Terrible Twos

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Little Boxia has just turned two! Look how proud she stands, barely wobbling at all! See how she toddles around, smearing food on the walls! So independent, so curious and wait… did she just say “no!”? No, no, no! Here they come… the terrible twos.

As we celebrate Boxes and Arrows’ second birthday with pride, I find myself looking at our profession as well. As a manager of designers and as a member of the community, I am struck time and time again at how timid and uncertain so many designers are. It doesn’t matter if they are information architects, graphic designers, or interaction designers; a pervasive feeling of fraud floats through the air. “What if they don’t believe me,” “I need data,” “What have I got to offer?” Around dear Boxia’s birth, Jesse James Garrett accused the community of dressing up in lab coats to try to pass for a professional. To this day I see designers reaching for data like a thug reaches for a baseball bat before entering a street fight. The research they want to do is not to learn, but to win arguments. This is, of course, bad for design and bad for research.

How do you become confident? How do you stand up in a room with senior vice presidents, directors of marketing and …shudder… engineers and explain why you didn’t color in the napkin-wireframe they drew over lunch, but rather, that you decided to design? You have to make sure you are as professional as the professional you are.

  • Know your shit. Make sure you have the education you need. This is a combination of school learning, keeping up-to-date with periodicals and books on your subject of expertise, and real-world experience. This is probably the toughest for young designers. The solution though, is to read like a crazy person, talk to every senior designer you know about the work you are doing and learn from their experience, and work as much as you can, through freelancing and volunteering.
  • Think it through. If you haven’t thought through every bit of your design, you’ll get a kick-in-the-rear when you present your ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to be hyper-analytical while you design, but it does mean you set aside an hour or two before you present and do a heuristic analysis of your own work (or get a peer to do it). Walk through the entire solution and look for flaws. Categorize them into:
    • “I will fix”
    • “I won’t fix because…”
    • “It could be a bad solution, but I don’t think so because…”
    • “I don’t know”

    Now when these issues are brought up in the presentation, you won’t trip up, you won’t lose your confidence. You’ll calmly explain that “Yes, very perceptive, I have so and so working on it,” “I’d like to, but this is the phase one solution, it’s all we have time for,” “I do see your point, but have you considered this?” and your secret weapon, “You know, I’ve been pondering over that—what do you think?” Why is this the secret weapon? Nothing shows confidence more than the willingness to admit you don’t have all the answers. Admitting you don’t have an answer always trumps bullshit.

    By treating the folks you are presenting to as members of your team—equals with unique insights that match your own—you reach two goals: ending conflict while shoring up your own sense of place in the project and your value therein. You also message that to the other members of the team.

This is my final bit of advice:

  • Psych yourself up. I’m really not an affirmations type of gal, I’m more of a “Let’s go get beer and a pizza and see if there is some brilliant insight that comes from sausage and mushrooms.” Maybe it’s my years in California, but before a really tough meeting, I’ll sit quietly at my desk for five minutes and say to myself “You know your sht, you’ve done your homework, you’ve been doing this long enough, you are a smart cookie, you won’t say anything dumb, you will listen closely, everyone in there is on your side, we all want the same thing, you will be great. You will be great. You will be great.”

Sounds goofy, I know. I hope my family back in Iowa never reads this. But it works. You have to believe in yourself before you can get anyone else to.

At the IA summit I stated in the five-minute madness, “You win more arguments with will than with data” and it’s true. It’s all about giving up the lab coats and showing off our own design raiment.

So what has this got to do with our little Boxia’s birthday?

As a human, you enter your second year of life becoming more confident. Less obedient. More freethinking (as well as freestanding) and you often tell people “no.”

“No” takes some courage to say. It means you have realized your world view is as valid as your parents. And it’s a critically important moment in anyone’s life, be it B&A, the design profession or your own life.

Boxes and Arrows will continue standing tall, fleshing out ideas, not talking down to folks, exploring new approaches—even if unpopular, and saying “no” when saying “no” is the right thing to do.

We recommend you do so too.

*At the summit each year, the conference closes by letting anyone walk up to the microphone speak their mind. It’s called “five minute madness” and this year it included a woman singing “You Light Up My Life”, a man praising his Treo as an example of a future without limits, and another who lambasted the SIGIA list as a blight on the firmament. Madness indeed.


  1. Happy Birthday!!! All the work of the B&A team is so important. I especially appreciate the editors – edited articles just have that better signal to noise ratio. Thanks for all the hard work.

    Looking forward to many more years of outstanding UX thinking.

  2. I appreciate Christina’s simple advice. This article is funny and breezy readin’. I’ve found much of my success with development teams revolves around gaining credibility & dealing with conflict & getting the group to lay down their arms.

