General Stuff

Mechanics, mindset, and alchemy

Let’s say that one day, I wrote out the steps of a typical UCD-based process on a whiteboard (just pick any reputable textbook ;-)…and then someone walked into that room, memorized this process as a template or recipe and then executed it accurately — is that person now a designer? 
That’s exactly the question a professor asked our class, in the final weeks of a graduate design seminar at CMU, well over a decade ago.
It’s an interesting question to revisit today, especially in light of the rapid emergence of many short-form certificate programs in design, as either free/cheap online video tutorials or startups funded to churn out so-called “UX Designers” on demand (after they pay hefty tuitions), to accommodate all the wild demand.
Of course, anybody can be taught the rote mechanics of a tool or a process, as a sequentialized series of steps—the rawest form of tactics, that through incessant practice can become natural, intuitive like the muscle-memory of a piano player. But to become truly expert and valuable as such, requires a deeper level of engagement beyond simply 10,000 hours of practice.
Design in practice involves an ever evolving, dynamic relation of mechanics, mindset, and perhaps, maybe ultimately a kind of alchemy  a transmutation of that which is understood & practiced into one’s own being. There’s a vital intellectual awareness of all this happening at some (or many) levels as you do the design work. Let’s break it down a bit…
 Mechanics is that initial level of design practice (or activity, as “practice” implies a kind of behavioral rigor) for many entrants into the field, certainly those who are transitioning from other fields, possibly enamored of the “cool stuff” that may be created. Hey, that’s OK! It’s totally natural. You want to master the behaviors of tools and procedural sequence of steps towards creating and delivering something worthy of praise, or solves specific problems at a sufficient level. For the vast majority, this is perfectly acceptable as a goal and focal point to sustain one’s design aptitude. 
• Mindset is the next level of design practice, which requires a certain depth of forethought, around the purposes and values guiding the choices being made at the mechanics level. Understanding the “why”, the context (wherein constraints, contingencies, probabilities and possibilities, and thresholds for compromise all exist), and how they intertwingle to arrive at a nuanced appreciation for what’s really happening when design happens — this frankly is what separates the “newbies” from those seeking to go deeper. This requires patience and persistence and a mindset of curiosity, wonderment, skepticism, with perhaps a dose of provocation. Asking why not, or what if we don’t do it this way, and so forth are valuable. This provides the frame for applying the base level mechanics in a more deliberate, consequential manner, beyond tactical, rote execution. 
But where the real magic lies, and what truly separates the “newbies” from masters and experts is the emergence of “alchemy in practice, for lack of a better phrase. This is the sublime, intuitive, woven-within-you sense of design as a true art. Not art like funky paintings. Art as in a deeply connective, strategic, internalized sense, a lens upon the world of action and reaction, which natively guides your outlook, your habits, your conversations, your interactions with systems and process and culture in terms of Design (yes, with a capital D). It takes beyond just 10,000 hours, true, but also continual deep reflection on one’s practice, useful assessment of insights over the years, cultivation of one’s own ethos of a design philosophy with testament and conviction. 
This alchemy (the elusive yet magical blend of mechanics and mindset into something uniquely personal and very powerful in practice) involves a powerful sense for adaptation, the ability to anticipate and adjust dynamically per some as-yet-unforeseen circumstances, or awareness of certain attitudes, contingencies or other parameters. And along the way, even invent or re-invent as the case may be, on the fly. Truly intelligent improvisation that’s contextual and still resonant with the needs of the moment. 
So…back to the original question: I’m not sure memorizing & executing a “formula” for design make one a designer. It’s a very nice and useful start, of course. It’s just the first step towards a richer, deeper journey of actualizing one’s abilities with an emerging art for doing it at a level of intuitive mastery, if one choose that journey. That journey takes significant time, practice, patience, and exposure to a wide variety of situations, guided by a reflective sense for self-improvement and adaptation to what’s possible. Understanding this dynamic of mechanics and mindset at play in your own work over the years is perhaps an essential aspect towards becoming a fully formed and masterful designer who can turn difficult challenges into beautiful moments of preferred change, who simply exudes this transformative sense of “alchemy”. 

Reading List: Fall 2015

Various books and articles are keeping me busy with useful ideas and perspectives this Fall, such as the following:

• Articles on Product Management: I must admit I’ve had some rather poor experiences with Product Managers lately, so I’ve been digging deep into what it means to be leading the product function of an organization. What are their goals, drivers, criteria for success? Indeed, these articles have provided quite a bit of insight, and even promoted just a little bit of empathy for those performing that role ;-) See below. 

