Burnout: The next challenge for UX design

Graphic of match with flame on it

It’s been quite a year, to say the least. While COVID upended our lives and focused our work on redesigning products for use cases we’d never imagined, and designing new virtual experiences to replace physical ones, the pandemic was quietly creating another problem, one that’s only started to show recently. Call it Zoom fatigue, pandemic fatigue, or simply hitting the wall, burnout has set in and its running rampant.

Over half of workers report feeling burnt out; from elementary school to college, students have had enough; and parents are at their wits ends. It seems like no one is immune. Chronic uncertainty, endless trauma, and the need to keep on keeping on no matter what have created a toxic problem. This is why it’s important for UX designers to understand burnout and identify how it may be factoring into our work right now.

Consider how it’s working on your users

Burnout is the result of chronic, unmanaged stress. It’s not just a bad day or week or month and a vacation won’t cure it. Although it’s commonly thought in terms of the physical symptom of overworked exhaustion, it’s also expressed in mental and emotional changes.

People suffering from burnout can struggle to focus and be motivated, become frustrated or irritated more easily, be more cynical or critical, lack satisfaction, be disillusioned by what they do, and experience anxiety and depression.

As UX designers, we’re focused on understanding people’s behavior and the emotions driving that behavior in order to develop design ideas that meet their needs and improve usability. Burnout’s growing impact on our users could very well change our understanding of them and our design decisions about what they need right now.

If you’ve worked on products for certain areas before then you very well may have had to consider the effect burnout could have on your users and design to help them with that problem.

For example, it’s well documented, even before COVID, that healthcare professionals are at higher risk of burnout because of stress, high stakes work, under resourcing, and long hours. So, designing features for products these professionals use on the job to prevent miscommunications or other mistakes, is not just about making a better user experience, but potentially saving lives.

Now that everyone’s on the burnout train, this suddenly has become a consideration every designer could be faced with no matter the project. Users may be prone to getting frustrated easier with smaller problems, making details all the more important. They may be less willing to learn new ways of doing things making design innovations that don’t align strictly with mental models riskier right now. They may make more mistakes, meaning directions and error messages will need to be clearer and tested more than ever.

This is not to add pressure, but just to say things are different right now. Just like the pandemic already has been for a year, there’s this whole other force starting to act on our users that requires understanding and recognizing if we want our work to meet the moment.

Consider how its working on you and your fellow designers

It’s not just users, though. Designers aren’t immune to burnout, no matter how much we like our work. If 50% of workers have burnout right now, then you have a 50/50 chance it’s impacting you.

Check in with your mental and emotional state and be honest with yourself. It may be your habit to keep pushing through, but not only does that not help you create better, sustainable habits to recover from burnout if you do have it, but it can lead you straight to it. And that’s not good when you consider the job of UX designers.

We have to be analytical, detail-oriented, creative. If you’re burnt out, you could be unconsciously introducing bias into your research. You could struggle to identify problems. You could struggle to ideate and come up with problem-solving designs. You could become married to your ideas and end up in conflict rather than collaboration with teammates. These and other effects mean UX design with burnout risks being design that doesn’t serve users.

Although UX design requires putting yourself in others’ shoes and removing the bias of your point of view as much as possible, sometimes getting some insight on yourself is really important for your work as well. It’s the old adage about putting on oxygen masks on a plane. How can you help others with their problems if you’re not dealing with yours?

Final Thoughts

About 6 months before the pandemic was declared I wrote about rising burnout amongst millennials and work practices that could help. I’m sad to see that, although young adults still have higher levels of burnout, the problem is growing and spreading to every age group. This is important people insight to have, though, if you’re in UX.

Some have already said the pandemic experience alone has caused us all to be walking around with mild cognitive impairments. Now, as we look to turn the corner with COVID, there is yet another challenge to consider in our designs and in ourselves, one that may be with us for some time. Take care of each other and take care of yourself.

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