Reflections 2015 / 2016

A new year already! Wow. How time truly flies when you’re busy… prototyping your career? Hmm. The final months of 2015 found me in the midst of a post-startup sabbatical, re-assessing my career trajectory after some unexpected changes, and taking time to shift things around in terms of personal and professional priorities. Lots and lots of coffees and conversations and “catch-up” meetings with many good people in the SF Bay Area, from designers to startup CEOs to engineers and even sales folks. I also began “prototyping” my career situation, trying out a variety of possibilities that keep me engaged and (hopefully) financially sound! I don’t know if it’s permanent just yet, but I landed upon a conceptual structure of proportionally striking a balance among three elements: a) UX Consulting b) Speaking/writing and c) Teaching (or somehow involved in design academia).

The idea is to continually tweak (iterate) the proportions of time and energy allocated to each element, per circumstances and dependencies, i.e., it’s always dynamic and evolving as a “virtuous cycle” framework. This is not new, of course, but it’s new to me for sure!

Some big challenges I encountered while embarking upon this virtuous cycle model during the last few months of 2015:

• Protecting my own time and energy for what I want to focus on, not just giving in to any “we need a designer pronto” request.

• Juggling how to keep various doors and windows of opportunity open while closing those that aren’t immediately or initially relevant, but preserving connections for later… because you never know! 

• Communicating and justifying my value as a strategic, principal-level design leader while educating folks who may not be knowledgeable about the wide, diverse spectrum of “design”.

• Defining my own goals for pursuing “academy” in small engagements, and how to balance that with paid vs non-paid speaking opportunities (for pragmatic reasons, of course ;-)

• Reconciling the inherent “hurry up and wait” model of consulting with an innate passion to tackle problems and prove my talent / leadership / value to skeptics with immediacy of impact — definitely not easy! 


So, the non-stop iteration of this model continues in earnest as I head fast into 2016. But looking ahead I’m mindful of also applying attention to a few key areas of significance for me:

• Role modeling good design leadership behavior, with clients and students alike. This includes communicating abstract concepts of design and demonstrating how to apply design thinking effectively…and strategically. 

• Avoid preaching or lecturing (ahem ;-) but instead cultivate an attitude of “inviting people along”, via thoughtful questioning of issues, encouraging responses and debates from skeptics, thus serving as an unbiased open-minded guide, not someone with an agenda to prove.

• Allowing situations or personalities to play themselves out and assess the outcomes with curiosity, rather than impatience beset by remorse or regrets. Some things aren’t meant to be, or maybe they just connect nicely! 

• Pursue design challenges (in practice and teaching) that speak to issues around ethics, philosophies, psychologies, and organizational themes, beyond “yet another screen/device”. Start developing the “meta-design” aspects of practice with clients and students, for long-term traction.


Amid such reflections of the past and what’s possible for the future (at least this year), it will be an exciting time with further forethought and adjustments along the way…Stay tuned.


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.