-The Human side of design

Say aloud: “I don’t know the answer.” “I don’t understand it.”

Say aloud: “I don’t know the answer.” “I don’t understand it.”

Nov 16, 2023

Mike Monteiro wrote in his book about design ethics, “Ruined by Design,” that there are two answers a designer should not be worried about saying to any request. Those are: “No” and “Why?” I would add two more to his list: “I don’t know” and “I don't understand it..

While the myth of the “UX design specialist oracle” who knows everything has faded, the misconception remains with us at some companies. When the whole UX discipline started, companies considered UX designers superhumans. They thought that hiring one was critical to solving all their problems. They felt they could just give UXers a good salary and all their issues related to their product would disappear.

I remember once I got a job offer where the CEO of the company offered me significant money and asked me if I was the person who could “parachute into the middle of this giant project” (I swear he did use these words) and fix everything that went south. By this, you see what I mean by superhuman expectations. 

UX designers are not superhumans. If you’re superhuman, you need to live up to impossible expectations. For instance, you need to know the answer to every question. And, as a designer with a seat at the table, you would need to connect and give superb and accurate answers to all critical questions. Not possible! Design based on user research is teamwork, so the work requires a good team player. The work of a user experience designer is not magic, and we don’t have a UX magic ball, even metaphorically. The UX specialist does not retreat to a cave, make their UX magic there, and exit with the perfect solution in hand. Generally, the designer's work and the product will only be as good as the team. 

Okay, so we probably agree we’re not superhuman, and we don’t want to have “perfection” as an expectation. But saying “I don’t know the answer” to a question can feel terrifying and make us feel vulnerable during tough meetings. Dealing and coping with this fear contributes to being a good designer. Andrew Feldmar, a Hungarian-born psychotherapist, said that a human's biggest fear is shame. By saying you don’t know something, you can feel shame. Most people want to avoid this feeling at any cost. Instead, they start to guess, and this type of guessing is the biggest enemy of evidence-based innovation. 

You have your methods to be able to find out the answers to almost every question. Feel free to say “I don’t know” any time you don’t know the answer. This answer is valid and helps the team know that this is something you need to collaborate on and solve. After admitting you don’t know something, you can add that you have the tools to find the answer. Doing so shows you have the ability to find answers for the team to consider. 

Saying, “I don’t understand” can feel even scarier, because the phrase has a huge emotional cost, even more enormous than saying no to a request. No one wants to seem slow and uninformed. You need to understand every aspect of a project you work on to be able to provide outstanding solutions. You need to believe me when I say that, if you don’t understand something, the problem is not with your brain's capabilities. Either you don’t have all the necessary information to understand the problem or topic, or your brain's mental model tries to force you to fit the problem into an existing pattern that doesn’t seem right. In these cases, the best step you can take is to be vocal about not understanding something and ask questions. Trust me. People will be happy to enlighten you. 

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