Hey there, design reader!
Guess who’s back and blasting through Phase 2 of my UX Academy Journey? This aspiring UX designer is who!
A quick catch up on what’s been going on with the program thus far: With three back-to-back capstone projects (sort of like final projects that display both your design skills and the processes used all wrapped up into pretty portfolio pieces), Phase 2 is like the last leg of the marathon, to say the least. It’s all about distilling down the design methodology lessons learned in Phase 1 of the program and applying them in active bursts of rapid UX design execution.
When I say rapid, I mean it
In Phase 1, I worked on the KAUS insurance project for the better part of three and a half months. In Phase 2, each of the three capstones are completed in the span of three-ish weeks from start to finish. (You can stretch it if you use the week between projects to do a final round of revisions).
In the four short weeks since Phase 2 began, the coursework has progressed from synthesizing the lessons from Phase 1, then a personal branding kickoff (in preparation for those portfolio pieces I mentioned earlier), and now a running jump into capstone 1—all with a new mentor both guiding my learning and raising the bar.
It is fast. It is intense. It is an amazing learning experience.
Yes, occasionally the information overload is still reminiscent of drinking from a firehose, but, as they say, practice really does make perfect. Repetition is the key to learning, and whenever I start to feel overwhelmed or struggle to fully understand and embrace an essential UX design lesson, I adopt a silly (but effective) little meditation to get me through: I step away from the screen, close my eyes for a moment, and imagine myself as a person-sized sponge, soaking up all the knowledge from that fire hose, to be squeezed out and saved for later when I hit a design wall, or my inspiration dries up. (Pardon the pun. And this whole analogy.)
I know it’s weird. You’re not wrong. But it also lightens the mood and reminds me that this is the hard work of rapid design learning that will, undoubtedly, pay off in the end. Much in the way yoga is referred to as a “practice”—it can take years of showing up and trying to bend and stretch yourself into a pretzel before your body actually starts to work that way and the benefits materialize—so has UX design become for me. Maybe some people are natural yogis, or instant UX design savants, but I, alas, am not on either front. It took me years of failed downward dogs before my body ever actually clicked into it well enough to enjoy the experience. It took me a decade of practice, but eventually—finally—I broke through.
Practice, repetition, reiteration. Boom.
Phase 1 was all about familiarizing myself with the fundamentals of UX design. Phase 2 has become all about—you guessed it—refining my practice and building better, stronger, and more efficient design processes.
As I wrap up the first capstone project, I thought it best to share some of the core lessons I’ve taken from Phase 2 thus far—not about the UX design methodologies themselves, but instead about how to support my practice as a UX designer in a rapid setting.
Tip #1: Do a “sanity check”
Translation: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” and “be realistic about the size and scope of your project.” They essentially mean the same thing, but I like the term “sanity check” (straight from my mentor’s mouth, thank him very much!) because it carries with it a certain amount of urgency—an intensity that the kinder, calmer translations just do not embody.
If you’re a slightly stubborn and highly ambitious person, like me, this advice is even more valuable. Trust me. For my first Phase 2 assignment I opted to build a responsive website for Chicken’s Creative Care, a local childcare/summer camp service here in Seattle started by a good friend. My mentor urged me not to pick an independent project for my first capstone, warning me of the high demands and tight turnaround time required, but did I listen? No!
As my mentor said, this first draft of my product roadmap, in the real working world, would have me working 200 hours and only getting paid for 40.
Instead, I insisted I could hunker down and do the extra work required to get both the valuable experience and the sweet gratification that comes from true passion projects. I’m glad I did it, but I won’t lie: he was not wrong—it ended up being way more difficult and much more work than I would have faced had I gone with one of the standard project briefs.
Being realistic about what can and cannot be accomplished within a set amount of time can be hard, and enthusiasm and determination tends to cloud my judgement. As a result I came up with a huge product roadmap that was not at all realistic to execute in just three weeks with a design team of one.
A little revision—scaling down the scope of the project, to a much more realistic, bite-sized piece.
I did that sanity check—though a little late in the process—and using the Time/Cost Curve to evaluate the scope, pared the project way, way down (reminding myself that I could always build out more features later, preferably when UXA was over).
