Breaking Past the Dreaded UX Paralysis


Imagine this…

You’re the lead user experience (UX) designer on a new client project. The project is in the early stages, but things are going well. You’ve completed the user story workshop, you have a good grasp of the client’s vision, you’ve established a comfortable relationship with the client, and you are feeling great. 

You look up with a smile, and to your great surprise, everyone in the room is looking at you. What’s going on? Why are all eyes on you?

Finally, someone on the team speaks up and says, “Alright UX designer, go to work.” With a single sentence, your teammate shatters your joyful mood, and you feel a massive weight fall on your shoulders. You can’t move. 

But how can that be? Everything is going so well! You have all of the information you could need, and you have the skills and resources to turn the dream into a reality. So why do you feel glued to your chair? 

UX paralysis. 

UX Paralysis 

UX paralysis is a state of overthinking, fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. It is a serious, and often overlooked, step in product design. UX paralysis can occur anytime, anywhere. For me, it almost always happens between the “discover” and “define” steps of the design process. 

The best way to describe the feeling of UX paralysis is through an image of a man staring at an enormous cement barrier because it literally feels like you’ve hit a wall. So, what do you do when you have this feeling? How do you break through the wall and move past this state of UX paralysis? 

I’m going to be honest: I don’t have the solutions. What I do have are some tips and tried-and-true strategies you can use to combat the feeling of UX paralysis. 

Tip 1: Lean on the pillars of Who and What

There are two pillars of UX design that are pivotal to focus on when designing a project: 

  1. The WHO Pillar asks the question “who are you designing for?” As you look at the main characters, you can improve your understanding by asking what makes them tick, what their goals are, and what their profile looks like. Before beginning your design, you should become crystal clear on who you are designing for to make sure you are not designing for a character that does not exist. 
  2. The WHAT Pillar asks the question “what has already been done?” Oftentimes, when you hop on a project, you are inheriting a lot of information. Familiarizing yourself with the research (qualitative and quantitative), competitive analysis, user stories, previous designs, and other documentation that is already complete both helps you ensure you’re not redoing any work and helps you start formulating your next steps. Looking at what has already been done can help you focus on what you need to do next. 

Tip 2: Eat a LOT of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are great for you. They are high in Vitamin C and potassium, and they’re good on almost anything. However, when it comes to UX paralysis, I’m talking about a very specific kind of tomato: Pomodoro tomatoes. 

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management strategy that prioritizes: 

  1. Breaking down overwhelming tasks into digestible pieces. You want your tasks to be cherry tomatoes, not beefsteak tomatoes. 
  2. Grouping small, related tasks together. Whenever possible, you want to knock out two birds with one tomato. 
  3. Finding the entryway into the mystical “flow state.” As designers, we often talk about getting into a flow state where we are hyper-focused, allowing the creative juices to flow. This mystical flow state is your optimal form, and the place you want to be to break the UX paralysis and progress. 

The Pomodoro method allows you to combat distractions and focus on one thing at a time. 

Tip 3: Prepare Ahead of Time 

One of the best ways to prepare for impending paralysis is to have templates at your disposal. Templates are a fantastic way to expedite workflow instead of stressing out about how to do something or potentially reinventing the wheel. Templates let you jump into what you want to do much more quickly.

Design systems and design libraries help designers generate products much more efficiently. Things like site maps and user flows can do the same thing for UX strategies. Rather than spending time developing your site map, you can focus on simply filling in the content.  

The Other Side of UX Paralysis

You might think, “those strategies seem great, but how do I know when I’ve broken past the wall of my UX paralysis?”

Breaking past UX paralysis isn’t about breaking through the wall with force. It’s about re-centering yourself and grounding your mind. It’s about accepting that the feelings associated with the paralysis are a part of the process. 

However, if you still feel stuck even after trying the tricks above, you can always use one final, important strategy: ask questions. If everything else fails, throw the ball back to the team. This is a team sport that we are all playing together; your team is always there to help you re-center and re-focus on the job at hand. 

The reality is, UX paralysis is going to happen. The fear, anxiety, and feelings of self-doubt are natural responses to a seemingly overwhelming project. As you let the emotions run through you, remember that you have tools to combat them, a team to support you, and everything you need to succeed. 

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