Making space for UX when no one cares: 6 hard-earned design lessons from big, boring corporate
I’ve never been offered a cool UX job (yet).
I’m a UX designer for a corporate government contractor and it’s given me an edge. Here are 6 hard-earned lessons from big corporate, for designers who face internal resistance at any size operation.
I’ve never been offered a cool UX job (yet).
When I say “cool,” I am talking about cool in a design sense: design thinking-infused, industry-leading companies whose team leads are thought leaders with books, blogs, and podcasts.
Ya know: the Apples, Airbnbs, and frogs of the world, companies whose brand is good design. Their end-users or their clients understand and appreciate the value of design; they’ll cough up big bucks for the entire experience in a studio with wall-to-wall whiteboards, succulents, and sticky notes galore.
Most new designers I know dream of landing that golden internship with a design-forward company.
I certainly did. But… <record scratch>.
An internship did not work for me.
At the time of applying, even the most promising of internships did not realistically fit my needs. I’m in my thirties, and I was betting everything, including my savings, on this career-switch. I live in Austin: a mid-size city with with a major city rent complex.
While getting a job at one of the companies was definitely possible, I needed more than an intern’s wage.
I needed that first UX paycheck…yesterday. So I took a good job at a regular ol’ corporation.
After bootcamp, I applied relentlessly for five months to UX positions in a wide range of industries and companies. I made many iterations to my application and I learned how to leverage my past experience to the roles I wanted.
I received two job offers in the same week: neither was glamorous, but both were mid-level positions with an opportunity for growth and the pay was right. I accepted the offer that was closer to home.
My company is huge and engineering is the focus.
Because our clients are often government entities, who need enterprise-level work, my projects are subject to bureaucratic processes, platforms, and rules. These parameters are restrictive in a way that the private sector simply is not.
Additionally, our internal culture is engineering-focused. Technical considerations often dominate our legacy-software landscape and design has historically been an afterthought. There is no starting from scratch here.
Despite these challenges, I love my position at the no-frills, grey carpet, corporate company partially because I am on a great team of designers who stick together (underdogs unite!). I partially love my job because I have learned a lot really quickly. I’m not pushing pixels on one small part of a singular product. Instead, I work in a complicated web of competing visions where design has to fight for its spot at the big table.
I jumped in with both feet and received the designer’s version of a baptism by fire. I hope you can leverage this experience to overcome resistance at your own company.
What I’ve learned:
1. Embrace the business of design.
Let’s face it: without the business, the product does not exist.
To build trust with stakeholders and managers, let them know you are regularly considering how your design might fit in with other departments’ goals. Show up well-informed, with findings and perspectives grounded in research.
Consider how to create visible UX metrics or goals to show your design’s value. How do your design decisions map to business objectives? Can you weave a narrative between the two?
If you feel less than confident speaking to stakeholders, start here: Four foundations for expanding your business impact as a Designer.
2. Design — and defend your design — holistically.
I often present to stakeholders with a range of warmth toward the design team: a few don’t buy into design-thinking at all, a few understand design can have a high return on investment, but they have unrealistic timelines to see that return. Even fewer truly get it.
I initially found this extremely challenging but I remembered it is literally my job to reframe challenges as opportunities.
“You have to shift your mindset as a designer to understand the holistic nature of design. The design can be influenced by those who have no idea how to push the pixels or how to conduct user research. But, they still design — just in a different way,” writes Chris Kiess.
The end-user is always number one, but the company, the mission, the execs, the developers, the product managers, and the sales team all have a seat at the table.
Invest in learning how to defend your designs. Start here: Defend your UX design decisions — 8 essential techniques.
Also check out: Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as Though Your Life Depended On It by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.
3. Avoid design jargon.
Design jargon can alienate those who are skeptical to invest resources into the design process. And sometimes, jargon can act as a smart-sounding cover-up for unsubstantiated opinions.
Find more conversational ways to say “design-y” things. I’ve had success with simple changes in my speech. For example, “We must invest in generative research,” was met with less interest than, “Before we put more money into the design, I want to make sure we can answer the following questions about our user.”
Here’s a resource for communication within and about UX: Let’s Talk UX: Communication in UX Design.
4. Extend empathy beyond the end-user.
Designers claim empathy as part of our professional identity. Indeed, when I imagine that I “make someone’s life easier,” through my labor, it feels good. This idea is inherently motivating, especially since imagined users or personas, are often conventionally attractive, one-dimensional, and uncomplicated.
Empathy for an imagined person, who has never hurt my feelings nor disagreed with me, is easy. However, the way I extend empathy towards the people I see every day is the real measurement of my impact.
Empathy for complicated, opinionated, messy real-life people is a developed skill. It is a skill that you can build and improve upon, and the returns are priceless.
Increasing empathy towards your teammates and managers allows trust to grow, which equals more buy-in, more energy, and more overall productivity and goodwill.
I am trying to strengthen my empathy by pausing more often before speaking, listening more deeply, and asking better questions. In a team dynamic, the challenge is to give others the benefit of the doubt, even if they are annoying, complex, or very different from you.
To strengthen empathy, start with this read: Empathy in UX Design: What It Is and Why It's Important.
5. Leverage all the small wins.
As a designer who works at a corporation that does not prioritize design, I constantly notice areas where we as a company can do better. But I must pick my battles and decide what is worth my “fight.”
Big companies are slow to change and I, as an employee, have limited time and energy, so I focus on small wins with big impact.
For example, I want accessibility to be a larger priority inside our company. It is unlikely I will convince the engineering managers to care about something that is not yet on their radar.
Instead, I asked my department manager to spend some of our team development budget on accessibility education for the design team. I found a consultant who has lots of experience around internal messaging and advocacy for inclusive design. I connected the dots for my manager and she said yes!
This seems like a tiny step in the right direction but I am closer to the larger cultural shift I hope to create within my workplace.
Small wins can snowball into larger wins, but more importantly, I feel more empowered and more confident to make change.