Embracing vulnerability as designers

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Ben Peck
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Based on a talk I gave for the Product Design Association of Utah.


Let’s talk about Shame. Nobody likes to talk about shame. I’ve been ashamed of portions of almost every application I’ve ever worked on in my career at some point. There is always some piece of if it that I never show or talk about with people. Stuff that you wish you could make better but either never have the time or something else has a higher priority. I’m sure many of you have felt the same.

Shame drives two big tapes;
You’re not good enough.
Who do you think you are?
 — Brene Brown, Vulnerability Researcher

You’re not good enough. It’s really easy for me to fall into this shame pit. It usually happens when I have an idea that I think might be good but just settle for thinking that someone else has already done it or I can’t do it better than what’s already been done.

Who do you think you are? This also happens to me when I’m looking at other people’s work and all I see is the great work that they do. Or when I think of a talk on something to share with the community and I question whether people will find any value in it.

“Shame is the gremlin that says, ‘You’re not good enough, you never finished that MBA, your wife left you…I know your not pretty enough, talented enough, or powerful enough.’ Shame is that thing. If we can quiet down and walk in, and say I’m gonna do this. We look up and we see the critic pointing and laughing 99% of the time is…us”
— Brene Brown, Vulnerability Researcher

Whenever I have this feeling of shame it’s really just me telling myself a lie. To get past this it comes down to putting myself in a very vulnerable position where I have to be willing to risk the possibilty that those voices in my head will really come true or not. Not doing something because we’ve told ourselves not to do it and thinking we can predict what “real” people will say is the worst possible “user test”.

Designer Vulnerability

Let's talk about Vulnerability. As a designer everything I do makes me vulnerable. I feel as a designer everything I do is completely exposed.

“Vulnerability is; Emotional Risk, Exposure, Uncertainty,
It fuels our daily lives.” — Brene Brown, Vulnerability Researcher

Realizing that this vulnerability is not a weakness is key. I used to think that it was weakness. I used to think that if I didn’t have all the answers that I was failing, inferior or unsuccessful at what I did.

This mentality is completely backwards.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of Innovation, Creativity, and Change.”
— Brene Brown, Vulnerability Researcher

Embracing our vulnerability is central to our success as designers. If we don’t embrace it we’re fighting it and that’s what it comes across as when people interact with us. We’re fighting. We “defend” our shameful thinking. When really we should be showing our work early and often and defending what our users will validate rather than our “shameful” thinking.

Dirty Laundry

Let's talk about Laundry. Design review is like laundry. Just go with me here for a minute or two. Hopefully it will help you understand the vulnerability a designer goes through.

Depending on the stage of the project determines how dirty it is. (or clean depending on how you look at it). All designers have dirty laundry but I want to talk about who I think should see our dirty laundry, the kinds of “clothes” we have, who should be there when we clean it and who we show our clean laundry.

  1. Underwear — Me
  2. New Outfit — Users, Clients, Customers, Team
  3. Laundromat — My peers (Users, PM, Dev Lead, Other Designers)
  4. Clean Laundry — My boss, My bosses boss, Stakeholders
  5. Runway — The whole company, Everyone

Underwear. Nobody wants to be seen in their underwear. Maybe some people do but I don’t. Same goes for designs. When a project is at its very early inception stages it really only makes sense to a couple people involved. Just like I only want my wife to see my underwear, I only want my Design Manager, Product Manager, and Dev Lead to see the very very early stages of the design. Its the moments that I feel most vulnerable about my designs. They’re the ones that will understand my design goals the most and give the best feedback very early on in the project. As a human, I naturally don’t want to let people into my bedroom. Its my personal space. That’s ok.

New Outfit. Most people see me in my clothes. That’s what I’ve chosen to show them. I’ve taken some time to put together an outfit, tried it on, looked in the mirror, asked my wife and now I’m ready to leave my room. In design I need to feel the same way. I need to have tried a few options, talked with my team and be ready to show other people. In most cases that’s users and my team (Product Manager and Dev Lead). I iterate. More users, consult with team. Iterate. I feel approval on what are the best solutions.

