Picking your battles in the war for better user experience

Whenever I have started a new project or role as a user experience designer, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Approaching a project with a fresh set of eyes provides you with a broad scope in how you might make a product better for its users, and a hope that you’ll be able to fulfil your visions of what could be.

Soon after this initial excitement, you will begin to have conversations about the direction the project is headed with its road map, what the goals for the business are, and the scope of the particular project you are working on within the grander scheme of things. This may feel like a narrowing of those broad horizons — and perhaps your ideas that went along with them — but in many cases, this can give you focus as a designer, and some of your best work will come when working within a set of constraints and pushing those boundaries.

In the early stages of working in a project (and no doubt many instances throughout the time I have worked on an individual project) there comes the almost inevitable request for a small change.

You are given a minor problem that needs fixing, but whilst you are working on that relatively small solution you find a huge opportunity which could make the whole experience so much better for the user. If you’re like me, you’ll excitedly come up with a plan of action, how the solution to a problem that seems to have been largely ignored can be implemented, and all of the benefits that solution would have for both the user and the business. It’s a win for everyone.

You put your proposal to your superiors but are given a firm answer of no.

Whatever the reason may be, this is where the reality of working as a designer can hit hard. But you should know right now that this is a huge part of your job. Your ability to accept these kinds of decisions from your colleagues, superiors, and stakeholders is something you will have to learn to handle but should never be seen as a dead-end. At this point you may feel like you have two choices; do you want to fight for this particular cause or simply let it go?

Your choices aren’t black or white

Although you may feel like this is a do or die moment for whatever it is you’re fighting for on behalf of your users, there are many ways forward from this juncture, just as there tends to be with most design problems.

Your first move should be to have a conversation around this negative decision. The rejection may feel non-sensical when all you have is your drive to create a better experience for your users, and the only way to remedy this is to gain more perspective on the issues, and this can only be done in conversation with the decision-maker.

Be calm and considerate in your questioning. Frame it in such a way that you are the one that needs to understand why so that you can make better and more informed decisions going forward. Take your time to understand why the decision was made based on the answers you receive, and weigh up whether it makes sense to leave this issue where it is for now whilst aiming to leave it on the table to come back at a later date to review again. If this does not feel like an option for you and there is too much at stake, you’ll need to ask yourself; is this the hill you really want to die on?

Leave things better than you found them

Before you dive headlong into a decision that may define your working relationships for the foreseeable future, casting you as the difficult designer who can be impossible to work with, give yourself some more perspective by thinking of the bigger picture.

I have long been an advocate of leaving things in a better place than you initially found them.

Take a step back and look at the scope of your role. Will you possibly get the opportunity to have a greater effect in another area of the product you will be working on in the future? Can you help direct the focus of work to areas that create a poorer user experience that need more attention? Are there more pressing issues that would benefit your users aside from this change you wanted to make? What about any low-hanging fruit that hasn’t yet been taken into consideration?

A better user experience will not only be created from the thing you are working on right now, but from the next thing you will work on, or maybe the thing after that, or even after that. It is a culmination of your work over time across the product as a whole. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do the simple fix to get something done in a way that you otherwise would not want to do it. If that means sacrificing what you would see as an easy win right now to be able to continue your good work in other areas, you have to be able to accept that loss and move on.

Which hill should you decide to die on?

So far we have only addressed when you need to concede defeat in a battle for the benefit of the user experience in the long run, but what do you do when you come to the battle which you feel you have to win for your product to move forward and become a better experience because of it?

One thing worth thinking about is that you can build up a kind of ‘credit’ in conceding previous battles. Every time that you have brought a potential improvement to the table which you have then agreed to leave, for the time being, you are building up this ‘credit’ in the minds of the decision-makers which you can use when you feel the time is right.

Ideally, you wouldn’t spring this so-called ‘credit’ that you intend to use as a surprise. Without being over the top, you must be able to build your case for your specific metaphorical hill, and state that you are not willing to compromise the integrity of the design or the user experience on the issue. In the majority of cases you will find that your team and stakeholders are willing to compromise and deliver something better for their users, especially if you can sprinkle in the notion of how you have (hopefully begrudgingly) conceded on other issues in the past.

Everyone wants to build a better product

Everyone in your team will always be looking to deliver the best possible product, and you should not lose sight of that. Your ability to make the right calls on the relevant pieces of work, alongside the additional effort required across the team to deliver on those decisions for the benefit of the user, are what will ultimately make a success of the product, and a success of you as a designer within your team.

You will need to be pragmatic at times to continue improving your product, although sometimes that may not be as fast or to the order of magnitude that you would like. In those pieces of work that you feel are of paramount importance to the user and their experience, you will need to stand your ground and be prepared to make your case.

Whichever path you choose to take at whatever juncture you find yourself if you are moving the product forward, regardless of the distance, you are leaving things in a better place than you found them. Battles will come and go, but the war to deliver a better experience for your users will be never-ending.

Originally published at https://westleyknight.com on October 27, 2020.

UX Designer with over 20 years experience, specialising in interaction design and prototyping.

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