Let’s talk about Product Management (Greylock Perspectives) by Josh Elman

What I learned at Slack (a multi-part series) by Kenneth Berger 

How make a firehose of feedback useful (via Kenneth Berger)

The role of a Product Manager by Michael Siliski

Steven Sinofsky’s response to that article

How to hire a Product Manager by Ken Norton

PM at Microsoft by Steven Sinofsky 

Any and all articles by Marty Cagan :-)  


• Articulating Design Decisions by Tom Greever — A good basic collection of wisdom and lessons which provide on how to effectively argue, defend, rationalize design decisions of tactical to strategic value, to a variety of specific stakeholders (engineering, business, clients, etc.) // Amazon link //

• Design Sprint by Banfield/Lombardo/Wax — Excellent survey of the formal “design sprint” methodology derived from Google Ventures sprint model, and explained as a cookbook-style format for usage in your work context with Devs and PMs to achieve maximum impact. Lotsa great stories, examples, and photos. I got this book after hearing the authors’ webcast via O’Reilly recently. // Amazon link //

• Designing Business by Clement Mok — An oldie, but a goodie! This was I believe my very first design book purchase at a Waldenbooks (remember them?) in Ann Arbor in 1996. While it is almost 20 years old, the concepts and terminology written from the fresh-eyed view of “new digital media” still bears relevance as the profession morphs with more complexity and tools. Definitely worth re-reading. // Amazon link //

Designing with/for “people”

It’s a truism to say that designers in the broader UX practice must have well-developed “soft skills” to be effective in the field. I gotta say, that trite phrase irks me, if only because it implies something less-than-substantial, almost an afterthought of ephemeral squishiness to tack onto the “hard skills” of… exporting precisely cut Retina-optimized graphics? Hmm. Dubious.

Whether slicing graphics for a mobile app or defining the parameters for a user study or mapping out various task flows, you are dealing with people. From co-workers like Devs and PMs demanding those graphics and workflows, to executive sponsors asking for metrics to end-users and partners with their use cases, you are necessarily engaging to varying degrees with people. People who are flawed, emotional, distracted, temperamental, or insecure. People who have hidden agendas and ulterior motives, who are driven by complicated arrays of motivators and demotivators at home and work. People who live amazing yet difficult lives. People who say one thing, do another, and believe something else completely—all rich with invisible layers of complexity and contradiction. People who object, project, personify, influence, and manipulate in many crazy insufferable ways. People who are quite simply passive-aggressive or flat out cynical and rude.

Well, our jobs are not easy when you look at this way! Design is all about handling the most complicated, messiest creatures on this planet (humans ;-) —which makes it incredibly challenging and paramount to learn how to deal with people.

It’s not some “soft skill”, it’s a vital skill for living, working, learning, growing. Knowing how to navigate, persuade, interpret and facilitate with a diverse range of personalities to advance your and their goals— that’s an essential ability for any successful designer. And it’s one that takes countless painful lessons and near-death tumbles to develop “working with and for people” into an intuitive, personal art at the core of your design practice. Because without people, as egregious and difficult and damning as they can be, there wouldn’t be a purpose to design in the first place. 

So how do you deal with people –aside from the Draper method of drinking it away? ;-) Patient observation, calm self-reflection, level-headed mediation, and candid, authentic conversations with bonafide interests surfaced, are some key elements. All backed by a wry, healthy skepticism, and a measure of self-confidence to keep yourself grounded yet wary. Just like slicing graphics, it’s a practice that requires…practice!

Post-sabbatical reboot, part 2

After almost 15 years of working in Silicon Valley as a designer in a variety of fixed, dedicated roles internally at large corps and start-ups (with some agency & freelancing, as well), I am now taking a slightly different tack to “delivering design value” to the industry and field at-large. How so?

My focus is now a self-directed “virtuous cycle” of consulting, speaking, and teaching, pursuing those opportunities I’m most passionate about as I consider the shifting of my own career, towards greater autonomy, flexibility, and —hopefully—opportunity for impact that’s way more rewarding than, frankly, battling novice PMs over inconsequential, short-sighted JIRA tickets or panicky feature timelines. I mean, who has time for that?? ;-) 

And yet, those difficult, burdensome questions I articulated in my previous post, coming out of my sabbatical journeys and discussions, still remain ever more present in my mind…They just won’t go away any time soon, for me or for my peers who are just as perplexed by those issues!

