Talk Design: How to Manage Failure in UX Design

Jazmin Harling-Gray

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July 14, 2020

In late April we sat down with Yao Adantor, Senior User Researcher and Designer to interview him for our series “Talk Design,” where we speak with designers to learn about their industry. During our short meeting, we chatted with Yao about best practice tips and tricks for leading a successful UX project and finding the opportunities in every failure.

Meet Yao

Yao currently works as a Senior User Researcher and Designer in the healthcare industry leading complex projects that aim to modernize government programs. In his role, he helps designers and product teams create user-centered designs that balance the needs of users as well as internal and external stakeholders.

But Yao’s work is not complete without the group of product professionals that bring research and design to life. For Yao, user experience design is a team sport.

“When you have people in the right positions — sharing strategy and working together — you have better solutions.”

As a leader, he is responsible for managing stakeholder expectations, driving his team forward, and ensuring the end result makes sense for his end-users, including himself.

“[When designing for healthcare] you are working on something that affects you yourself. You want to get to a point where the solution is the most your team could have put on it, day-in-and-day-out.”

To balance the competing interests of stakeholders, Yao ensures the entire product team is working toward the same goal. This requires prioritization, mental agility, and always knowing the next thing that needs to be done. It’s a bit of a juggling act.

What sparked your desire to enter the UX industry?

“About 6 or 7 years ago a lot of people were starting to build applications. I started helping out here and there. My real foundations are in psychology, not a user experience perspective.”

The designer, and part-time adjunct professor, got his start in Behavioral and Industrial Psychology with a degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“I had no desire for User Experience specifically because I didn’t even know there was a field of user experience.”

Nonetheless, his desire to ask the right questions and understand the behavior of users led him to discover the field of UX.

Yao Adantor, Senior User Expeience Researcher and Designer, courtesy of MICA

Thinking about the work you’ve done in UX, can you tell me about a time when you felt a sense of success?

“If I was able to get all the key players involved (end-user, builders, etc.) then this is a success.” Anytime his team can stop and say, “What should we do here?” is a privilege. Because of the competing interests and perspectives that converge on a project, getting everyone on the same page at the same time is a big win.

Even so, success is not only a matter of aligning interests but knowing when and how to involve users in the design process. It’s about keeping them in the conversation and listening to their needs while ensuring you leave room for innovation.

“Anytime we can make [users] part of the process — researching, asking questions, talking to them, and putting them in [the design] through personas and stories — anytime I can get that chain going on questions we have, I consider that a win… I like to think about working with [users] in the design process as co-designing, rather than putting them in the middle.”

If you put the user in the center, it’s easy to mistakenly design for what you think the user wants. However, if you involve users in the process at key points, innovation becomes possible. You’re no longer designing according to a list of requirements, but rather exploring what new solutions could meet the needs of all stakeholders.

Tell me a story about a time when you experienced failure on a design project.

For Yao, failure and success are one and the same, begetting similar approaches. More importantly, failure is an opportunity for another creation.

“It depends on how you think about failure. For me, anytime I stop short of what I think I can get [out of a solution], this opens doors to try something else. When something comes up short it’s an opportunity to see what doesn’t work, so you can prioritize better.”

In his line of work, there is no such thing as a complete failure. Each time he receives negative feedback, it’s an opportunity to refine the solution — identifying the things that will make it better. And when working with a team, each person involved has a stake in ensuring the success of the project.

From healthcare experts to designers and software developers, there are so many hands-on a project it becomes near impossible to walk away from the effort empty-handed. There are checkpoints every step of the way when you’re building a product. If one step isn’t done right, others fill it in. When something doesn’t go according to plan a window for creation is opened up.

How do you come to terms with putting energy into a project, failing, and recovering from that failure?

For Yao, the process is everything. Tracking project iterations is one way to maintain a work ethic that fosters growth out of failure.

“When things don’t work, keep that in your archives. That’s maybe a formula or a process you used that wasn’t very clean or proper, but sometimes you have to keep it in mind. It takes a few tries. Always work with your process, kind of like Lego pieces, moving them around when you move on to the next [process].”

An agile mindset helps Yao walk away from any project with new lessons under his belt. After completing a project, his team comes together to collect stories, discuss challenges, and share what they learned. By sharing these lessons (the good and the bad), they're able to apply these insights to later projects.

Finally, transparency and feedback are integral for him to successfully recover from a misstep.

“It’s always better to make your work transparent. Wherever I go, I make it a point to try to open up my work. Let’s say I was making some format in Figma, about personas. I’ll share with the whole team as soon as I can, so they can see that work for granted, utilize that work, and help me make decisions.”

Two women standing at a white board with sticky notes completing the design thinking process

Interview Insights

This article was written as a collaboration between Jennifer Greenstein and Jazmin Harling-Gray.

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