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Omar Raddaoui Engineer and creative individual with years of experience at the confluence of UX research and design, UX analytics, and product ownership in the automotive industry. I characterize myself as a complex system thinker. Contact me at [email protected].

7 min read1970

Maybe you’ve been in this situation: Mariya is a fresh graduate who joins an electronics company as a UX researcher and designer, and she’s eager to receive her first assignment and demonstrate what she can bring to the table. She is invited to an early project kick-off meeting. These early conversations involve key stakeholders seeking to choreograph the path forward for product exploration and development, including assigning roles and responsibilities.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, another technical manager joins the call, and the next thing you know, the encounter derails into a debate about the superiority of technological solutions, what the product would look like, and its use cases. Mariya keeps quiet, listening to the big thinkers argue about things way above her pay grade.

This article teaches you how to troubleshoot UX design problems you may encounter during your practice. Think of it as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to UX Design. It aims to share a comprehensive, systemic assessment of critical problems and stumbling blocks hindering the delivery of useful, user-centered products.

With augmented awareness of these issues, I believe UX designers can better spot subtle red flags and symptoms of dysfunction and proactively counteract them. As you know, changing course and fixing issues further downstream may prove prohibitively expensive.

Symptoms of dysfunction to look for

As an astute UX practitioner and observer, here are two good questions you may ask:

  1. When should I worry that the UX process is being impaired and deflected away from its foundational premise?
  2. Which symptoms of dysfunction bode ill for the experience I’m designing?

Think of early warning signs of dysfunction, but do not confuse those with behaviors integral to a healthy UX process. Characteristically, UX processes are not necessarily clean, highly defined, circumscribed, and sequenced as though they were run in a chemistry lab. UX design is a different beast; if you do not hear or see indices of chaos, lack of structure, serendipity, and improvisation, you’re right to be concerned that the process is less than healthy.

Now, let’s talk about some symptoms of dysfunction:

  1. Heated, divisive debates: Exchanges between two or more participants from the same teams or from across teams overlap and heat up; conversations are unproductive and go against consensus building.
  2. Working in silos: The UX team is living in Lala land, developing idealistic solutions not shaped by input/feedback from other teams and existing workstreams.
  3. Jumping the gun: During the early phases of the project, teams formulate early consensus, jump to solutions all too prematurely, and start choreographing product attributes and use cases.
  4. Putting the cart before the horse: Product teams, including the UX team, decide on a path to a product. Yet, little evidence justifies the need to bring the product into being.
  5. Shutting the barn doors after the horse has bolted: Teams rush to the actual design component based on a loosely defined idea, then go back to close the loop and attach an improvised problem statement or use cases post-facto to suit the design.
  6. Squeezed discovery: UX designers are hard pressed by an action-oriented manager to skip ahead and deliver on tangible design specifications and are not allowed enough time to explore and deliberate on a problem.
  7. Mistaking movement for achievement: The UX team spends excessive time exploring a problem; they cannot decide and thus move the conversation past this stage
  8. Jumping on the bandwagon: Assumptions or thoughts entertained during early exchanges between teams turn into givens at the level of collective awareness without being subjected to a proper validation process.
  9. Shiny but not useful: The UX team is called upon in the solution space only to pretty up a design.
  10. Streetlight Effect: The proposed solution does not address the problem identified initially. The Streetlight Effect is based on a story about a drunk man who once lost his keys. Instead of searching for them where they were lost, he started searching where there was more light!
    Concerned UX Designer
  11. High versus low decision power: In one-on-one meetings, working-level sessions, or roundtable discussions, some teams or individuals act overconfident, dominate the conversation and hijack the direction of things. As a result, the UX team or UX designers feel sidelined, with little say in what gets debated or approved.
  12. UX team fed with a heavy dose of constraints: they’re tasked to operate within circumscribed perimeters from the get-go. This stifles their proverbial ability to think outside the box.
  13. Poor documentation practices: Knowledge about the problem is conveyed in an unstructured way and over a series of meetings with team members and stakeholders. Consequently, no proper documentation is left to trace the development process.
  14. Personal biases trump over method: Questions about UX are based mainly on the team’s personal experiences and not on known UX-specific methods, approaches, or tools.
  15. Much ambiguity, little confidence: Scoping is loose, direction is shaky, and objectives are unclear and sometimes conflicting.
  16. Who’s doing what?: There is no clear and documented distribution of roles and responsibilities.

A systematic overview of issues

To visualize the problems attendant upon UX design, let me briefly introduce the Double Diamond Innovation Framework (DDIF). DDIF splits the innovation process into two consecutive and iterative spaces:

  1. The problem space: This is where designers deploy divergent thinking to discover a problem both by measures of depth and breadth before converging on a well-grounded problem.
  2. The solution space: This is where designers diverge again to create ideas that solve the problem. Gradually and iteratively, designers converge on the most optimal solution.
Program vs Solution Space
Adapted from model by the UK Design Council

Two types of issues come to the spotlight:

  1. Issues at the level of overall project management. These suggest a lack of guardrails to prioritize and maintain user-centeredness throughout the process.
  2. Issues internal to the UX team. These are weaknesses in how the UX team carries out its UX tasks.

