What is UX burnout?
If you havent heard of UX burnout, dont feel badits a term I coined for the kind of burnout that arises during key points of the UX process, as opposed to a generalized creative block that occurs when youve simply run out of energy and ideas.
Creating aneffective user experience is a complicated, multifaceted process. It demands a wide variety of skill sets and a constant stream of creative ideas, all with a complete focus on the user.
UX design also involves a innumerable iteration cyclesa process that theoretically never ends. Noted designer Neville Brody once said Digital design is like painting, except the ink never driesand thats totally true. Althoughan artist only has to aim for a single user to love their work, UX designers must create experiences that resonate at scale, with massive and constantly-changing audiences.
The burnout I experienced after such a high intensity design sprint was exhausting at the time, but it was ultimately a blessing. Through the roller coaster ride of UX design, Ive identified six types of UX burnout youll probably also encounter, along with research-backed methods to get through them.
1. Youre tired of listening
Creatinga great user experience requires a lot of empathy and listening on the part of the designer. Its only by truly understanding a problem that we can design a relevant and meaningful solution. The catch here is that full, active listening and empathy require a great deal of energy, and a desire to truly engage with your subject rather than just get the insights you need.
Active listening isnt just sitting by and passively hearing what your client has to sayits an intense, full-body listening where you seek their wants, needs, desires, and meaning in each word and gesture. Just a few rounds of this active empathetic listening can leave you feeling emotionally drained and, before you know it, you attention has begun to wander. Whats worse, the moment you stop listening your audience stops sharing. As designerFrank Chimero once said, People ignore design(ers) that ignore people.
Use a technique called timeboxing to preserve your energy and ensure youre fully present and engaged. Studies show that we can only concentrate fully for40 minutes at a time, so although you may be tempted to stack interview after interview, think again.Stepping away to rejuvenate will give you a clear head and fresh perspective and improve your focus and productivity. The timeboxing technique is based on the premise thatworking within constraints increases productivity. By putting strict constraints around your work, youll be able to focus and be present for that limited time, then take a break to rejuvenate.
Another way to maintain your energy during the user interview process is to make sure that you stay interested! One of the great joys of user research is that you get to discover interesting things about people, stimulating one of the most powerful tools we possess: Genuine curiosity. The interview process is far more than just a gateway to the insights you need as a designer; its an opportunity to connect with a fascinating person and their unique story.
If you broaden your interview by adding a few random questions that go beyond the scope of your research, youll expand the information you collect for the project while keeping yourself engaged and interested. And when listening to a client, remember to listen to yourself as well and to know when your focus has dipped and you need to take a break to come back engaged.
2. You have problem paralysis
The great thing about user research is the wealth of problems it reveals. And the bad thing about user research? The wealth of problems it reveals. While interviews can reveal a mass of valuable data, its easy to fall intoindecision paralysis when youre trying to pick the most important problems to solve and ideating various solutions. So how can you use the information you gather to know which usability issues are mission critical and which are simply an inconvenience?
Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by the number of usability issues Im facing, I use the three questions prioritization framework. AsDavid Travis points out,you can classify the severity of any usability problem into low, medium, serious, or critical by asking just three questions with YES/NO answers:
- Does the problem stop the user achieving their primary goal?
- Is the problem difficult for users to overcome?
- Is the problem persistent?
The highest priority problems are those that prevent users from achieving their primary goal. Only once these are solved do the remaining issues become of importance.
3. Youre all ideated out
Ideating solutions is one of the most enjoyable parts of the design process. That moment of breaking open the pens to fill up dry erase boards with ideas and collaborate with our fellow creatives brings an energy and spark to the work that we do.
But with some projects, ideas arent so easy to ignite. And whether its a looming deadline, team dynamics, or simply a lack of insights, sometimes that dry erase board looms over you instead of welcomes you. The whole thing can make you feel overwhelmed and unable to effectively ideate.
Steal. Learn to steal like an artist. Whenever Austin Kleon, designer and author ofSteal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, feels himself grinding to a creative halt, he makes a point of reminding himself that everything is a remix. As Kleon says, Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.
