Understanding design hubris

Proactively avoid negative implications to your design decisions

If you’re an expert in your industry who’s designing a product or service, there’s a strong possibility that you’ve been a victim to this monster we call Design Hubris. Some of us are more susceptible than others, and the effects are almost always permanent because they hit you early and they hit you deep. They spread like a virus, infecting all subsequent decisions and features.

Hubris itself is defined as “excessive self-confidence.” I would define Design Hubris as “thinking you know better than your customers, employees and the past.” Design Hubris breeds itself through mimicry or the copying of things others have done before you without being critical of the mistakes. This happens when you try to repeat the success of others but fail to learn from their mistakes.

Design hubris leads to a pattern of future mistakes, driven by the inability to rapidly correct errors. It becomes systemic, an epidemic. It’s symptomatic of a virus implanted in your organization’s founding and is often impossible to cure without drastic change in leadership.

Don’t lock yourself on this path of destruction.

The zombie anthology in action

My not-so-subtle attempts at the zombie tie-in aside, there are specific comparisons to zombie movies and the impact of Design Hubris. A zombie, at least in modern cinema, is often the net result of a virus gone mad. One that destroys large swaths of the population, creating brain-dead, mindless creatures who feed off the flesh of others.

Here’s how the zombie rears its ugly head in the product development world:

Brain dead

When you try to replicate the success of others, you lose time you could have spent creating something novel or exciting. Sure, it’s easy to wash-rinse-repeat and make a buck. But when you only wish to replicate success, you often end up replicating failure. Moving through the motions, doing what those around you do, all because it’s the pattern created by your virus in your early days.

Don’t take what the analysts, customers and employees say and cram it into your product as a feature without any thought. DO think critically about the true needs behind their words and implement something everyone can actually use.


World War Z Promo Poster

The zombie sets out upon one goal: BRAAAIIIINS!$#!. It is mindless and unfocused in its pursuit. It stumbles over the obvious pitfalls and obstacles in its way, and more often than not, fails in its goals. This same attitude is often the path followed by product design and development teams, and it’s pushed from above through several phrases. You are witnessing the systemic spread of a virus.

“Just get the feature out” / “We need this for sales”

This is a tag-along to a false excuse that “we’re losing sales because we don’t have X.” Rarely, if ever, is a single or small subset of features the reason you’re not closing deals. Even in situations where you’ve lost opportunities and the prospect has given you explicit detail about these features, it’s often not the entire story. More likely, you did not adequately sell them on your other capabilities. So they’ve told you you’re missing X, but in reality you were also failing to describe the value of A through W.

Given that you’re infected with this virus, it’s also probable that A through W are, in fact, terribly implemented features that suffer from poor design. Perhaps there’s no real critical thinking to solve the actual problems your customers encounter. And because your focus is on mindless feature listings, or repeating your competitors’ feature list, you’ve failed to overcome this virus and must continue the hunt for brains.

Note: If you could be like the ultra-modern zombie (whose foot speed is that of a world-class sprinter) and work through those obstacles with intense and blinding speed, you might have a better chance at success. However, the odds of being that kind of zombie are exceedingly small. More about this in the “Fail Fast” part of this series.

Feeding off the flesh of others

When you begin to have an insatiable appetite for feature matching your competitors, your transition to zombie is complete. You’ve now become incapable of survival without eating those who are alive and healthy. If you’ve reached this point, you might as well fire your product and UX team. They’ve become as useful as a heart or a brain to a zombie. You’ve clearly decided you’re not going to do anything novel or new, and a team of developers is perfectly capable of copying features on its own. But then… you’ve lost your heart and mind… so you’re probably not ever going to figure this out.

“Our competitor does it, so why don’t we?”

You either don’t do it, or hadn’t considered it, because you weren’t listening to the market or weren’t being creative enough. This happens to everyone. Someone has to be first. However, when it’s always happening to you, it’s a sign. There’s also the possibility that the feature is not valuable, and you’re chasing air. Either way, when you go about feature hunting, checking boxes, and all-out copying, you won’t know whether the feature has value, because you’ve not put in the leg work to figure it out.

Unaware of their surroundings

Warm Bodies Promotional Poster

In the mindless pursuit of your big competitors, you’ve ignored your customers, your prospects, and perhaps most dangerously, the newcomers you’ve yet to identify. You’re vulnerable from every direction: your customers who stand beside you, your prospects on your other side, and the unknown competitors who will sneak up behind you. Of note is that the best zombie kills in movies often occur in these blind spots.

The customers and prospects who stand next to you are doing their best to guide you. They are holding your hands or holding you up by your armpits, trying to carry you where they want. When you feature-copy, without any new insight or innovation, you’re attacking them. You’re turning on those who are trying their best to help you and either scaring them off or turning them into your own image. The ones who run will either join the competitor stuck in your tunnel vision, or more likely, to the competitor in your blind spot, lurking up behind you.

With No Self-Awareness

The most painful part of being a zombie is not knowing you’re a zombie. You may be reading this, thinking that none of this applies. Most of us are blind to our faults. A zombie almost never knows it’s a zombie. In nearly every scenario where the zombie is aware, they are able to change their ways. The lesson here is that awareness of our faults is a powerful cure for our failures.

If you’re not aware of what you’ve become or how you got there, the odds of getting better are improbable. The odds of seeing your problems when they’re pointed out aren’t good. The odds of self-identifying your own issues are impossible.

Yet Still Functional

I mean… you’re still moving around, right? Not really. You’re dead… but you just don’t know it. The reason you don’t know it? Hubris! Eventually the flesh of others becomes scarce, and the exponential growth of zombies like you increases competition to the point that you’re sharing with several others every time you find someone on whom to feed. That’s no way to live.

How does one defeat the zombie?

The cure is simple: think critically and independently. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Worry about what your customers and prospects are saying. What good is a new feature when you have 80 open support tickets per customer? None. Know where to start. Fix your problems, first.

Removing pain from your customers should be priority number one.

If you listen closely, they’re telling you exactly what hurts. Sometimes they aren’t overly specific, but they often have more answers than you, if you just listen. And while they don’t know your product’s architecture or how things might work under the covers, they do know what’s wrong and can help you find what’s really wrong if you just….

Spend more time listening to your customers.

They’ve got the secret inside their pains and desires for where your product should be. Sometimes they don’t word it just right. That’s where you bring in your valuable skills of problem-solving and critical thinking. You might hear customers ask for something specific. Underneath the specifics are details that other companies don’t see. It’s in those missed details where the power to be immune to the zombie virus lies.

Get to the root of the problem.

The customer, not knowing your product’s underpinnings, can’t possibly give you the details of exactly what’s needed. But they can get you close. It’s your job to fill in all the details and give them what they really want.

Think creatively and don’t worry about what others are doing.

Some customers may even tell you about some specific feature from your competitor. They may be absolutely correct that it would add value to have such a feature. However, an exact copy is probably not what they really want. Instead of trying to replicate another company’s features, follow the procedures defined above. Listen. Think critically and creatively. Work to solve the specific problem that’s at the root of their need for a feature.

About the author

Chad Kreimendahl CTO and Co-founder Onspring Process Automation Software

Chad Kreimendahl
CTO & Co-founder of Onspring