As I watched the app go live in across the various app stores I felt exhausted.
The steps leading up to the launch had been intense, involving multiple stakeholders, scores of different user personas, and innumerable iteration cycles spread across a multitude of design teams. We shipped the project on time and shared high-fives all around, but after the dust had settled I realized how truly tired each step of this project had made me.
After the launch, I was all UX’ed out. Even the sight of a Post-It note felt exhausting. Attributing the fatigue to creative block, I planned to take a few days off to recharge. But because my version of “recharge” also means “process everything,” I also decided to write an article for creatives about how to deal with this kind of block.
But when I sat down to write, something surprising happened. Despite my fatigue, the words flew off the page and my energy levels soared. I could hardly get my flood of ideas down fast enough!
And that’s when I realized: This wasn’t a creative block at all. I had UX burnout.
What is UX burnout?
If you haven’t heard of UX burnout, don’t feel bad — it’s a term I coined for the kind of burnout that arises during key points of the UX process, as opposed to a generalized creative block that occurs when you’ve simply run out of energy and ideas.
The creation of an effective user experience is a complicated, multifaceted process. It demands a wide variety of skill sets and a constant stream of creative ideas, all with a complete focus on the user.
UX design also involves a innumerable iteration cycles — a process that theoretically never “ends.” Noted designer Neville Brody once said “Digital design is like painting, except the ink never dries,” — and that’s totally true. While an artist only has to aim for a single user to love their work, UX designers must create experiences that resonate at scale, with massive and constantly-changing audiences.
The burnout I experienced after such a high intensity design sprint was exhausting at the time, but it was ultimately a blessing. Through the roller coaster ride of UX design, I’ve identified six types of UX burnout you’ll probably also encounter, along with research-backed methods to get through them.
1. You’re tired of listening
To create a great user experience requires a lot of empathy and listening on the part of the designer. It’s only by truly understanding a problem that we can design a relevant and meaningful solution. The catch here is that full, active listening and empathy require a great deal of energy, and a desire to truly engage with your subject rather than just get the insights you need.
Active listening isn’t just sitting by and passively hearing what your client has to say — it’s an intense, full-body listening where you seek their wants, needs, desires, and meaning in each word and gesture. Just a few rounds of this active empathetic listening can leave you feeling emotionally drained and, before you know it, you attention has begun to wander. What’s worse, the moment you stop listening your audience stops sharing. As designer Frank Chimero once said, “People ignore design(ers) that ignore people.”
Action Step: Use a technique called timeboxing to preserve your energy and ensure you’re fully present and engaged. Studies show that we can only concentrate fully for 40 minutes at a time, so although you may be tempted to stack interview after interview, think again. Stepping away to rejuvenate will give you a clear head and fresh perspective, and improve your focus and productivity. The timeboxing technique is based on the premise that working within constraints increases productivity. By putting strict constraints around your work, you’ll be able to focus and be present for that limited time, then take a break to rejuvenate.
Another way to maintain your energy during the user interview process is to make sure that you stay interested! One of the great joys of user research is that you get to discover interesting things about people, stimulating one of the most powerful tools we possess: Genuine curiosity. The interview process is far more than just a gateway to the insights you need as a designer; it’s an opportunity to connect with a fascinating person and their unique story.
If you broaden your interview by adding a few random questions that go beyond the scope of your research, you’ll expand the information you collect for the project while keeping yourself engaged and interested. And when listening to a client, remember to listen to yourself as well and to know when your focus has dipped and you need to take a break to come back engaged.
2. You have problem paralysis
The great thing about user research is the wealth of problems it reveals. And the bad thing about user research? The wealth of problems it reveals. While interviews can reveal a mass of valuable data, it’s easy to fall into indecision paralysis when you’re trying to pick the most important problems to solve and ideating various solutions. So how can you use the information you gather to know which usability issues are mission critical, and which are simply an inconvenience?
Action Step:Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by the number of usability issues I’m facing, I use the “Three Questions” prioritization framework. As David Travis points out, you can classify the severity of any usability problem into low, medium, serious, or critical by asking just three questions with YES/NO answers:
- Does the problem stop the user achieving their primary goal?
- Is the problem difficult for users to overcome?
- Is the problem persistent?
The highest priority problems are those that prevent users from achieving their primary goal. Only once these are solved do the remaining issues become of importance.
3. You’re all ideated out
Ideating solutions is one of the most enjoyable parts of the design process. That moment of breaking open the pens to fill up dry erase boards with ideas and collaborate with our fellow creatives brings an energy and spark to the work that we do.
