As a PM at a big tech company, I spent most of my time at the fringes of the design process. I made sure the crux of our strategy was captured in a prototype for validation. Given this mile-wide and 6-inches deep perspective, there’s a lot more our design team was up to than I realized.

A user experience designer once told me that designers are, “tormented by their work.” Her design was never quite good enough and she needed zero-distractions to do her best. Small details could throw off her mojo, like if her fingernail polish didn’t match the color pattern of the product she was working on. I was shocked to hear this. As a PM I had poked around in Sketch, never encountering the pain she described.

However,  after 90 days without a full-time designer, I have a new perspective. With guidance from friends and my sister, I personally designed  200+ versions of our prototype and conducted 50+ user research sessions. I stretched my empathy and patience like never before. It was humbling.

As a designer, you are trying to emotionally connect with your user and solve problems for them. But the creative process is like having a debate with yourself that cannot be resolved.

This debate happens while constantly cycling between whiteboards, paper/pencil, and complex tools to build a prototype. It pushes even those with the highest EQ to their limit.

After pouring your soul into the prototype, all you want is for the viewer to love what you’ve made. You hang on every word, every micro-reaction, & every hesitation. You want to blurt out,  “LOOK TO THE LEFT, THE NEXT STEP IS RIGHT THERE!” But you can’t, because you’ll compromise the research study. If the user doesn’t understand the product, you are tempted to take it personally. You must remain centered and patient to get the feedback you need. But feedback isn’t straight-forward. You have to read between the lines of what the user said and what they actually need.

You give the prototype another revision and hope the next round is smoother. Only to repeat the process. Over and over and over again. For perspective, the famous inventor Sir James Dyson Made 5,127 Prototypes Before Success. Persistence and patience is key.

If you are a PM, engineering leader, CEO, marketer, or anyone who works with designers I hope you glean three insights.

  1. Designers want your humble guidance. A keen focus on what matters and what is possible will help them make users & customers happier.
  2. When designers are busy imagining a way to paint the product, think twice before interrupting them with a question that’s bothering you. They are extending a lot of empathy that ultimately will be put in front of a firing-squad in user research. They need Deep Working Time to be successful.
  3. There’s nothing like first-hand experience. Draw A Paper & Pencil Sketch Of A Product Or Advertisement and ask a few people what they think. Don’t sell them. Listen patiently. I promise you will learn something. Better yet, ask random people on the street. Their feedback will be sobering.

If you are a designer and you feel marginalized or dismissed, I encourage you to share your process with the broader team. Hold a “lunch & learn,” walking through the paper & pencil exercise above. We might not understand everything, but we will grow from the experience.

Lastly, to every designer and researcher I’ve worked with, thank you for bringing the dreams of our users and customers one-step closer to reality and taking feedback in-stride. Your empathy and dedication to the details make good products, great ones.

Now please excuse me while I go make another revision to our latest round of feedback…