The Future of UX Design: Designing the Designer

Ryan Gosling, as the perfect UX Designer with black rimmed designer glasses. Designing interfaces to Everything, all in virtual reality.

Predicting the future is notoriously hard, particularly when it comes to technology. But I do know the future of UX design is not all things. After 20 years as a professional designer, I believe there is an aspect we can predict: namely, the future of ourselves. There will be a shift in the “design” of designers, from solitary, judgmental seekers of perfection to emotionally intelligent people with deep skills that enable us to create better work and communicate in teams.

Designed For Perfection

So how is a designer “designed”? My “design” began at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graphic design program, which established its Swiss/International Style in the 60s and hasn’t changed much since. Training meant toiling away on your independent project only for your work to be torn down (literally and figuratively) by professors and classmates. The goal was perfection, which, by design, was always out of reach.

This education resulted in incredibly high craft standards, but also built in a real fear of failure and defensiveness. Once designers start working, this deeply rooted mentality manifests as self-judgment of their work as terrible, bad, or barely fine.

On “The Designer’s Mentality” spectrum below, most day-to-day experiences are grouped tightly together on the left. Good, rarely if ever achieved, is a massive journey to the right. Perfection is off the chart, impossible to reach.

Does this spectrum resonate with you?

Like designers, writers are also challenged by perfectionism. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates elegantly describes this mindset from a writer’s perspective in the poem below.

The design of my controlling judge

On my own inward journey, I’ve tried to understand how this constant self-criticism has impacted me. According to Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTJ, a personality type shared with no less than Senator Palpatine. When I ask designers about their Meyers-Brigg, invariably it ends in J, the judge. Not a surprise, given how we are trained.

Ring any bells for you designers out there in the Universe?

On the Enneagram I’m what’s known as a “Type Eight,” the Active Controller. This personality type is also known as the protector, the challenger or the asserter. How did I become this personality type, too? Looking back, post-college I jumped into the internet boom with two feet. This was pre-Google and pre-iMac; design wasn’t embedded into Silicon Valley culture yet. I spent years as a lone-wolf designer defending the value of my work – and, ultimately, my own value. It was both a rewarding and frustrating experience. While I grew my hard skills, it was all done by fighting!

Still, I was moderately successful and met life changing mentors along the way. I worked at incredible companies, from big Internet companies to small, exciting startups. I learned much about technology, design, and products. I also learned that the interpersonal strategy that served me well in the early days was less effective in large distributed teams. Turns out, no one wants to work with someone who acts like Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen.

My Journey Outward

By continually striving to prove worth and advance my craft, I developed personality attributes that helped me in some situations but worked against me in others. Decisiveness is a strength, but it is also a weakness when it isn’t inclusive of other’s input. On my journey as a designer, I designed attributes that can be powerfully good or powerfully bad.

Now as a design leader, the self-serving “design” of these attributes can only go so far. It takes a whole company to build and design a product or a piece of software. Empathy is crucial, not just with the end users, but with the team around me. One tool that has been valuable my journey outward is using techniques from Nonviolent Communication. Here is a quote from the book: “When you’re busy judging people, you have no time to love them.” This resonates with that strong J in us designers.

Nonviolent communication includes knowing how to ask for what we want, how to listen to others—even in disagreement—and how to move towards solutions that work for all. This communication style is a two-sided practice that starts with empathy, which is really curiosity. What is the other person seeing, doing or hearing? What are their observations? How do they feel and how can I help?

On the flip side is honesty. What did you see or hear? What are your observations? If I can articulate that, I can say how I feel and whether my needs are being met. And then I can ask for help, which I think is hard for designers. I know it’s hard for me.

Others have shown me that “soft” skills, such as empathy and authenticity, can be grown and should be practiced in the same way we build “hard” skills such as drawing wireframes, coding, or making a presentation. Soft skills are ones that we can, and should, diligently and rigorously build. Widening our vocabulary is one way to develop these skills that enable designers to create great work together. The list below shows the vast range of options for expressing the nuances of happy, sad, angry, afraid and ashamed.

Better Designed Designers Are The Future of UX

Upon reflection, my journey thus far has been quite simple. I've been slowly awakening to the idea our emotions and feelings are conscious aspects we advance and are equal to the hard skills associated with thinking or doing. Design things inside us is as important as designing things outside of us.

The following model of the designed designer is one I have been developing here over the last couple years with staff here at DesignMap. Every designer is made of three vectors: grit, quality, and heart. Grit drives you forward, motivates you, helps you persevere through the good times and the bad. Quality is what we as designers know well. It’s that standard of perfection that we strive to achieve. Heart is all about emotional intelligence. How well do I know myself, and how curious am I about other people around me and how well do I know them?

Helping designers develop a balance of skills across these three vectors increases understanding of ourselves that in turn enables better team work, that in turn creates incredible user experiences… no matter what the future is.

I’d welcome hearing from you, and if any of this resonates with you. In particular how you may have designed yourself or others, not things, in order to create better outcomes.

I also gave this topic as a brief talk at the 2017 UX Awards, check it out!

Here are some books that I found useful along my journey to actively design myself.