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think like a designer

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In the previous article we talked about the four fields of UX: Design, Psychology, Development and Usability. While all 4 are massively important, Design is the field that we hear about the most when it comes to UX. Why is that?

I believe it's because of the UX deliverables. They come in the form of sketches, wireframes, flow maps, etc. It's easy to think that designers would be at ease with UX, because they were trained to make the visuals, after all. The truth is, that is the easiest part for everyone to learn.

Nevertheless it is correct to assume that if you are a Designer, you have an unfair advantage going into UX. 

Designers are trained to think about the people they are designing for. And that’s really the core of UX as well. We are used to looking at the harmony of things and detecting irregularities, or evaluating whether or not an object reflects the purpose for which it was created. 

Example: designing a simple chair.

Here are some typical questions a designer asks:

  • Where is this chair going to be? Home? Office? Waiting room? 
  • Will people be sitting to work? To eat? To socialize? To relax? 
  • Is it for an adult? Elder? Child? Breastfeeding mother? 

The list goes on. With every answer the designer gets a bit closer to choosing the shape, materials, color, weight, firmness, etc.

Therefore, for those of us who are non-designers, the key aspect to learn is not to wireframe - although it’s worth practicing because it is a valuable tool - but to think about the people whom you are designing for, the context of use, and the harmony they should experience while using the product.

Acquire design skills

I’d like to show you a few ways you can acquire design skills. I’m not going to go over how to wireframe, journey map and what not. I believe this is much easier for you to accomplish on your own and with the resources available to you. The following 3 steps were the foundations of my Design skills.

#1 Receive feedback

The most efficient way to become good at Design is to gather honest feedback. Do you know a designer who can do design critique? If yes, ask them for feedback on your work. If you don’t know designers who can do design critique, try asking someone who has a good common sense and is not afraid to hurt your feelings.

I’m not going to lie, you won’t acquire design skills overnight. And you will make mistakes. Design critique helps because it questions every decision you have made on your product. Here is an example from my personal experience: I was in Design school and we had to design a logo for a fictional brand of highways in the north of the country, called “North Star”. The project was due and we all hanged our logos on the wall for the professor to go over. My logo was mostly lettering with an arrow on it, pointing towards the top-right. When the professor got to my logo, he paused and asked me, “is this for the highway of the north or the one on the northeast?”

It’s so obvious in retrospect. I didn’t have a valid reason for the arrow’s direction, it just looked good that way. You really have to go through feedback loops to reach a point where you do critique in your mind, while designing. Imagine this “wall critique session” every week, for 4 years, and you get a good picture of what my Design degree was like. 

Just start by designing and receiving feedback, and then “hit” repeat. 

#2 Copy the masters

This is one thing I did NOT learn in Design school. In fact, my degree emphasised novelty, perhaps a bit too much. It was a constant battle to come up with designs that were never thought of or seen before. Copying was… Wrong. I assume that I’m not alone in my experience, am I? (Comment below if you went through the same) 

One of the major things that I think was missing from my design education was learning by copying the things that worked. I believe this is crucial, especially for people who are starting out. 

I discovered by chance that copying made me better. It was when I bought my first MacBook (around 2008) and I noticed a huge improvement in my skills. I started copying a lot of details of the Mac’s interface, not literally, but details here and there, because all the applications in the OS were pleasing to the eye, simple and efficient. It blew me away and I wanted to do it right by those principles, like the Mac people did. 

I’m not saying the key thing here is to become a copycat - not at all. The key is to learn from multiple sources that work, so that you extract your own formula to design good products. I think everyone should stop shying away from copying. No, you won't lose your identity - become good first, build identity later. 

What’s the point of having an identity if it sucks? 

#3 Boost your creativity 

Generating ideas to solve problems is the day to day of a designer. That’s why some Design schools emphasize novelty so much - a designer is supposed to be incredibly creative.

So, how can anyone be incredibly creative too?  

Lateral thinking

In the beginning of my career I felt like I lacked creativity - maybe due to the fact that I was being forced to come up with new ideas constantly, and I just wasn't used to it. So I read a book called “Lateral thinking” from Eduardo de Bono, which basically teaches you to look at problems from different lenses (seldom obvious). 

I remember one example in the book that stuck with me. The goal was to come up with new ways to pick apples from a tall tree. Normally you would come up with ideas such as:

  • Using a ladder to reach the apples
  • Shaking the tree, so that the apples would fall down
  • Pulling branches to bend the tree so that you could reach the apples
  • And so on.

And then there was a “Lateral thinking” idea:

  • Dig a deep whole in the ground and plant the tree there. When the apples show up, they’ll be within your reach

Instead of focusing on the person trying to reach the apples, focus on the apple reaching the person - simple yet brilliant, don’t you think?

After learning this, I always made an effort to look at problems from the “not obvious” lenses. 

Similarities everywhere

Another thing I did throughout my career was to look for inspiration everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I found that the most interesting ideas are the ones inspired from comparable domains. What are comparable domains?

Well, let’s say you are working on a product that measures a person’s blood pressure and other health indicators, you can look for inspiration in the car industry. Sounds absurd? The car maintenance indicators are intended to keep the car in good shape and occasionally tell the owner to go change the oil and see the mechanic. The health product is intended to maintain the person in good health and occasionally advise them to go see a doctor. 

Comparable domains are great to seek inspiration and learn how to tackle essentially the same problem with a new light.

Intensity

I asked around what helped other designers boost their creativity and my colleague Ana told me about a factor that I can definitely relate to. 

She told me that once during her studies she had a project challenge called the 48h. This was basically a super tight deadline for a project with 2 rooms full of recycled materials to work with. All design students got to work non-stop with a lot of interaction and idea sharing. They even slept over. 

Ana told me the rhythm of ideas and trials was 10x faster than that of a normal project. Intensity can enhance your focus and make you go deeper on a topic, co-relating concepts, making associations otherwise distant, and therefore generate more and better ideas. 

Ana felt a spike of adrenaline throughout the 48h, that propelled her to get moving, trying out new hypotheses and rapidly leaving old ones behind. It’s a biological process as adrenaline helps your body to react more quickly - it makes the heart beat faster, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles. That is perhaps why she didn’t feel pressured by perfection, and that helped her experiment without fear. 

Once a Designer, always a Designer

As mentioned before, designers are trained to make every decision for a reason - not because it feels right or looks pretty. Decisions are often based on the users and their needs, as well as the business we are helping. You can train and get better at Design by:

  • Receiving feedback, so that you get accustomed to performing critique in your mind while designing
  • Copying the masters, so that you can learn from what works, and find your own formula in the process
  • Boosting your creativity, to become quicker at finding solutions or looking the problems unconventionally

Take your time and don’t rush it. Mostly it is a mindset shift that will happen overtime. 

Let me just warn you, though. Once you learn it, you can’t unlearn it. You will spend your life analysing every product you come across and rolling your eyes quite often. It’s a blessing and a curse. Once a designer, always a designer! Good luck on your journey.

I hope this article is useful. Share your challenges and accomplishments below. I’d love to hear about them.

Stay tuned...

The next article will cover the second field in UX - Psychology. If you are interested in understanding how our brain works when presented with a new product / interface, be sure to read it.

Take care.

Related articles to this topic:
author
Katia Serralheiro
date
January 3, 2021

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