Project management issues impacting UX design

Here, we’re going to catalog issues based on where in the process they are likely to occur, with user centricity as a core value. As you review the columns below, remember that some issues might apply to both the problem and solution spaces.

Issues in the problem spaceIssues in the solution space
Product teams do not follow a proper process for idea maturation due to a lack of awareness of adequate design processesUX team surrounded by weak product leadership. Teams lack clear goals, milestones, vision, and strategy
“Budget, time, and resources limitations” squeeze the discovery processTeams, including UX, move forward based on major, unproven, or invalidated assumptions
UX team overburdened by various teams’ expectations from the very startProduct teams do not view UX team input as critical throughout the development process
Technical teams decide on a path to a product in the absence of UX involvementProduct teams or individuals shut down new and novel ideas or solutions for fear of being confronted with the unexpected
UX team not well integrated into the product/team workflowsUX process and deliverables not mapped onto the product/software delivery roadmaps

UX team problems

Issues in the problem spaceIssues in the solution space
Groupthink and conflict avoidance dampen divergent thinking by prioritizing social cohesion over accuracyLack of empirical research to validate assumptions; insufficient prototyping, testing, and iteration
UX team involves many functional partners; the process becomes chaotic and incoherentUX team develops ideal solutions in isolation from other teams; no buy-in from key teams
Paralysis by analysis, indecision, fear of uncertainty, and failureIdea fixation, delusional thinking, and personal biases
UX team efforts lack focus and prioritizationFeedback collected only from a few users

Solutions to common UX problems: Your way forward

So far, we’ve talked about symptoms of dysfunction and singled out issues arising at the problem and solutions spaces of the design process. As we seek to upgrade the UX designer’s toolbox, we must think in terms of first principles as they relate to UX design and apply them to the two central spaces: the problem and the solution:

  1. Ensure sufficient user involvement and research throughout the UX process.
  2. Prototype and iterate often on far-from-finished products and seek inputs from users. Rinse, lather, repeat.
  3. Adopt a hypothesis-driven development mindset; in other words, experiment constantly, adapt, and course-correct.
  4. Use your negotiation and consensus-building skills, determine your non-negotiables, and work with partners in good faith to overcome challenges and reach meaningful compromises.
  5. As a UX team, be proactive in integrating and inserting yourself into the broader organization and product development workstreams.
  6. Your time is a precious resource. Protect it and be wary of what and how you spend it. Prioritize relentlessly.

    “Don’t mistake movement for achievement. It’s easy to get faked out by being busy. The question is: busy doing what?” – Jim Rohn

  7. Brainstorm and formulate your research questions upfront with your team so you are all on the same page going forward.
  8. Don’t dwell on solutions during the problem discovery space; park any ideas that arise for future ideation in the solution conception space.
  9. Watch out for any hidden assumptions behind a statement and be mindful of when teams want to proceed forward based on unproven assumptions.
  10. Seek to resolve issues at your level and escalate to and lobby upper management as necessary.
  11. Map out the steps and milestones to progress your research and design efforts. Identify the knowledge gaps to make the necessary decisions and prioritize the tasks to close those gaps.
  12. Trace your critical UX design decisions to an information management architecture; utilize an evidence-based approach to knowledge where the provenance of insights and conclusions is traceable back to its roots.

    Atomic UX Research
    Adapted from a model by Daniel Pidcock

  13. Divergence yields a wealth of ideas. When the time comes to get rid of bad ideas, do it so you can focus on the more promising ones. In other words, “call the baby ugly” and move on.
  14. Optimally distribute and manage divergent and convergent thinking across individuals and teams.
  15. Use the DDIF as a crutch when the UX design process is derailed for one reason or another or when teams want to jump the gun.

UX Designer Toolbox


You might have heard of the movie titled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have used this movie as a metaphor to suggest that navigating UX design feels like a grand adventure into a complex stratosphere.

The gist of this journey is that different types of challenges and hurdles can derail a project. With the arsenal laid out in this troubleshooter’s guide to UX Design comprising the problem space and solution space, we are in a position to identify these hurdles and address them head-on. In doing so, our first principle is and will remain user centricity.

The symptoms of dysfunction I have explored constitute early warning signals, prompting us to reconsider our designs and strategies. As we adopt a systematic overview of the underlying issues, we can pinpoint which project management challenges stand in the way of successful UX experiences. Likewise, UX team dynamics underscore the value of managing expectations, agreeing on priorities, being clear about roles and responsibilities, building consensus, and ensuring relevant voices are heard, not dismissed.

Group of People With Fists in Air

In the grand scheme of things, the issues we surmount and the solutions we implement nudge us toward creating better experiences for users and a more agreeable ecosystem for individuals and teams working within and across the organization. It is reasonable to suggest that future approaches to UX design should continue to centralize the human user but should not lose sight of the experiences of those designing the experience.

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