Beware the sacred cows

Just like the trap of “real UX,” there’s another cognitive trap we UXers are prone to: unexamined sacred cows. I hold up before you—the pattern library.

I recently became convinced that we needed to build a pattern library and product style guide for our company. We have products sprouting like mushrooms all over the place and not nearly enough designers and product managers and developers to go around. I’m always getting asked for color and style guidance, and I don’t have much to give people. I can barely keep up with the design of the products I know about, never mind products that don’t yet exist.

A pattern library would help scale our limited UX resources, I thought, so we could have influence on products even if we don’t have time to actively work on them. It would help us catalog our ideas so we wouldn’t try to invent the same thing twice. It would help us work faster and be more consistent.

I got as far as poking around in a test install of Sharepoint our IT guys set up for me, but then—thank goodness!—while sitting in the tenth row at the LeanDayUX conference in New York, listening to Bill Scott talk about GitHub, I had an epiphany.

I was going about this for all the wrong reasons:

  1. I had arrived at this decision for emotional reasons (more on that in a bit)
  2. I had come up with a solution before I understood the problem
  3. I had not questioned that solution because it was a pattern library—one of the holy grails of UX design!

First, the emotional reasons. This all started when we hired a new product manager who, practically on her first day, asked me what I was doing about style guides for our products. Because she caught me unprepared, and because I was already aware that I wasn’t doing anything about it, my instinctive reaction was to become defensive. All I could think was that we had to do something, and that it was my responsibility, and that the new hire was going to think I didn’t know how to do my job.

Second, I had failed to do any kind of UX process on this problem. I had not performed any research or interviews, I hadn’t thought about who the consumers of this pattern library would be or what they would want. I didn’t understand the problem I was trying to solve.

Third, because we all worship the great Yahoo pattern library (no sarcasm there—it really is great), I allowed myself to uncritically grab at that solution without asking whether it was right for our needs. A pattern library is one of those unattainable “real UX” things that it seems like other people get to do, not me. If I had that on my résumé, boy howdy!, I’d be king shit of turd mountain.

So here are my takeaways:

  1. Be especially leery of sacred cows. They’re just like affinity marketing—you need to do more due diligence investing with friends than you do when investing with strangers, precisely because you’re likely to put your trust in them without reading the fine print.
  2. Don’t shortcut the UX process for internal projects. A project is a project. Everything should be subjected to the same rigor, the same questions, the same discipline.
  3. Question your own motives. This is even more important when you’re a manager, because your directs may not be comfortable questioning them for you. Before you know it, a  decision made out of emotion can turn into four months of sunk costs.
  4. Keep going to UX conferences. Listening to other people’s ideas unknots some critical part of my brain and lets me reframe problems that I’m too close to when I’m at work.