The Most Important Thing You’re Not Doing as a UX Designer

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Vivianne Castillo | Visual: Debbie Lee
A primarily red and purple illustration of a woman wiping clean the surface of various image frames containing bodily elements like hands, feet, and eyes.

As I’m writing this, I’m having “one of those days.”

I barely got any sleep, survived the work day on a steady diet of processed snacks and coffee (then attempted to alleviate guilt from the latter by drinking an annoyingly excessive amount of water), hyped myself through a flash of imposter syndrome, opted out of the healthy dinner I prepared for myself last night and ordered fast food, and I’ll probably conclude the night with a couple episodes of How to Get Away with Murder and Pose before I go to bed, hoping I get just enough sleep to function tomorrow.

Sound familiar? Feel free to add your kids acting up, microaggressions, family drama, petty workplace politics, bouts of depression and anxiety, tight project deadlines, being the “one of few or the one and only” in your workplace, and/or struggles with finding meaning or purpose in your work to your own picture of “one of those days.”

Oh, and don’t forget the number one responsibility you have as a UX professional: being an advocate and champion for your company’s customers in a human-centered and empathic way.

I’m reminded of an image I came across the other day:

A model of a sensory homunculus sculpted by Sharon Price-James; the concept of the sensory homunculus originally comes from Dr. Wilder Penfield, an American-Canadian neurologist.

It’s one thing to ask a child to draw a picture of themselves, or even for us to attempt to draw ourselves, but what if we were able to give our brain a pencil and have it draw what we look like based on how the brain sees the body? The results would be far from the art of Michelangelo: The brain would draw us with oversized hands, feet, lips, genitalia, and tongue. This portrayal of the body is known as the sensory homunculus, a representation of how the brain would portray the different parts of our body according to the proportion of the somatosensory cortex devoted to the parts’ sensory functions. In other words, the brain would draw parts of our body larger based on the amount of sensory attention the cortex places on them.

The sensory homunculus is a helpful illustration for the UX professional. Our industry has dedicated a significant amount of “sensory attention” to methodologies, debates over UI vs. UX, to code or not to code, what it means to be junior vs. senior, and more.

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to diminish the value of conversations and training around methodologies, semantics, etc.; they’re important and have their place in the spaces and industries we work in.

However, just as the sensory homunculus minimizes critical aspects of ourselves that allow us to function — like the torso holding our vital organs — we too often minimize a critical aspect of our professional responsibilities: a self-care regimen.

The reality is that there are times when our work impacts us deeply — sometimes in ways we neither acknowledge nor understand — and that’s what makes this neglect of self-care the biggest mistake most UX professionals make.

But where should one start when it comes to building a self-care regimen?

Take inventory of your personal and professional stressors

If there’s a common thread I can pull through my experiences in the UX and human services industry, it’s this: Context is everything, and understanding it is key to fostering connection and progress. We can see this thread in our projects when we seek to understand the problem space we’re trying to impact: who would be engaging in the experiences we’re helping to shape, what corresponding routines and habits we should be aware of as we evolve an experience, what our stakeholders need to hear to execute on said experience, how much time we have to complete this project, and so on and so forth.

We do this because it’s critical to understand the context around the problem space in order to adequately address it.

It’s time we do the same with a self-care regimen.

We need to understand the context around what self-care means for you and how to personalize it in a way that addresses both the personal issues and orthodoxies you bring, and the issues that are birthed from the cultural, institutional, and systemic issues within our workplaces. Otherwise we’ll mistakenly address the symptoms instead of treating the root of the problem, which often results in burnout masked as depression.

We need to start asking ourselves personal and professional questions like:

  • Do I feel emotionally, mentally, physically, and psychologically safe at work?
  • To what degree does “I want to help people” play a factor in why I’m in this profession?
  • Are there historical wounds (e.g., from my family history or past traumas) that motivate me to do this work? How am I currently attending to these wounds in other areas of my life?
  • Do I feel satisfied with my current work and life schedule?
  • Does my work with clients, end users, stakeholders, etc., feel fulfilling?

If you need help answering these questions, there’s a PDF for you to work through at the end of this piece as a part of a “Self-Care is for UX Challenge.”

However, we must be careful to ensure that the reality of self-care avoids the common fate of words like empathy or human-centered: becoming an anchor of niceties devoid of real conversations about the incredible amount of personal and often painful work required to apply them well. Instead:

Slow down.

Sit with yourself.

Take inventory.

Acknowledge the Four Horsemen

In the New Testament of the Bible, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse symbolically portray devastating occurrences (conquest, war, hunger, and death) that signal the end of times.

The 1887 painting “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov. From right to left are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

But for the sake of this topic, I’d like to use this metaphor to describe four potentially devastating issues that can affect UX professionals — less experienced and more tenured alike — in their careers and the potential for these issues to result in personal harm and professional impairment.

