Plus, it seems to me that the arrogance of a small minority of designers is poisoning our profession’s ability to achieve the greatness of which we’re capable. All of us have probably read about, encountered, or witnessed design arrogance in action, which results in failed implementations and unusable products and services and, in general, has a highly detrimental effect on our profession. Once design arrogance has reared its ugly head, we run the risk of development teams’ seeing User Experience as adding another layer of time and effort to a process that ultimately produces a product or service that does not live up to expectations.

I used to believe that this arrogance was not a systemic issue for our profession and just existed at an individual level. However, I now have concerns that design arrogance may be more endemic to our profession than I had at first thought. As our profession has grown in popularity and has proven itself to be quite lucrative and professionally satisfying for many, we have seen an influx of folks who want to join the fun. That, by itself, is great, and we should welcome these people to our ranks. However, we also need to be vigilant about how we conduct ourselves professionally as a group.

While examining how institutions of learning train UX designers and other UX professionals and finding ways to improve on their education is far beyond the scope of this column, I would like to look at the case study.

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An Agency’s Designers Didn’t Play Nicely with Others

This is a true case study, but I have made some modifications to protect the guilty. As I mentioned earlier, my team often works with other design and UX teams, all with the goal of designing, developing, and implementing large-scale, enterprise software applications. One project we worked on broke down this way:

  • A customer contracted an external design agency to come up with some technology-agnostic designs.
  • A UI development partner was responsible for implementing the designs on our technology.
  • Our UX team was responsible for business-process design and technology best practices, as well as assisting with the implementation of our software’s UI technology.

So, in this scenario, we basically had three separate companies working to achieve a single goal: customer success. However, only one of these teams really knew the technology on which we were implementing the solution. Only one team had the deep level of experience necessary to design and implement solutions that scale across the enterprise. Since my team was part of the company whose software provided the foundation for the solution, the other team members looked to us not only for design guidance, but also technical guidance regarding what was possible with the software at a given level of effort. Also, on more than one occasion, they called upon us to offer design alternatives that had worked well for other similar clients.

From the start, the external design agency adopted an attitude that screamed, “We are more adept at design than you.” The person on my team who was leading this engagement is a highly skilled, talented UX professional. Whenever the various UX teams from different companies were in the same room, it was immediately apparent that the agency’s designers thought they were somehow better than the others. They thought of themselves as the “true designers.”

With this level of arrogance came their repeated insistence on referring to my team member as a “technical resource” rather than a design or UX resource. It quickly became apparent that they were doing this in a disparaging way. By referring to him as a “technical resource,” they communicated that they thought, somehow, he did not get what they were trying to accomplish or that his contributions were not as important to the design as theirs were. It did not matter to them that my team member has a long and well-established User Experience and design background; nor that he was a dedicated UX resource, not a technical one.

But what really mattered was that my teammate is not just a designer. He has a deep technical understanding of the UI technologies involved and what goes into turning a pretty picture into something the developers can actually build to scale across an enterprise. An understanding of how to design solutions that can actually be built is, in general, essential to successful enterprise software development. It’s also typically lacking in UX design consultants.

The attitude of the agency’s designers fractured the team. From our customer’s perspective, this was disastrous. As UX professionals, we realize that users shouldn’t have to care that producing a simple, effective user interface requires a lot of complexity on the backend. In the same way, why should a customer be exposed to the fact that the disparate members of a design team cannot work together.

However, this particular case was particularly interesting because the customer was quick to realize that the arrogance of the external agency might have hidden the fact that the designs they produced were not that good. As a consequence, they leaned more heavily on my team member, asking him to polish the designs and produce alternatives that the business really liked. This, of course, angered the design agency and caused a lot of strife within the larger team. The way in which this situation played itself out was complicated, but in the end, the design agency was no longer participating in the project.

What was the most interesting part of this situation? The customer recognized that this was an unhealthy environment in which to produce good design. They also realized that this sort of thing was bad for the profession of User Experience in general. As one executive said to me, “If you guys can’t get along, and you are all in the same profession, what hope does that give us to provide a clean UX for our own customers? ... We need one consistent voice here to ensure that we can….”

Lessons for Our Profession

The arrogance of some UX designers and our inability to work together within the design world are very real barriers to the success of our profession. We need to embrace a mind-shift regarding what constitutes UX design and who does UX design. Ultimately, this boils down to realizing that our titles do not define us. What we do defines us. We are not designers because we can produce pixel-perfect wireframes, know CSS really well, or have the right title at the right agency. We need to broaden our definition of UX design—and the way we teach it—to encapsulate how we deliver an end result. Those who of us who continue to exhibit design arrogance will fail to realize the truly transformative abilities of UX design at its best. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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