Are you a designer that’s feeling burned out by all the Slack, email, and million other notifications you get on a daily basis?
Or that your dream job would so quickly turn into a nightmare, one the darkest reaches of your subconscious couldn’t conjure.
You’re not alone in your newfound disaffection for your job.
With over 4.3 million Americans quitting their jobs in December of 2021, burnout is officially a pandemic of its own.
Burnout is the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed to the point of utter exhaustion. Burnout leaves us mentally fatigued, physically exhausted, and emotionally dehydrated. The feeling that despite your best efforts you’re making little progress isn’t unique to any single profession.
Everyone from nurses to waiters, to teachers, and yes, even UX designers are feeling the effects.
But like the coronavirus, the disease that brought on if not compounded burnout, we’ve developed effective means to mitigate the risk of catching and preventing burnout.
As a Design Coach, I’ve come up with solutions and routines to target UX design burnout.
But before we understand the solution let’s better understand the problem.
Here’s what UX design burnout is.
Burnout was here before the pandemic and will be here long after. In 2003, psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson carried out the most groundbreaking research we have on burnout.
Their research identified three symptoms that arise from workplace stress.
The best products are designed when an eclectic mix of individuals are given equal ownership of a product. It’s a collaborative process that requires teams that ostensibly have little to do with each other to work together, which takes time.
In modern high-tech, faced-paced, rapid-growth product design platforms, speed to launch is a competitive advantage and it’s supported by a philosophy of done is better than perfect.
Naturally, this attitude fuels tension between teams who don’t want to waste time collaborating with other teams. However, if they are not taking the time to connect, as a consequence roles, ownership, and accountability becomes unclear, teams become less efficient, less coordinated, and less supportive of each other. It’s this dynamic that can lead to and perpetuate silos that cause individuals to feel “self-justified for bad behavior, like exaggerating other people’s faults or inflating their own virtue.”
UX designers suffer when infighting, caused by a lack of alignment over product expectations, creates a toxic work environment. According to a Harvard Business Review study of leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.
It’s working under a constant source of tension and ambiguity that can turn a talented, creative employee into an unhappy, unproductive, emotionally distanced one.
Do you know a highly detailed-oriented, enthusiastic UX designer who stopped caring about the quality of their work because they were emotionally exhausted?
Have you met a design leader who fears meeting with senior business partners, because they’ve been made to feel rejected, depersonalized, and have given up believing they could influence product strategy among the senior leadership team?
Do you know a UX researcher who shares research findings selectively?
Why would they do that?
Because they’ve learned that qualitative insights won’t change product direction in a data-driven business, so they feel they are personally ineffective.
It takes a fearless UX designer to ask to be included at the leadership table where the decision makers sit. But getting a seat at the table is one thing, getting heard is another. I’ve successfully earned a place at Meta’s, Yahoo’s, and 247.AI’s tables and have made my presence known. I know what it takes to be a fearless leader and I can help you become one too.
According to Herbert Freudenberger there are three predictors of burnout:
They should be, they are all at the center of the design process in modern software design.
The three predictors were found by Fraudenberger to be common amongst healthcare workers, teachers, and people in social services. If he’d studied the roles of UX design professionals, I’m certain he would have included them in his demographic. Here’s why:
UX designers have to negotiate conflicting goals between cross-functional team leaders, often with competing agendas to find a set of solutions that will optimize the product’s user experience.
While conflict helps validate and elaborate ideas on which the product development process is established, it forces designers to rationalize and justify every decision made in the design process to every team member. Ultimately this makes work tedious and undermines the role they occupy on the team.
If you are a UX designer, product design leader, researcher, or content strategist who impacts other disciplines’ workflow, then you need to adapt your way of communicating (not the design process) so they become co-creative partners, not critics of UX design.
Remember, people only care about their own role and getting their own needs met. An engineer wants design specs that are easy to make work, will perform well, and be reliable. A product manager wants design specs that will fulfill market (business, technology, customer) needs and become an industry leader.
