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Finding Design Courage

Being courageous is not something you plan for, it’s a choice. Witnessing something happen that you don’t agree with can be an opportunity to be courageous. You can choose to do something about it, or you can just watch it happen.

I worked at an online auction startup that started losing ground to the competition. Senior management was freaking out, saying that we needed a better product. Their first idea was a bad one – stop the bleeding by copying the competition. In other words, play catch up.

Even brilliant leaders can find themselves in this reactive mode, instinctively adopting a competitor’s solution because it seems to work and because the pressure to solve the problem quickly is very real.

So what happened? Product management doubled their efforts creating new features and updating old ones each development cycle. Engineering struggled to accommodate all of it without compromising the existing product. And I did my part, ensuring design integrity and experiencing it play out. It was painful.

One day, I sat at my desk looking at the laundry list of features that needed to be designed and realized how stupid I felt. Innovative design is not supposed to be a paint-by-numbers exercise but that’s exactly what this was. As I wrestled with what I was asked to do, I realized I had a choice to make. I could suck it up and continue to do my job designing within the lines. Or, I could find the courage to voice an alternative approach to innovation, one that was focused on designing for the user experience.

I chose to make more work for myself that day by introducing the new design method to the company. After spending countless hours learning after hours and some formal training, I got approval from executive management, the board of directors and the teams I worked with to start integrating user experience design with our process. I admit that I didn’t have all the answers and there were failures along the way, but we got traction. Within a few months, we were regularly talking to customers, protoyping, testing designs, and getting insights that allowed us to identify new lines to color in. We even launched a new feature that set us apart from the competition. UX design isn’t a silver bullet that makes competition irrelevant, but allowed us to transform our chase into a race.

As designers, we face choices everyday that require differing degrees of courage. They could be as small as killing a stale design pattern, or as large as changing the way the company connects with its customers. Remember that tough choices are only tough until you make them. After that, the work is either easy because it makes a difference – or it’s hard because you know there is a better way but you’re not doing it.

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