Three ways UX teams can use “ego-less” design to build better products

November 27, 2017

In the last decade, creating high quality user experiences has gone from a niche practice to something consumers not only expect, but can easily judge for themselves. Recently download a new app? Didn’t like it? Bad user experience. Recently buy a product online? Enjoyed the website? Good user experience.

See, it’s easy. And on its face, the idea of user-centered design seems like common sense. Why, people might wonder, wouldn’t you design new things with your users in mind? But while it’s easy to grasp the concept philosophically, in practice UX design is a skill–and mindset–that needs to be honed through years of experience and discipline.

Michael Maternaghan has been practicing—he emphasizes practicing—UX design for more than 25 years. At the age of 16, well before PCs and the Internet, he became interested in both computers and psychology, later realizing his two interests could be combined into a career designing software for people. Today, he is a design leader within Bloomberg’s UX team where he puts the lessons he’s learned from his pioneering career into practice every day on behalf of Bloomberg’s customers.

At the core of each lesson Michael has learned in his career, he believes there is one common denominator: ego. Specifically, the ability to put one’s ego aside.

Michael says there are three lessons he’s learned that are essential for UX designers interested in creating both great products and great design cultures.

Lesson 1: Learn like a beginner.

The cardinal sin UX designers and product leaders need to guard against is assuming everyone thinks like they do. When your ego gets in the way and you make assumptions about how users think you begin designing more for yourself than for your users.

Bloomberg UX Designer Michael Maternaghan photographed at Bloomberg Global Headquarters in New York on October 4, 2017.

“As we get better at our jobs, we develop mental shortcuts to complete tasks more efficiently–and that’s a good thing,” says Michael. “But product designers need to teach themselves to think like beginners. Many more times than not, you’re going to draw false conclusions from your assumptions.”

Here are three ways to get into a beginner’s mindset:

  • Embrace your assumptions: At the beginning of a project, list all your assumptions. As you prepare to attack a problem space, be aware of the shortcuts you’re using to understand a problem and recognize that many users aren’t privy to the same shortcuts.
  • Observe your users: Observational research techniques like contextual inquiry—where you watch a user go about a task in their natural setting—help ensure you’re not designing for yourself. Observing what people actually do enables you to learn how to solve a problem the way a beginner would.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify: Nothing is possible without clarity. It’s the role of a designer to think holistically, to frame problems in solvable ways and to constantly ask “who are we solving for?” By watching users, you can begin to break problems and tasks into their simplest parts.

Lesson 2: Create a common vision.

Your field research doesn’t do much good if you can’t find a way to share what you’re learning with others. UX design is at its best when its inclusive–which means finding ways to visually communicate what you’re learning and invite stakeholders to participate in the process.

According to Michael, “You need everyone—your fellow designers, your stakeholders and your clients–to be crystal clear about what you’re doing and who you are solving for. One of the best ways to do that is to get everyone in a room to collaboratively create visual artifacts that articulate a common view of the problem space from the point of view of the user.”

Here are three ways to create a common vision:

  • Invite everyone into the process: As you prototype and wireframe solutions, keep bringing your users back to see if you’re on the mark. Also invite teammates and clients to observe these tests. If everyone can see what users are saying and doing, it’s that much easier to get everyone on the same page.
  • Create personas everyone understands: Core to a common vision is a common view of your users. While each individual is different, personas are visual representations of the commonalities across your users. Give them a name and share them broadly. Personas help people put a face to a problem space–enabling everyone to keep users at the center of their conversations and decision-making.
  • Map the user journey: Articulate what you’ve learned from your research in a user journey map. These visual representations of complex systems and processes help people understand what a user is thinking and feeling over time. To really get people on the same page, invite others to help make the journey map. Artifacts that visualize a problem space are at their most powerful when they’re created in collaboration with teammates outside the UX team. They become a common way of looking at things.

Example user journey showing how tasks will be completed in the product.

Lesson 3: Design to build stronger relationships.  

A UX designer’s job is to take that common vision they’ve created and put it into action. Designers should strive to be the connective tissue between teams of developers, product managers and business leaders—resolving conflict, creating common language and clearly presenting the rationale behind how a design solves a user’s problems. Michael likens the role of a UX designer to that of a diplomat.

“The diplomat knows it’s never about them,” he says. “They’re trying to bring a group of people together around a common idea. Good UX designers do the same thing. It’s very important that they take problems that are seemingly complex and find ways to simplify them.”

Here are three ways to strengthen relationships:

  • Teach others about the process: Part of ego-less design is acknowledging that design is a learnable skill, says Michael. It’s not a magic art. Anyone interested in thinking about design and users in this way can do it if they’re willing to learn. Designers should evangelize user-centered design by hosting workshops and teaching others UX methodologies.
  • Get people bought in: A product’s design, inherently, is highly visible. Everyone has opinions on how something should look. Embrace that. Invite others to critique wireframes and designs that are in progress. When people feel they’ve contributed to something they’re that much more likely to support the design rationale when it comes time to launch.
  • Balance user needs with your team’s needs: Sometimes what might make the best user experience isn’t, technically speaking, possible. Design is often innovation within constraints. As a UX designer it’s crucial that you balance what users need with what your developers and product leaders can actually do.

Michael has learned many other lessons throughout his career, but these three are the foundation of what he thinks sets up his team at Bloomberg to be on the cutting edge of UX design.

“Of all the organizations, I’ve worked for in my career, Bloomberg’s culture is the most conducive to the approach and philosophy of human-centered design,” he says. “The Bloomberg way is to get stuff done, to iterate and move on to the next thing. Along the way, designers use artifacts to shape the rationale—but importantly, nobody cares who gets the credit . . . that’s why this is a great place to be a designer, no doubt about it.”