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Death of a Design: Five Stages of Grief

How to help your team move on when a design concept simply isn’t working

As a UX designer, I love solving complex problems. A few years ago I worked on a complete overhaul of the website and mobile application for a health insurance company. During this multi-year project, we spent countless hours sharing design concepts with real users to gather feedback. I will never forget one particular usability test where I went in thinking, “We nailed it! Users are going to love it!,” only to hear “I don’t really get it” from participants.

When a design tests poorly it can feel pretty defeating, especially when it seems like you’ve already exhausted your options. Your UX team may go through a process similar to grieving: They might deny that feedback is valid, then perhaps experience anger, then progress through bargaining and depression, and finally move into acceptance. Based on firsthand experience, here are some strategies for dealing with each of these five stages, which will hopefully enable the group to move past initial reactions and get down to the work of addressing the UX design challenges at hand.

Stage 1: Denial
Denial is a defense mechanism that buffers the initial shock of a design not working. Here, individuals block out the words and hide from the facts.

When a UX designer first observes that usability participants are struggling to successfully complete a task in their newly designed experience, they may say things like:

“This participant doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They are just an outlier. The next test will be better.”

Or…

“It’s not that bad. This design concept tested well in the past, remember? We’ll be fine.”

What to do:
As the design leader on a project, it is best to simply give your team space to experience this feeling. This is a temporary response. Denial protects individuals from taking in all the emotion at once, which can be too overwhelming.

While your client or other members of the team are in this stage, begin documenting usability problems, but don’t feel compelled to share your thoughts or solutions just yet. You’ll need this as a tool once your team is ready to move out of the denial stage and start solving the problem.

Denial is only an issue if you choose to ignore user feedback: Don’t pretend things are alright when they are not. The goal is to acknowledge truth and accept the reality that participants didn’t respond well to that particular design concept.

Stage 2: Anger
Being angry is a way of channeling energy and making sense of the situation. Even if you know your anger isn’t logical or justified, you can’t always help reacting to the stress of seeing users fail to connect with the product you’ve spent months creating.

The following types of statements are dead giveaways that signal that your team is currently in the anger stage:

Your designers might say…

“The moderator isn’t asking the right questions!”

“Well, if the development team had built it how it looked in the mockups…”

“This problem can’t be solved with design—the content/business requirements are flawed!”

And your client might say…

“Your UX teams are supposed to be experts! Why didn’t you get this right the first time?”

What to do:
Don’t take comments personally. You can change this energy from negative to positive.

I recommend conducting a ‘Design Studio’ workshop once the dust has settled from your usability test. It’s an iterative, workshop-style exercise that brings a team of smart people together to work through the details of a design challenge. Gather stakeholders from multiple departments including developers, UX designers and writers, client subject matter experts, and product team representatives. The workshop typically follows a framework of sketching, presenting/critiquing concepts, converging on ideas, and prioritizing the most interesting elements.

This type of workshop is a great way to move a design forward quickly, while also getting everyone on the same page about where the design is going and the path to get there. Making everyone feel like they have a stake in the design improves empathy and eases any prior anger or tension. Concepts that come out of a design studio workshop may or may not be viable solutions (you’ll have time to ideate further in the Acceptance stage), but performing this exercise in the Anger stage helps reduce finger-pointing and creates a shared understanding of the complexity you’re trying to solve.

 Stage 3: Bargaining
At this stage, everyone realizes that there are flaws in the design, but they’re grasping at straws to fix surface-level problems instead of tackling root issues. It is common for our minds to try to explain away the things that could have been done differently or better.

Here, individuals cling to threads of hope by saying things like:

“If only we were given more time.”

“If only we had tested with a larger, more diverse group of participants in previous usability sessions.”

“Oh, I know! All these complex problems can easily be solved with this one miniscule design change here. That’s all we need! Barely any rework at all, see?”

What to do:
Actively listen and support design discussions but be careful not to offer false hope to your client. This is the time to take a step back, so as not to slap a Band-Aid on a problem that may point to a larger issue.

I recommend scheduling another usability session. Looking forward to another usability test keeps people from focusing on what could’ve been done differently in the past, and instead, moving forward towards solutioning.

Stage 4: Depression
Eventually your team might slip into this state. It rears its head in the form of long employee lunch breaks, mediocre work performance, general lack of energy, and feeling overwhelmed.

You’ll know your team is feeling depressed when you hear things like:

“This is hopeless. We’re never going to solve this problem.”

“What’s the point? There’s not enough time to make drastic changes before launch anyway.”

What to do:
If possible, bring in fresh faces to change the team dynamic. One team I was a part of had a UX designer who had been working on the same project for a year and half and was simply burnt out.

If switching up the team is not an option, I recommend making light of the situation and encouraging the team to “kill the idea.” We joked about having a “demolition ceremony” to metaphorically destroy the feature(s) that tested poorly during the usability session. The intention was to go into the building’s parking lot with bats to bash physical objects representing our design. Even though we didn’t actually go through with it, daydreaming about it together brought new life to our team.

Stage 5: Acceptance
The final stage is a return to stability, where people are actively involved in addressing the design challenge.

What you want to hear is acknowledgement from your team:

“This is a very complex problem that needs time devoted to it, but we have concrete ideas for moving forward.”

What to do:
Everything you’ve done up to this point will help your teams reach the acceptance stage as part of their natural process. This a great opportunity to celebrate the team’s motion towards resolution.

Conclusion
Grieving ideas that die during the UX design process is normal and should be recognized and embraced. After all, your design creation is something you’ve nurtured, grown to love, and invested hours of time perfecting. Remember there is no set timeline for each stage, and not everyone will experience these stages in this prescribed order. But these strategies should help you move through the grieving process more productively, so you can address UX challenges head-on and create an experience that will resonate with users.

 

About the author
Raschel is a Principal Experience Designer, responsible for driving user-centered product vision and strategy across multiple projects while leading her UX team from concept through development. She passionately believes that all products can and should be usable, useful and desirable. With a wealth of experience designing digital solutions for the healthcare industry, she understands the growing pains of transformational change and finds it extremely rewarding when she can make an impact in this field. She spends part of her day wondering how to combine her two loves, Post-it notes and pasta. The rest of her time she spends designing killer user interfaces.