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The 3 biggest challenges that UX designers face (and how to overcome them)

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a UX designer. But that doesn't mean it’s easy. Here, UX educator and mentor Ioana Teleanu shares her take on the most important UX design challenges, and how to deal with them.

UX design and analysis

Last updated

29 Nov 2022

When I first became interested in UX design, I was excited about building beautiful experiences and delighting users with products they couldn’t wait to use.

Then reality hit. Through reading, mentoring at UX Goodies, and in-the-field practice, the complexities and complications of life as a UX designer began appearing. 

Far from discouraging a UX design career, these challenges open up exciting opportunities in a still-emerging discipline. 

Here are the three most important challenges that I see in the field, along with suggestions for how we can overcome them.

Challenge 1: the ambiguity of UX design

We’ve all seen this beautifully linear UX process: you do research, ideate solutions, test it with focus groups, and everything goes perfect! You have the solution, and your users just love it. 

And that never happens. 

The reality is that when you get started on a UX project, you often lack clarity about where to start and where you need to go. 

The ambiguity of UX projects comes in many forms, but it stems from a combination of two things: uncertainty and complexity. There are so many unknowns, and you often don't know what you don't know. It’s like your knowledge is scattered across the Known-Unknown Matrix.

You try to plan and predict, but instead it’s like you’re moving in the dark and feeling your way as you go. You start, you pivot, and you discover things along the way, and those insights show you where you need to go next.

I've seen it at all levels. It's particularly painful for junior designers who aren’t yet comfortable with ambiguity. And while senior designers understand that it's part of the process, that doesn’t always make it easier. It does, however, give us a clue towards a solution.

How do we overcome the ambiguity of the design process? 

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet that removes ambiguity and complexity entirely. The reality is, ambiguity is the reality. And then ends up being part of the solution.

We can take a lead from how Erika Hall outlines research in her book Just Enough Research. According to Hall, research will never give you absolute clarity or absolute answers. Ultimately, you work to understand things to a certain level of comfort, and then you have to rely on other things like your intuition, your experience, or your best educated guess.

This is uncomfortable for most people, because nobody wants to be wrong. Nobody wants to make decisions they're not completely confident about. And it's hard to deal with that.

But as designers, many of our assumptions and decisions may turn out wrong. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed, or that we should stop acting. It just means that we’re participating in a process that is nonlinear with a messy middle. 

As designers, we need to get comfortable with this. You want clear processes, but team dynamics are messy. You want certain outcomes, but projects unfold in unpredictable ways.

And this is the key: accepting that you don’t know for sure, that you might be wrong, and taking a step forward anyway. Put it out there, get feedback, and iterate to the next best thing. It’s never going to be perfect, so it’s best to learn to deal with that.

Learn to separate the ambiguity from the way you feel about the ambiguity.

Learn to separate the ambiguity from the way you feel about the ambiguity.

Challenge 2: getting buy-in for UX research

“We already know what the customer wants!”

“We don’t have the time or resources to invest in research.”

Our product managers and developers can handle this.”

At some point in your UX career, you’ll hear a version of at least one of those, and possibly all of them. It points to one of the most frequent headaches for UX designers: getting buy-in for UX research.

But let’s start with a confession that many designers are unlikely to admit: sometimes companies build good products without doing research. 

It happens for different reasons, most often when companies are just getting started. Maybe early-stage founders started off to scratch their own itch, and feel this is sufficient validation to pursue their solution. Or maybe the founders have a particular domain knowledge and feel confident they know enough to build for a specific market, as Andy Budd has argued. When success stories like these appear, it contributes to the problem of research being undervalued. 

Of course success without research is not the norm. And when you want to develop a more mature product, research becomes essential. But even still, resistance persists. 

Another frequent buy-in barrier is proving the value of design. Some teams feel that a product manager working with developers can come up with a pretty good solution without involving designers. They worry that adding designers will just add more time and opinions to the mix, so they forgo UX design altogether.

How do we overcome the challenge of getting UX buy-in?  The first step toward getting buy-in from reluctant stakeholders may sound obvious: understand what’s causing the reluctance. 

Why don’t they see the value of doing more research? Why are they afraid of giving design more power, or investing in more resources? 

When you start to ask the questions, you’ll find all sorts of answers. 

Sometimes a CEO is very opinionated and insists that they know best. At other times, a team has invested in past research that they didn’t feel paid off. Or perhaps they like the idea, but don’t think they have the time or budget right now. Or maybe they just want to copy what a competitor is doing. Not my recommended strategy, but it does happen. 

The takeaway: if you’re looking for buy-in from an unconvinced stakeholder, start by understanding their reluctance. Only then can you begin to address their concerns. 

If you want to dive deeper into the causes and solutions, I’ve written elsewhere about how to get UX buy-in at your company.

Challenge 3: the design industry is still immature

What does a UX designer do? 

If you’re reading this, you probably have an answer for this question. And if you look around at different job postings and descriptions, you’ll likely find a dozen other answers. 

One company hiring a UX designer may list ‘research’ as a key activity. Another company may emphasize the importance of maintaining the brand’s visual identity. A third company may expect their designer to code. In different teams, the same design title may refer to completely different roles. 

And what’s the difference between a UX designer, an interaction designer, and a product designer? The answer depends on the team. Companies using different titles may be hiring for essentially the same role.

To put it bluntly: the design industry is messy.

There’s been an explosive growth of design teams and roles in recent years, and the enthusiasm has been exciting and overall a net positive. But it’s also led to a varied understanding and lack of standardization.

This is a real challenge for UX designers, especially those just getting started in the field, and also for companies who believe that design is important, but don’t know where to start hiring for it. 

How do we overcome the challenges of an immature UX design industry? 

Some improvements are easy and obvious. At a practical level, companies hiring for design roles need to communicate the role and expectations clearly. It’s remarkable how often posted jobs are either unclear, underdefined, or list more responsibilities than any one person could handle on their own.

Another step is for design leaders and industry voices to spend more time on education. This is needed within the design community, and for leaders in other teams who still don’t understand the role of design and the multidisciplinary nature of the field.

Other possible solutions are more controversial. The following is a suggestion borrowed from design leaders like Mike Monteiro (author of Ruined by Design).

Most mature industries have some sort of standardization, and many have specific qualifications to gain ‘the right to practice’. For example, you wouldn't want your doctor’s only qualification to be ‘I have a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine.’ And we don't let people start driving just because they saw some 'how to drive' videos on YouTube.

Moreover, someone working in an explosive-growth startup may take on the job title of ‘Chief Design Officer.’ But do they have the same perspective and level of qualification as someone with that same job title at Facebook? Probably not.  Now, I’m a self-taught designer—and I encourage others to do this. I believe that everyone has the potential to become, and be hired as, a designer. But I also believe that stricter standards may be useful. 

Perhaps we need some sort of industry-level certification that aims to validate sufficient mastery over key skills and concepts. Maybe specific exams to demonstrate levels of proficiency in UX research, interaction design, and visual design.

It’s far from a perfect suggestion, especially in an imprecise profession that relies on creative and critical thinking. But it’s an option that I think our field should continue to explore. 

And for my next challenge…

Every discipline has its own set of challenges, and what I’ve presented just scratches the surface of all the possible problems and setbacks that UX designers encounter. 

But so many of these challenges stem from the immature state of the industry, and the multidisciplinary nature of user experience design. 

Design means different things to different people. For some, it’s about making things look good. For others it’s a process of planning out the creation of objects and interactions that a user has with a product. These diverse definitions all contain some truth, but they also lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

And this is exciting! It means we’re just getting started, and we still have a lot of room to grow.

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