MidWest UX — What I learned

MidWest UX was my first conference in the burgeoning domain of UX. There were some great talks, a lot of great people, and plenty of lessons that I learned from experts in the field. Being a student volunteer for the event, I had the chance to mingle with some of the speakers, talk to them in detail about my design ideas, and problem spaces that I’d like to work on. I received some great insights and I’m going to share whatever I can for those who missed out on the event.

Practice and Levels of Competency

As designers we expect ourselves to be exceptionally skillful in a really short span. We get exasperated if we do not produce designs that are of top quality. Just like any other creative process, designing something marvelous comes with constant rigorous practice. Levels of competency can be categorized into four levels — Unconsciously Incompetent, Consciously Incompetent, Conscious Competence, Unconscious Competence.

Unconsciously Incompetent — This is when we think we are good at something, but in reality we aren’t. We do not know the depth of the subject and that we have just scratched the surface of things. This is the stage of literacy. We are learning, but we do not know how far behind.

Consciously Incompetent — This is when we realize we are not good at things. We know we have a long way to go and in the process we are gaining fluency through continuous trial-and-error methods. We get better at our trade, pushing ourselves further, putting in tremendous amount of effort and ultimately never happy with our results; we always think we could have done a better job if only we had that one day extra.

Conscious Competent — The phase when we are doing the things we do, the best possible way. We accomplish a lot more than before as we develop our skills over the years. We still need to put in effort, but we know what we are doing and there’s absolutely no trial and error. We are extremely productive with and our task flow is well-structured.

Unconscious Competence — This is Steve Vai ripping that solo.

It is believed that people working in the big organizations — handling rather complicated decision making — are consciously competent. They produce their best work in this phase of competency.

Surgeons are extremely skillful at what they do as they literally handle life and death situations. This is the reason medical schools have grand rounds where a healthcare professional needs to be abreast of techniques and they treat an actor/real patient. This is an effective way to train medical students to increase their standard of competency.

What is the equivalent of this in design schools? Is design school about learning how to design? Or is it about learning about how to learn about design?

An effective way to get better at design is by including design practice into our daily routine. Musicians practice hours daily, for months, years and decades. But, when it’s a musical instrument, one can easily notice the difference and growth in skills with time — is that the case with design? How do we know if we are getting really good at design? We really cannot find out unless we practice.

A designer’s reflection and intuition

Reflection in action through meaningful conversation with the materials of a situation helps designers achieve a lot more by constantly learning in the process of design. This is explained in terms of Reflective Practice in Donald A. Schon’s book — The Reflective Practioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

Schon believes that by consciously looking back at previous experiences one would be able to understand and bring together a better practice towards in the context of one’s work.

Situations talk back all the time, but it takes time for one to reflect and understand the fine nuances. Intuition is something that develops over time through constant practice, experience and conscious reflection of earlier actions and it’s outcomes. Earlier experiences builds a pattern in our minds and adds on to our existing knowledge base, though these patterns need not be precise, they help in evaluating a particular circumstance much better than what we would have done earlier.


We as designers have our own biases and perspective to things. We like a particular font, a specific material, a selected set of steps in a design process etc. It is very easy for us to fall into the traps of Confirmation and Congruence biases.

Evaluating as opposed to validating a design will leave room for more thought-provoking ideas, constructive criticism and improvement of existing designs.

Direct testing of a particular design idea without evaluating alternative ideas is a form of congruence bias, and it is important to reflect on feedback on a middle ground.

Being a self-aware researcher

Researching oneself and being self-aware will help in improving the research quality by enhancing one’s methods, practice and persistence.

Record yourself and listen to your recordings. Stop judging yourself — the first step to being self-aware. Ask people for specific feedback in areas you feel unconfident in. Gather as much inputs as possible and be informed about research by others in the same field.

Experiment designs in phases. Running a pilot is important and if a product doesn’t go through a pilot phase, the first session of active usage by the audience becomes the pilot. All phases of design requires a good amount of experimentation.

While researching, one should be intentional and look at the current-day trend. Adopt research methods that suit you. A methodology that works for someone else might not work for you.

Articulating Design Ideas

A design should aim to solve a problem and should be easy for users to comprehend its purpose. Articulating such a design idea is far from easy, let alone getting the support of every stakeholder behind design decisions. A good designer has to be a great communicator especially considering UX has gone mainstream, with the intuitions of a hundred minds trying to opine on a design problem. And plus, we have the CEO button; the one that could probably add any design elements anywhere, irrespective of our earlier considerations and constraints. A good designer should be able enough to articulate, convince and override the CEO button.

Questions to understand the design approach
Understand what the design solves.
- How does it affect the existing system?
- Why and how is it better than the alternatives?

Understanding alternative designs
Consider the alternative approaches with an open-mind. Looking at their perspective will give us many more ideas to our existing solutions.
- Removing distractions from our sight is important to understand the view of other designs. If we are overly thinking about our design solution, we will fail to notice the intricacies of other design solutions.
_ It is imperative for us to anticipate reactions and reflect on them taking our time, not out of impulse.

Listening & Responding
Not interuppting and letting people talk about their ideas, designs and concerns is important. Taking notes of points to be addressed is wise, while keeping them in our head to address them at the end of the conversation. Pausing to make sure they are done, helps us with time to get a grip of our thoughts as well. Listening carefully helps us understand their misinterpretations which cause most of the trouble in teams.

Moving from design preference to design function helps us understand why something does not work or what exactly is the root cause for the problem. Framing our ideas in the form of examples helps us setting the correct frame of reference of how we see the application/design.

Once we give up control by admitting that we are not here to prove a point to someone but to actually work towards the correct design solution will help us articulate our design thoughts in a much profound fashion.