In his TED talk,Embrace the Remix, Kirby Ferguson says, Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isnt an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness. Its a liberation from our misconceptions, and its an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves.
Now, Im not suggesting that you copy other ideas verbatim. Stealing like an artist means engaging with the world in a way that seeks inspiration in the most likely and unlikely of places, getting clear on what you love, and learning to create through inspiration from others.
4. Youre overwhelmed by data
Whether youre a left brainer or right, we all have to fall in love with research. After all, a thorough understanding of the problem were solving and the user were solving it for is the foundation of all effective design. Because of this, we delight in receiving insights about the problem at hand.
But that doesnt mean that the whole process of gathering, interpreting, and constantly reaffirming information doesnt get exhausting. Whats more, research is far from a one and done process. We constantly need to be seeking feedback on our work in order to ensure our decisions are validated and not backed by lazy assumptions or a simple desire to create pretty pixels. When we try to figure everything out ourselves, we are limited by our own worldview, cognitive biases, and blind spots that can make it feel like its impossible to separate signal from the noise.
The solution to getting unstuck from the overload of information acquired during research? Use the power of collaboration to gain outside perspectives and new insights. One of the earliest findings in social psychology was the social facilitation effectthe way the mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation. In 1920,social psychologist Floyd Allport showed that a group of people working individually at the same table performed better on a whole range of tasks even though they werent cooperating or competing. Collaboration is a fantastic tool for refreshing ideas and seeing a new side of a problem, along with potential new solutions.
Theres only so much you can do on your own, so get your team together and talk out the problem, create a brainstorming or mind-mapping session, and gain clarity about the core of what youre creating. By actively engaging with others about the problem at hand, youll regain a fresh perspective and see new insights and solutions that werent apparent on your own.
5. Constant iteration makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel
Once the design process moves into the prototyping and testing phrases, things really start to get interestingand you might even feel like youre moving closer to the finish line. But design is a marathon, even if you work in sprints, and constant iteration cycles over the long-term can make you feel like youre spinning your wheels and going nowhere.
This state of burnout and exhaustion isnt exactly the place to tap into your most inspired state. Its your responsibility as a designer to conserve your energy and take the breaks needed to reconnect you to your motivation and creativity.
When you feel like youre constantly rushing forward with wheels spinning, its time to stop, breathe, and go for a walk. From Steve Jobs to Albert Einstein to Mark Zuckerberg, some of the worlds most creative minds haveengaged in daily walks to boost creativity and keep theirideas flowing.
A recent study from researchers at Stanford found that a persons creative output and creative divergent thinking abilitiesincrease significantly during and after a walk. The effect was similar regardless of whether participants took a stroll inside or stayed inside, walked on a treadmill or stared at a wallit was the act of walking itself, rather than the sights encountered on the saunter, that improved creativity.
So when youre feeling stuck on a project, get up, get out, and get moving. It doesnt do you or your client any good to just keeping staring at the screen.
6. Pixel perfection
If youre anything like me, its easy to get caught up in the search for the perfect amount of white space, or split-testing font types, playing with accent colors, or any of the thousand tiny design details that (in all likelihood) your average user will never notice. The old adage is true perfect is the enemy of done, and the key to determining which details are actually important lies in understanding which of your design choices will actually make a difference to the userand which are a result of you stroking your ego, procrastinating, or delaying shipping out of fear.
Design is an iterative process, and the only way you can move to the next cycle is to put your work in front of others to get the feedback needed to move forward.
Embrace transparency in your process. Get used to the uncomfortable feeling of shipping final projects that you dont necessarily feel 100 percent perfect about. Remember, asReid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, youve launched too late.
Reid suggests that when we iterate fast and release, we stop trying to be perfectand instead focus on getting the feedback we need to make our designs better. Make a point of showing your work to everyonefrom team members to clientsas often as possible. Aside from getting the feedback that you need, a dedication to this habit keeps perfectionism from standing in the way of your productivity.
When you love your work the way Iand so many designersdo, its easy to push and push and push until you hit the burnout stage. To avoid UX burnout, its important to remember to take time away from the computer and the sketch books. Read a book. Go for a swim. Take a weekend off. Your creative brain will thank you.