At the start of the pandemic, I noticed feeling a little down and wanting to take a break from screens including my phone, laptop, and even TV. I realized these heightened feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety weren’t uncommon in our new world. So, I turned to an old-school strategy to help keep me present — handwriting.
Studies suggest the act of handwriting notes can have both physical and psychological health benefits. It can improve learning abilities including visual, motor, and cognitive brain processes. Additionally, acts of reflection and expressing gratitude can foster more positive outlooks on life and boost one’s mood. There’s even benefit to the sensory experience of writing that requires us to physically slow down and connect with our thoughts. This act of journaling and letter writing eventually became the inspiration for three tiny letters to the UX practice.
Here is my first tiny letter.
This letter is dedicated to early to mid-career professionals who have ever had the “I’m not ready yet” mindset. Frankly, we’re all guilty of it: “My portfolio isn’t ready yet,” “I’m not ready to give that feedback yet,” “I don’t have the experience yet.” The impractical push for perfection over progress are the traps in these statements.
Let’s move away from thinking about UX as a perfect destination, and towards a practice where methods, rituals, and expertise evolve.
There’s a reason why we refer to yoga as a practice, martial arts as a practice… medicine, law. Within each of these areas, there is repeated exercise in the performance of an activity or skill. The repeatable nature of the skill is required in order to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. UX is no exception. We have to practice it in order to gain and improve our competencies.
Rather than aiming for a “perfect portfolio,” let’s shift our mindsets to a practice of iteration. It’s okay to get feedback once, make improvements, get feedback again, make improvements, etc. Embrace that we can always edit.
Can we let go of “perfect timing?” There’s no perfect time to ship a change, or a perfect time to have a career conversation with a manager. Instead, let’s acknowledge we’re practicing the simultaneous identification and navigation of competing needs before pursuing an action plan.
There is also no “perfect job experience,” but a practice of communicating how parts of one’s story makes sense. Let’s embrace the practice of curating experiences to highlight strengths. We’re in a practice of weaving together a non-linear narrative. Let’s reduce this pressure to get everything done absolutely perfectly.
My second tiny letter is dedicated to anyone who struggles with knowing where to start. If you’re overwhelmed by a large daunting task, try to aim for a tiiiiiny behavior that gets you a little closer to impact.
I frequently hear this theme around not knowing where to begin or how to make progress. It usually manifests itself as a scarcity mindset (“We don’t have enough resources!”), a fear of implications (“Our metrics will drop if we pursue that path!”), and despair in the size or timing of the initiative (“It’s too large and out of scope for this quarter.”).
Research shows that small simple steps can help (1) make something achievable and (2) create a situation in which you’re more likely to get even more accomplished than you originally anticipated.
For example, reading a book is a large task.
How about we break this down by chapter?
Too tough? Break it down further by a page.
Still too challenging? Break it down even further by reading just a paragraph, a sentence, a word. Set a tiny, accomplishable goal.
The same goes with UX. How can we scope down problems into its smallest parts?
Here’s an example. Earlier this year, our Creative Team set out to create a Thumbtack Brand Book to guide internal and external teams on how to use the brand. The team had all of this knowledge, but it didn’t exist in a single place yet. Seems easy to just compile all of our thoughts together, right?
In reality, it was daunting to think about all the ways we use our logo, typography, color, illustration, iconography, language, tone, photography, and so on. So, we chose to break the guidelines into smaller pieces: design, copy, photography, and experiences.
What would it be like to just focus on one area: voice and tone? What about just the style of our copy? What about just starting with a single style rule?
We broke it down into smaller pieces until we eventually had our Brand Guidelines. Tiny steps can still mean big impact.
My last tiny letter comes from a personal experience.
A few years ago, I had lunch with my then VP of product and we spoke about the recent org-wide All Hands presentation. I made an off-handed comment, “Yeah, for the next one, I’d like to have the research team invited to speak.” His response, “Why are you waiting to be invited?”
It was an epiphany for me. I took a pause. What was I doing? I was caught in a trap I thought I had a handle on. Why had I normalized this as something I needed permission for vs. something I was empowered to or shared ownership to change? I realized that as a leader, it was my responsibility to proactively call out gaps in representation and gaps in information-sharing for our teams. Wasn’t this why I was hired? I blocked myself from making progress.
Although this is a small example, the phenomenon isn’t an uncommon one. Waiting for permission or an invitation to speak is especially prevalent among introverts, women, and Asian or collectivist cultures. Ultimately, it points to needs around self-preservation and saving face.
A study on employee silence, for example, found employees often feel uncomfortable speaking to their bosses about organizational problems or issues. In fact, the “most frequently mentioned reason for remaining silent was the fear of being viewed or labeled negatively, and as a consequence, damaging valued relationships.” Other data suggest people often harbor feelings of personal doubt, fear of jeopardizing one’s position, and fear of retaliation.
For me, I had this fear of being disrespectful for asking for what I needed. As a Filipino-American, I grew up even calling older people I didn’t know “tita” and “tito” (auntie/uncle) as a sign of respect. To insert or invite myself or my team to something, it felt against the core of my cultural upbringing.
I had to flip the script. I told myself this was less about being disrespectful and requiring an invitation and more about advocacy for my team, our users, and an opportunity to learn, lead, and practice. Today, I still actively reflect on how my cultural norms and upbringing shape my reality. I quickly realized being respectful does not equate to not making requests in the workplace. In fact, if you make a strong case, you can get more respect for speaking up. Not less.
Let’s ask ourselves: Are we really blocked on opportunities and changes? Do we have the perception of being blocked? Are you the one stopping you from making progress or executing change? Dear UX, do not wait to be invited.
With that, I’ll share my full letter here. Thank you for reading and I hope to read some of your own #DearUX letters too.