Designers Aren't Always Right

Posted on May 06, 2017

By Tom Greever

Tom is a user experience and interface designer. He makes things: design, mobile, web, apps. He is a UX Director at Bitovi. Author of Articulating Design Decisions. Find him on Twitter / LinkedIn.

On April 18, 2016, Tom gave a talk here in Rochester, MN about his book Articulating Design Decisions. Listen to the audio.

The following is adapted from the book Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience.

Designers Aren’t Always Right

One of the keys to a successful design process is learning to articulate design decisions to other people in a way that is effective and compels them to agree with us. That involves building rapport with them so that they’ll trust us with these decisions. This is critical, of course, because more than ever before we have a lot people involved in our design process. With our expertise at the forefront and sound research at our fingertips, our effectiveness is often defined by how skillful we are at convincing other people that we’re right. We may be experts in our field, but we still have to demonstrate why and how our work is valued.

However, it’s not enough to only tell people why we believe we’re right. The rapport and trust we need extends from a track record of making good design decisions over time. The more that people see that our designs accomplish the goals, the more likely they’ll be to defer to our judgment on the next decision. And while communicating the value of our designs is the most important skill we can learn as designers, things don’t always work out the way we expected. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we discover that our solution might not be the right one afterall. So in a relationship defined by trust and good decisions, how can we deal with being wrong?

In this post, I’ll outline three things to look out for that will help us see when we’re wrong. I’ll also provide some advice for recovering from these mistakes without damaging these important relationships. Designers aren’t always right, but when we’re wrong we need to see it as an opportunity to build more trust and create a better user experience.

Knowing When We’re Wrong

The hardest part about being wrong is even knowing when we’re wrong in the first place! It can be easy for our own arrogance to get in the way of seeing the problem. As designers, we see our designs as our baby – this perfect thing we created and are watching go out into the real world. It’s really hard to see the flaws with it, even when people tell us. We are often in denial about the fact that our work doesn’t work. So how can we know when we’re wrong? There are three red flags:

  1. The problem still exists. While we try to solve problems with design, it’s not a given that our solution will always work as expected. If we find that the problem still exists, then we’re wrong and we need to change something. I’ve actually seen designers in complete denial that their work is to blame for an unsolved problem. “I redesigned it and it’s much better now,” they’ll say, “If conversion hasn’t improved, there must be some other issue.” Yet, our designs must solve a problem for the business and meet the needs of our stakeholders in order to be effective. Use analytics, customer data, and sales information to make sure the design is having the intended effect. The metrics must improve and the business must move forward, otherwise there’s no point. No matter how great we think our designs are, if the problem still exists we’re wrong.
  2. Users don’t get it.  Because we want our designs to be easy to use, we have to see that they’re actually making it easier for people. If not, we’re wrong! We are not doing user experience design if we haven’t actually seen a user experience it. I’ve worked with designers who are so convinced that their interface is easy to use, that no amount of failed usability testing will convince them. They usually blame the users. “This interaction is common on mobile devices now. If the users don’t know how to use it, they must not be familiar with modern design patterns!” Guess what? The user is not to blame, their designs are. Check your work with real people by doing usability tests and then use that information to help see where you went wrong.
  3. Everyone is against us. We can be really arrogant about how great our solutions are. We may feel justified that ‘no one else knows good design’ and so even in the face of opposition, we insist we’re right. But when a majority of people disagree with your decisions, it’s a sure sign that you’re doing it wrong. “I know you all disagree with this decision, but from a design perspective this makes the most sense so you need to trust me and my expertise.” While we do want everyone to trust us with difficult decisions, it’s not true that we’re always right just because we’re designers. We need to take stock of the room and be smart about how we’re perceived when we push for something no one agrees with. Our stakeholders have valuable domain knowledge we don’t have. There may be other things happening we’re not aware of. When people disagree with our solution even after considering our solid reasoning, we’re wrong and we need to figure out why.

The Paradox of Trust

When you discover you’re wrong, you risk breaking the trust that was extended to you. It’s difficult to express confidence in your decisions and then watch as your assumptions come crumbling down. The way you deal with it will do more for your recovery efforts than even fixing the problem that you uncovered.

You see, there is a paradox with being wrong. While it may seem like trust will be broken, it’s actually an opportunity to build even more trust by owning up to the mistake. It’s counterintuitive, I know: we’ve let down our team and now we’re supposed to admit it? How does that build trust? In a court of law, admitting to a crime means that you will bear the punishment. But in the world of relationships, people are far more forgiving than you might expect. People appreciate honesty more than smoke and mirrors. They prefer transparency over a cover up. The way they know they can trust you is when they see that you’ll own up to mistakes. It may be hard at first: it will create difficult conversations. But in the end, you’ll almost always come out on top when people see your intent. That even when you screw up, you’re there to admit it, fix it, and move on.

Making Things Right

The best way to make things right is to just get it out in the open. The reasons why something went wrong are not nearly as important as fixing the problem itself. Don’t re-hash the history. That usually sounds like excuse-making. Instead, figure out what needs to be done to move on. Be direct and clear about what happened (“I was wrong” or “I made a mistake”), but also go straight to the solution and focus on action. Tell them what needs to be done to correct the problem and outline a clear plan for doing so. Most stakeholders are results-oriented, so identify what the impact will be and when they can expect it to be done. Communicating a sense of urgency and willingness to go above and beyond on correcting the issue will help establish the trust you need to move forward. When you make yourself part of the solution, you’re also making yourself indispensable: they need you to help correct this problem and that reinforces trust.

It’s also important to remember that some people just want to know who to blame for the problem and that’s it. It may seem unfair, but stakeholders may need a scapegoat so they can explain it upstream to their own bosses. A good stakeholder will own the mistake with you, but even if they don’t, you’ll get a swifter resolution if you own up to what happened just to keep things moving forward. Once the source of the mistake has been identified, people usually feel better about moving on.

That means there may be times when you, as a leader, will need to own up to mistakes that might not have been within your control. While it’s unlikely that you’re solely responsible for a failure on a project that involves a team of people, it’s still worthwhile to admit your part (however small) in getting the team to where you are now. This may result in ‘falling on your sword’ and taking the hit for the express purpose of bringing closure. It’s not always advisable, but if everyone is pointing fingers, it might be the only way move on.

Actions Speak Louder

No matter how it comes about, when you see that you’re wrong and you’re willing to admit it, go straight to the business of reconciling the project. Focus on action, propose a solution, communicate urgency, and be willing to hustle. Sometimes you’ll have to make quick decisions to avoid ambiguity and keep things on track. Your reaction to a mistake will speak volumes about you as a person and set you up to build trust with everyone going forward. Recognizing when you’re wrong and proposing a solution is one of the most important ways you can build rapport with your stakeholders so they’re more likely to trust you with the next decision.

As designers in a creative process, we can become especially protective of our work and unable to see the flaws in it. Yet if we really expect to be effective with other people, we have to learn to identify our mistakes, set aside our ego, and work toward a resolution. This is an important part of making sure that our expertise remains at the center of the conversation. Without the trust of our stakeholders, we’re limited in our ability to influence the design of our own projects. But once that trust has been established, our stakeholders learn to value our expertise, trust our instincts, and support us on the most important design decisions. Whether we’re right or wrong, we have the opportunity to build long-term trust and make sure that we create the very best user experience.

Originally published at