In Part 1 of this two-part series, I contend that many UX designers are naturally introverted, described the differences between these introverts and their more extroverted peers, and broke down some common misperceptions, then shared some ways in which introverted UX designers can leverage their inherent strengths. However, we must all transcend our natural inclinations from time to time to truly grow and maximize our career potential. While this can be a harsh, cold reality for some people, including me, the truth often is.
Now, in Part 2, I’ll share some practical tactics that introverted UX designers like myself can use when they face scenarios that favor extroverted behaviors. These tactics include the following:
leveraging activity stacking
practicing gradual exposure
Leveraging Activity Stacking
I’ve coined the term activity stacking based on author James Clear’s concept of habit stacking, which he covers in his book Atomic Habits. Clear points out that most people could more successfully foster good habits if they paired something that feels like a chore, but is necessary to their growth, with something in which they take pleasure. This would increase the odds that they would commit to the necessary task and turn it into a good habit. For instance, if you enjoy mystery podcasts, why not pair your listening experience with something you don’t enjoy as much, but should do such as walking or exercising? Perhaps you could make your grueling yard work more pleasurable by tracking the activity with your fitness app or smartwatch to see how many calories you’ve burned, fueling your motivation and building your pride in a job well done. There are countless ways of combining what is unpleasant, but necessary, with what is pleasurable and, thus, keeping yourself motivated and engaged.
Now, let’s apply this concept to our UX careers by replacing the idea of habits with extroverted activities in which we should engage and actively participate. By stacking or immediately following these activities with pleasurable, more introverted activities that come naturally to us, we can improve our chances of success. Consider the presentation you must give next week that is gnawing at your insides or the Design Thinking workshop you’re supposed to lead in two days, which is ominously looming over you. Anything on the other side of that looming mountain might as well not exist because your anxiety won’t let you imagine it.
My advice is that you should imagine what is on the other side of that mountain, as challenging as that may be. What comes after a presentation, workshop, or speaking engagement? Plan what comes next, making sure that your plan is both pleasurable and decidedly introverted. You’ve worked hard, pushing yourself into uncomfortable territory along the introversion-extroversion continuum, so you should plan something that lets you slip effortlessly back into your comfortable resting place. Restoring your energy and ensuring your well-being demands it.
For example, if you must travel to an unfamiliar city and make a presentation to some intimidating stakeholders, give yourself permission in advance to recharge afterward. Better yet, add some novelty to your plan. What does that city or location have to offer? I once traveled alone to a UX workshop in Chicago, where I knew no one, but had to be on for several hours across two days. Since I really enjoy taking in the occasional American baseball game and the Chicago Cubs were going to be playing the Milwaukee Brewers the night the workshop ended, I bought Cubs tickets in advance. Taking in a game on my own at the legendary Wrigley Field gave me something relaxing, but novel to which I could look forward. Plus, it felt like a reward for all my hard work and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
How can you reward yourself? As an introvert, you know what motivates you, and you probably like doing things alone or in a small group. There are countless forested trails to hike, museums in which you can get lost, ballgames to watch, and dining experiences in which to indulge. Best of all, you don’t have to be on for any of these activities. Taking the proper safety precautions into account—which you shouldn’t take lightly, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar environment—you should feel empowered to engage in them on your own. Moreover, establishing your reward in advance can be a confidence builder, replacing negative thinking with positive thinking and acknowledging the great work you’ve done and the growth you’ve experienced.
Practicing Gradual Exposure
Maybe you would find the thought of presenting or leading a UX workshop overwhelming, to the point that you wouldn’t even want to try. Unfortunately, our modern, hyperconnected society has programmed us to see only results, not the processes and systems that have made those outcomes inevitable for people. Perhaps we’ve internalized the notion that some people are just naturally gifted in whatever they do, but we could never be like them. This thinking is flawed and represents a boom-or-bust fixed mindset. What we don’t see are the methodical systems that successful people have established and the processes they doggedly follow to ensure that their ultimate success.
