At the beginning of 2019, I set a goal to hustle harder by studying and annotating 30 books related to my career as a UX designer by year end on top of my client work and volunteering obligations.
365 days of studying later, I completed 41 books based on recommendations from mentors, peers, and curiosity. You can view my full 2019 reading list here.
I ended the year significantly smarter than the last, but at a cost.
41 books later I have learned:
- Context is everything.
- I still know very little about design.
- Unconscious bias is ever-present in design.
- Male designers should study feminism.
- Move fast and break things is outdated.
- Triangulate, triangulate, triangulate.
- The design hustle has narrowed our understanding of success.
1. Context is everything
Design is context and creation. That has been reinforced to me in just about every book I have read on the subject at large. Our processes should be (to the best of our ability) tailored to our stakeholders, our users, our targeted outcomes, and everything in-between.
Harold G. Nelson’s The Design Way articulates this thoughtfully and is an excellent exercise to understand what context in design fundamentally means.
2. I still know very little about design
I have learned that it is unprofessional to blindly believe in self-mastery or expertise. Design challenges, no matter how seemingly simple, will almost always be complex when human relationships exist. We should never use our own life experiences as proxies for these challenges.
Beyond experiences as a whole, I found these books helpful in improving my technical skills:
3. Unconscious bias is ever-present in design
It is nearly impossible for designers to detach themselves from their political and cultural roots. Rather than pretending biases do not exist, it is better to become deliberately and vocally self-aware.
There are plenty of ways to get better at this, but a good start is Ruben Pater’s The Politics of Design. Ruben masterfully challenges the reader’s perspective through a series of case studies on how design is created and interpreted differently across cultures. It will get the mental engines oiled up and ready for some triangulation action.
Afterwards, I would recommend reading Michael Patton’s bit on reflexivity in his book Qualitative Research Methods and Evaluation.
4. Male designers should study feminism
Within the theme of unconscious bias, I have realized that men (including myself) are bad at designing for half the population for a simple reason. We are not women. Many male designers unconsciously assume that a male default is “good enough” for most of their design challenges. That could not be further from the truth. As mentioned before, we should do our best to avoid using our own life experiences as proxies for the lived experiences of others. We can get better by smarter sampling strategies during research/testing, more diverse teams, and the inclusion of champions (professional designers that can better represent a group through more relevant lived experiences).
- Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates kicked off my feminist reading series, and I absolutely loved it.
- Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez is perfect for those looking for a dictionary of case studies and statistics on why designing with a male default is bad… and sometimes lethal.
- Qualitative Research Methods and Evaluation by Michael Patton has an entire glossary of sampling strategies that can steer you away from the pitfall of convenience sampling that tends to favor the ‘default’ white male Silicon Valley user. Patton also elaborates on the relevance of feminist theory in research strategy.
- Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic was an eye opener in explaining why the Steve Jobs archetype of a leader is toxic for organizational health and for working women everywhere.
If that last title irked you a bit (or this entire bit on feminism as a whole), I strongly plead that you at least give one of these books a chance. As mentioned earlier, design is always about understanding contexts. If we cannot even make a conscious effort to understand the context of half of the world’s population, how can we even do our job as designers?
5. Move fast and break things is outdated
…and extremely dangerous in the wrong contexts. I fear that product designers are being encouraged to pursue quick MVP releases, lean cycles, and fast micro-focused testing a la Eric Ries without giving the bigger picture (and context) more thought.*
By the “bigger picture,” I am referring to how technology has consequences on our lives in the present. For many of us, the products we create are no longer novelty toys in a vacuum; they are woven into the fabric of our day to day lives and have serious consequences when designed recklessly. Slashed research budgets, “good enough” usability tests, and release and respond habits have created a culture of negligence in tech. Unsurprisingly, this culture hurts those who are more likely to be excluded from society; the people who are often labeled as “edge cases” or “disabled” with little tact.
We really need to improve here so that we spend less time patching unrepairable damage to real human beings.
As someone who works in the government space, this is even more critical to be hyperaware of. However, it is often easy to neglect in favor of faster promised deadlines and simpler client negotiations. There are no easy answers yet, but I can get you started by recommending some books for awareness:
- Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a great introduction to how Silicon Valley culture emerged and why it is toxic to those less privileged. She also explains why designing for delight isn’t so delightful (spoiler alert, getting an unwanted reminder of your child’s death by Facebook’s memories feature sucks).
- Mismatch by Kat Holmes shines a light on why we need to be more mindful and inclusive in our work for the sake of our collective and individual futures.
- Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil explains how the biases of designers/engineers can threaten democracy through poorly designed and audited big data technology.
*As a note, I am a big fan of Ries and other lean minded advocates like Marty Cagan. Value-driven thinking is important, particularly in product discovery, but I believe it needs to be more thoughtfully understood and applied.
6. Triangulate, triangulate, triangulate
Many of the problems I have addressed earlier can be mitigated through triangulation, which is taken from the action of using two landmarks to determine one’s location at their intersection. In terms of research, Michael Patton explains:
The logic of triangulation is based on the premise that no single method ever adequately solves the problem of rival explanations. Because each method reveals different aspects of empirical reality, multiple methods of data collection and analysis provide more grist for the research mill.
We as designers can use triangulation to better foolproof our research (and ultimately products) from unconscious biases and unintended consequences. This may include, in the words of Patton*:
- “Checking out the consistency of findings generated by different data collection methods, that is, methods triangulation” e.g. comparing findings between interviews, surveys, and usability tests.
- “Examining the consistency of different data sources within the same method, that is, triangulation of sources” e.g. using a diverse pool of participants during usability testing or research.
- “Using multiple analysts to review findings, that is, analyst triangulation” e.g. using multiple UX designers/researchers to review usability test or research findings.
- “Using multiple perspectives or theories to interpret the data, that is, theory/perspective triangulation” e.g. evaluating usability test or research findings from both a pragmatic perspective and an accessibility perspective.
More triangulation translates into more effective, more ethical, and safer design. Let’s triangulate more in 2020.
For more on this, I strongly recommend reading Qualitative Research Methods and Evaluation by Michael Patton. It is a masterpiece.
*Quotes extracted from Patton’s Enhancing the Quality and Credibility of Qualitative Analysis.
7. The design hustle has narrowed our understanding of success
I began 2019 with one goal in mind: to break myself. I wanted to hustle harder, become a great designer, make a difference, and test my productive limits. And, from that measure, I succeeded:
I overextended past my goal by spending most of my nights and weekends studying. I volunteered my free time to non-profit organizations. I consistently made my body clock hours at the gym even after 14 hour work days. I took on new speaking/conference/teaching roles and provided weekly mentorship to students and working professionals…
And I broke, but not as planned.
My life had become almost completely dedicated to studying, practicing, and sharing my craft. By the end of 2019, instead of being happy with my accomplishments, I was burnt out.
I love design, but I have come to realize that I don’t love the work-a-holic culture it can ensnare us into. This leads me to a question posed by Stanford professor Jenny Odell on productivity and the hustle from her book How to Do Nothing:
“Useful for what?… this is the same question I have when I give myself enough time to step back from the capitalist logic of how we currently understand productivity and success.
Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom?
The happiest, most fulfilled moments of my life have been when I was completely aware of being alive, with all the hope, pain, and sorrow that entails for any mortal being.
In those moments, the idea of success as a teleological goal would have made no sense; the moments were ends in themselves, not steps on a ladder.”
with that being said…
Some words to all my designer friends in 2020:
Get inspired by the accomplishments of others. Find the passion that you love and master it. Hustle when you need to get the work done but-
It’s ok to do nothing now and then.
Protect the spaces that make you happiest.
Regeneration is a part of the process.
There’s more to life than just design. Don’t let it usurp the primary measure of success in your life.
Here are some books that can help you navigate life as a creative:
- Things Are What You Make of Them by Adam J. Kurtz
- Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett
- How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Other books I loved in 2019
Shiro by Kenya Hara. Hara has put an amazing amount of meticulous detail into making the act of reading his book such a physically and mentally enjoyable experience. He has, in his own words, mastered the art of “controlling differences” at its most visceral form.
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. As a UX designer, the paradox of the demise of firms that focus on their users is a thought-provoking point. This was a solid lesson that good designers do not see a product as something that exists in a user-only vacuum; we need to be able to examine its feasibility from all perspectives including cost and time. Design is all about context.
The Elements of User Onboarding by Samuel Hulick. Samuel Hulick has written a must-read comprehensive masterpiece on onboarding. Despite the fact that the research already exists for many of Hulick’s points (e.g. Heath’s elephant/rider, Phil’s Car Wash experiment), he does an exceptional job of applying them to relevant onboarding examples with humor.
I want to thank these lovely people for their amazing guidance and recommended reads:
Brendan Strahm, Jason Brier, Chris Wilson, Alex Kramer, Rica Rosario, Zoey Ryu, Kelly Tsao, Ryan Warren