    One issue I deal with all the time is resentment that you are “taking away” a function that developers want for themselves. (even though you wouldn’t have been called in if their work was usable).

    Even if a product has very extreme usability problems, if the development team is not receptive to outside input, your ideas will have limited effect. Thanks for broaching this subject – it is very central to being successful in our jobs –


  3. Congratulations, the editorial team is doing an excellent job and is playing a vital role in growing our profession!

  4. I love the first item, “Know Your Shit”. I’ve actually been told that I know my shit, and that it’s intimidating to other team members. I see it as a plus, but that isn’t always the case. However, when I have data in hand, I’m not seen as being intimidating by knowing my shit, but merely presenting data that was gathered, which aligns with my view on a design. Building credibility is easy with some, tougher with others, and having data support me has been a way to build credibility.

  5. Terrible as it sounds, making a big(ger) deal out of what you are presenting (as in, “yes, in fact, this is the biggest thing since sliced bread…”) also goes a long way, particularly when presenting to clients who are unsure of their own experience in this realm. I have seen ideas that I would consider old-hat or ‘no, duh’ sold with such gusto that everyone leaves the room thinking it’s genius and cutting-edge.

    Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, just as confidence breeds confidence.

  6. Happy birthday B&A!

    This article got me thinking about when it’s appropriate for a designer to say “no” to his boss, teammates, etc. (in the context of a project).

    So when should a designer just say “no?” Maybe we should take a cue from parenting and reserve the word for dangerous situations only. That is, only say “no” if you’re certain that you, your team or the company you’re working for will certainly be put in harm’s way by following the directions you’ve been given. In the case of a child, that’s when she’s reaching toward the open light socket. In a corporate environment, that’s a bit trickier to distinguish. I’d love to hear what B&A readers think those situations are.

    For now, I’d like to offer some alternatives to saying “no.” Parenting experts will tell you to give kids options instead. For example, a child who doesn’t want to eat his raviolis can be given the choice of raviolis or spaghetti. It works. If your manager asks you to design 50 wireframes in 2 days, think about your options before using the “n” word. Think to yourself, what will happen if I do 50 wf’s in 2 days? How many open issues are there? What will I leave out? How will that impact the other members of the team? Last time we did this, what was the result? What’s so critical about 2 days? In my experience, unrealistic expectations like these come from managers who are inexperienced with the development process and are being pressured themselves with some pretty outrageous expectations. Figure out why your manager needs to have something done in 2 days, then give him options that will accomplish his goals and appeal to his good instincts (he *is* a manager, so he should have some).

    Examples may be…
    Option A: I’ll work myself to death in 2 days only to deliver some half-baked wireframes that will be useless to the development team because they will not include many of the elements and behaviors that are not yet defined – we’ll also lose credibility in the process.

    Option B: We spend 1 day resolving the open issues with the team, then 1 day designing a wireframe for the most critical page(s)

    Option C: etc.

    One last comment, good managers listen to the reasoning of the designers on their team. They attempt to understand that reasoning, challenge it, then bring the team to a mutually desirable conclusion. They cover the open light sockets and set their team up for success. I’ve seen it. It’s cool.

    Thanks for the provocative article!

    FYI: here are a couple articles about saying “no” to kids:

  7. I’ve been a graphic designer for over 20 years. One thing Christine states I can’t over emphasize–get a good design foundation or education. One of the things that was hardest for me early on was defending my ideas and design choices. In each design class I took, especially graduate level, we had to present and present and present. At first I was shy and didn’t know how. Then I watched senior designers present some of the craziest ideas to clients–they were clever or unusual ideas–and they sold the ideas! As one of my former bosses said to me, “even a good idea needs to be sold.” These senior folks’ ability to present their ideas with confidence and determination showed me how to do it, too. Christine is so right, you can’t persuade anyone about your ideas if you’re not sure of them or you don’t believe in them. Thanks for reminding everyone, Christine!

  8. Congratulations to Boxes & Arrows and all the editors who put in so much hard work to make this an outstanding research for IAs/UXers/designers/whatever the heck we are!

    It is a delight to read the articles and participate in this vibrant community.

  9. “Know Your Shit” is right on….Thank you, Boxes and Arrows, for two years of education and inspiration. Here’s to fifty more!

  10. Saying “Know your STUFF” would have been just as effective.

    By stooping to common street language, you’ve degraded the quality of anything else you might have to say … and gave me reason to read no further.

    Talk like a foul mouth child if you please, but don’t expect to be respected as a professional.

  11. It’s B&A’s B-day? SHEEEETTT, time sure does fly!

    Let me just say that B&A is a damn fine two-year old! Next year I say forget the Webby’s and run this sucka in the Kentucky Derby!

    (IMNSHO, if I know my crap and add value to the team I’m on, people forgive my occasional slip of the tongue.)

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