Regardless, I intend to stay true to the values & principles I re-discovered amid my journey:

• Pursue design strategically as a committed, equal partner with non-design executives

• Re-assert the intellectual primacy of design discourse in the workplace 

• Drive vivd provocations for new models of business & experience—yes, risky & scary! 

• Guide and educate peers about design process/strategy/culture with a sense of depth and ambition

Beyond that, how am I keeping myself busy these days with this new blend and focus? A variety of things.

• Helping co-organize Enterprise UX 2016 (San Antonio, TX) and supporting the website/marketing of IxDA’s Education Summit 2016 (Helsinki)—working with truly fantastic folks on both events! It’s always an honor and privilege to help stage the forums where inspiring and influential conversations about design can happen.

• Substitute teaching at CCA for undergrad IxD students, on a couple topics: Prototyping and Data Visualization

• Preparing various design talks, including the UX Strategies Summit in early November in SF (redux of my “designing with execs” talk from IxDA 2014) and Design Salon at Citrix

• UX Mentoring via Everwise with design professionals and other professionals seeking UX advice 

• Drafting proposals for design thinking & innovation workshops for various IT firms/clients

• Writing for ACM Interactions and essays on Medium

• Training up on prototyping and pixel tools like Pixate, Macaw, Sketch, etc. (hey, gotta keep those skills sharp!)

Whew! Lots going on, as I emerge somewhat rebooted from my much needed sabbatical…The best is yet to come, as they say ;-) Stay tuned.

Post-sabbatical reboot, part 1

Well, it’s hard to believe, but it has now been officially two months since I last set foot in an office environment as a regular daily practice, i.e. “my day job”. Whoa! What’s happened since then? 

After departing Peel, a consumer startup trying to improve the “universal remote problem” via smartphone apps, I set upon a personal sabbatical of sorts, with nothing lined up. Crazy? Sure, it’s a bold, daring move. Yet, I last did this upon leaving Cisco in the summer of 2008—while major financial institutions were crashing all around, no less! So that kinda worked out OK…And, in certain rare moments you reach a critical, personal “crossing of the threshold” where your values & principles are at incredibly intense odds with external demands or pressures, thus you simply need to break away and pursue a personal path of self-discovery, right? There’s that conflict of intention, expectation, and benefit that’s just too overwhelming, demanding escape. So that you can then, in effect, become more attuned to the subtler, nuanced aspects of whatever it is that drives you and elevates your aspirations to even greater levels, which tend to get drowned out–or ground down–amid the combative frenetic pace of an emergent, hi-tech development context—for instance ;-)

So I took a break…I traveled. I tried new foods—Japanese style hot dogs! I experienced new things—flying in a seaplane in crazy fog and rain! I met up with other design professionals in Europe. I gave talks on design in Pittsburgh and Copenhagen, and met with design leaders tackling similar issues. I caught up with childhood friends and family, to remind myself what matters most. I drove an Audi A4 Performance Edition in the Texas heat for 8 hours—awesome but tiring! I gave guest lectures at Carnegie Mellon and CCA in San Francisco, as well. Great ways to meet the new generation of designers excited to dive into the madness …that I had left behind ;-)

All the while, though, I have been quietly reflecting upon a variety of conundrums at the core of being a designer and practicing design, such as:

• What does partnership truly mean with dynamic, contested personalities & agendas?

• How can design leadership be measured effectively, the signals for success, and by whose standards?

• What is the path of design authority and influence in immature yet evolving and chaotic contexts?

• How can innovation of the business model happen in tandem with creating novel experience models?

• Why is design still so damn misunderstood, with the lack of bonafide investments in resources and process? 

• How do we preserve the strategic significance of design value amid the wild torrents of short-sighted, tactical frenzy?

Not an easy mix of questions! Lots of hard soul searching required at the personal level of unearthing whatever it takes to plod onward into the murky yet fiery depths of politics, requirements, logistics, etc. And also at that broader level of how to engage and educate organization leaders to want to dig into these tough issues with an open-minded attitude, together. Whew…

But it’s definitely time to get busy and start fresh tackling these challenges, with a new outlook and approach… Stay tuned!