8 reasons it might be them, not you.
Eyes cast down, she whispered, “I feel like UX is a dance club that I can’t get a ticket into.”
A heavy silence hung in the air.
This, after two years working at one of the largest technology firms, in what most of us would consider a highly specialized UX role. With a Master’s degree in her area of expertise.
I’ve been formally coaching and mentoring UXers, and those who want to be UXers, for 7 years. Their stories pile up like crumpled laundry:
- A graphic designer who can’t get his client of two years to agree to any user research at all;
- A senior leader and visual designer who questions her role, despite running a consulting firm with household name clients and several design awards for over 3 years;
- A senior researcher who thinks he isn’t taken seriously within a large technology firm;
- A new UXer who just landed her first job and is embarrassed every time she submits a new design to her manager;
- A freelance designer who’s supported herself for years, has a portfolio full of stunning website designs and wonders how she’s ever going to find a junior UX role;
- A senior designer who was rejected for a UX role after being told she has a great portfolio and would be a perfect fit for the culture;
- A young digital marketer, now training in UX, who comes every week for feedback on his projects, desperate for validation of his work.
What they all have in common is the sense they don’t know what they’re doing, that soon, any time now, it’s going to be obvious they don’t belong in UX.
Imposters feel self-doubt
It’s a familiar feeling for me too. Even though my deep background in social psychology and linguistics was perfect for designing conversational systems, it was hard to feel like I belonged in the rough and tumble corporate world.
My initial steps into work slowed to a tiptoe as a sea of grey cubicles greeted me at my first tech job. It was as if the riotous color of my previous clinical jobs in a children’s hospital and schools had drained through the floor. The loud chaos of children gave way to quietly clicking keyboards and motionless adults, staring silently into screens. It was the first of many signs that told me there was a mismatch between me and this new field I had chosen.
A 2020 meta-analysis of 62 studies with 14,161 participants defined imposter syndrome as:
“a phenomenon impacting high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.”
While psychologists don’t recognize imposter phenomenon as a clinical condition, Google searches have exploded since 2015 suggesting the rising prevalence of problematic emotions:
The 2020 meta-analysis also points to the fact that while imposter phenomenon was originally described as impacting primarily females and under-represented groups, that assumption has not held up in the face of data.
What we know now is imposter phenomenon impacts up to 82% of us, mostly working professionals.
What is it about UX?
Let’s try a thought experiment: what else might the cues that call out imposters be saying about your choice to be in UX?
Imposter phenomena means you pick up social cues in your work environment and weaponize them against yourself.
Instead… what if those cues reflect something about the environment?
Your organization or team?
My observations, based on coaching hundreds of UXers at various stages of their careers, suggest at least 8 issues uniquely combine in our field to promote imposter feelings:
We’re all relatively new. Although the field has been around for decades (under a variety of different names, such as human factors, user-centered design, human-computer interaction), it’s being discovered by more and more professionals at every stage of their career. Predictions for job growth abound (such as here, here and here). The 2020 meta-analysis showed that being a beginner (or a beginner, again) is one of the characteristics most associated with imposter phenomena. The closer you are to your transition in, the newer your skills, the more likely you’ll feel like an imposter.
Lack of consistent practitioner experience and education. Have you noticed that everyone in UX has had a twisty career path? Look to your left, look to your right. It’s easy to realize the UXer on either side of you has different, maybe better, skills than you in something important. That diversity of experience and education makes the field strong but also prompts questions about what type of experiences or education actually make you successful. UX hasn’t yet attempted to define the minimum set of criteria necessary for any of our most common disciplines. I regularly speak to people who have anywhere from no degree through doctorates, who come from fields specifically related (e.g., visual design, behavioral sciences, writing of various types) to completely unrelated. It all adds up to a pervasive question: what’s the right background for UX and am I an imposter if I don’t have it?
UX roles are defined differently. Talk to more than one person in UX, even on the same team, even with the same title, and they’ll knot your brain with different explanations of what their UX job actually entails. Want to be a designer? Depending on the organization and the team, you’ll be a UX designer, UI designer, product designer, junior designer, senior designer, lead designer. You’ll do research, or you won’t. You’ll need to code, or not. You’ll create prototypes, maybe not. The upshot? You feel like an imposter because the scope of your role in this organization may be unique, along with what your employer is comfortable training on the job and what skills are absolutely required on your first day.
Puzzle-piecing collaborative UX teams is challenging. How roles are defined has a chicken-and-egg relationship with the fact UX is performed in collaboration. Once I started having to figure out how to make diverging skill sets interlock, choices about hiring quickly became very complex. Oh, I’ve got a designer who writes, one who doesn’t and a third who likes to be involved in research. I’m already developing one intern but don’t have bandwidth for another junior person. How can I get content writing and more research skills if I only have one headcount? Puzzling the team together often means turning away great people who just overlap too many skills with an existing team. In small teams, it means there’s only one person with necessary skills or perspective. Thus, you’re not an imposter, you might just be the only one like you or with the precisely right fit right now.
UXers are solving difficult problems. Any time we’re building a product or service for humans, in large, cross-functional teams with varying understanding of success, it’s going to be hard. You’re running that marathon with a backpack of kittens and being chased by a dude with a firehose. It’s difficult. It’s complicated. It’s kind of a nightmare at times. Do you win if you make it to the finish line, if all the kittens stay alive and dry, or if you haven’t been near-fatally knifed by all their tiny claws? Failure lurks in every step forward. But, the challenge of the situation doesn’t make you an imposter, it just means you’re doing something tough.
