May 22, 2023

Finding balance as a product designer

Finding balance as a product designer

Tips to avoid the pitfalls that can take the happiness out of your work

The corporate world and society in general have historically romanticized the idea of hustle. Many in the software industry workforce today have been rewarded for over-exhausting and stretching themselves at some point in their career. This hardly ever ended well. But this phenomenon only got a wider recognition in the 1970s, when American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined a word to describe this state of emotional and physical exhaustion: burnout.

Burnout has been cited as the single biggest reason a considerable part of the workforce quit their jobs in 2021. It is nothing more than a cumulative effect of everyday decisions we make when it comes to our work and life, but we only start to pay attention to the symptoms at a much later stage when the exhaustion and dissatisfaction is beyond repair. However, it can all be avoided by taking small yet deliberate steps in our everyday life and incorporating a few seemingly trivial rituals curated, keeping our own interests and personal goals in mind.

Intrinsic desire to create something of value plays a significant part in making humans feel a sense of accomplishment, in return keeping them motivated and happy. Many product designers in the industry today chose to become a designer because of the hard-to-beat and attractive promise that accompanies it — they can improve the lives of people by adding value through their work. Being a designer, I can vouch for how fulfilling and rewarding it can be to see a bud of an idea grow into a feature, to be eventually enjoyed by the targeted users. However, a few years into the role, product designers often realize that making a product/technology lovable, usable, and accessible isn’t as straight a walk as they thought it would be. As roles, products, and teams grow or evolve, so do responsibilities and challenges. A very immediate response to this change is overworking, which can incite a feeling of lack of control over time, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction with work. The kind of downward spiral which, if left unchecked, can potentially result in burnout.

The good news is, we can train ourselves to see the signs and avoid the trap altogether just by being intentional about where we are spending our time. In this blog, I’d like to share a few deliberate actions that personally helped me escape that trap.

Define your own frame

Self-awareness is the first step to understanding what is important to us as an individual, and it helps in getting a better estimation of our strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. Self-awareness further helps build the kind of confidence that is hard to shake and less likely to be overshadowed by imposter syndrome. Once the barrier of self-awareness is overcome, each product designer envisions growth differently. In the pursuit of growth, to demonstrate specific expertise or leadership qualities, each one of us may have a unique goal in mind in terms of the means we want to employ or the results we seek from it. Also, this implies that we cannot trust a generic template approach to map our priorities. The lens that we use to distinguish important responsibilities and tasks from the rest are unique and so should be our planning and rituals.

Establish an availability baseline

A couple years ago, my manager gave me a task of writing down an approximate estimation of how much time I plan to dedicate to each of the major responsibilities in my role. The math seemed simple at first: I work 40 hours a week and I had a list of about eight responsibilities. I had an idea in mind on how to divide those. What could go wrong?

As they say, life happens as we’re making plans. Soon, I had to begin my preparations for moving between countries and in that same timeframe our team was onboarding a new product manager. Now, without realizing, I was spending a considerable amount of time at work on admin-related tasks and getting my processes in sync with my new product manager. These shifts were both unannounced and unavoidable. Such surprise challenges are a part of all of our lives, the form may vary, but when they happen it is best to be accepting of them and keep some wiggle room in your estimation to accommodate them without disturbing the rest of your plan.

There are different ways to understand and manage your capacity. Measuring UX issue weights is one of them. I personally like to use the same and communicate my capacity for the release cycle to the team using a planning issue.

Assess the importance of a task to you

Despite the evident benefits, McKinsey Design Index proved to be the very sign that the tech and other industries had always been looking for to validate the correlation between design and financial performance of an organization. Realizing how it can help them differentiate in the industry and directly impact revenue streams, organizations now expect designers to make some business-critical decisions, thereby expanding their responsibilities to be more cross-functional.

Product designers’ responsibilities span from designing thoughtfully crafted experiences to playing a central role in the overall business contributions to everyday collaboration with key product stakeholders. The spectrum has grown over time, and this leads to a general misconception among designers that they are required to overreach their potential to prove their pedigree. Instead, taking up the right responsibility at the right time and doing it well can give better results.

We might feel a momentary urge to jump at an opportunity, but if we are not being critical of the ‘Why’, we’re merely setting ourselves up for failure. Product designers can ask themselves some questions to help decide if it is really they who should be taking up a specific responsibility:

- Does the project require my expertise and skills, or help me develop one that aligns with my personal goals? Does it contribute to the business’ goals?

- Is this project something that someone else can do better than I can — while I invest my time doing something that I can do more confidently?

- Am I on the same page with the requestor in terms of expectations and time commitment?

- Will my delivery plan get impacted if I commit to this project? If so, what trade-offs can be made?

If, as product designers, we wish to improve the quality of impact through our work, understanding what’s time-critical and important to us as individuals is the only feasible way to go about it.

Build trust and communicate transparently

Most of functional human behaviour is steered by instincts, and the urge to say ‘Yes’ is one of them. When we say yes to every request from our peers/colleagues, we are feeding the cycle of responsiveness to become more intense, to a point where we can’t respond to the demand anymore. This overwhelming wave of expectations puts us in a position where we stop exercising our creative muscles out of exhaustion and merely keep working more and more driving drown the quality of results. Making it a false victory, if one at all. Ironically, this, in turn, impacts the very relationship that we said `Yes` to in the first place.

We have already talked about how we can decide if an opportunity is for us. If the answer to that is ‘it isn’t’, the next thing we need to do is communicate that clearly to the requester.

A plain `No` can easily be perceived as rude, but kindly communicating an honest and straightforward reason will have a higher chance of building trust with our peers than saying yes and delivering substandard results. emphasizes the importance of transparent communication with your colleagues. Another method a few members of my team (including me) use for maintaining transparency in everyday priorities is documenting them publicly in a GitLab project and keeping them visible to the team. Keeping things public might not be an option for many, the intention should be to maintain visibility for the key counterparts.

Main takeaways

A major downside of feeling strongly about a topic is that it becomes too difficult to keep your thoughts short and succinct. Summarizing the key points from the post above, if you’re looking to continue to enjoy your work as a product designer while also growing in your job, the following tips can help:

- Take a step back and try to understand your own drives and motivations so you can more effectively plan your path ahead.

- Be realistic about your capacity and potential trade-offs, and communicate the same to your team transparently.

- Be discerning while taking up a new opportunity, ensure it aligns with your goals, and be comfortable passing it along to a better fitting colleague if it doesn’t.

- Keep your communication honest, humble, and non-ambiguous to avoid miscalculated commitments that can harm relationships with your peers.

Mindfully and intentionally assessing a new opportunity rather than reacting by impulse can play a major role in setting ourselves, and our colleagues, up for success, resulting in a happier, more impactful, and less stressful work environment.

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