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The Mount of Good UX, from afar

Hey there, design reader!

Welcome to week 11 (actually, more like week 12) of my UX Academy Journey—the halfway point! Huzzah! If you’re a fellow UXA student in the Weingart cohort, go ahead and give yourself a high-five. It’s been a long road and you deserve it! And if you’re in another cohort, or just an enthusiastic follower of these posts, also give yourself a high five for being awesome and supporting this journey with your readership. Thank you! 

After three months of rigorous study, we students are given the chance to take a break week—and break I, for one, most certainly shall—before progressing to Phase 2 of the course and embarking on three back-to-back capstone projects.

In fact, I’m writing this from a plane 10,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, somewhere midway between Seattle and Hawaii (I know, I know—I’m sorry, okay?). Though the first half of UXA isn’t technically over yet—week 13 has a reduced schedule of assignments based around synthesizing and debriefing the conclusion of our final Phase I project—my coursework is going to have to take a brief but complete back seat to some much needed (and well-earned, I might add) rest and relaxation. 

Enter Maui: an island in an archipelago in a state I have still never been to (yet) and a commitment (to which my partner will most certainly hold me) to take a break and unplug for an entire glorious, mostly sun-kissed week. (Apparently the Seattle rain has decided to punish us for fleeing by following us for half our vacation—but still, I don’t care because HAWAII.) 

But before I turn my phone off, dig my feet into the sand and work on systematically decluttering my mind of all of the UX design thoughts that have been taking up most of my internal bandwidth lately, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the first half of this accelerated, rapid-fire design learning experience, and how it has forever changed me. 

What follows is a combination of musings on the lessons—about both life and design—that I’ve taken from the first half of my coursework. There’s also a sprinkling of tips for anyone currently studying, or interested in pursuing this UX design path. 

Here goes!

1. UX design is hard to explain, because it’s sort of everything

The funny thing about UX design is that most people outside the industry have no idea what it is. Try to explain it and they get even more confused. We’ve talked about this before—on the one hand, UX design is this amorphous, all-encompassing, ever-expanding space where magical things happen. But on the other hand, it’s also a lot of other, more concrete things: user research, prototyping, interaction design—you name it. 

My guess is that the definition of UX design will keep evolving until humanity eventually reaches a point of such technological advancement that we cease to occupy physical space (we’re talking millions of years in the future here people—I’m an optimist, see). Until then, UX design will continue to attract those of us who are simply fascinated with the multitude of possibilities it presents. 

So buckle up and get ready for a lot of labored explanations to your relatives about what it is that you actually do. 

2. Learning is hard, but only at first

Before I started UX Academy, it had been nearly a decade since I was enrolled in any sort of school or structured educational program. Most of my training has been on the job, and due to this, it was spotty at best, or so focused on a single task that it didn’t really provide any lasting skills development. 

So yes, committing to some formal UX design education, especially in a fast-paced intensive setting, was definitely a bit intimidating. At first. But I’ve been drinking from that UX design firehose for twelve (and a half (ish)) weeks now. I’ve taken on board gallons of new knowledge, and as Phase 1 comes to a close, the tap has started to slow. 

The first time I designed a landing page it was clashing, cluttered, and conceptually chaotic. The first time I wireframed, I wondered if I was doing it right. The first time I made a site map, I nearly pulled my hair out in frustration. 

But the next time, it got easier.

Kaus landing page design

Here’s a progress update on my Kaus landing page design!

3. Letting go of expectations will make it easier

Now, dropping a bucket down to fetch some magical UX water from that well is no work at all. In fact, I find myself doing it daily, applying the lessons from the past three months in my current part-time work (which has nothing to do with UX design, just so you know). And the more I learn, the more I see that the well is constantly refilling with new things to discover. 

Traditional learning environments focus quite a bit of energy on the right/wrong dichotomy, which won’t serve you well in the world of UX design where there is rarely (if ever) a strictly correct or incorrect way of doing things.

This “middleness” of UX design is something I’ve taken to musing quite a bit about these past few months. It took me ages to let go of the idea that I was somehow missing the mark—doing it wrong. Even after every lesson, every group discussion, every mentor session had reinforced this new, iterative, collaborative way of thinking and working, I still insisted to myself that I was somehow failing, missing the mark, or just not “getting it”. 

I’m realizing now that this was, of course, total baloney. 

Don’t be me. Don’t make it hard on yourself. Let go, open your mind, and take it all in. 

4. Experimenting with your passions sweetens the payoff

There’s this magical thing that happens when you get the chance to apply UX design methods to projects you have a particular passion for: the work is better, more satisfying, and higher quality than when you’re not fully invested, or just going through the motions for an assignment.

For example, I spent an entire Saturday learning how to animate a logo for my latest project in Framer, which is a code-heavy design prototyping platform (can you say CoffeeScript?). 

Animated logo in Framer

Look! Look! It only took all day...

I am not a programmer, or developer. I do not know code. The minimal HTML and CSS I taught myself a decade ago breaking apart and customizing Wordpress themes—a “hack service” I offered to clients who needed a website but couldn’t afford a professional designer—was long outdated. 

But, after a two-hour Skype tutorial with an expert Framer designer (thanks Patrick!) I was able to apply what I’d learned to create this fun, interactive (and quite impressive, if I do say so myself) little animation. 

Sure, I didn’t have enough time left to convert my entire InVision prototype to Framer so that the other funky animations I added in could be live in high fidelity. And sure, I spent the entire next day trying to make Sketch, InVision, and Framer play nice together so the GIF could appear on hover in its existing InVision iteration—another attempted hack that so did not work. But it sure was fun. 

And learning what doesn’t work can be just as important as learning what does. Was this really how I should have been allocating my time when I had a high fidelity prototype to complete and user tests to conduct? Probably not. But was it time well spent? Absolutely! 

If nothing more I discovered that I love animation—something I never would have found out or even attempted had my Group Crit facilitator not suggested I give Framer a whirl a few weeks back (thanks Robbin!).

5. All work and no play makes a for an unhappy designer experience

It goes without saying that, in any focused endeavor, a little legwork is required—especially when you’re transitioning into a new and unfamiliar career with a steep and technology based learning curve. 

But I will say that—just as in life—finding a balance between work and play is paramount. In the early weeks of Phase 1, I would often find myself working long into the night, depriving myself of sleep, exercise, social engagements, even Netflix sessions with my (very patient) partner (thanks Jordan!).

Looking back, I can confidently say that pushing myself to work longer only made the process harder on my body and mind. About six weeks in, I adopted a new approach: “stop and turn in when your eyes are so strained you can’t see whether you’re done or not”. And, of course, the benefits were immediate. 

Instead of waking up tired and frantic the next day, unhappy with the work I’d forced myself to complete through fatigue, I’d wake up refreshed—and the solution to whatever design problem I had been trying to solve was far easier to find from a rested, balanced state. 

Hi from Hawaii!

So with the importance of balance in mind, I’m signing off for a couple of weeks. I won’t be checking my email, or Slack, or Twitter, and definitely not Facebook. For the next seven days I am foregoing all the screens I’ve grown to love and rely on so much. 

When I get back, I’ll be jumping into Phase II revitalized and, hopefully, with a bit of a tan—ready to jump into some new projects, consolidate everything I’ve learned so far, and write up that Framer tutorial I promised you last week. 

Whether you’re a fellow UXA student, working designer, or UX design fan, I encourage you to find some time to “unplug and play” as well!

Until next time, happy designing!

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