Clients from hell

What to do when you’re a UX impostor


I can’t describe the amount of venom shouted through the phone. The mean-ness, the rage. I can’t remember anyone ever being so mean about me or my work. Ever. In my entire life.

We had just finished a set of discovery workshops for an e-commerce site. The client, a $3 billion company with 1000 retail locations around the globe, felt they needed to move into e-commerce or risk losing most of their market share.

The client loved the workshops. We worked through our key questions, developed a deep understanding of the business, aligned on the goals and vision, and identified the key questions the organization needed to think about while they made fundamental changes to how they did business. The CEO even stopped by for one of the sessions.

Everything was going better than according to plan.

Then we began user flows and wireframes. We presented iterations on flows and wireframes we had collaborated on with the client in the workshops. It should’ve been what they were expecting. There should’ve been no surprises.

They were so unhappy with the user flows and wireframes, we flew a Vice President in for a face-to-face meeting with the CEO and CIO. We’re talking user flows and wireframes. A VP flew in to talk to the CEO and CIO about the first draft of user flows and wireframes.

You could say the matter had been, “escalated”.

I didn’t have to be in the room. I did have to dial-in. 

It was brutal. Black-metal-level, ultra-heavy, eviscerating, soul-crushing doom.

I searched through what had gone wrong, where we miscommunicated, where we were unclear. We had a team of really senior people on the project, probably 40, 45 years of UX experience, alone. How did we mess up so badly?

I remember thinking, “I wrote a book on UX. I know what I’m doing. How did I screw up?”

With every project since then, I still take an extra, extra pass, nervous that first review will erupt in an avalanching tirade. Every time, that memory rushes in. I have to take a breath, shake it off, center myself.

Regardless of that tirade, I have to steel myself and do my job.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been doing UX for 20 years. I’ve designed and developed and collaborated for almost 30. I know what I’m doing. I’m good at what I do. At the beginning of every project, before that first key review, I still feel like an impostor, like I don’t know what I’m doing, and at any moment, the client knows, they’ll find out, and all hell will break loose.

In 1993’s, ‘Managing the Professional Services Firm’, David Maister spends some time talking about the “professional psyche”:

Many professionals, I would assert, are prime examples of what’s now termed “The Impostor Syndrome”–successful people who live in constant dread that someone will, one day, tap them on the shoulder and say “We’ve found you out. You’ve been faking it all these years.”
– David Maister, Managing the Professional Services Firm, p168, 1993.

What’s interesting isn’t that some people have the impostor syndrome. Rather, that Maister posits that all successful professionals feel like impostors.

The UX community has talked about the impostor syndrome and how to fight it. I don’t want to to touch on that here, other than to reiterate: it’s normal. 

It’s more than normal. You should expect to feel like an impostor. Especially as the systems we architect and build become more and more complex and move faster and faster, you will never be an expert on the solution. You will always be faking it. And that’s ok.

I do want to focus on what happens when you do feel that tap on your shoulder. What happens when you fail?

Some day, no matter how skilled you are, no matter how much you know about UX, no matter how good you are with clients, someone will call you out. It’s going to happen. No matter how much you prepare, someone will have a bad day, and some people are just bad people. You can’t control that.

And it’s ok.

Your job isn’t to know all the answers. Your job isn’t to be right. 

You aren’t doing this alone. You’re doing this with a team, an entire organization. Your job isn’t to guide everyone to a better UX. Your job is to know what questions to ask, so as a team, you can test the right hypothesis, so the team can help the organization get to where they’re going.

And when that tap comes, remember: it’s not about you. Don’t rely on your ego. Don’t try to be right. You can never be right. Your job isn’t to be right. Your job isn’t to know all the answers. Your job is to ask the right questions.

When that tap comes, remember where you are in the process, and ask the question. If you’re talking about users, ask about their attributes. If you’re looking at journeys and flows, ask about the user’s journey. If you’re looking at interfaces, ask about how the user will interact with the screen.

UX is never about the right answers. UX is always about the right questions. When that tap comes, steel yourself, and find the right question.