The first horseman: imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome, when left unchecked, can not only stifle someone’s career development, but can also deepen unhelpful and underlying beliefs that often stem from previous experiences, especially from our childhoods.

  • Do you have trouble accepting praise and credit? Have you ever thought about why or what that stems from?
  • Have you ever worked past the point of achieving a goal because you felt like you had to prove something?
  • Who do you want to notice your work, and what role does their recognition play in your perception of your worth and value?
  • What memories do you have in which you felt like you were enough in the eyes of your family, friends, and colleagues, and you didn’t feel the need to earn anything from them (e.g., appreciation, respect, acknowledgement, etc.)?

The second horseman: fear of failure

We work in an industry that prides itself on understanding what it means to be human-centered (well, aspects of it… but more on that another day). The truth is that failure is a key aspect of what it means to be human-centered toward ourselves and others; not only is it a normal part of existence, but it is often the catalyst for self-discovery, resilience, and innovation. Where most people fall prey to this horseman is this: believing that fear is an absolute and forgetting to mitigate fear with perspectives grounded in self-compassion, self-love, and self-respect.

  • What external influences, messages, or people have shaped your understanding of what failure is and what your relationship with it should look like?
  • What are the messages that you send yourself when you make a mistake or mess something up?
  • What are kinder ways of speaking to yourself that reinforce perspectives grounded in self-compassion, self-love, and self-respect?

The third horseman: pursuing perfection

There is nothing wrong with wanting to produce quality work, but in the words of Voltaire, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The pursuit of perfectionism often results in individuals suffering from the inevitable consequences of their inability to achieve it, consequences like self-blame, decreased satisfaction in their work or personal life, fear of missing out, risk-aversion, and anxiety, to name a few.

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. — Anna Quindlen

We would all agree that if a stakeholder tasked us with creating an experience that required people to meet unattainable and impossible standards, we wouldn’t be implementing a human-centered approach. And yet, many of us struggle to resist the deadliness of this third horseman, the lure to avoid applying a human-centered approach to our relationship with ourselves.

  • Do you know how to accept and celebrate your successes? Or do you find yourself always feeling like you haven’t accomplished enough?
  • Do you avoid taking on challenging projects or problems because you don’t want to “set yourself up for failure”? How, if at all, have you seen this impact your ability to grow both professionally and personally?
  • Are you aware of your perfectionistic tendencies but downplay them as “the cost of being successful”? How has this cost affected your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational well-being?

The fourth horseman: minimizing your experiences

Another’s emotional experience does not negate or eclipse our own. We, as humans, have a tendency to try to sugarcoat our experiences by bringing to mind someone who has it “worse” than we do. We misuse the concept of gaining perspective by shaming our own emotional reaction to life, causing an underlying narrative of “your feelings don’t matter.”

— Hannah Rose, “Why Do We Minimize Our Emotions?

It’s easy to characterize the minimization of your experiences as a coping skill, in part because it temporarily addresses the pain and suffering you might be experiencing in that moment. However, when we minimize our experiences, we often end up settling for the treatment of the symptom over treating the root of the problem. This is not only unsustainable, but it often deepens unhelpful ways of thinking, relating, and coping that many of us have learned from external and familial experiences.

  • Have you ever discounted an experience at work that evoked a difficult emotion? What caused you to discount it, and how much of that is connected to personal influences (e.g., upbringing, learned coping skills, orthodoxies around weakness, etc.) versus work influences (e.g., workplace culture, management, orthodoxies around professionalism, etc.)?
  • Have intense emotions and mood swings become a typical occurrence in your professional life?
  • What needs, if any, do you feel like are not being met in your current work or workplace? What would it look like for you to have those needs met?
  • Do you know how to be vulnerable and humble enough to seek help when you need it?

Humble thyself and commit to thyself

The steps mentioned in this piece should be considered preliminary work when it comes to building a self-care regimen. Contrary to the “move fast and break things” axiom, this is about slowing down and creating space to assess and reflect on ourselves, both personally and professionally.

More importantly, we can’t accomplish this without humility. Pride is one of the greatest occupational hazards for the UX professional; it keeps us from holistically acknowledging areas of underdevelopment and ignorance, causing us to not prioritize opportunities that require initiative and commitment and potentially inflicting harm on both ourselves and others.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself and as a plea to the UX community: Humble thyself and commit to thyself, for “what we bury deep and try not to face affects the world that we try to make around us” (Jordan Peele).

Self-care is for UX challenge

Mindful Moment: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” — Anaïs Nin

Challenge: Commit to thyself by choosing one of the challenges below that can help you resist the temptation to minimize a critical aspect of your professional responsibilities: a self-care regimen.


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