Tip #2: Make sure you understand the “why”
This is a huge one, and another lesson learned as a result of my Phase 2 mentor’s structured curriculum style. There are a lot of steps to the UX design process, and as a relative newbie, I realized pretty quick how easy it is to gum up the whole process by taking a misstep early on. For example, in my research synthesis phase on this current capstone, I had a lot of trouble nailing down my user needs.
My insights and needs not only did not align—they were 100% off.
I kept trying to make them too big, too complex, and in turn I muddied up the whole purpose of identifying the user needs in the first place. My persona was immediately off, and even though the motivations and frustrations were all there, the over-complicated needs threw the definition and ideation steps that followed completely off kilter. But, because of the tight timelines, I powered through the next set of deliverables based on the faulty user needs, and this set me back tremendously.
My mentor had asked me to try a new technique for definition and ideation by doing a set of POV (point of view) statements and HMW (how might we) questions. The idea is to, essentially reframe the design challenge, or “problem statement” from the point of view of the user based on the needs discovered through the research and synthesis, and then use the HMWs to define possible solutions.
These statements, in essence, are used to brainstorm all possible solutions. If the problem statement is too broad, you end up with too many solutions, and if it’s too narrow, you end up with not enough. I’ll bet you can guess which one I ended up with.
This is the fourth draft of my POVs/HMWs, and even still the POVs aren’t quite right, but they got me to a workable place.
That’s right! Way, way, WAY too broad. And many of my solutions ended up addressing multiple needs, which at first I thought was a win—two birds, one stone, am I right?—but I later came to realize this is a major red flag (I was not right). The needs were not nearly specific enough, so naturally the resulting solutions similarly lacked focus.
As I result, I spent the entire week going back and re-doing each step of the process over and over again until I finally grasped this lesson. I had understood the process in theory, but when it came to execution, there still a way to go to turn that understanding into practical knowledge. After six versions of my empathy map, three user personas, another six POVs/HMWs, three brainstorming sessions, two sitemaps, two user and task flows each, and another two stabs at the product roadmap, (and one completely shot schedule) I finally—finally—came out the other side.
See all the color coordination? That indicated similar solutions, solving for multiple needs—a red flag that the needs are off.
Don’t be like me. Above all, try to wrap your brain around the why of what you’re doing. There’s nothing more frustrating (and nothing less rapid) than having to redo your work because you didn’t figure this out at the start of the process.
Tip #3: Forget about perfection
If you haven’t figured it out by now, perfection doesn’t exist in this world, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing. As a perfectionist myself, learning this lesson has been perhaps the biggest struggle of all.
Perfection and UX design are, in fact, pretty much mutually exclusive. That’s kind of the whole point. Attempting to make every design perfect is akin to working yourself ragged trying to race toward an ever receding horizon—getting there isn’t just impractical; it’s not physically possible. It simply cannot be done.
My not-perfect (and third draft) user persona.
Feeling lost and stressed by trying to make perfect work is, however, not merely possible—it’s pretty probable. Just ask the countless designers—both students and long-established professionals—who still suffer from imposter syndrome.
It’s all in the language. The word “perfect” comes the Latin “perfectus,” which by definition means completed, but in design, particularly UX design, the work is never really complete. We are always refining, continuously reiterating.
Ohai, business and user goals!
This is also why user testing is everything in UX design. My Phase 1 mentor told me that, when approaching usability testing, I should be looking for my designs to fail; to identify where things break in order to understand the hiccups and pain points from the user’s perspective. How else can we fix them and improve our products? How else can we design better?
The sooner you let go of the pursuit of perfection, the easier the learning and the development of your UX design practice will be.
Tip #4: Embrace the process of practice
Learning is a difficult business. Much like in yoga, practice really is the only way to climb the ranks from newbie to expert. Most people don’t jump instantly from listening, reading, and absorbing new material, to being able to access, recall, and apply that learning.
Human brains don’t work that way. Or, at least, mine doesn’t.
And succeeding in UX design is all about understanding human brains—we are working at the intersection of humans interacting with machines, after all. So when it comes to your own UX design learning, get ready to buckle down into a routine. Practice it. A lot.
Embrace the process, because, if you’re anything like me, this is the only way to conquer learning hurdles and become a better designer—over time, with relentless, constant, routine practice. Reiteration is your friend.
Practice, repetition, reiteration. Boom.
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