So when you waste meeting time, rationalizing every design decision, at best you will be ignored or accused of wasting time, and at worst, you may be accused of questioning management authority on decisions taken when you weren’t in the room.
While the prospect of investing time building a rapport with colleagues in other departments and learning their needs can be daunting, waiting for colleagues to reach out and make introductions will only lead to more waiting.
“You can’t sit around waiting for that invitation – you need to reach across the table.” according to Katie Dill, Head of Design at Stripe.
If engaging in healthy conflict is too scary a proposition, why not practice prior? Let’s role-play in a safe 1-on-1 environment where you can practice having tactful, constructive discussions with me, someone who has had these exact discussions before. I can provide real-time feedback and refine how you communicate with non-designers.
Managing ambiguity is what UX design professionals do. They take all the ingredients from user needs, business expectations, technology standards, and translate abstract ideas into concrete product experiences from the front end to the back end.
UX professionals rely on UX research and design processes to sort out the ambiguity inherent in their role, e.g. missing product requirements, product scope creep, competing priorities, missing resources, etc.
No single design process exists to deal with all the ambiguity across a product’s development life cycle. Just as no single business strategy exists to deal with every step of its business development life cycle.
To overcome role ambiguity, designers have to become strategists of both qualitative and quantitative business and development methods and articulate the ROI of their design work in a language that is accepted and understood by the business.
As a former chief design officer at 247.AI and product design director at Meta I’ve learned the inside track on how to avoid ambiguity in UX design by speaking on the ROI of UX design in quantitative terms business leaders value. If you’d like to learn to speak the language of business for UX design leaders, set up a complimentary strategy call, and let’s chat.
Overload is part of being a UX design professional. UX design professionals work out all the difficulties on the back end, primarily by removing anticipated cognitive overload, so the user experience is a sleek front end that is desirable, viable, and feasible.
Designing complex dynamic systems, interaction patterns, user interface design across platforms, and meeting the needs of often competing stakeholder ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ is extremely stressful.
The role inherently consists of too many responsibilities for one person to handle in a reasonable amount of time. When the demands of your work role exceed your personal resources, role overload has the potential to give rise to burnout.
Just as the product you are designing needs to avoid cognitive overload for your user, you need to avoid any cognitive overload in your role.
By applying design thinking on avoiding cognitive overload on yourself!
If you google “Stop Cognitive Overload From Killing Your UX” you will get a list that includes things like:
Now imagine if you applied the principles for reducing cognitive load on yourself? How powerful would that make you feel to eliminate unnecessary meetings, declutter your calendar, offload tasks, and free up more time in your day?
What if you had a daily routine to look at the next day’s schedule and optimize it? You might ask yourself these four questions:
Get the idea? This is a powerful performance optimization routine, that takes the tools you already know and use them to reduce overload and avoid burnout.
World events have conspired to create unprecedented levels of stress, exhaustion, and mental fatigue. Are you yet another UX designer suffering from burnout?
How will you continue to work and support the team when you have reached your limits?
The truth is you can’t be productive or engaged when you’re burned out yourself. Negative emotions are contagious and hard to hide. Working from home made it easier to hide emotions from people, exacerbating burnout for so many people.
Burnout stops when you regain control over your anxiety – but how is that possible? If you can’t eliminate conflict, ambiguity, and overload, what can you change?
You can change how you respond to conflict, ambiguity, and overload. Burnout symptoms can be minimized by how you respond to them.
Being burned out is not a personal failing, it’s addressable, and the way you do this is with consistent self-care of your physical, mental and emotional health to help you respond with detachment.
To become healthy, self-aware, and optimistic again you need to operate from a foundation of your own creation, not someone else’s.
This means strengthening the connection between your mind, body, and spirit. It takes all three working together to improve your overall health and well-being.