What I’m suggesting is that you instead orient your mindset toward gradual, systematic exposure, which provides a recipe for sustainable growth. As Clear astutely points out in Atomic Habits, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fail to the level of your systems.” The system that you devise for yourself should comprise things to which you know you can commit and, if necessary, fall back on, even if those things resemble just small steps along a long path. A system that is predicated on measured or even minimal improvements maintains consistency in your level of exposure and, thus, in your growth, helping you to avoid a boom-or-bust scenario and, ultimately, building your confidence, which acts as an accelerant to your growth. Then, gradually increasing your exposure over time can help to you progressively accelerate your growth. Similar to the fitness concept of progressive overload, your positive results will compound with every increase in effort that you make along the way, no matter how minor that increase.
So, what does this look like? Perhaps you might want to develop your user-research skills so you can become more confident in leading usability studies and develop into the multifunctional UX professional you’ve always wanted to be. However, if the thought of interacting with customers still disquiets you, you might worry that your efforts will be a bust. If you’re learning a new skill, don’t assume that you’ll need to boom instead. You probably won’t achieve complete success, and that’s okay. Remember, you’re honing your system and orienting your mindset toward gradual exposure, which takes time, not toward all-or-nothing success or failure. Microdose your exposure by asking to shadow an experienced UX researcher during an upcoming usability study or user interview. Just being there gives you exposure and, thus, promotes your growth. Offer to take notes or record the session to make your presence more impactful. Then, once you’ve had the experience of being present during a couple of customer engagements, you can gradually introduce more exposure by asking the research lead whether you might ask a participant one or two probing questions.
Staying with my research example: In my experience, UX researchers usually relish any support for or interest in their function, so you likely won’t encounter any resistance, especially if you handle notetaking or recording or provide any other logistical assistance. I was once the UX design lead for an industrial software application and planned to lead a usability study at a major customer event. Joining me on the product team was an early-career professional who was interested in User Experience, but not sure whether it was the right field for him to pursue. He was somewhat intimidated by the extroverted side of UX design, which conducting research tends to tease out. However, it was important to give him at least minimal exposure to this critical side of the career path, so I invited him to just sit in on the usability-testing sessions. I had no expectations other than his taking some notes and growing his own knowledge of UX research and the product we were improving. However, by the end of the multiple-day engagement, he had himself led an individual usability-study session, while I took notes.
If there had been any early expectations that this budding UX professional would need to lead a usability study at a major customer event, the type of boom-or-bust mental scenario that plagues so many people would likely have ensued. However, keeping his expectations focused on minimal exposure enabled him to gradually increase his exposure, build his confidence, and even surprise himself with how quickly he could become comfortable doing something he had never expected to do.
Introversion isn’t a style, any more than one’s eye color or unique fingerprint. It’s simply part of who people are and is encoded in their genes. They’re born with it. However, many have participated in workshops or activities to help them better understand and codify their social styles. Perhaps they’ve completed a Myers-Briggs or other personality assessment to help them understand traits such as assertiveness, amiability, intuition, and many other natural preferences, then used these assessments to foster conversations with other people and build their understanding of how they could best engage with others’ talents and energies.
Even if you haven’t participated in such an assessment or workshop, it’s telling that many of our evaluated traits are actually underpinned by either introverted or extroverted energies. The downside is that teams might just come together for a day-long workshop and learn what they needed to learn, then go back to whatever they were doing before, without giving much thought to how to sustain and grow their learnings to truly maximize future team collaborations. Over time, each participant’s style may be forgotten amidst the ever-accelerating pace of work. When people who have participated in such an event leave a company or get reassigned to another team, the team’s shared understanding of teammates’ styles diminishes. To sustain your teams’ learnings about teammates’ styles, it is important to disclose and continually self-advocate your style to others.
As I mentioned in Part 1, self-advocacy can manifest through whatever method of communication with which you’re most comfortable. For introverts, that tends to be through writing because we prefer to edit our thoughts, and the medium of the written word helps us to do that more effectively. However, you won’t always have an opportunity to write down your thoughts much less edit them. You may be thrust into compromising situations, in which you cannot fall back on your introverted preferences—at least, not right away.
