Disabling Your Ego for Better Design

When things don’t go according to plan, both in work and life, I flash back to a 6th grade pool party. No rational person would voluntarily retrieve such a memory and I, too, wish I could bury this one out back with others, with being born and learning to use the potty.

This wasn’t just a pool party. It was an end-of-the-year gathering of all the kids who played middle school soccer. That meant soccer boys — those wonderfully peculiar creatures with flowing bowl cuts — and cool 8th grade soccer girls. A lot was riding on this event: pre-pubescent love and acceptance.

I was so excited that when I learned I had to get four teeth pulled that same afternoon, I brushed it off. No problem. I could do both. I was going to this party.

I walked out of the dentist’s office with a numb, puffy face and carefully rationalized my argument to attend. “Really, Mom. I’m fine. I can go to to the phharty. I can still sphwim. Sphee?” (Insert demonstration of butterfly stroke whilst standing on dry land.) I dismissed the side effects. I was more focused on the future than the reality in front of me. The four stubborn baby teeth I held in my dentist-administered manila envelope weren’t going to spoil my plan. Off to the party I went.

The thing about attending a pool party when you’re a competitive, awkward 11 year-old is that when you’re challenged to an underwater flip contest, you must engage.

And so I did.

Afterwards, waist deep and standing in a gymnast-who-just-stuck-her-landing pose, I proudly shared my news, “Did you sphee that, guys?! Were you counting? I did phive phlips! Phive!”

The thing about having no feeling in your face is that when there are two rivers of snot running down it, you haven’t a clue.

Kids paddled away from me. Kids sitting on the edge of the pool pulled their feet out of the water. My friend Rachel explained why there was laughing and “eewwing” rather than applauding (or why no boys were clamoring to offer me a refreshing Capri Sun after my demonstration of physical excellence).

I slunk down underwater, boobless, toothless and humiliated. I held my knees tightly in a cannonball and admitted to myself that maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all, this certainly didn’t go according to plan and perhaps I could stay down here until high school.

There’s no rock heaver than the one sinking to the bottom of your stomach as you realize maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. You looked past the evidence in front of you. You forced the plan.

In the field of “Making Things for People,” how often do we, the makers of the things, ignore something imminent to follow through on a plan or idea? When we learn new information about our audience, or when there’s an extra wrench thrown into the problem we’re trying to solve, do we forge ahead with our plan anyhow?

Like the 6th grade version of myself overly excited for a pool party, I’ve been guilty of this. Guilty of holding too tightly to my preferences and finding reasons to rationalize away information that would knock the end product out of alignment with my preferences.

Most of the time we do this unknowingly. We’re fooled into thinking our emotional response — our personal preferences as designers — will inherently match everyone else’s. Our egos trick us into projecting our subjectivity onto other people and assuming that what we need, want, or prefer is the same as the varied, complex, unique individuals we’re designing products and experiences for.

If our goal is to make things other people will use and genuinely enjoy, retrofitting the wants and needs of our audience into the constraints of our personal preferences is a fantastic way to fail. This is vanity at its finest and it happens without us knowing it.

Our egos blind us.

This happens as leaders and managers all the way down to tactical decisions. When we cut content so we don’t break a preferred layout, when we hide necessary features and functions to make an interface “cleaner,” when we write pithy marketing punch lines because we like being clever (but don’t actually communicate anything of value), we’re serving ourselves, not our users or customers. And ultimately, we fail. We waste time, energy and money.

So, what can we do?

The only way to keep this ego in check is to maintain a laser-like focus on the people we're serving, on their human needs, behavior and habits. Doing so makes it easier to pivot our plans, throw away that feature or ditch a beloved scrap of copy. Because it's not about us, it's about them.

Good design is the act of putting people first. It solves a problem. It is not ammunition for our ego. If you find yourself continuously rationalizing your own plans and preferences, take a step back and ask yourself: Am I making this case on behalf of users, or is this my own baggage?

It’s not easy to remember that everyone isn’t at the pool party to watch us do flips. But we can all agree that nobody (and I mean nobody) likes snot in the pool.