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Hey there, design reader!

Thea here, once again, for the third installment of my UX Academy Journey. For those of you who are new to this project, I’m a part-time student at Designlab’s UX Academy, Weingart cohort chronicling my experience in the program in a weekly series for the Designlab Blog. The first two posts all about the trials and tribulations surrounding working and studying in the UXA (and, hopefully, having a life too), can be found here and here, respectively.

And now for the good stuff!

When life throws you lemons, make enough lemonade to share!

For the first two weeks of UX Academy I found myself running up against the clock in an attempt to outpace the dreaded “progress report email,” and when unforeseen plumbing catastrophes knocked my already tightly wound schedule all the way into the next week (literally), I knew I had no time to linger for my daily visits with my old, enchanting friend and lifelong lover: procrastination.

The first dreaded email

As you can see, I was not off to an incredible start.

It was also my birthday weekend, however, and though I planned to spend the entire time diligently catching up on homework (save for a few hours on Friday night for an “art party” with friends), the universe had other plans. On Friday afternoon I went to meet a couple of friends of mine who were in town for the weekend from New York. I had been busy working Friday afternoon and kept them waitings a little too long while I finished up an assignment or two.

The second dreaded email

Making progress, little by little.

Little did I know that two more dear friends, who I hadn’t seen in nearly two years, had arrived on the same flight and were currently hiding inside the Airbnb I was about to walk into, leading to this amazing reveal (and the single greatest overflowing of joy that I have ever felt in my life—trust me, the sobbing went on for at least another five minutes, most of which my friends were very generous to spare us from).

Needless to say, we spent two days catching up and eating our way through Seattle and doing absolutely no homework at all. It was glorious. It also meant that the rest of my week three work would now combine with week four, creating one massive super week commencing the moment my dear friends’ flight took off on Sunday.

And with all that fun out of the way, the real work began.

Pulling out of Procrastination Station (aka my Achilles Heel)

Hyper-focus for exceedingly long stretches of time has never been my strong suit. But neither is giving up, and UX Academy is nothing if not a lesson in agility. Life throws you curveballs (or in my case, ruptured water heaters followed by amazing friends), and you can either let them fly by or swing like mad and get them for every bit of goodness that they’ve got—and I doubt anyone has ever felt the same rush walking to first base as home-running it all the way through. (Jeez, a baseball analogy—this is the kind off-my-game nonsense my tripletime brain produces).

Anyhoo—if I was going to make up for lost time, I’d have to cut the fat in my already lean schedule. There could be none of the usual dilly dallying, distraction breaks, and rides through Procrastination Station on this (now) high-speed train to UX Town, oh no! That time had passed.

The third dreaded email

And just when you think you might be almost just nearly caught up…

I began by using the tools that were built right into the coursework.

I started to pay extra attention to the time estimations tacked on to each unit, reading assignment, and project in the coursework. I already knew that a reading assignment budgeted for 20 minutes, would take me more like 25-30 with an added buffer for note taking (though in the interest of streamlining my process and maximizing my time, I took to paring down my notes to the clear essentials only). I have always been an over-highlighter. The writer side of my brain clings on to each word, absolutely sure every last syllable is essential—I’m guessing this was more out of reverence for the content than actual comprehension—and it certainly wasn’t an agile habit.

Highlighter heaven

This is what it looks like when I try to highlight stuff—I end up going through more highlighters than pages

Learning to rework the way I study was never something I was able to accomplish back in school. But now, in the midst of this work/study life, resistance was not just futile (that’s right, Star Trek fans, I’m talking to you!)—it was simply not an option.

Where I really needed to rein in the time lapses was in the actual project work associated with each lesson. The perfectionist in me is terrible at time prioritization, especially with quick-fire projects. Two hours to go through the entire design thinking process from start to finish (minus testing) for the very first time, ideations and prototypes included?! You must be joking! Oh? You’re not joking? Oh. Ok then… Fine.

Design Thinking!

I know it was an exercise in rapid design thinking, but still. Damn!