Now, I’ll get to the paradox of this column: On one hand, your growth demands that you strengthen your ability to move beyond your naturally introverted inclinations. On the other, you don’t want to compromise too much or too often, lest you further normalize others’ expectations that you continually behave like someone you’re not, which would be neither fair nor realistic. Even though, depending on the situation, self-advocacy might require the use of extroverted skills, by temporarily exhibiting these skills, you can build and maintain awareness of your introverted strengths, ultimately normalizing them. It helps to consider some real-world examples of what this could look like. Let’s look at the following situations:
You get put on the spot during a meeting or call.
Someone asks you to speak up more often.
Someone advises you to be more outgoing.
You Get Put on the Spot During a Meeting or Call
We all get put on the spot from time to time. But that doesn’t mean we should automatically acquiesce to the demands of the moment and, thus, limit our ability to provide meaningful feedback. Some people think well on their feet and prefer a high-paced, back-and-forth dialogue within a group setting. But, if you’re an introvert, you probably aren’t one of those people—at least, not naturally. So, if you find yourself in this scenario, respond by saying unapologetically that you’d certainly like to provide feedback or input, but would prefer to have the evening to consider the issues and gather your thoughts. Then the feedback that you provide would be more thorough and meaningful. You might promise that you’ll respond early the following day.
It’s highly unlikely that someone—no matter how senior they are—would need your comprehensive feedback right then and there. Yes, urgent things do come up, but in my experience, things are seldom as urgent as people assume. If someone doesn’t find your response acceptable, the problem would likely of their own making for constraining the decision-making process to a 30–60 minute meeting. Their own disorganization and disrespect for your time is not your coachable moment.
Someone Asks You to Speak Up More Often
As I mentioned in Part 1, it’s a reality that our society and workplaces tend to favor extroverted behaviors. Sometimes this leads to tacit assumptions that those who speak up most frequently—or yes, most loudly—are the ones who care the most or are most invested in a project or initiative. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So, if you receive feedback that you don’t speak up enough, remind the person giving you feedback that you are naturally introverted, so your strengths include the ability to listen well and your organizational skills. While you might take in information differently, your strengths benefit your teams because they’ll receive the best, most thorough input you have to offer.
But make sure that you follow through. Follow such interactions by providing the input you’ve thoughtfully considered once you’ve had the time to think, so they can see how thorough and valuable your insights are and the impact you can make by using your inherent strengths.
Someone Advises You to Be More Outgoing
Water-cooler talk and chumming it up around the office, whether that office is physical or virtual, might conjure up lighthearted stereotypes in your mind. Nevertheless, people value such social engagements because they foster social bonds. It’s an unavoidable reality that people leverage such bonds in making business decisions, including those that involve UX design strategy. So I advise that you do your best to harness your energies, engage in these activities, and stack them with your own introverted activities. But, it’s important that you counterbalance this expectation by excelling in the transactional side of your work relationships. You might not end up being somebody’s golfing buddy or be invited to their wedding, but focusing on say-do behaviors and following through on your obligations can win you favor, no matter what you do.
So, if you receive feedback that you should be more outgoing or make more effort to be social, simply remind the person offering the feedback that people contribute to the success of their teams in different ways and point to outcomes you’ve already created. At the end of the day, your company’s goal is to be profitable. There won’t be any chummy engagements to be had if the company is struggling. Your company needs people who drive outcomes. Often, people formulate the best outcomes when in the throes of deep work, when they’re in the precious flow state that tends to be a strength in an introvert’s wheelhouse.
Many companies have been focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to foster more well-rounded workforces that drive profitable outcomes. As I argued in Part 1, introversion-extroversion is yet another talent variable that companies should take into account in driving successful outcomes. Remember, as an introverted UX designer or researcher, you possess many innate strengths. You should not shrink from them or force yourself to become someone you’re not. Not only would you lose out, but your peers, stakeholders, and customers would lose out, too. Are your extroverted peers receiving coaching that they should become more introverted? Probably not.
Understand your innate strengths, advocate for yourself, use those strengths, and leverage the strategies that I’ve suggested in this column to occasionally propel yourself through extroverted situations that go beyond your natural inclinations. Growth can be gradual, but over time, you’ll become a UX professional who is adaptable and able to flex to everyone with whom you work. This is the recipe for creating a leader.
Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Jon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell. Read More