There’s no feeling as universally common yet isolating as imposter syndrome. The fear that you’re not the magical unicorn with the medley of skills and experience that everyone expected.
This completely natural experience has a devious ability to feel like it’s uniquely affecting you and no one else.
For UXers just starting out, this feeling is practically a prerequisite. What other group of people are meant to have extensive skills in research, design, strategic thinking, data and psychology?
Oh and to add to this list, user experience designers are meant to have EXPERIENCE. Our credibility lies in our immense knowledge of problem-solving built up from seeing different scenarios unfold with varying outcomes.
But we all have to start somewhere. If it’s not the first UX job, it might be the first interactive screen we design, or the first time we deal with a product in the financial sector.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of how imposter syndrome affects people in their careers, I had conversations with four different people. These were my findings.
It ebbs and flows but never completely disappears
Something that probably shouldn’t have surprised me (but did anyway), was that the seniors I spoke to still experience imposter syndrome on a regular basis. It’s become a part of themselves they’ve had to accept use to push them to produce the best work they can.
“Not fitting in can be a hindrance or a motivating factor,” one Experience Design Director told me. “It can be a driving force to feel comfortable. It can be the thing that defeats you, or you learn to accept it and find the right way to utilise it.”
How do they use it? They over prepare, they assess every possible outcome, they live and breathe the problem until the solution is as clear as day.
It varies in intensity
After 6 years in the industry, one woman I spoke to has a fantastic job and a great resume behind her. Nonetheless, she still struggles with imposter syndrome.
It often occurs after she’s performed well. After completing a project that she initially feels great about, she’ll have what she refers to as a “crash” about a week later after dwelling on the details. She explains this as a period of intense self-doubt and anxiety. It often hits harder when she’s particularly happy with a project – because it takes away positive feelings that she previously felt.
Now that she’s aware of this pattern, she gets help. She talks to others, she is open and authentic about her emotions, and picks herself up time and time again. She doesn’t let it consume her and by dealing with it, it doesn’t affect her when she starts her next project.
Remember there’s a reason you’re in the room
One person I spoke to recalled attending a meeting where he felt like he didn’t quite belong. Suddenly, plunged into a senior role, people expected him to answer difficult questions that could even impact other people’s careers. The best piece of advice he got was “there’s a reason you’re in the room”.
Just remembering that you have been hired for a reason, or put on a project for a reason is a strong piece of knowledge to hold on to. It’s a cliche, but you simply must learn to back yourself. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
Oddly enough, the same people who promoted the need to “back yourself” felt they had fluked their way into their positions – “I’m in this position because I must made the right guesses along the way”. This leads me to believe we’re all a bit blind when it comes to assessing ourselves.
Starting out, everyone relies on their gut
When you don’t have the wealth of experience to guide your decision-making, you have to get comfortable trusting your gut. My boss always says to me “what does your gut tell you the answer is?” and lo and behold I have an answer. It was always there, I just never thought to ask myself the question. We don’t always have the luxury of conducting research to back up every decision we make. This is where you need to tease the answer out of yourself.
Next time you feel stuck on a problem, try suggesting your gut feeling to your team. Ask their opinion on your gut feeling rather than asking them to solve the problem for you.
Exposure to different scenarios will fast track you to comfort
Everyone wants a shortcut to overcoming imposter syndrome. It doesn’t have to take years, you just need enough experience dealing with difficult situations. One resilient interviewee assures me the only way to improve as fast as you want to is “exposure to different stuff, different outcomes, how different things play out. Mix that with exposure to different personalities and that’s what experience is”.
You could experience a situation 10 times in 6 months or 10 times in 2 weeks. Throw yourself in the deep end. If you don’t feel confident presenting directly to stakeholders or clients, put your hand up to present at the next possible moment. Make mistakes often and early. But make sure you reflect on these afterwards to continuously improve.
One leader insists that his team push themselves into contextual enquiries – “you’ll feel awkward as a researcher until you learn to ease into it and get comfortable with it,” he says. Approaching strangers to ask them questions only gets easier with repetition.
Don’t be an email signature
Easily my favourite piece of advice I’ve received (and arguably my own personal mantra), is that relationships are the key to thriving in new situations. This works on many levels. For instance, one man in his first strategic role claimed that you should work at developing relationships with your seniors from the get-go. This allows you to show some vulnerability and ask for help when you need it.
Another manager explains that if people are unhappy with your work, they are unlikely to speak to you directly about it if you only communicate via email. They’ll probably end up going over your head to your boss who they feel more comfortable talking to. In contrast, when you’ve built up those relationships “people will let you overcome your deficiencies if they know you and have a personal relationship with you”. I can’t tell you how many people I see avoiding personal contact, which I find mystifying as nothing compares to face to face conversation.
I can’t tell you how many people I see avoiding personal contact, which I find mystifying as nothing compares to face-to-face conversation.
The worst case scenario actually makes you stronger
“What if someone tells me I’m wrong?” – this is usually the worst case scenario when facing imposter syndrome.
The Experience Design Director I spoke to found that when he started in UX he wanted to be referred to as a Designer. This way he could sit in the design department and make strategic decisions that could impact on the overall creative result. The Creative Director he worked with at the time didn’t want UX impeding on the “design” space, and didn’t like his team taking this term. After a couple of years mulling this over and fighting for the right to be accepted as a designer, he found that now more than ever he believes UX should sit in a design space. After all, when you look at the history of industrial design and product design, it is problem-solving at its core. He felt like this desire to define identity has really helped him define his own UX identity and would never feel like an imposter again in the “design” space.
The UX Researcher I spoke to had someone publicly refute an article she wrote. Normally, she is so fearful that people will call her out for being wrong, but when it actually happened it didn’t bother her in the slightest, because as she put it, “I knew I was right”. The worst case scenario of being called out can in fact allow for a strengthening of character and conviction.
After these conversations, I don’t believe there’s a simple cure for impostor syndrome. However, I also don’t necessarily view this as a bad thing. Imposter syndrome creates a kind of humility that motivates us to constantly source solutions we might not find otherwise. If it’s taking the form of intense insecurity and anxiety I encourage you to talk to someone about it. I guarantee you won’t be the first person to feel this way.
What are your thoughts and experiences with the imposter syndrome beast? Leave me a comment and let’s keep the discussion going.
Are you new to UX design? See our guide on how to get started, or download our ebook: Get Started in UX.
Join the discussion