Major League Baseball’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, does the same thing every lesser-paid player does: he practices. He practices hitting the ball, throwing, catching, and fielding.
Alex plays more than 100 games during the regular season, yet he still finds time to practice. He knows he needs to stay at the top of his game. Practice is in his routine.
Major league players aren’t the only professionals that regularly practice. We’ve met musicians, firemen, pilots, and surgeons, all of who regularly practice their skills.
How could UX professionals practice? How would we constantly hone our skills? We studied what these other professionals did to learn what we might borrow from their practice of practicing.
A Side Project is not Practice, It’s Work
We noticed something right away: Practice activities only vaguely look like work activities.
When we asked UX professionals about practicing, many said, “Sure, I do regular side projects for friends or non-profits.” Side projects are a good thing, but we don’t think it is practice. Because the friend or charity depends on a quality results at the end, the side project resembles work very closely.
Practice is different. Good practice focuses on the process, while work focuses on the outcome. When doctors, musicians, and pilots are practicing, they are not doing the entire job. They are looking at the process of the work, often repeating the same step multiple times.
For example, when a surgeon practices their suture techniques, they’ll use butcher shop animal scraps to practice sewing up incisions. They don’t perform the rest of the surgical procedure, because they aren’t interested in the outcomes. They just quickly and cleanly close the incision and do it again.
Practicing to Build Muscle Memory
Commercial airline pilots practice emergency landings in a flight simulator. Professional chefs practice their knife skills, chopping onions, slicing tomatoes, and carving meats. They do this repeatedly, until they can do many of the actions without thinking about them.
This is the act of building muscle memory. When we try something new, something that takes dexterity and precision, we have to focus on the initial movements. However, when we do those movements repeatedly, we train our brain to move away from conscious thought towards unconscious muscular reactions.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours to mastery. Much of those hours are spent building muscle memory.
Do we want to be better at sketching our designs and how our users might use them? We need to practice our sketching. Drawing the same design elements or scenes repeatedly teaches our muscles to sketch quicker.
Building muscle memory is not a creative process. You’ll open your sketchbook to see the same image repeated dozens (or hundreds) of times. Those images may not even look better, because we’re not focused on the outcome. We’re focused on the act of drawing them.
You want to practice until your fingers know exactly what to do. You’ll keep practicing, because you need to keep the repetition up to keep the muscle memory intact.
Practicing To Solve Problems
A few years back, we worked on a training service for doctors. The web site presented case studies, describing a patient’s problem, medical history, vital statistics, and symptoms. The doctors could then order tests, review the results, make a diagnosis, and suggest treatments. The site would then tell them how they scored compared to experts and what the alternative diagnoses and treatments might be (along with probabilities of outcomes).
The case study web site helped the doctors with their process. It pointed out where they missed a key vital statistic or important piece of the patient’s history. It showed them which labs were most effective. It guided them to better diagnoses and treatments.
Problem solving is a different type of practice from building muscle memory, even though we’re still focused on the process and not the outcome. By practicing problem solving, we look at how we develop a hypothesis about the problem, propose further research to confirm that hypothesis, and come up with solutions. Yet, as with building muscle memory, the solutions themselves are secondary to the act of getting there.
Nathan Curtis, author of Modular Web Design, taught us a practice problem-solving technique for building a library of reusable design components. We start with a large web site, such as the CDC.gov or ESPN.com, and print out their pages. Using highlighters and scissors, we cut out the reusable pieces and assemble them in a notebook of components, making a makeshift library.
This technique hones our skills for identifying things that can be reused. We can practice this with our team, first trying it individually, then comparing our results. We see how each of us solved the problem differently and learn from each other’s approaches.
Like building muscle memory, repetition is important here. Problem solving skills are cumulatively learned. We want to keep practicing. As we critique each other’s techniques, saying what we like about them, we can incorporate them into our own and get better with practice.
Practicing to Playfully Explore
Some musicians call it “noodling” — the act of playing with their instrument, just making random music with no real objective. They’ll do it for hours at a time, just playing notes, riffs, and musical sequences to see what comes about. In this process, they are exploring the musical space.
Playful exploration is looking to see where the boundaries are. It doesn’t have a specific problem to solve. It’s not about teaching your muscles to react in a specific way. It answers the question, “when I take something in this direction, what happens?”
We can explore our work in many different ways. One team we studied regularly played with the common elements in their designs. They would apply different styles, seeing how it changed their design.
For example, they would take their username and password dialogue and play around with it. What would it look like if the design style were based on different movie genres, like sci-fi, horror, romantic comedy, or Bollywood? How would that change the style, colors, layout, and copy?
Another team practiced their user research moderation skills by role-playing sessions. To make it playful, the co-worker playing the study participant would draw a character from a hat, like “You’re a very angry person,” “You love sharing your opinions loudly,” or “You find the moderator very attractive.” The session moderator would then get to practice their techniques for keeping the session on track and learning from the design under these extreme conditions.
Many Different Approaches to Practicing
Building muscle memory, solving problems, and exploring playfully are only three approaches to practicing. You can also practice to warm up before a design work session or practice to improve your team’s collaboration skills.
The more approaches you take, the more you’ll end up improving your skills and capabilities. The variety reduces any monotony, especially between projects.
With any approach, it’s important to have repetition. Doing something once doesn’t help us see what else we could have done.
This is the problem with trying to use side projects as our practice. We can’t say, “wait, I want to try that again.” We can’t focus on the process of the work, ignoring the outcome.
Many teams, such as Google, have a “20% time” approach, where they dedicate a few hours every week to non-work projects. Dedicating some or all of the 20% to practice is as valuable as any finished projects that might emerge.
Frequency Matters Most
A single practice session is a good start, but not a good end. The trick is to practice regularly.
Managers and team leaders can allocate regular times for practice and setting up activities for the team. A few hours of practice each week is an inexpensive technique way to see skill improvement, augmenting any training or conferences. Even better, by practicing together, team members can spread their skills more evenly, with the stronger members supporting those who could use a little more help.
It’s important to include time for retrospection on the practice session. What did I do well? What could I improve? What are others in the team doing that I’d like to learn to do better? What am I doing well that I can help others with?
I’ve never met a designer who didn’t want to be the best at their game, producing awesome designs. Practice is an important component of a designer’s continuing education strategy.
This article was originally published on June 14, 2011