Be unqualified at what you’re doing and other ways of growing as a UX designer

Linnéa Strid
Nov 17, 2016 · 7 min read

While we don’t like to admit it, there are moments in a designer’s career where you hit a plateau for creative growth.

This is not pleasing to us. Most designers I’ve met are more obsessed with chasing their next evolution than rabid Pokemon GO players.

But training yourself at being a better problem solver is a tricky business. In my experience, there is no clear path. However, there are things you can do to keep your creativity going.

Here are some of the principles I’ve followed in my pursuit of growth:

  1. Be unqualified for what you’re doing
  2. Stop reading about design
  3. Find awesomeness in everything

1. Be unqualified for what you’re doing

The sign of a good designer is being able to solve problems you’ve never run into before. So find problems you’ve never been trained to face.

It might seem drastic, but it’s one hell of a way to ward off creative stagnation.

“Get out of your comfort zone” is the more common advice, but is often interpreted as choosing red instead of black for your next turtleneck, and that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about being up shit’s creek and having to invent the paddle.

Some more radical designers do it by switching profession every now and then, but luckily there are less dramatic ways of experiencing this kind of “trial by fire”. Taking on a side project or pitching yourself for a smaller project at work are excellent ways of getting started.

Practical advice:

  • The stakes must be just right. Too little, and you’ll lose momentum and motivation. Too high, and the negative consequences will outweigh the benefits. Make sure there is a measurable outcome, to hold yourself accountable.
  • Choose something that is unfamiliar, but where you’ll be able to apply your design sensibilities. Something like writing a short story, managing a social media account, coding your own website, designing a physical object if you usually do digital ones (or vice versa), creating a font, editing a film...the list is nearly endless.
  • Feeling defeated? Accept that you will make a lot of mistakes, but trust your problem solving core.

2. Stop reading about design

Some of you stopped reading this now to spite me, didn’t you?

What I mean is: don’t just learn about your field.

But the world is a very, very big place, and being able to solve problems for people requires you to look outside of our narrow field and see what they might be seeing.

“I live and breathe design” looks like this from the outside.

Not every project will give you the time you need to do extensive user research or ethnography. However, if you dedicate your time to learning about the world rather than reading more about design, you will have a valuable foundation to build from when you need to understand where a user is coming from. And while you’re at it, why not pick up a bit about psychology, science, sociology, maths, philosophy and other perspectives on the world?

Yes, you’ll be a Jack of all Trades. Not getting stuck in one way of thinking is what will make you a better problem solver.

There’s no such thing as a UX expert anyway. How could there be, with an infinite amount of possible experiences?

Practical advice:

  • Learning a little about design is healthy. Aim for a balance that suits you. If you’re spending a lot of time on it at the moment, take around 50% of the time you currently spend on design-related content and use it to read up on other things.
  • You don’t have to read. Listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, get a diverse set of hobbies, go to events, talk to your grandparents, travel — do whatever knowledge/experience gathering activity that suits you. Podcasts when commuting is my favourite way to learn. Here are some links to really good ones and it’s not even close to complete.
  • Learn more with less time by starting a research club. Everyone chooses a different subject, get’s a week to research it, then reports back what they’ve learned.

3. Find awesomeness in everything

Boring is a state of mind, not an inherent property.

You could say it’s ok to be uninterested in the subject you’re working with, as long as you do your best to create a good user experience.

But if you can’t muster up excitement for what you’re creating, what makes you think others will?

Closeup of Broccoli.

Take broccoli as an example. Have you ever thought twice about broccoli?What if I told you some people hate broccoli because we’re locked in biological warfare with its species, and only some of us evolved the ability to ignore the bitter chemical it produces? That every single green dot is actually a tiny flower bud that would bloom and give birth to a new broccoli if you left the broccoli be?

You can give someone a healthy vegetable, or thousands of tiny broccoli babies that they destroy with every bite of their mighty teeth. Which one would you prefer?

Finding out what is awesome about a subject will not just improve the morale of you and your team, but also improve your design. People talk about sprinkling “delight” into design and it’s usually interpreted as a clumsy helping of UI animations. Real delight comes from being surprised by something you thought was mundane. Give any subject the broccoli treatment, and see what comes out.

Practical Advice:

  • The scale, history, science or stories about something are usually where you will uncover intriguing facts, and is a good place to start.
  • What you find interesting is of course personal, so make sure to test if your target demographic is as excited by your findings as you are.
  • Remember the research club from the second point? It’s also a great opportunity to practice picking out and presenting the most awesome aspects of a subject.
  • Less is still more. Your goal is to make an experience less boring, not try to hook people in for hours. Chances are, people will still want to do a boring task as quickly as possible — but you can add interest in a non-obstructive way.
  • A good example of this principle in action is the app Dreams. They took what was awesome around saving money (that small sacrifices eventually grow into the funds for fulfilling your dreams) and created an engaging and useful service around it.

Growth, but not like in Pokemon

So there you have it — three principles that might help you become a better UX designer.

We must constantly be learning new things, and questioning things that hold us back. We must learn to step back and view a problem from all angles, instead of getting stuck in the solution.

This is really, really hard — but it’s important. Because if we concentrate on learning “how things are usually done”, we become blind to better solutions.

I work as a UX Designer at Apegroup where I help companies create beautiful digital experiences. We are a design and technology agency in Stockholm. Want to know more about how we work with design? Read more at our website.

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Apegroup — Behind the Screens

Thoughts, learnings and opinions from a digital product studio in Sweden who deliver world-class design, technology and communication.

Thanks to Linda Strid and Nils Sköld

Linnéa Strid

Written by

Product Designer

Apegroup — Behind the Screens

Thoughts, learnings and opinions from a digital product studio in Sweden who deliver world-class design, technology and communication.

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