Being a designer is a frustrating and thankless job. I’m tired of being called in at the fag end of the project. At this point, the team isn’t interested in design solutions. Rather, they are looking for ways to cover the screw-ups they have made. And, they ask:
“While you are hiding the blemishes, just make the whole thing look pretty as well.”
Damn it. I’m a designer, not a wizard.
But I still get on to working what little magic I can. And then I discover a serious issues. This is where thing takes a turn for the worse.
Firstly, they deny the existence of the issue. Then, I’m not taken seriously enough. Finally I’m ignored altogether. Then, when the prophecy comes true, I’m actually blamed for it.
Has anybody, encountered anything similar?
Early on in my career, I had many instances of the above scenario being played over and over. These days however, I do not feel the same. I was wondering if anything had changed. I knew something had, but I could not pin point it.
Then, yesterday, I came across this podcast by Shankar Vedant where he explains the Cassandra Syndrome and it’s causes. That explained a lot.
What is the Cassandra Syndrome?
Before we get on to the problem, we need to understand where it gets its name from.
Cassandra, was a daughter of King Priam and of Queen Hecuba of Troy in Greek mythology. She was cursed to utter prophecies that were true. There was one hitch, however, no one believed her.
A common version of her story relates how, in an effort to seduce her, Apollo gave her the power of prophecy. When she refused him, he spat into her mouth to inflict a curse that nobody would ever believe her prophecies.
We designers also have been blessed in a similar way. We look at problems in ways others would not see. Hence, we are able to spot issues others are not trained to. However we are cursed as well. Very often, we find that our voices do not carry across to the decision makers.
And much like Cassandra, we bring this curse upon ourselves because of our circumstances and the ways in which we act.
Can we avoid the Cassandra Syndrome?
Yes we can. Shankar Vedant explains how the syndrome works and you should go listen to his complete podcast to understand it better. However for your convenience, I’ve extracted the points and I have adapted it into the context of us designers. Here’s how you too can avoid the Cassandra Syndrome and make sure you are heard within your organization
1. Don’t talk in cryptic design-speak: One of the problems with Cassandra was that she, like most prophets, liked to speak in metaphors. And these metaphors do not resonate with lay people. We designers also suffer from ‘Design Speak’. Whether it is about Typeface, Kerning & White Spaces or about Affordances, Personas and Experience Maps, we need to speak with the audience in mind. As designers, we have all learnt how to develop empathy for users. However, we should also learn how to develop empathy for the stakeholders. And rather than force a ‘design-centric’ approach vs a ‘engineering-centric’ approach, we should work together as a team. Moreover we should distill and simplify the concepts so that it can be delivered in a clear and crisp fashion.
2. Move up the organization: When I was a younger designer, I had a hard time getting people to hear me out. Now, with more than twenty years of experience under my belt, I don’t have a similar problem. It is not that I’m a much better designer. It is just that I have moved up the ranks to become slightly more authoritative in my communication. This makes me more trusted. Young designers however should not despair. They should find a trusted mentor who can help them out.
3. Don’t jump far ahead: It is human nature to first be concerned of problems that are right in front of you. I was at a meeting where everyone was talking about the need to do split testing to study conversions. That is when the Head of Engineering stopped the discussion saying — “Hey, I have trouble making sure the code is running bug free on all the five platforms, split testing is going to be the least of my concerns.” This is an unfortunate reality and we should understand this. Hence depending upon the situation, see how you can space out your recommendations. Start with what is immediate and then move on.
4. Don’t ask too much of your stakeholders: If your demands are atrocious, nobody will take you seriously. Even if you mean well. So when making your demand, keep it realistic. Once you gain trust, you can make more demands. But first, work towards gaining the trust.
These are just some ways in which we designers can avoid the Cassandra Syndrome. Try it out, and let me know if it works.