But with some projects, ideas aren't so easy to ignite. And whether it’s a looming deadline, team dynamics, or simply a lack of insights, sometimes that dry erase board looms over you instead of welcomes you. The whole thing can make you feel overwhelmed and unable to effectively ideate.
Action Step: Steal. Learn to steal like an artist. Whenever Austin Kleon, designer and author of Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, feels himself grinding to a creative halt, he makes a point of reminding himself that everything is a remix. As Kleon says, “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”
In his TED talk Embrace the Remix, Kirby Ferguson says, “Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isn't an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness. It's a liberation from our misconceptions, and it's an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves..”
Now, I’m not suggesting that you copy other ideas verbatim. Stealing like an artist means engaging with the world in a way that seeks inspiration in the most likely and unlikely of places, getting clear on what you love, and learning to create through inspiration from others.
4. You’re overwhelmed by data
Whether you’re a left brainer or right, we all have to fall in love with research. After all, a thorough understanding of the problem we’re solving and the user we’re solving it for is the foundation of all effective design. Because of this, we delight in receiving insights about the problem at hand.
But that doesn’t mean that the whole process of gathering, interpreting, and constantly reaffirming information doesn’t get exhausting. What’s more, research is far from a “one and done” process. We constantly need to be seeking feedback on our work in order to ensure our decisions are validated and not backed by lazy assumptions or a simple desire to create pretty pixels. When we try to figure everything out ourselves, we are limited by our own worldview, cognitive biases, and blind spots that can make it feel like it’s impossible to separate signal from the noise.
Action Step: The solution to getting unstuck from the overload of information acquired during research? Use the power of collaboration to gain outside perspectives and new insights. One of the earliest findings in social psychology was the “social facilitation” effect – the way the mere presence of other people engaged in the same task as us can boost our motivation. In 1920, social psychologist Floyd Allport showed that a group of people working individually at the same table performed better on a whole range of tasks even though they weren’t cooperating or competing. Collaboration is a fantastic tool for refreshing ideas and seeing a new side of a problem, along with potential new solutions.
There’s only so much you can do on your own, so get your team together and talk out the problem, create a brainstorming or mind-mapping session, and gain clarity about the core of what you’re creating. By actively engaging with others about the problem at hand, you’ll regain a fresh perspective and see new insights and solutions that weren’t apparent on your own.
5. Constant iteration makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel
Once the design process moves into the prototyping and testing phrases, things really start to get interesting — and you might even feel like you’re moving closer to the finish line. But design is a marathon, even if you work in sprints, and constant iteration cycles over the long-term can make you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and going nowhere.
This state of burnout and exhaustion isn’t exactly the place to tap into your most inspired state. It’s your responsibility as a designer to conserve your energy and take the breaks needed to reconnect you to your motivation and creativity.
Action Step:When you feel like you’re constantly rushing forward with wheels spinning, it’s time to stop, breathe, and go for a walk. From Steve Jobs to Albert Einstein to Mark Zuckerberg, some of the world’s most creative minds have engaged in daily walks to boost creativity and keep their ideas flowing.
A recent study from researchers at Stanford found that a person’s creative output and creative divergent thinking abilities increase significantly during and after a walk. The effect was similar regardless of whether participants took a stroll inside or stayed inside, walked on a treadmill or stared at a wall — it was the act of walking itself, rather than the sights encountered on the saunter, that improved creativity.
So when you’re feeling stuck on a project, get up, get out, and get moving. It doesn’t do you or your client any good to just keeping staring at the screen.
6. Pixel Perfection
If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the search for the perfect amount of white space, or split-testing font types, playing with accent colors, or any of the thousand tiny design details that (in all likelihood) your average user will never notice. The old adage is true “perfect is the enemy of done.”, and the key to determining which details are actually important lies in understanding which of your design choices will actually make a difference to the user — and which are a result of you stroking your ego, procrastinating, or delaying shipping out of fear.
Design is an iterative process, and the only way you can move to the next cycle is to put your work in front of others to get the feedback needed to move forward.
Action Step: Embrace transparency in your process. Get used to the uncomfortable feeling of shipping final projects that you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent perfect about. Remember, as Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
A great user experience is impossible to create in a vacuum, and everything has to do feedback. Reid’s words reflect a growing movement within the entrepreneurial community: The “Iterate Fast and Release Often” philosophy of entrepreneurship. Make a point of showing your work to everyone - from team members to clients - as often as possible. Aside from getting the feedback that you need, a dedication to this habit keeps perfectionism from standing in the way of your productivity.
When you love your work the way I — and so many designers — do, it’s easy to push and push and push until you hit the burnout stage. In order to avoid UX burnout, it’s important to remember to take time away from the computer and the sketch books. Read a book. Go for a swim. Take a weekend off. Your creative brain will thank you.