Laundromat. This iterative experience of trying to find the right design that’s solving the right problems, accomplishing the businesses goals and has a trustworthy visual design reminds me of a laundry mat. We’re all at the laundry mat with our dirty clothes and we’re cleaning them. We’re all kinda uncomfortable being there together but at the same time we feel inclined to talk since its a “social” setting. If we’re regulars then we get to know each other pretty well and give advice. It starts to become an environment we can trust and rely on each other. Designing products is like cleaning laundry, you have process and solutions that are needed to improve each part of the application and its intended use.

Clean Laundry. After I’ve successfully worn a few new outfits that have been received well in the wild I’m starting to feel like I have a fashion style. People know I’m feeling confident about what I’ve done and I’ve spent the time to work out the best solutions with the team. At this point we’re ready to show the designs to the CEO and VP’s to show results and reasoning behind the solutions. We show them to the whole dev team and make sure we haven’t missed something they have the insight to give.

Runway. Once you’ve gone through this process. It's really just a big show. Product Marketing steps in and show’s the world what we’ve created.

Share Your Work Often

All of this “showing work” comes back to vulnerability, empathy, pride, putting yourself out there. When you show someone something, there is the fear of rejection. There is the fear of judgement. Everything we do as designers is getting judged.

As designers, we’re expected to take feedback from anyone and figure out what to listen to and what not to listen to. It's natural for designers to try and work in a bubble. To hide and think through our designs without someone looking over our shoulders or telling us we should do this or that. We need a chance to think through the problem ourselves and figure out what we think could be the solution without being affected by what others think it should be. Is this a good thing to work in a bubble? No, not really. We’re only putting more pressure on ourselves to have all the answers and a lot of time setting ourselves up for failure. Do we need time and space to get things done? Yes, but don’t let too much time pass before including other people because that’s when you get your heart set on a solution. Also, it might not be the right solution but you spent so much time with it alone, its turned into your baby and all you want to do is protect it.

It's not good to work in a vacuum. Its good to show progress even when’s its not polished but as designers we have a hard time showing other people unpolished work because what if they think its polished. What if they think that we’ve thought through every scenario when we know we haven’t because it's in progress. We look like we don’t know what we’re doing. But we do know what we’re doing, sometimes. I think we’ve trained non-designers to expect polished, well thought out, complete work so that by the time it gets to them their job is to poke holes in it to see if it falls apart or not. So when it comes to giving and receiving feedback maybe its hard for not just designers but its also hard for product managers and other stakeholders to change their mindset too. They want to see progress, which is totally fine. But if they want to see things “In Progress” they need to treat it like it's “In Progress.

Be the Vulnerable Designer

What does vulnerability have with all this. Well…it has everything to do with this because if we’re the type of designers that decide to design everything in a vacuum and then come out and show it. Sure, that makes it easier on designers because what people see is more polished and well thought out from one persons perspective, us the designer, but we’re almost never right when it comes to the end result. If we design things in a vacuum then we’ve basically designed it just for us and only us. It might be good but it can be better if we let other people help us along the way. That’s where vulnerability comes into play here. As designers we have to be willing to share with other people what we’ve done, even if it's still in progress. If we don’t include other people in the design process then we get attached to it and when someone suggests we try something different we get protective of it because we “fell in love” with it. We get stubborn headed with it.

Whenever I’ve done a better job of showing my work to other designers, product managers, my boss, anyone in the company, current users, potential users, etc, its always a better product in the end. Truthfully there isn’t really an “end” when it comes to Product Design because your constantly improving it. Constantly making changes, why…? Because you should always be showing it to users, to people in the company, to other designers. They all have unique perspectives and have good feedback.

Now if we can get to a better product by getting feedback early and often then we’re going to have to develop a talent for sifting through that feedback the best we can. All the feedback isn’t going to be good feedback. Everyone’s feedback is going to be subjective. I don’t think there is such a thing as objective feedback that’s not proven out with data so from a personal feedback perspective you have to gain a talent for deciphering what is valuable and what is not.

But be vulnerable. Put yourself out there. Take a risk, accept the fact that you don’t know everything and let other people help you along the way.

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