What should new designers learn in 2017? To articulate strong opinions, weakly held.

So. You’re new to UX. What do you learn next (or first)? The ins and outs of visual design? Typography? Prototyping? Wait, what about code (and what does “code” even mean, anyway)? HTML and CSS? Animation? Static site generators?

Originally, this post for web.advent.today was about the ‘learn-to-code’ expectation in design and how to best direct new learners in UX. It’s turned into something else, though, about what I believe the most important thing is to learn as a new designer in 2017, and continually develop.

I believe that the best thing new designers can learn is not a framework, a methodology, or a new piece of software. It’s the ability to build, hold, and articulate a design opinion with confidence and thoughtfulness.


Recently, I started mentoring at Design Lab. Self-questioning about qualifications aside, what made me apply was that I enjoy talking about user experience and about design in general, especially with those new to the discipline. The more we discuss interfaces, their successes and failures and the processes from which they originated, the better we become as designers, no matter what our level.

Quite often, students asked me what they should learn next and in most cases, my answer was the same. I believe new designers should learn to understand and express their opinion. Specifically:

  1. They should understand the discrete decisions made as part of their process and why they made those decisions, and
  2. be able to articulate and defend (within reason) that opinion — in writing or verbally.

When discussing the students’ work, I often pointed to a part of it and asked, “Why did you make that choice?” The question was an invitation to a conversation that would give context and ensure that I understand the problem. I assume they made their decision with the best intentions; I just want to know how they arrived there, and how the problem influenced that decision.

This opinion is something you learn not so much to have, but describe. Learning to identify it and what led to it is an ongoing process. It is a framework for learning that guides all those discrete decisions about methods, techniques, and coding languages along the way.


To clear up any confusion: alongside a piece of work, the designer’s opinion is the thought process behind the design choices made along the way. It is the reasoning behind the belief that the design produced is the best solution to the problem:

“I did X because Y. I also tried W and Z, and think that X is the solution because A, B, and C.”

This statement, or some variation thereof, is what I think is most important for new designers to build and have confidence in.

Throughout every design process, decisions are made. The culmination of those decisions is a proposed solution to the problem, one the designer implicitly believes in. It’s the result of their process, and should be tracked throughout. At each decision point, there is an implicit “why?” Each pixel, each interaction, is an answer. Those answers are presented in UX review, but the act of reflection and preparation is the most critical thing to learn. Being able to articulate those decisions, and the reasons behind them, are what make a strong designer. Those people are able to identify decision points and anticipate the questions that might be asked by their peers and users, and perhaps even explore answers to those questions ahead of time — and then describe and substantiate them later.

In the above statement, describing A, B, C and Y with assurance means that we care about the problem, and have done enough research to present your solution as the best one. Not sure? Do more research. Reflect a bit more. Take more time. That’s okay.

This reflection and elucidation is hard to learn; self-reflection isn’t easy. We open ourselves up to questioning. But it’s imperative to identify (and learn to identify) the points where we’re making important choices, and see opportunities to innovate.

What’s more, this can guide all other learning. When we see these decision points that guide our beliefs about the solutions we propose, we ask: what do I need to learn to get my opinion across to those who matter? That could be a methodology, a coding language, or something entirely different.

All of this prepares someone to describe their opinion and defend it, but to a point — openness is key. That opinion can always evolve in the face of new information, but a strong foundation is critical. It forms the base for conversations which improve both products and people.

Why does this matter?

It’s only recently that I’ve been actively encouraged to express my opinion confidently and assertively at work. For too long, I didn’t do this, because opinions are polarizing. They’re definitive and certain, and I was none of these things. I was afraid to be — I had mistakenly assumed that only those with “seniority” were allowed to express an opinion on the design thing, and it would supersede mine (despite me having been wholly responsible for research and the resulting design). I mistakenly saw “Why did you do that?” as an accusation instead of an invitation.

This is a terrible way to think; combined with impostor syndrome, it’s possible to go through our entire professional lives convinced that we’re wrong — despite our experience — without sharing our opinions. It also relies on a mistaken assumption that an opinion can either be right or wrong with nothing in between, with no opportunity to converse and learn as a result of describing it.

Furthermore, in modern software design, there are often many possible solutions to a given problem without an immediately clear Best Choice. But we have to choose one, and a designer who is able and willing to describe their decisions and the reasons behind them is better able to help co-workers and users understand why this particular option is the best — and they should believe as much.

This acceptance of uncertainty (but holding belief anyway) enables us to grow as designers. Even if the decisions made along the way weren’t the best ones, knowing their natures and their limitations allows us to improve. Identifying our opinions and the decisions that built it, then conversing around it — that’s the most important thing for designers to learn. Each decision point is a “why” which forces us to read, research, and learn further.

tl;dr

Opinions come with time, and they come with practice. Instead of focusing on frameworks or languages, learning energy should focus on understanding ourselves and our thought processes, and describing those thought processes to others. This builds understanding and cross-disciplinary empathy. When making anything, we should periodically reflect on our process, and understand the decisions that led us to where we are.

To that end, we should encourage new designers to have thoughtful opinions about the software they build and how it should behave. We should encourage them to research and articulate those opinions, and the journeys that built them. And finally, we should encourage them to defend opinions while thinking of them as foundations to build upon. To do this confidently is something I’m still learning, and always will be.

An opinion is the result of a design process. It is both where we are and how we got there, and if we know and can describe that place, the way forward will be that much easier. That’s what we should encourage others to learn, and never stop.


Thank you to Mariko Kosaka for running web.advent.today, and allowing me to write for it.

“Strong opinions, weakly held” was first introduced (I believe?) by Paul Saffo, and this post was inspired by some classic posts from Kathy Sierra and Jeff Atwood.

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