It’s ok to be an introverted UX designer

By Andrew on 10th September 2016 — 5 mins read

Over the holidays, I read a wonderful book called Quiet, by Susan Cain.

She’s the powerhouse behind an entire quiet revolution – she’s got a TED talk, a podcast and a bunch of other stuff moving all around a powerful central concept: that there is an urgent need to do more to address the balance between introversion and extroversion.

Western cultures, she argues, are unhealthily skewed towards extroversion. We demand it from our children at school, we get promoted for it at work. This skew is not good for us.

You see, extroverts tend to be bigger risk takers. Think of all the risk-taking that led to the financial collapse in 2008. If there were more introverts in positions of power, would it have happened?

The problem is that extroverts are great at assuming leadership roles. They look like they know what they’re doing (showing little sign of fear, uncertainty or doubt). They tend to be more assertive and decisive. Does this make them natural leaders?

Maybe! Introverts can make good leaders too though. They are more likely to be meticulous and thorough. Less likely to jump to risky, snap judgments. They are careful and conscientious and have the stamina to stick with problems, to obsess over the details. They might be able to offer a more intelligent style of decision making.

How to spot an introvert

Given our cultural skew, many introverts learn to act like extraverts in order to progress at school or in work. They tend to need restorative time to recover from this acting though. They also welcome having longer to prepare for any social performances / engagements that are required of them. An introvert who can deliver a brilliantly entertaining presentation, making the whole room laugh and hang on her every word, will need to recharge her batteries by withdrawing soon after the curtain goes down.

Those might be the only clues they give away though. The attributes listed below aren’t always immediately apparent.

Introvert Extrovert
High reactive, sensitive Low reactive, insensitive
Reflective, thoughtful, contemplative Spontaneous, Bold
Bookish, solitude-seeking Sociable, gregarious
Unassuming, modest Ebullient
Serious Lighthearted
Shy Comfortable in the spotlight
Subtle, gentle Broad, blunt
Focused Expansive
Introspective, inner-directed Outer-directed
Submissive Dominant, assertive
Calm Excitable
Risk-averse Risk-taking
Thin-skinned Thick-skinned
Meticulous, thorough, exacting, diligent Perfunctory, offhand, immediate
Man of contemplation Man of action

Is UX Design similarly skewed towards extroversion?

Susan Cain’s, New York Times article The Rise of the New Groupthink, starts with these words..

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.

On reading this, I thought of all the ideation sessions, brainstorming, collaboration workshops that seem to be a mandatory part of every UX project. There is an unspoken assumption that if we can get all the right people in a room for long enough then we’ll be able to come up with quicker, better solutions to our shared problems.

I’ve often had cause to question that assumption (though I do love workshops), but haven’t until now realised what’s really wrong with it: that the introverts in the room1 will hate the pressure of thinking on the hoof and derive next to no value from contributing. This is not just about shyness. Introverts prefer to think alone before forming ideas. They want to soak it up, to form a deeper personal understanding before being ready to give form to their thoughts.

Now I’m not ready to forget about workshops altogether – I still think they have an important role to play. Perhaps we just need to build in a good balance of time working alone to time working in groups. This could be asking people to sit alone for 30 mins filling out a worksheet, or jotting down ideas on posits. Or it could be that participants are given time to prepare and reflect before attending the workshop. They could even be given set slots within which to present their homework.

Always having something to say

Another sign of extroversion that I worry about is the assumption that building a career in UX Design must involve giving talks and getting published. It’s not enough to do work that your clients value – to deliver projects on time, and to the desired quality. You’re also expected to have something to say.

This means a steady stream of strong opinions.

I guess there’s a time and a place for that. But it’s a shame that it feels so important to have that endless twittering, self-congratulatory noise as part of your understandable desire to advance.

Some of the best UX Researchers / Designers that I’ve worked with have been introverted. I think they get tired of being told to speak up. They know how to ask good questions, and to frame things in the right way. If they’re not managing to work effectively in a team, this isn’t because they’re not speaking in the right way, it’s that too many of the extraverts around them aren’t listening in the right way.

After all, listening in the right way is the key skill for someone in UX Design to master. Introverts have a natural advantage here. They spend so much of their time monitoring themselves and those around them. Their quiet allows them to absorb and to understand things calmly and methodically. They’re able to sit with complex data for a long time before drawing out patterns. In this way, they can come to hear things that others cannot. This is the source of the introvert’s power – and it’s vital that we learn how to harness it more.

  1. The evidence suggests that this between 1/3 and 1/2 of people are introverted ↩︎
Posted in: Introverted UX

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