Taking tips from the pros who know

At the suggestion of my mentor, I started keeping track of how much time I spent on research (too much!) versus execution (way too much!). At first this time tracking was stressful, but this quickly turned into a motivational tool I could use to cut through the unnecessary overdoing of everything that I’ve carried over from my journalism days. Back then I was always so scared of getting it wrong and committing that wrong to print that I would research and rewrite a topic to death (and almost always the detriment of my mental health and the sleep cycles of both myself and my editors).

I started approaching my coursework as if I were a professional UX designer, my mentor was my client, and the assignments were the work he was hiring me to do (this was actually a tip from my Design 101 mentor, but it has stuck with me and proved immensely useful throughout the UX Academy coursework). There was no room for getting stuck in the perfection loop here. I needed research based, empathetic solutions, ready to be revised and reiterated based on feedback, aka testing.

I made the clock my master (it has always been my greatest adversary) and the results were monumental. When I previously would get caught up in my “designer head,” stuck for hours on seemingly inconsequential details—what icon should go where, what font combinations say it best (oh the typographical humanity!)—I found I was able to cut the whole excruciating song and dance down to an easily digestible bite-size.

Some work from Design 101.

Look at this cluttered, crazy thing!

This is an example of one of my first assignments for Design 101, a mockup for a product landing page. It was supposed to take an hour. It did not. To save face, I won’t tell you how long I actually spent on this, only that it was shameful. And if you can believe it, version two turned out even worse.

One very helpful thing to always keep in your mind while approaching the UXA coursework (and that I wish I’d known and adopted in my previous careers): clients can benefit from—and even prefer—high concept, low fidelity work along the way to a finished product. It’s an essential part of the process. As my first Design 101 landing page shows, if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish before you begin the design process, all the effort spent on the heavy lifting of the aesthetics is likely to have been a total unusable waste of time you could have better spent relaxing, or sleeping, or washing your hair (seriously, it takes so long).

My first color/typographical style tile

My first color/typographical style tile

By the end of UX Academy week one, however, I’d received enough of an introduction to the fundamentals of color theory, visual hierarchy, and design process to catapult my work to another (much more tolerable) level. Even the above style tile exercise left me feeling capable and confident. By keeping myself firmly within the allotted time, and following the briefs to the T, I found I was able to cut through all of the overwhelming design clutter bouncing around inside my head and create cleaner, most streamlined results the first time around (and in much, much better time).

Play to your strengths (while exercising new ones)

I also started capitalizing on my pre-existing strengths, skipping heavy visual presentations (where I knew I was liable to get caught in the detail doldrums) in favor of verbal analysis (which I could whip through in half the time, or in reality, in the exact right amount of time because, let’s be real, I’m not that disciplined—at least not yet).

Pulling a feather from my journalism cap, I was able to call on old habits and instinctively run my user interviews the way I had when reporting a story—building a rapport with the interviewee to break the ice and set a relaxed, friendly tone, and using the hourglass format of questioning (general > specific > general) without even realizing it.

This skimmed quite a bit of time off of the recommended ten hours allotted for conducting research, and even after I compiled my empathy notes and wrote the debrief, I still had more than three and a half hours to spare. This was the first and only time thus far I’ve been able to finish faster than the time estimation, and it meant I’d get to put those hours back to work for me the next time I found myself in uncharted territory where the results came slow.

The way my mentor put it, “Inspiration could strike at any moment, and the attack burner is always on.”

Succeeding here (i.e. completing the best version of the work in as close to allotted time as possible) would be all about trusting my own instincts. If I saved an hour in one area, I shouldn’t punish myself for sticking that hour back into ideating another element if and when inspiration decided to strike in the eleventh hour (subsequently pushing me over time).

UX is both a scientific and a creative process and rectifying the two is like dancing the tango—it’s best when it’s done in perfect unison and without both partners being in step, you’ll only ever just be trying.

And with that, I’m off to find that rhythm! Catch you next week when we’ll all find out if I ever caught up on my coursework. Until then, happy (hopefully) agile designing!

Looking for a change of careers? Designlab’s UX Academy program offers rigorous curriculum, personalized mentor support, and a thriving, global student community. Ready to launch your new career as a UX designer? Get all the details here.

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Thea Chard

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