Lessons Learned from a Young Designer

I’ve been in the exciting and ever changing game of User Experience now for just over three years. As way of introduction, I’ve been involved with freelance, did a short stint at a Fortune 300 company, and now work for a experience design consultancy — Universal Mind.

As the phrase goes, “I don’t know what I don’t know, I know what I don’t know, I know what I know” and adding an additional twist “I don’t think about what I do know.” Here is some insight for new designers coming into the industry. Hopefully I’ll uncover new lessons through this as well.

S*** Rolls Down Hill

I’ve been covered in it, and you may be or have been at some point too. Sometimes it’s the result of our own mistakes or decisions made above our pay grade. Directions were influenced by bottom line, personal/legacy goals, or a dysfunctional corporate culture. In the consultancy world, if products are to succeed, both leadership teams require alignment AND shared vision.

Without common ground, those in the trenches will be misguided like sheep, searching for a shepherding hand. Therefore, if one is in such position, it’s their duty to create alignment in order for success. They owe it to themselves and their team.

For the production team, I’ve found that weekly reflection and elevation meetings work well. Try to loop in Account Management and your direct superiors so they are aware of any success or pitfalls. Doing this will allow them to share your needs and praises to those at the top on the client side. Maintaining transparency throughout the entire team will help to drive conversations from the bottom-up. Everyone involved will be more aware of decisions and strategy through these types of conversations.

Take into consideration that if a client does not share the same values or goals, then it may be time to reconsider your working relationship?

Set Expectations: Correctly and Constantly

Establishing expectations are necessary within leadership meetings at the outset of building a product. Those expectations need to be honest and concise to form trust and cut through the murky waters of communication. Success necessitates clarity.

I’ve personally participated in many conversations where factors like timidity, lack of preparation, ignorance and downright dishonesty directly impact expectations. There is zero benefit for each group on either side of the table so stick to good business and be direct.

Once agreed, persistent reminders about the shared strategy should occur. 
The frequency is relevant to the relationship and there is no prescription despite what many subject matter experts will tell you. The number of reminders are defined through the relationship, the product’s success measures and its timeline.

Conversations can become tangential, leading to scope creep and new expectations begin to bubble to the surface like a rancid bog — which is why consistently reminding the clients (and ourselves) of the expectations is crucial.

Prototypes DO Save Hours of Meetings

I was in a week long teleconference call. We had been discussing, via static wireframes, a new feature of an application. Each person involved in these conversations had their own backstories; they didn’t like those who joined the meetings, they didn’t know the other participants, they had personal agendas, or a combination of the three. This is the product stew… and it gets stinky. No resolution was to be had and most could not visualize the interactions no matter how many ways it was articulated.

We decided to throw a quick prototype together using InVision — and I highly recommend this tool. Presenting this not only gained stakeholder agreement but built trust for subsequent conversations.

These types of scenarios don’t always have happy endings where the client says, “Hey, you and your team do whatever you need. We trust you.” However, it does help to establish credibility as a thought leader and can save countless meetings discussing interaction over a static designs.

Another, more important thought; prototypes aren’t just about saving meeting time. In retrospect, a prototype should have been the first thought for product creation and validation. As Jony Ive stated,

“[the design process] is about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers.”

Dummy Text and “Real” Content… Neither Matters

Should we use lorem ipsum or real data? We’ve all been there and I have 
to be honest, both are terrible. With Lorem Ipsum (or placeholder text), 
some voice will contribute “This does not represent our content effectively. We should use actual data from our system instead.” So you pump out some new, crispy wireframes/designs with the content provided by the client. Then what happens? “Well actually, $22.41 + $43.58 does not equal $100.00. Can you fix that math? It’s throwing us off.”

All of this illustrates exactly why placeholder and real data are irrelevant. Placeholder is ideal and does not depict a realistic experience. Mimicked content becomes too focused or granular to the detriment of its creative process. What’s truly paramount, and here’s where the educational component comes in to play, is articulating the concept of the system you’re collectively creating. That’s not to say that one should be adding 1 and 1 to equal 1,000,000 because, let’s be honest, fix that. It’s ridiculous.

Remember it’s always contextual. If the design discussion is about 
structure, explore looking at ‘lines’ to portray text. Presenting a specific component? Try realistic, worst-case scenario content to show practical visuals. Keep in mind, the designer should drive the conversation to provide value for clients.

The message here is to stick to the topic at hand, facilitate effectively, and maintain focus on the product, not the insignificant minutiae.

Email vs. Conversation

Personal conversations, whether over the phone or better yet in person (what a concept), trumps any email or text. Period. Hearing another person’s voice and the ability to see their expressions when you converse will always win. No wonder why social apps are the most downloaded and most used — because humans by nature desire HUMAN interaction.

Emails can be misunderstood and texts misleading. Take the professional route and speak with your client face-to-face and if that can’t happen regularly, Skype or Google Hangout. Smile and don’t take yourself too seriously — it’s fun what we do. It will improve your professional relationship and rapport. Hey, it may even help you in your personal life as well. Just saying.

My Three Pillars

Venting — Where, When, and What to do After

For the benefit of everyone around you, try not to vent at work. 
Use personal outlets like spouses, trusting friends, parents, or even 
that secret diary you keep between your mattresses. Daily and public ventilation is exhausting to your teammates and as corny as it sounds, 
does lower morale.

If you feel the need to vent, be proactive and bring some possible solutions to the table. Try to fix what’s broken. Venting is needed but turns into complaining without fresh ideas. We’re in this industry because we love solving problems. So air out your cuss words and dark thoughts then tackle that wicked, hairy problem like a NFL linebacker. That’s the exciting part. Like Thomas Edison stated,

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Relationships and Hospitality

“Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Beer? Water?” Believe it or not, hospitality goes a long, long way. It’s respectful and who wouldn’t want to be treated like the guest of honor? Daniel Meyer, successful NYC restauranteur, once said,

“Hospitality exists when you believe that the other person is on your side.”

The same goes for your clients. Be their teammate. Treat them like your family coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. In most cases they’re paying you a nice lump of the green stuff so offering them some refreshments and a welcoming atmosphere is the least one could offer. Being a lover of food and drink, I may be biased but may I suggest providing clients something other than a big box store doughnut? Offering something say, locally made, shows sincerity, thoughtfulness, and creativity — which is why they wanted to initially work with your company.

These types of gestures help foster successful client interactions and a trusting, long-lasting relationship.

Hard Work and Honesty Still Count

Lastly, and sad to say, we have birthed a nation of self-entitled workers 
who think the world owes them everything. Work hard and love what 
you do. And, most importantly, be honest in all your professional and personal adventures because that’s integrity. And integrity is priceless 
and sought after.

And with that, godspeed my friends in your many endeavors to come and may your life be full of success and joy.

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