By Melanie Brewer
Maybe it's no surprise that you can get better at your UX research and design practice by flexing your skills every day.
But did you know you can do it at the grocery store? Or while driving the carpool? Not only that, you'll improve your quality of life and that of your loved ones. All it takes is a little consistent practice of some key UX/design toolbox elements. Here's how:
1. Get Really Good at Failing. If you’re a perfectionist like me, actively seeking out opportunities to practice failure might be a slightly disturbing idea.
But as Jake the Dog says in AdventureTime, “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something”.
In design endeavors, failure is a natural and key part of the process, each and every time. It's the basis for solving problems by rapid prototyping and iterative user testing, for example.
One of my favorite descriptions of how building off failure makes us really, really good at things is something I was first exposed to in the book "Lean UX", by Jeff Gothelf.
In it, he describes a video called “Why You Need to Fail” by Derek Sivers, who describes a class of pottery students. One group is graded on the weight of pots produced during the semester. The other half is graded on the quality of a single pot produced during the semester. Guess who made the best pots? That’s right, the ones who made many of them, including some truly terrible failures at first.
Each failure taught them something and by the end of the semester they had made high-quality objects.
How does this apply to you and practicing design skills in everyday life? Well, for one thing, you can't be afraid of failure.
And if you are afraid of it, you must actively seek opportunities to get comfortable with it. Not just at work, but everywhere. So, go ahead, take up ceramics, try belly dancing or learn a new language. For maximal growth, choose something you really suck at initially.
The good news is, opportunities to fail are everywhere! Are you avoiding the self-checkout at the grocery store because you're scared to hold up the line while you figure out how weigh and scan dragonfruit? Embrace the opportunity to fail and go for it.
Basically, seek out situations that make you uncomfortable because you might fail in ways big and small.
Pretty soon you’ll be belly dancing while speaking Portuguese or at least spending a whole lot less time waiting in line at Safeway. Plus you’ll be a better designer, because you will have gotten deeply comfortable with putting yourself out there, failing and learning how to do things better.
2. Give Good Critique and Be Sure to Appreciate the Wire Hangers. Giving feedback in a way that people can actually hear what you’ve said instead of curling up into a shriveled ball of crushed hopes and broken dreams is another important part of the design process, and utterly essential when working in groups.
Luckily, this comes up all the time in normal life, too, giving you plenty of opportunity to practice your skills. Try it the next time your child asks for your opinion on their latest artwork or school essay...or the insanely messy mud pies they just made in your clean bathtub. Or when your spouse cooks tacos…again. Follow the steps outlined by numerous design professionals, like the ones I learned about in many of my classes at Bentley University (Yes, they did train us on how to give good critique).
First, start by saying something positive. Like for example, if Joan Crawford could simply have acknowledged that there are plenty of advantages to wire hangers that make them a perfectly reasonable choice in certain settings-- like, they are compact and lightweight and often free, that would have been a much better starting point for getting her ideas across in Mommie Dearest.
There’s always something that's working well in a design, but often we fail to explicitly appreciate it, because we mentally jump ahead to what is not working so well.
Also, when you discuss what's working well and not working well, remember to speak to how the design relates to the goals the designer had at the outset. NOT whether you personally like or dislike what they produced, but how closely it matches their design goals, such as finally learning how to make haggis from scratch.
Finally, if relevant, point out some opportunities to improve, such as making something more broadly appealing, like spaghetti, for dinner next time and saving the haggis project for…well, anytime you won’t have to eat it.
Believe me, your friends and loved ones will be more likely to hear your feedback if you give it this way. As an added bonus, you’ll have taken your design game to the next level by making good critique your natural instinct.
3. Practice being a really good listener...mmm hmm. I learned this one in a course devoted to usability testing. The instructor, an acclaimed usability researcher with numerous highly-cited articles notched on his belt told us: “When people are talking and you want to keep them on a roll, just keep quiet and say mmm hmm every once in a while. It lets them know you’re still with them, and encourages them to keep talking, without committing yourself to confirming or denying what they are saying.”
This one is easy to practice in everyday life. Just try it on anyone you’re talking to.
Resist the urge to jump in with your own comments! Avoid the temptation to cut people off with your boring personal input and opinions!
Just say mmm hmm every so often instead. You’ll be amazed by what people will tell you. Friends will find you the most sparkling conversationalist ever. Your kids will think you’ve taken your parenting to a whole new level. And your spouse will feel heard in a way that he/she hasn’t since you were dating. Plus, you’ll be better at UX research by leaps and bounds, because listening will be your new default. Mmm hmm, it's true.