There you are – your first design meeting (which is really a development meeting). Sitting around you are developers, business analysts, project managers and possibly even an upper management “official” or two located at the authoritative end of the meeting room table. These are your clients and in front of every one of you is this thick document filled with requirements – mostly one-liners that make very little sense to you and start with the words, “the software shall allow…” You understand very little of what is being discussed and then someone turns to ask what you think. You freeze. You’re terrified and barely stutter out an answer that makes less sense than the requirements. Just before leaving, you are informed you will need to present an initial draft of the design in this same meeting. Tomorrow. You rush for the door and back to your desk panicked and feeling the pressure of a deadline.
This isn’t too far off from some of my first meetings as a UX designer. But, it wasn’t my first meeting by any stretch of the imagination. I was a seasoned professional finishing a second graduate degree and had been practicing mostly in Information Architecture for 5 years. I had managed multi-million dollar federal grants and sat in boardroom meetings with high echelon management in places such as IU, the Veteran’s Administration and Eli Lilly. I had batted against MDs, nurses and departmental deans in prestigious academic programs. I learned quickly how to back away from the plate if a pitch was inside, refrain from swinging at a pitch in the dirt and to nail the fast balls. I was fearless and can clearly remember my higher level of performance in these first meetings while I was still a graduate in my first program and a young professional fresh out of grad school. I had the confidence I could conquer anything. And then along the way, something changed. After completing a second graduate degree and focusing on HCI and Informatics, you would have expected my performance to excel. But it didn’t and I began to feel beaten down in many ways as I sat through design meeting after design meeting. These new meetings were markedly different from the meetings I had soared through in previous years. And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. But something was different. Something was missing.
It took me awhile and a lot of reflection years later to figure out what was different about a “UX meeting” (or a design meeting) versus many of the other meetings I was in where I would have to offer an opinion or give some sort of expert guidance. I had found myself in this sort of a circular cycle – a downward spiral – where I felt I wasn’t good enough or qualified for the project I was working. Beaten down and humbled. After months of reflection, I realized this was all spawned by the vulnerability presenting a design naturally induces.
Presenting a new design can be terrifying or, at the very least, unnerving. You are – in all actually – baring a piece of yourself. Maybe there are UX Designers out there who don’t feel this way and I can honestly say I have gotten past most of the jitters I used to experience. But, what we do can very easily be considered an art form. Thus presenting a design – whether it is a wireframe or a prototype – is no different than sharing a poem, a new painting, the first chapter of your novel or dancing naked in public. Dancing naked in public. I can think of nothing more soul baring than this. And this is what many of those early design meetings felt like to me.
The circular cycle I write of above started in this fashion: My design would get shot down or severely critiqued in a meeting leaving me with a sense of insecurity about my ability to work through the difficult issues of the design. This led to serious doubts about my chosen profession and eventually I developed what is commonly referred to as Impostor Syndrome. Olivia Fox Cabane writes of this in her book entitled The Charisma Myth. Put shortly: Impostor’s Syndrome is characterized by the feeling that despite one’s accomplishments, they are still inadequate for the function they are attempting to perform. It’s quite common in artists as well as professionals of all ilk.
Despite two graduate degrees and nearly a decade of work experience in the Information Sciences and Informatics, I still felt as though every meeting was a test of my ability and feared I would be ferreted out as a fraud. Each time my design was shot down, I would often think: “This is the meeting where someone will call me out as a fake – an imitation of a UX Designer.” These fears were rooted in the critiques surrounding design presentation and the vulnerability a designer can often feel. The cycle was so simple yet nearly impossible to break. Design, get design shot down, feel inadequate and unqualified, design again and experience increased terror at the next meeting. (It didn’t help that I was working for a terrible organization (and some bad people) at the time.)
I eventually was forced to take some time off to complete my master’s thesis. I was burnt out, constantly jet-lagged from travel and haunted by this feeling I wasn’t pursuing a career I was even adept at. I used my time off to reflect on my career while completing my thesis and during that time I read Cabane’s book. I suddenly realized I had been experiencing this Impostor’s Syndrome for many years. I went back through my memory of different jobs and remembered this feeling through many of them. And then I discovered great actors and actresses, directors, writers and scores of highly successful people suffered this same phenomena. Cabane writes of Michael Uslan, the producer of the recent Batman movies. Speaking of being on the set of a movie he states, “I still have this background feeling that one of the security guards might come in and throw me out.” Cabane notes this syndrome is more common in high performers. She writes of speaking engagements at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and MIT noting the room goes silent when she speaks of it and students are relieved to know the feeling they experience has a name. “Every year, the incoming class at Stanford Business School is asked, ‘How many of you feel you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?’ Every year, two-thirds of the class immediately raises their hands.” Somehow, it helped me to know great authors, highly successful performers and even Hollywood producers felt like this. It normalized things for me.
What I did after this realization was to look at my achievements and take stock of my career. I realized I had been wildly successful and had climbed the career ladder very quickly. This, of course, was partially responsible for my feelings of inadequacy. I had chalked my success up to luck. But then I realized these accomplishments were not luck. I had worked hard to get where I was, had been through more than a decade of college and had achieved much. And, even if it was luck, I crushed it on the jobs I was promoted to or had accepted. I was clearly a high performer and overly demanding of myself. I still am. But what has changed is I am now more realistic with my self expectations. And I have come to realize the design process is all about failure and error. Mostly, I came to realize that I wasn’t the only one with this feeling and the more successful you are, the more likely you are to feel this way.
Has it all changed for me? No. There is still what I call a healthy measure of self-doubt in my mind. I call it “healthy” because I never want to stop questioning myself or become satisfied. But, I can say I am well aware of my abilities and approach projects with the tenacious nature I had a decade ago – just not with the reckless abandon of my youth. Nevertheless, presenting a new design, set of wireframes or a prototype can still be unnerving. There are some practical methods you can employ to stifle the jitters and problems associated with these meetings if you are new to the field or a seasoned professional. I’ll cover these issues how you overcome them in the second part of this article.
If you’r like more information on Impostor Syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young is a leading expert and you can consult her web site. You can also take her brief Impostor Syndrome Quiz to see if you fit the profile.