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Have you ever been disappointed with your job? Have you wished there was something bigger and more meaningful? Do you believe your work isn't significant enough? I've had those thoughts, and it tough on morale. It can lead to a lot of bitterness and disappointment. But what if it's simply a matter of perspective?

An Industry's Broken Promise

UX and design have made some big promises over the past few decades. Design has grown into its own with lots of outstanding research and definition in the discipline. We can more accurately talk about it and what design is, and how it functions. We're able to be self-aware about design, and that's a good thing.

As things progressed into the digital world, the concept of User Experience Design emerged and became the hot new industry. It's evolved so much over the last two decades and made a lot of big promises. The newness of UX created a lot of hype. Then, we trained a generation of designers to expect a career of innovation. To try and fulfill our expectations, we sell entire methodologies that promise to mass-produce innovative products. We tout Design and UX as the answer for all the problems in the world, despite warnings they are dangerous. See Ruined by Design for more details.

I bought into this fairy tale. Now, I'm reaping the consequences. After reading articles penned by Mark Hurst, Peter Merholz, and Jesse James Garrett, I began to realize that the problem was beyond myself. It resonated deeply with my experience, and for the first time in forever, I felt understood.

The Reality of the Situation

Then I came across an article by a brilliant design leader named Dennis Hambeukers: Design Thinking Is Over The Hill. This article discussed the beginning decline of Design Thinking. It was at this point that I was introduced to a new framework called the Gartner Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle showing the rise, fall, and stabilizing over time.

When I saw the hype cycle, things clicked together like LEGO bricks. The world has been riding the hype of the latest fad (myself included). UX is vital for good digital product experiences, and it will undoubtedly continue to produce innovative products. But I think the industry has fallen prey to a fairy tale lifestyle of industry-shaking innovation. The reality of UX is starting to settle in. Design is all about improvement employing problem-solving. UX is just an expression of that problem-solving within a specific industry. Sometimes the problems are minor and need small solutions. Other times we're up against challenging, gnarly problems that demand elegant, industry-shifting solutions. UX designers don't live to do one or the other, but both. I saw this quote on LinkedIn by Jeremy Bailey:

"In my experience product teams vastly undervalue continuous improvement over innovation."

This quote is a spot-on assessment in my experience as well.

Big "I" Innovation & little "i" innovation

In the book Eat. Sleep. Innovate., the authors lay out a helpful definition of the word innovation:

"Something different that creates value."

This definition was straightforward but helpful. It began to change my perspective. Innovation doesn't have a measurement of size. It doesn't have to be at a particular scale to qualify as legitimate innovation. Fortunately, it came at a time when Bailey's post and other articles were swarming around in my head.

We behold big "I" Innovation as the pinnacle of UX design accomplishment. Designers can mistakenly believe we haven't arrived until we've created a product solution that changes the world or radically alters the industry we design within. It's great to strive for this, but the disillusionment that sets in when we fail to achieve it is damaging and demoralizing. User Experience Design solves problems for people that they experience each day. Sometimes, the minor issues are easy to solve and produce the highest impact. UX Designers must continually work to identify problems in products and services, then work to solve them. Furthermore, UX designers must solve them in ways that do not create further headaches and problems. In response to Jeremy Bailey's LinkedIn post, Dr. Kristen Liesch posted this:

"...Lovely that you innovate, and add more and more to your product roadmap, but not lovely if all you leave behind you for your users are potholes."

It's so true. The idolizing of big "I" Innovation diminishes the critical importance of creating experiences that 'just work' for customers. It can distract us from constantly roaming products for the problems that degrade our customers' experience.

The promise of world-changing efforts and industry-shifting innovation is attractive to the visionary nature of many designers. Unfortunately, it's typically the exception, not the rule. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention" explains that huge innovations don't happen regularly. They happen by "chance" when the right circumstances align, and creative people are positioned to take advantage of those circumstances. That means big "I" Innovation is the exception, not the rule. It takes a lot of research, understanding, exploration, testing, and failure to achieve the flashy success we see on the tail end. That's ok.

Adam Grant expands on this idea in his book, Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World:

"If originals aren't reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas. Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren't qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. "The odds of producing an influential or successful idea," Simonton notes, are "a positive function of the total number of ideas generated."

Grant explains how the research shows that when people press on through the mundane, try lots of things, and produce a lot of work; they are more likely to stumble into big "I" innovation.

For UX designers, the reality is most of our work is iterative and improvement-focused. That's still innovation. It still provides value to the humans we serve. Plus, it is value that compounds over time and trends upwards, rather than a big shift subject to the Hype Cycle. The revelation is that smaller, iterative improvements are increasing in value over time.

Instant Gratification

So why do we gravitate towards the flashy innovative work rather than the continuous improvements that compound value over time? In my experience, there's a false perception that "big" innovations payout with instant gratification. The promise maintains that with little effort up front, we'll experience massive, quick success.

The worst part is that our highly digital world has trained us to love and expect that instant gratification with every swipe, tap, and notification ding. We are prone to expecting this type of gratification at all times now. It's simply not realistic. As designers, we need to appreciate the compounding value over time that brings delayed gratification. In my assessment, it's a trade-off we need to understand consciously.

Iterative work compounds over time more stability than bigger innovations.

Where to go from here?

If you've made it this far, you may be wondering, "So what now? Why write all of this?" I'm writing this to inspire change in myself and hopefully others as well. Here's where I am going, and others are welcome to join in:

1. Recapture the brilliance of smaller iterative work.

I need to make a conscious shift in my thinking to appreciate the small wins. My job is to improve product experiences for customers. That will require strategy behind what we choose to do (and choose not to do). I'm going to appreciate those strategic contributions that my team and I can bring to the table. Most of all, I'm going to shoot for compounding value over time and be patient while the value builds. That doesn't mean I won't have an immediate impact; instead, I'll serve customers now with an eye towards the future.

2. Review long-term progress.

With this kind of work, it's easy to check items off the list and forget you ever completed them. I'm going to make an effort to take snapshots of the current state, file them away, and compare them in the future. I will eagerly await the satisfying experience of seeing big UX dividends paid out over time. To clarify this point, I'm thinking bigger than sprint retros. They are great but often miss the long-term gains we've worked so hard to accomplish.

3. Stay on the lookout for big "I" innovation opportunities.

Lastly, I will stay on the lookout for big innovation opportunities as they present themselves. I won't neglect the iterative work for it. I will strive to place appropriate value on the big innovations balanced against the smaller innovations. Innovation is significant and valuable at all scales.

The point is that as UX Designers, we need to continually work to improve the products and services we design for. Whether it's big things or little things, we design to serve the humans using our products. The bulk of design work will be smaller, iterative improvements that collectively provide huge value over time. It's not as flashy as a massive new product, creative new feature, or rolling out the next big thing. But, with patience and continual UX design effort, it can transform a product space in stable and profitable ways.

Let's go make something more awesome. Thanks for reading.

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