The Value of your Voice

The Value of your Voice

I’ve spent a lot of time in my career being pretty shy; worried about voicing my opinion, advocating for design choices, or asking questions, especially in larger group settings. I have been very… compliant, a peacekeeper.

In early roles, I would sit in department meetings and have a million questions and ideas running through my mind. The moment I would even entertain the idea of raising my hand to speak, I would get the standard racing heart and sweaty palms and completely chicken out, too terrified of drawing attention to myself. I realize that sometimes that was a good thing–at times it’s better to listen and learn. But in retrospect, I think if I had been able to voice my opinions, I could have made more of an impact in those roles.

Specifically, I think back to when I was in one of my first major graphic design roles. I created a persona where I was seen as the person who executes. I was tasked with creating specific material, and I did exactly that. I met the baseline, with a focus on being punctual and friendly. In my own time, I began asking questions and investigating the audience, how they would be using materials, why they needed it, etc. I had vast knowledge of and interest in the user base, which translated to getting more value out of the materials, but I was too self-conscious about stepping out of line to question the deeper user needs or methods, or even mildly shake things up.

For me, that compliance stemmed from what I thought it meant to be a woman. I felt the need to temper the perception of dominance, bossiness, being too opinionated, harsh, persistent – you name it. Overall, I didn’t want to be seen as “difficult.” I had witnessed other women in leadership push those boundaries and pay the price of carrying unfortunate adjectives with them. I also felt the pain of what I now understand to be peer competitiveness defining my confidence and abilities. So I followed the rules, did what I was asked, and thought that that would get me appreciation, respect, and promotions. But it definitely didn’t and I was mostly overlooked. This was a lesson I had to learn over and over again until I figured out how to get out of that cycle.

A lot has changed since those early jobs. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself and wonder how I have shifted so dramatically. I find myself initiating client conversations, leading large stakeholder meetings, recommending solutions, and asking lots and lots of questions. I interact with all types and levels of stakeholders. And I actually look forward to it, relish it, and trust myself enough to know how to handle it–at least most of the time. Ultimately, I know that it’s important to voice my opinion because my ideas are worth hearing.

My change came slowly over time, with experiences and life events that have led me to feel a self-assuredness I typically envied in others. But there were pieces of my story that impacted that change more than others.

One is having role models and mentors who recognized my strengths or were patient enough to help me figure them out. Primarily they listened to my uncertainties and frustrations and guided me with their own experience. They gave me opportunities to make mistakes, learn, and grow, and encouraged me to move into roles that I considered outside of my comfort zone, and required me to lead and speak up. They also gave me plenty of feedback and pointed me to training that would help me be successful. One, in particular, was a speaking course that taught me how to project my voice, which is something women often struggle with.

How did I find these role models, you ask? My connections have been made almost exclusively by interacting with other designers, whether it be reaching out to them cold or meeting them at design events, which felt like a safe space to test my voice. I forced myself to do this when I moved to a new city (twice now!) and knew no one. Introducing myself over and over again to new people normalized the activity of interacting with people I didn’t know and eventually, allowed me to be way more comfortable in those situations, including working with new clients and stakeholders.

I also learned something essential – introducing yourself to someone you don’t know is a universally awkward experience. Ultimately, we’re all there for the same reasons: to learn, make connections and hopefully have a positive outcome, even if it’s simply having a good conversation. And for me, these conversations have not only led to new design opportunities {enter Simple Thread} but also new design methodologies, like OOUX.

Sometimes I need a reset and to feel a connection to the broader community, working women in particular. Over the past few years, I’ve returned to these resources to remind me that I’m not alone in my insecurities and what can feel like personal challenges.

There are moments when I realize this massive shift in my role and behavior and get a flash of imposter syndrome. Right before a big meeting, I might have the typical anxiety that many of us face. I still have to do a decent amount of self-talk to boost myself up – I reflect on the fact that I have done the prep, put in the research and work, and ya know what? I know what I’m doing.

So, what I have to say is this: don’t sell yourself short. Your voice matters, just like the rest of ours.

Put in the work to gain experience, surround yourself with people who support you, find mentors, meet people in different channels of design and try things out. UX/design is a big, big world, and through all of this, you might find that people want to hear what you have to say.

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