Four Ways Creative Professionals Can Be “Right” [Continuous Discovery 03]

This post was originally published May 21, 2018 in my Continuous Discovery newsletter.

Lately I’ve been going back through various folders of things I’ve written (or started writing) but didn’t do much with yet. I came across this conference talk submission from 2016. The submission didn’t pan out but I still think about the framework it describes.

Summary: Every creative professional has to deal with people who think they know more than they really do. Disagreements with clients, stakeholders, team members and professional peers are often settled by making unsatisfactory compromises or acceding to the highest paid person’s opinion. There are at least four types of strategies that anyone can use to “be right” in these situations. Based loosely on a classic essay from the philosophy of science, this talk proposes a model designers and others can use to be better at being right… ultimately the best strategy requires learning with people through new and continuously changing contexts.

Key Takeaways:

  • Design principles are easily misappropriated to support bad creative decisions.
  • Certifications and achievements lose most of their power once you’re at the table with people.
  • “Truth” in design and other creative professions (as in science) is an ongoing, social process.
Cheerful kids celebrating victory in study room
Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

Intro

There’s a well-known phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with low or developing skills in an area tend to overestimate their own abilities. At some point every creative professional has to work with a client, boss, or other stakeholder who doesn’t understand nearly as much as they think they do.

Years of training and deliberate practice expose professionals to lessons, challenges, and critiques that most amateurs (or experts in other areas) can’t even imagine. These experiences are what eventually lead to mastery and the ability to recognize it (or its absence) in others. As the physicist Niels Bohr once said, “an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made within a narrow field.”

The problem for UX professionals is that we don’t work with a strict syntax or objective interpreter to help identify mistakes. Nothing falls down or blows up or even throws an error message. There are objective implications to bad UX decisions, but they’re often unmeasured, or they occur much later and are too easily attributed to other factors. Without a glaringly obvious “uh oh,” it’s easy for anyone to dabble a little in UX and feel confident.

So how do we combat the Dunning-Kruger effect? How should designers and other creative professionals resolve disagreement and establish more regard for our expertise?

Philosophers have been working on problems of validity and truth for many centuries. One of the greatest thinkers on this topic is the American philosopher-scientist-logician Charles S. Peirce.

In “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce explained there are four ways people can overcome disagreement, uncertainty and doubt: 1) tenacity, 2) authority, 3) “a priori” reasoning, and 4) science.

Strategy #1: Win People Over

What Peirce called “tenacity” or persistence is the simplest way to make someone believe something.

In its simplest form this means to keep telling yourself and others that you’re right, and hope that you are. In the professional world, tenacity or persistence is often accompanied by relationship building. Earn people’s affinity and trust by being likeable, helping them out, showing them you do great work, etc.

Relationship building should be part of a good persuasion strategy, but it’s often too little too late. And the more people you work with, the harder it is. Many or most creative professionals do project-based work, either in agencies or in matrix organizations with fluid team dynamics, dotted-line reporting and nonlinear career paths that make it difficult to form deep relationships with everyone you work with.

Trust doesn’t always happen the first time you work with someone, especially if one party is predisposed to disagree with another. It often takes time to size up the situation (i.e. realize that a designer doesn’t just push pixels and a client doesn’t just sign cheques) and appreciate the need for trust before you can even start to build it.

The good news is trust becomes easier as we build authority over the course of a career.

Strategy #2: Make Yourself Credible

Peirce’s second way to establish belief is authority, which takes trust-building to a new level. In business and creative fields this often takes the form of formal credentials, awards, and titles that tell the world, “I’m an expert.”

As with tenacity, authority can be an important part of a strategy for building trust, but it’s far from reliable when you’re in conflict and need to change someone’s mind. Titles and credentials can help open doors and get you a seat at the table, but they won’t necessarily get you the last word.

When it comes to authority, designers are rarely holding the highest cards. Once you start playing the authority game you’re playing into the hand of the highest-paid person’s opinion. If that’s a problem, then you need to change the game.

Strategy #3: Formalize What You Know

Peirce’s third method for establishing belief is by appealing to principles. Writers and editors do this when they cite grammar and style guides. Designers likewise have different sets of rules and principles to use as guidelines and help defend decisions. At best, principles help give substance to authority and de-personalize disagreement by focusing on the work itself.

Like tenacity and authority, shared principles are an important part of any strategy for making better collective decisions, but can’t be counted on for the final say.

UX principles often devolve into UX myths, like, “everything has to be within three clicks” and broad generalizations like “x is good” or “x is bad” (where x could be flat design, scrolling, rotating banners, mega menus, animation, etc). Principles of human behavior are a much safer bet, but even they’re subject to uncertainty and change, as the “replication crisis” in psychology demonstrates.

At worst, design principles actually increase the Dunning-Kruger effect by making people feel more confident in their limited knowledge. This effect even applies to highly knowledgeable professionals, especially when moving between contexts, like applying print design principles to the web, or desktop design principles to mobile, or any of the above to a world of conversational UIs, wearable devices, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.

A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and everybody knows a bit about design.

But when approached with the right spirit, principles facilitate learning for teams and individuals. Real expertise comes not from abstract principles but experience applying them in all kinds of nuanced combinations, variations, and exceptions.

Strategy #4: Keep Learning, Together

Managing the variations and exceptions between principles leads to Peirce’s fourth and most effective method for resolving disagreement: empirical science, or doing what works based on evidence. This is one of the key concepts behind a lot of recent management philosophies and practices, from Lean Startup to design thinking: listen, build, measure, learn, repeat.

Doing and learning from what works is a continuous, collaborative process. Even formal scientific research, when viewed from a high enough level, is a process of creative destruction that inches forward partly by finding mistakes and weaknesses in existing knowledge.

What worked in the past might not work again, or might not work in quite the same way. This is why UX research is important. It’s also why research needs to be coupled with a strategy that makes use of the right mix of methods for a particular situation. Working products are the ultimate form of research, but they’re also the riskiest and most expensive, and still require disciplined planning to identify assumptions and hypotheses.

What matters most is that everyone approaches decisions pragmatically, with the basic assumption that outcomes matter more than opinions, and what you learn from those outcomes should help inform your next decisions.