The Risk All Designers Face: Becoming too “Businessy”

Monish SubherwalCollaborating TogetherLeave a Comment

Back when I was in college studying Computer Science at UC Berkeley, design was considered the softer-not-so-serious part of my department and subtly scoffed at by engineers.

In the workforce this snobbery continued. You’d join a company and it would be either product lead or developer lead. Once a vision was set, designers were a mere afterthought.

And it frustrated the hell out of us.

But man, have times have changed wonderfully!

A new world: with great power comes great responsibility

Forward to today.  Designers are now sought after. It’s fairly clear what the ROI of design is to companies (I’ve written about the ROI of design before), and we’re seen as a vital part of a successful business strategy.

And more and more, we are getting to work with parts of the business to define the product and the strategy. Which is great.

But, like the Spiderman movie says “with great power come great responsibility.” Now as designers are being seen as someone who can define strategy, there is always the risk of being TOO businessy.

Business Goals and User Needs

A common image we see, is this image here:

11823827-AC69-4009-9EC9-F082BAFE7DC5

UX Design is usually warm and cozy in the “sweet spot” – right in the intersection of business goals and user needs.

And for many of us, that challenge to balance the two parts is a struggle.  Our primary responsibility is to be advocate for the user and their needs, but then we also must design with business in mind.  We have to think design AND think business.

The bigger problem is when we start to move over too much onto the business side of the 2 circles.  We can get caught up in the business goals too much – going beyond our primary responsibility, focusing on users.

This article is going to cover what happens when we go too far.

The Ambition Vision Scale

Back when I was at Myspace, I had met a fellow designer who had reluctantly shown me his designs. When I asked if he had shown our manager to get feedback, he said “no way.” He wanted to keep his designs into himself and reveal it only when it was fully ready (as if, there was a grand finale).

I could clearly tell he came from an art school background. His design was his art and was highly precious.

Over time, I began to realize that there were many types of designers – and their general attitudes fit nicely on a scale I call the Ambition Vision scale.

The scale is called the Ambition Vision scale, because it highlights the struggle we all face as designers. We are constantly balancing our Ambition (serving our own personal needs) with our Vision (serving the needs of others, including users and the business).

The Ambition Vision Scale looks like this, and I’ll go over it in detail:

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.35.06 AM

3 Main Attitudes

There are 3 main attitudes listed on the scale:

  1. Him/herself over People and ProfitsOn the left, we see an attitude of the Designer (him/herself) over people and profits. Everything they do is more important than the business and users (people). This attitude is all about me, me, me.Design is all about their self-expression.
  1. People over profitsIn the middle, we see an attitude of people over profits. This is the extreme attitude of putting the user over the business. There is no need to consider the business at all. This attitude all about people, people, people.Design is purely seen as a vehicle for serving others.
  1. Profits over peopleNext we see profits over people. This is the attitude of doing anything and everything to make a dollar. Tricking users is OK for people with this attitude. This attitude is all about money, money, money.Design is trivialized as a way to make a profit.

3 Main Characteristics

If we take the scale further, we can see the attitudes map to characteristics.

On the left, the person who puts him/herself over people and the profits is representing naive selfishness. I call it naive because no one lives in a bubble. Too much ambition doesn’t work.

Putting people solely over profits, isn’t any better. Those people are naively selfless. I call these folks naive because too much vision (serving others) without ambition (serving yourself) burns you out.

And lastly, the people who put profits over people, are engaging in greed.

See the characteristics here:

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.18.39 AM

The Artist, the UX Purist, and the Dark UX Designer

So what types of designers fit along this scale?

We can map the the attitudes and characteristics to personalities.

We see that the we come up with 3 personalities:

  • The Artist
  • The UX Purist
  • Dark UX Designer

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.26.52 AM

The Artist

The Artist is like my friend from Myspace. His or her design is her “art”. It’s all about their ideas, their vision, their perfect design. They don’t want to share their ideas, because they are precious.

The Artist loves sitting in an ivory tower and taking all the credit and fame.

The UX Purist

The UX Purist puts users over the business all the time. They are an idealist and see what they are doing as helping humanity. While their views are selfless, it’s naively so. Building things people won’t pay for, doesn’t serve any business well.

The UX Purist loves design and loves people.

The Dark UX Designer

The Dark UX Designer doesn’t mind breaking rules. They are comfortable using annoying pop-ups and nagging the user if it means getting more revenue.

They are OK with tricks and enjoy “persuasive design” techniques that leverage human psychology to manipulate the user.

The Dark UX Designer loves money and success above all else.

Where do product managers and designers fit in this scale?

We can map product managers as closer to the profits over people side of the spectrum – but not on the extreme end where Dark UX Designers typically sit.

We can also map UX designers between ‘People over profits’ and ‘Profits over people’. UX Designers can’t be naively selfless, nor can they be too greedy.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.48.15 AM

A word of caution: where I’ve positioned the UX Designer and the Product Manager are highly debatable positions for a few reasons:

  1. The Scale is flexibleThe Ambition Vision Scale is not a device for labeling and judging others. When making design decisions, sometimes our ego gets in the way. We become the Artist. It’s all about me, me, me.Sometimes we get idealistic. We think that the business is too greedy and neglecting the users. We become the UX Purist.Other times, we may appease our business counterparts to the extreme. We focus solely on the metrics and serving business goals – at the expense of staying objective and balancing focus on user needs.So what’s the right personalities to develop? The key is balance and being flexible, embodying characteristics and attitudes that serve a problem you are solving.
  1. The role of designer is evolvingAnother reason why it’s hard to pigeonhole designers and product managers on this scale is because the role of design is evolving. Sometimes we are called to do more business strategy work. In this case we would slide up the scale, closer to the Product Manager or Dark UX Designer.Sometimes even Product Managers slide down the scale, being asked to do more UX work.Sometimes we join a company and we may be asked to do innovation work. This work often has to do with focusing solely on future ideas regardless of business constraints. We end up being the UX Purist again.

Your thoughts?

I hope you enjoyed this article!  Likes and comments always provide me a lot of encouragement to keep writing articles like this.

If you are interested in more of my ideas and how to develop your soft skills as a designer, visit my website at SoftSkillsforDesigners.com.

To your success,


Monish Subherwal

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