5 steps to help you stop pushing pixels and start telling a story

Photo: Antonio Sedano/EyeEm/Getty Images

This cotton candy video making the rounds on Twitter immediately reminded me of my portfolio:

Me: Stuffing hours and hours of work, sweat, and tears into case studies

My Portfolio: Nothing to see here, just a tepid pool of gray sugar water

Building a portfolio is hard for two reasons. First, we’re too close to our own work to look at it with enough perspective, meaning that it’s easy to think every sketch is important. This means we have a hard time teasing out a concise, coherent story and choosing the most relevant artifacts to tell that story. …

(Just in case there aren’t enough opinions floating around)

This week, I’m wrapping up an accelerated grad program in product design at CMCI Studio, so naturally I’m reflecting on the end of an era with all the attendant nostalgia, regrets, and gratitude.

Here’s a collection of the best advice I’ve been given this year. Some of it I’ve lived by, and some of it I ignored for way too long before finally coming around. Hopefully it’ll help some other newbie UX designers wrap their head around learning a new discipline.


There is so much good content out there on design, and you should be reading it. On Medium, Twitter…

An engineer-turned-creative technologist talks about the practices of problem-solving and creative thinking

Photo: yasharu/Getty Images

In this world that is so focused on impact, it’s hard not to put all our focus as creatives on that end product and its ROI. But what we make is only an outcome. How we make a thing is more important in many ways — it shows how gritty we are when it comes to solving problems, how willing we are to ask questions and invalidate our own assumptions, how likely it is that the thing we made will actually solve a problem.

Through my graduate coursework at CMCI Studio, I’ve spent two semesters in a Critical Making Studio…

Plus the resources you need to get started

I’m writing a product requirement document (PRD) for the first time, and I’ll admit, I didn’t know quite where to start. But I did know one thing: I knew that I was skeptical of such a time-intensive, technical document.

Before I came back to grad school, I was a project manager on a marketing team using agile methodologies. I was indoctrinated into one scrum principle in particular: Employ minimally sufficient ceremony. In other words, document-centric, process-heavy, high-ceremony approaches cost time and effort. Only document what you need to document. Simplify or eliminate processes whenever possible. Get rid of unnecessary formality.

(Since there’s not one, I made up a framework instead)

UX designers identify as problem solvers, because we’re always breaking big problems down into smaller, step-wise problems and solving them one question at a time.

A big part of solving problems is just understanding the problem really, really well. And that, my friends, is called UX research. As a discipline, it borrows from social sciences, information science, and a whole lot of gritty, guerrilla tactics.

Unlike true sciences, though, the goal is not to come up with statistically significant data, but to capture trends and insights that unearth the most helpful framing of the problem. What is really at stake…

Spend the time figuring out what’s actually wrong

A professor once told me, as he was evaluating one of my early UX design projects, “You’re not wrong, you just could be more right.” And then he told me to dig deeper into the problem I was trying to solve. Notably, he didn’t tell me to bang my head against the wall and keep grinding on the solution. This was my first hint that the solution is not the problem. The problem is the problem.

Let me explain. When you don’t truly “get” the problem, any solution (no matter how Dribbble-worthy) is just a pretty picture. It might look…

On changing the rhetoric of design

We all know that cliche meeting, where you walk in to pitch design, intent on getting feedback on fundamental product design and its impact on key user needs, but someone won’t stop talking about the fonts. Or the grayscale of the wireframe.

Everyone thinks they’re a designer. Whether they are or not can be a contentious subject, but you know what’s not up for debate? The fact that design is a team sport, and we need everyone to play ball. Changing the rhetoric of design is how you invite others into the conversation so that it’s actually productive. …

What you find in unexpected places

I’m strongly drawn to any metaphor that helps explain me to myself, so it’s no wonder the Enneagram fascinates me. According to that framework, which supposedly describes your most inner motivation, I am an Enthusiast. A person who seeks out whatever is new and exciting. A person who lives in perpetual FOMO. A person who can be scattered and impatient. This is all true of me.

On my worst days, I call myself out for being a fickle dabbler, with stacks of unfinished books, discarded hobbies, and abandoned projects. This is a fair assessment. On other days, though, I see…

When wireframes just aren’t enough

I built an app prototype with code. I needed to test an interactive feature set that lets users visualize their current mood by personifying a blob. Javascript seemed like the best way forward. It was also a great chance for me to push my front-end dev skills.

If you just want to see the live prototype in action, click here.
For step-by-step details, skip ahead to The Process section.

The Context

For a few months, I’ve been working on a product with Jonas Escobedo and Diamond Alexander that helps people become more emotionally fluent by normalizing the full range of emotions and…

Being a good UX designer requires leadership, and how you ‘show up’ is key

Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

When we talk about UX education, it’s easy to get stuck on the technical or the strategic. But there’s something more. If we, as budding UX designers, hope to succeed in a field that is so dependent on hearing what others have to say — our clients, our users, and our teammates — and integrating those perspectives into our work, then we need to learn so-called “soft skills” every bit as much as we need to learn Sketch.

There is literally nothing about the job of a UX designer that is rote — the role requires us to constantly be…

Karen McClellan

Product Designer, Reader, Writer

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