A cornerstone of my coaching program teaches you simple routines that strengthen the connection between your mind, body, and spirit so you get your routines working for you.
An example of such a routine is to look at your calendar each week, on your planning day (I prefer late on Friday afternoon looking at the week ahead), and color code where you are scheduled to spend your energy.
It’s amazing more people don’t use color in their calendar to see where their time and energy is going. To avoid burning out at work you need to spend some percentage of every day investing your time and energy in all four areas.
Where are you spending most of your time?
Leila is a Senior UX design manager and a former UX design burnout. When she tried this simple routine of color-coding where her energy would be spent next week she saw the proof of her source of burnout. She was so busy working her dreams (Yellow) were forgotten, she took her health (Green) for granted, and when she was with friends or family (Blue), she was thinking about work. She spent her entire day and most of the evening ‘in the red’ zone.
How did this happen to Leila?
As her calendar filled up, the job she loved took over her life, and Leila was still saying yes to any project, meeting, interview, or project review that she was included or copied on.
Her meetings began at 8.00 a.m. and continued in 30-minute increments, mostly back-to-back until 4:00 p.m. Lunch was an apple, coffee, mozzarella sticks, and yogurt grabbed from a vending machine.
She ran from meeting to meeting, interviewing people, receiving updates, giving presentations, holding 1:1s, and running product reviews.
On the hour and every half hour, she and her fellow employees would emerge from meeting rooms, their faces glued to their phone screens en route to their next meeting. Ask her on Wednesday what she had done on Monday, and she could not immediately tell you.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how full your calendar is that leads to your success; it’s how you level up your relationships and expand your sphere of influence that leads to your success.
Leila’s story is not unique, every ambitious UX designer starts their career as an individual contributor and, over time, takes on more responsibilities, more projects, starts leading teams and expanding their sphere of influence.
It reaches a point where the creative work you know and love is happening less and less, and the work of relating to others that you weren’t trained to do, takes more of your time.
As the cycle escalates it’s easy to burn out, or worse, get sick, be let go, or quit and job hop every 18 months until you burnout again.
This is the definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” according to Albert Einstein.
Are you an ambitious UX designer or manager giving all your energy to your work? Do you keep saying yes to everything on your plate and expect your work-life balance to improve and your career to remain on the fast track?
Leila didn’t want to leave her company, she loved her team, and enjoyed crafting great products. But, she knew she couldn’t continue working this way. It was time for a change.
With my support, Leila learned strategic routines to optimize her time so she could devote her energy to every part of her life, wealth, health, relationships, and dreams.
For example, this routine helps her find places to take back time on her calendar so she can give her energy to all the important parts of her life, not just working in the red zone.
These are some of the concrete changes that mitigated burnout and boosted her well-being:
Learning performance routines helped Leila optimize her life for great balance. She is happy and doing well at her work again by implementing what she learned from our sessions together.
Routines are the actions you do on a regular basis to bring order into your life. A key benefit of having routines for creative people is its calming constancy. Doing something that you know you can do well is comforting in a world that is unpredictable, routines are an anchor of predictability.
Having routines helps you manage your energy so you can achieve more, think clearer, and focus on what matters. These are all tools to prevent UX design burnout.
“What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in It.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When you manage your time and carve out time to pursue your passion every single day, it helps you establish priorities and decide where you should really be spending your time. It keeps projects percolating in the unconscious mind which helps make better decisions.
And on days you don’t have the energy for doing much at all, it builds forward momentum and limits procrastination.
If you’d like to learn more about how to leverage routines to craft the life you want, not the one that leads to UX design burnout, set up a complimentary strategy call and see if coaching is a fit for you.
The work you will do with me as your coach will change how you show up in the world and how others respond to you. You are inviting positive change at a fundamental level from the inside out.
Are you reading to redesign your life and stop suffering from UX design burnout?
© 2018-2022 Sally Grisedale. All rights reserved.