UX creates friction in organizations. Does the presence of a UX team make getting products developed and out the door harder? Undoubtably, unequivocally YES. User needs and goals frequently (dare I say, always?) conflict with business goals (get it out faster and cheaper) and technical goals (get it out faster and cheaper). Just because you’ve already decided the cost/benefit of UX headcount and user input is worthwhile doesn’t mean the rest of your organization agrees. Some non-UXers don’t want to work 24/7 for the thing to work in a user-friendly way. Some don’t want to ditch millions of lines of code. Others don’t want to flex from “how we’ve always done things.” Some execs want to be the sole decision-maker. You’re not an imposter because your perspective might not be shared — in fact, it probably won’t be. You’re also not an imposter if your leadership doesn’t do a great job managing the friction of competing motivations across the broader team. Reactive handling of conflict is the absolute norm in most places and it doesn’t make you an imposter.
Plenty of organizations lack UX maturity. Translation: it’s them, not you. Well, it’s you, in that you’re ahead of where your organization is in terms of understanding UX is a process, but it’s also a specific way of making complex decisions. Many UXers I speak to made the paradigm shift in a rapid, sudden way: one day a light bulb goes on and they have an epiphany. “By Jove, UX is geeeeenius! Why didn’t I know about it before?!?! How have I lived???” and their way of viewing the world is forever shifted. What’s harder to see is when you’ve made that shift, and your organization hasn’t, it’s entirely possible you’re picking up the difference in your paradigms, labeling yourself an imposter, and not realizing that getting an entire organization to shift is an arduous and glacially-paced task. You’re not an imposter because your individual brain is just more nimble than a collective one.
UX might not be providing compelling evidence. I’ve seen situations where the UX team is not taken seriously because… well, it isn’t providing strong evidence for its recommendations. Ouch. This situation may mean that UXers present weak evidence because what should be done is just obvious. To them. No, it’s not (see: lack UX maturity). Another flavor of this problem is UXers sometimes make complex, esoteric and nuanced arguments that bury meaningful actions. To be successful, UXers must speak in concise, so-what focused language their primary audiences understand (think: numbers and outcomes). If your UX team is weak on evidence when compared to other more tangible issues impacting the business (like time and cost to develop a product), it’s not reasonable to expect decisions to go your way. That doesn’t make you an imposter, it just means you need to ask your stakeholders how UX might have more impact and what level of evidence would be more compelling.
What’s a UX imposter to do?
Take it from someone who knows: imposter feelings are the real deal. Those voices in your head saying you don’t belong can get insistent. At any number of points through my UX career, they’ve left me feeling discouraged, marginalized and burned out. Once, I quit a job with the full intention of just leaving UX and this crazy corporate world altogether. Another time, I was feeling aimless and figured I’d go back to teaching. Or anywhere I could feel I belong a little more.
And yet, here I am, still doing my thing. I’ve continued to thrive because I’ve found ways to shift negative thoughts and create a healthier relationship with my work.
Here are 5 questions I’ve used to help myself and other UXers through imposter feelings:
1. Who can you trust enough to share how you’re feeling? First, recognize that you are most certainly not alone in feeling like a UX imposter. Not at all. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had recently was a remote group coaching session on imposter phenomena for new UXers transitioning into the field. Several brave souls came forward with their stories, in front of hundreds of participants, to share and receive a little live assistance in changing their “I don’t belong in UX” narrative into something more proactive and self-inspiring. As I group-coached and asked the audience to help counter their negative thoughts, it was profoundly moving to see hundreds of supportive revisions to stories laced with fear and perceived failures. Share your secret with someone you trust, no matter how experienced they are, and I’ll bet you’ll find your secret is one all of us have too.
2. What else could those challenging feelings be telling you? It’s normal to explain uncomfortable feelings with “I don’t belong here” or “X is wrong with me.” We all have our go-to, ready-to-step-in gremlins to announce we’re not good enough. Thank them for chiming in and tell them you don’t need them to keep you safe and small any longer. I challenge you to look beyond these messages from your past: step back and examine what else might be going on in your company. Consider the ambiguity of doing UX in general. Consider the dynamics of your team and how it relates to other stakeholders. Consider your organization and how it relates to users. Play with the idea that it might be all of that, instead of you.
3. What growth edge might you be noticing? UX is broad and ever-changing. No single human can possibly know or do all the things required by the field, over time. However, if you’re feeling uncomfortable with something you don’t currently know or do, maybe it’d be worth exploring how you might get more comfortable. Seek some mentors, a professional coach, training, books. There are tons of resources out there and they might help provide a confidence boost that will help banish those imposter thoughts.
4. What strengths do you bring to your role? Many of the UXers I’ve worked with have no idea what their strengths are. If that’s you, you owe it to yourself to better understand what you do well: positive psychology continually counsels that leaning into your strengths is a path to greater job satisfaction and overall well-being. A helpful exercise is to ask at least 5 colleagues, friends or anyone in your sphere for their top 5 words to describe your strengths. Simple, yes, but also requires significant vulnerability. Yikes. Once you have their responses, look for patterns: what does more than one person say? To what extent do the words match your own perceptions? Which strengths you believe you have but aren’t being identified by others? What do they see that you don’t? How can you lean in to what others see you bringing forward?
4. What’s the gift in not belonging? This is the big question and it’s largely about the why of being in UX. If you thought like everyone else, you probably wouldn’t have chosen a field that actively prioritizes humans and long-term value over quick-win profits. You wouldn’t be applying your skills in a corporate setting. If you connect to a bigger why, it will help you fight the long game, choose your battles, and depersonalize small losses. Figure out your why of doing what you do and put it on a Post-It where you can see it every day. It’s important to all of us that you equip yourself to stay positive, even when faced with the inevitable challenges of being a UXer.
You’re not an imposter.
You’re doing good and tough work, likely in a complicated environment.
Give yourself some grace and keep going, friend. We’re all rooting for you.
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