How to own the UX for your product before it owns you.
Have you heard of the Mockup Monkey? Or his less put-together cousin, the Mantled Wireframe Guereza?
Myth has it that they sneak up on designers, altering their state of mind and replace one’s curiosity with cowardliness and self-doubt. Designers afflicted by the Mockup Monkey curse work tirelessly to please — particularly those in product management, sales, or leadership positions. It’s a horrible curse, and it’s beginning to control more and more designers everyday.
The afflicted designer smiles and gets to work. He enjoys feeling needed, and he’s happy he’s able to help his product manager.
Months go by, and the Mockup Monkey curse starts to take full control over the designer’s abilities to think critically and communicate things like tradeoffs and user goals.
Word spreads across Marketing, Sales, and Executive departments about the afflicted designer’s ability to produce a pretty mockup. In a flash the designer finds they’re pushing pixels into the wee hours of the night to keep up with all of the design requests coming in.
One night, the young designer was building a mockup requested by the sales team when something seemed off…
“Hmm… this looks nothing like our software today. How do we know this solves a ––”
“They’re more experienced than you.” whispers the Monkey to the young designer. “Just build what they asked.”
The designer shrugged and continued to push pixels.
Mockup Monkey continued to trick the young designer to fall in line and suppress their design voice, often neglecting the user in the process as if they were in some kind of trance.
Week pass and the designer is found at their desk, focused on making final preparations to a series of mockups for a massive CEO pet project, grinning as they pan over their work. The designer spot-checks every last visual detail, ensuring all drop shadows have the right level of opacity and rounded corners the right radius, failing to question whether the elements even need to be on the screen in the first place.
Alright, it’s presentation time. The designer enters a room full of sales team members and executives anticipating the big mockup reveal.
“So what do you think? Do you like it?” asks the young designer as they finish flipping through a stack of carefully designed screens.
“Does it need more pop?” inquires the VP of sales. “Yeah it feels… bland?” says another member in the audience.
The designer’s hands start to clam up as they recall the countless hours put into the designs.
“I did… make another version…” the designer says hesitatingly.
BAM! A new dizzying mockup takes over the display.
It appears as if Frankenstein and a unicorn came together to create this abomination.
The audience gasps in awe.
“This is exactly what I wanted!” exclaimed the CEO, “This will double our revenue!”
The designer lets out a sigh of relief and revels in the recognition for their hard work.
“Great job! See, I told you they’d like it.” whispers Mockup Monkey.
If you’re already familiar with the Mockup Monkey you probably know how his story ends…
Half the time, his mockups never made it into the actual software…
And the other half, well, they came back to haunt him in his sleep.
“Ugh… I wish I never created this monstracity of a feature.” he thinks, as he scrolls through negative feedback from users. “I can’t believe I didn’t even consider those use cases.”
“Pfft. ‘Make it like Tinder’ they said. This is a healthcare app, there’s not even a compelling use case!”
It happens to the best of us. A tight deadline or sudden mockup request and before you know it, the Mockup Monkey’s arms are wrapped tightly around your neck. The following six tips will help you strengthen your spine as a designer so you can fight off that pesky Monkey when he strikes again.
Tip #1: Know the tricks of the Mockup Monkey
Like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, the Mockup Monkey can slip into conversations without you even noticing it’s there. If you hear some of these phrases, tread carefully.
- “Can you build , it’s not on our roadmap but it will help us close this deal.”
- “We can’t say no, it’s ’s idea and it’s due Wednesday.”
- “We don’t have enough time for
- “Setting up usability testing is hard. Why don’t we just ask Bob? He should know.”
If you can get good at recognizing when the Mockup Monkey is about to strike, you’ll have a better chance at fighting off the curse through proper discovery and critical thinking. Cut corners at the expense of experiencing misalignment and circling around solutions down the stretch. Remind your team that sometimes you must go slow to go fast (later).
Tip #2: Bring the balance to conversations
When you’re in the thick of it, as a designer, I encourage you to ask yourself what it is that you stand for. Remember, you were hired for your expertise, not to do someone else’s bidding. It’s our designerly duty to bring balance to the equation and a voice to the voiceless.
“When we find ourselves working in a system that favors one side of the equation over others, it’s our job to correct the system. You want a design problem? There it is.”
— Mike Monteiro
Strong designers are capable of understanding tradeoffs and balancing both the business and user goals. For a deeper dive on this topic, check out Anyuan Wang’s article How to make smarter design tradeoffs.
Most of the time the business is present in the conversation but the user is not. Guess which one gets left behind? That’s the voice you need to bring to the table.
Tip #3: Rewire how you measure success
Success is no longer “I need to please my product manager/sales team/CEO/etc.” or to pin your design on the company fridge.
It’s about making sure the specific product, company, and user experience outcomes your team was tasked with are achieved in the best way possible. If you’re not capturing this data, work with your PM or whomever you need to to start measuring the right success metrics. That’s much more valuable than measuring how many of your execs like a feature you launched. If you need a starting point, Kaiting Huang gives you 10 frameworks to help you measure success in design that I’ve found to be quite useful.
Oh, and just flat out delete “Do you like it?” from your design vocabulary because it never yields actionable feedback!
Tip #4: Refuse to accept solutions at face value
There are a million ways to achieve your team’s desired outcome and just because someone — even the CEO — proposed a solution doesn’t excuse you from fully understanding the problem space and doing the work to research and consider alternatives.
To some, this may sound like insubordination, but I don’t tell my car mechanic how to repair my car.
The best leaders arm their specialists with the vision, strategy, and context to do their jobs effectively and then step aside, trusting the job will get done by the smart specialists they hired. Netflix’s Reed Hastings talks about the benefits of this type of leadership in his book No Rules Rules — one of my favorite resources on building a high-performing culture.
“Lead with context, not control” — Reed Hastings, CEO Netflix
Tip #5: Get the context you need before designing
It’s up to you as the designer to figure out how to work within the context and constraints to arrive at a good solution that balances the business and user goals. If you don’t have sufficient context, how can you judge whether or not your design is any good? You can’t!
Stand your ground and don’t put pencil to paper until you and your team understand and agree on the user scenarios and problem context. If you’re up against the notion that proper design research will take too long, I’d recommend you check out Just Enough Research by Erika Hall or The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley.
Tip #6: Encourage a diverse set of opinions
Now is the time to put an end to defensive design reviews, biased discovery processes, and falling in line with the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) in the room. If you and your PM are the only ones who have seen a design approach before launch, that’s a red flag that your design is prone to bias (excusing super narrow design problems, of course).
I like to run initial solution brainstorming and design review sessions with people who bring different perspectives. As a rule of thumb, try to engage at least four different departments (product, design, engineering, and one more) to help pressure test a design direction.
You may think, “Well that’s a recipe for too many cooks in the kitchen!” But just because someone voices an opinion doesn’t mean you have to take it! It’s better to have the option to dismiss an opinion than to never hear it in the first place. This helps you build a deeper understanding of the problem space and feel more confident in the design approach you ultimately decide to take.
Despite your best intentions, you will still run into situations where you’re unable to fight off the curse of the Mockup Monkey. When that happens, you have a difficult choice to make.
Maybe you’ll get asked to introduce a feature that’s a significant detriment to the user experience, or to design something unethical in return for company profit. When you find yourself in these situations remember that you were hired for your judgement, not to seek approval. You have a skill people need, and only you can decide what you do with it.