Issue 5: How can I improve at explaining my rationale?

Any advice on overcoming imposter syndrome?

Welcome, designer.

Happy new year! I hope you had a well-deserved break and found the time to unplug and unwind. I know I’m still in the process of rebooting my brain as we get back into the swing of things.

While I was stuffing my face with holiday cookies, we crossed the incredible milestone of 1K subscribers! In fact, we’re at 1,146 as of this issue and I will forgo any playing-it-cool by confessing it is fully due to your support. So many of you have said kind words about this newsletter that I continue to hit the scary “Publish” button. So thank you.

As always, keep those questions coming as we dive straight into the new year.

Submit a question

This week, we answer:

  • How can I improve at explaining my decisions/rationale?

  • Any advice on overcoming imposter syndrome?


How can I improve at explaining my decisions/rationale?

Especially in visual design critiques. How can I improve at explaining my decisions/rationale? What are some of the things I should take into account?

First things first, let’s bust a myth: design crits are not a big deal.

They aren’t here to test you and prove you don’t deserve a raise. Rather, they’re for you to collect feedback about your work and actually serve as an informal opportunity to work on your articulations. The aim being when you do need to present in front of clients or stakeholders, you’ll have had plenty of crit practice under your belt.

So don’t worry if the work you’re showing or the rationale behind your decisions aren’t perfect by the time you get to crit. It’s totally okay.

That said, what should we consider as we improve at explaining our rationale? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. How does this fit into the bigger picture?

Everything you work on contributes to something larger. It should be an effort towards an overarching goal. But as designers, we often stare at the same pixels for hours and debate on tiny variations. This makes it easy to lose track of why we’re doing it in the first place and may make for a weak argument when you defend your final decision.

Average rationale 👀

“I want to overhaul the FAQs page because it’s hard to navigate and doesn’t have any way to search…”

Make it a 10 ✨

“…And as we focus on scaling this quarter, improving this page would reduce the extra strain on customer support by allowing customers to easier find answers themselves.”

2. How does this impact other teams?

Depending on the size of your company, you may have varying degree of ownership over a particular surface area. But very rarely do we truly work in silos. Does it happen? Of course, but always to the detriment of the product. Our work will always impact another team. The question is how.

Okay rationale 👌

“I want to trigger a modal to announce the new feature, which will help generate excitement and drive discoverability…”

Add some spice 🔥

“…I’ve spoken to Engineering who confirmed that this would be an easy design to implement and won’t affect their backlog. Sales and Marketing also won’t have any active campaigns going on that may create conflict.”

3. What edge cases does this cover?

Human behavior is complicated and designing for the happy path means we’re missing the users who can (and will inevitably) stray from it. This may include those who use different devices, those with unpredictable intents, or those with disabilities. So stress test your design and speak on what you learned.

Common rationale 🤖

“I’ve improved the credit card input form by adding some explicit guidance on where to find each information on their physical card…”

Turn it up 📣

“…But for users who want to use services like Apple Pay, I’ve moved the option to do that to the top so they don’t have to sift through the extra noise and can just skip through it instead.”

4. What constraints does this operate within?

Every problem solving exercise comes with constraints—whether it’s time, technical feasibility, resource allocation, competing priorities, so on. But the ability to deliver a sound solution despite these constraints is what sets your work apart, and by association, the rationale behind it.

Standard rationale 🤔

“We A/B tested where to position the CTA on this page and Design A won over B in terms of clickthrough rates.”

Slam dunk 🏀

“…But I would still recommend B because A would introduce an unprecedented pattern that doesn’t align with our current design system.”

Final tip: be okay saying “I haven’t thought of that”

We aren’t omniscient beings and there will always be something we overlooked. And when there is, simply admit it and followthrough in one of two ways:

  • Ask questions. In an informal crit, you can always make it a discussion rather than a one-way show. For example, if someone suggests a new idea, you can probe further: “Oh I haven’t thought of that. Why do you think that would be better?”

  • Note the action item. In a formal review, you likely have to carry that due diligence yourself after the presentation. Simply say: “I haven’t thought of that. I’ll make a note to follow up accordingly.”


Any advice on overcoming imposter syndrome?

Or thoughts about it being something nobody talks about in the industry. Did you ever struggle with it?

Hell yes, I struggle with it. Present tense.

However, my experience with this topic is not so much that it’s mentioned too little, but mentioned so much that sometimes it feels like a cop-out phrase for me to seem relevant. In other words, I have imposter syndrome about having imposter syndrome.

But no wonder: the tech industry is filled to the brim with high achievers and chances are you are one as well. And impostor syndrome, while perfectly normal, can trigger anxiety and lead to impaired performance and burnout. So how do we deal with it?

1. Identify your type of imposter syndrome

Dr. Valerie Young has long studied imposter syndrome and famously broken it down into 5 categories:

  • The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out. One minor flaw in an otherwise stellar performance or 99 out of 100 equals failure and thus shame.

  • The Expert is the knowledge version of the Perfectionist. Here, the primary concern is on “what” and “how much” you know or can do. Because you expect to know everything, even a minor lack of knowledge denotes failure and shame.

  • The Soloist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be you and you alone. Because you think you need to do and figure out everything on your own, needing help is a sign of failure that evokes shame.

  • The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for you, competence is measured in terms of ease and speed. The fact that you have to struggle to master a subject or skill or that you’re not able to bang out your masterpiece on the first try equals failure which evokes shame.

  • The Superhero measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in. Falling short in any role — as a parent, partner, on the home-front, host/hostess, friend, volunteer — all evoke shame because they feel they should be able to handle it all — perfectly and easily.

2. Target feedback on your imposter area

It’s okay if you identified with more than one of the above. In fact, I can relate to all of them one way or another but I most often assume The Expert. To cope, I find people that I trust and ask for feedback specifically on my imposter area. For example, for The Expert, I could ask:

  • What would you consider me an expert in?

  • Has that expertise led to any successful outcomes?

  • How unique is this expertise? Does it make me stand out?

  • What would you consider me inexperienced in?

  • How might growing in that area lead to more success?

3. Create a hype doc for yourself

Once you gotten some external feedback, you should start seeing your accomplishments more objectively. Over the course of quarters, halves, and years, you may forget about all the success you’ve earned and fall back into the feeling that you did nothing significant. So not only would a hype doc be critical to tackling imposter syndrome, it would also be an important asset to send to your manager and coworkers come performance review so you can rightfully ask for that raise or promotion.

If a hype doc is new to you, here is mine. I’ve omitted specific names but you should get the idea and feel free to copy the template.


Bookmarks

  • Defining Design Generalists by Molly Nix 📚
    A look into the superpowers exhibited by design generalists. I definitely agree with all of it.

  • How to Be Successful by Sam Altman 📚
    A deceivingly simple title with deceivingly simple headers. I found some actual hitters in the fine lines themselves.

  • Grow your design career as an IC 📚
    Read the words of 4 senior ICs who believe in growing and leading without managing people.


If you’ve enjoyed this issue, consider subscribing. Additionally, feel free to reply to this email with feedback on whether this was helpful to you and any suggestions on improvements.

Until next time, 👋

— Lily