Journal

15 lessons on working as a UX designer by the co-founder of Adaptive Path

Of late, I’ve gotten on a kick to watch UX-related videos and take a few notes on what I find interesting. I figure some others may find these notes useful, so here you go.

Jesse James Garrett is one of the co-founders of Adaptive Path and a “UX” designer before UX was even a thing. Unsurprisingly, he’s learned a lot from his 15 years in the business, and shares some gems in this presentation.

The most important take-away I had is: Understand your constraints so you won’t be bound by them. These constraints could be your unconscious assumptions, your lack of understanding, a client’s resistance to change, or even the client’s fear. If you understand and address these constraints head-on, you can build better, more effective experiences for your users.

But there’s lots more, so here are his 15 lessons:

  1. Go broad (8:12): The more different types of problems you can apply your toolkit to, the better your toolkit becomes. You never know what sorts of things will help with the evolution of your practice. Sometimes you’ll be able to apply lessons from a completely different project to the one you are currently working on to get a better result.
  2. Go deep (9:50): If you really immerse yourself in a project, then it becomes your world. This allows some “background processing” which is a source of tremendous value because this is where the unexpected connections are made and the intuitive leaps are made. Do a lot of research. Sometimes will research the founders of an organization to understand how the organization works. “Founders cast a long shadow over how an organization operates.”
  3. Go for a walk (14:30): Get away from your usual working environment, it will shift your perspective and can lead to new patterns of thinking. Reset your relationship to the world around you. Get your clients out of their day-to-day environment. Help them get some distance from a problem.
  4. Go farther than you think you should (16:45): It is really easy to artificially impose limitations on your own work. These will cut off ideas before they could really be fleshed out. Your ideas should scare you. Role as designer is to drag the organization to go where it may not go on its own. Then the rational people around you can pull you back. (Neat example of adding some humor to a simple data-entry application for an insurance company, which scared the client but caused users to laugh with delight when using it.)
  5. Put away your notes (22:19): Read your notes, but put them away. Then ask yourself, “What are the key things this design really needs?” This trains your intuition, and helps use your notes for direction without being limited by them.
  6. Learn to spot your assumptions (25:40): Be aware of what you’ve internalized, such as constraints. It can be hard to see when you’ve made a decision on something you’ve never said out loud. Learn to understand how your own decision process works.
  7. Stay curious (27:10): We get so invested in the impact of our work, that we may lose interest in the things that could really make an impact. The opportunities that will help you improve as a designer, may not be the things you think (for example, the “boring” data-entry project from lesson 4).
  8. Be as curious about your clients as you are about your users (29:12): Often designers think the business people are dumb, they don’t know their user, and the designer’s job is to set them right. Understand where your client is coming from. Often the culture is carried from the founders.
  9. Hang with different crowds (31:30): Hang out with different types of people (developers, business people, etc.) because you’ll better understand where they are coming from. You’d be surprised how much creativity there is in code.
  10. Cultivate allies (34:00): Figure out who was the person who really understands what you’re thinking on some fundamental level. People who can fight the fight for you, when
  11. Pick your battles (35:50): There are always compromises in the design/dev process. What are the things that are the core parts of the design? What are the “load bearing walls”? Fight for those, the rest goes into the next release.
  12. Good work doesn’t speak for itself (36:40): You need to be able to sell your choices in a way people who don’t know design can understand.
  13. Changing a design is easy. Changing a mind is hard (37:30): Not enough to get a product through, since this is never about a single product. It is about how the organization builds their strategies around meeting the needs of the people who use their products: Any impact you have with a single design is temporarily.
  14. Pay attention to your failures (38:40): Every failure carries with it a chance to improve your practice.
  15. Everything is always changing (40:00): Sometimes big changes happen, like AJAX or the iPhone, but change is always taking place and if you’re not immersing yourself in it you risk making assumptions based on old knowledge: like how the web used to work, or what mobile devises are capable of.

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