8 things I re-learnt by getting my arse whopped

Calvin! You effin’ genius!

We humans are a weird bunch. We know the principles to lead a good life but find it incredibly hard to live by them. We decide to stop fast food in the morning and go for a meal at McDonald’s by noon. We decide to hit the gym and end up lying on the bed watching “The Dark Knight” for the 100th time. Such dopamine whores we are! It isn’t till lifes gives us an almighty whopping in the arse that we open our eyes to the obvious truths of life and adopt these principles as a code to live by

Principles of good design are no different. As a designer, I remember falling in love with principles of good design. On the day my mundane mind finally grasped the beauty of design, I grew wings and probably had a halo over my head too; or maybe I was just high on red bull. But as soon as you get out into the industry, there are opinions, processes and imaginary bullets flying out of every corner of your office. And there is every chance you might breathe easy on these ideals and have a Big Mac for breakfast. I certainly did.

Almost three years ago, I began my career in design at a service based organisation. I spent two and a half years on the service side of things and worked on projects belonging to multiple domains. After that, I made a switch into the product environment this January.

Joining a product based organisation was my version of a kick in my backside. It is now almost 4 months into my current job and my ass hurts so bad, I sleep sideways now. As a result, I’ve gone back to the basic principles of good design; the ideals I was supposed to stick by. I learnt my lesson and learnt it the hard way.

Here’s a few things I’ve re-learnt:

1. Consolidate requirements and review

They say well begun is half done. I never quite understood that quote; un-till that is I blundered repeatedly and learnt the importance of consolidating requirements. One of the most under-rated things to do; but one that streamlines the design cycle like no other. Often, designers speak and think differently from product managers and developers. Product managers have a great understanding of the most minute details of the way a business works, which designers might tend not to. To this end, it becomes essential to process the requirements, consolidate them and review them at least once with the product manager so that everyone is on the same page. Any gap in understanding will be a waste of time both for the designer and the Product Manager and it can be avoided with an early review of the requirements. Begin well.

2. Understand the Business goal

Design, at the end of the day should serve both the users and the business and it is the job of the designer to finely balance both in a delightful way. But most of us don’t get that! To us, business needs are Sith lords out to destroy the usability and user experience Jedis. Couldn’t be further from the truth. A product is only successful if it meets all its needs and business needs are needs too! They pay your salary for god’s sake! Who says they aren’t important?

Once you’ve digested the last couple of points, read further. Now that you understand, it is important to the business goal at the very beginning of the process. The business goal, along with the design goals should lead a designer through his design process and serve as barometers of the design.

3. Validate requirements

Once you get the requirements, go validate them with data or with a small user study. The advantages of this are two fold:

a. If the data shows the requirements to be valid, the designer is left with a much better understanding of the requirement and hence a much better chance of arriving at a great design.

b. If the data invalidates the requirement, go grab a beer! You just saved the entire team a good chunk of valuable time.

A win-win either way. Nuff’ said.

4. Low-fi is the best fi

Not so pro-tip: If you are a designer dreaming about a magical unicorn able to coax complete requirements out of stakeholders, look no further. Low-fidelity paper sketching is the best thing to happen to me since I traded a Butterfree for an ultra-rare Entei (Forgive the pokemon reference. I couldn’t resist!).

As soon as I’m done validating requirements, I conceptualise, I sketch, I review with the stakeholder. Ta-Da! a comprehensive set of requirements magically falls out from the sky. Simple as 1–2–3. Stakeholders are a bit like the oracle. They tell you stuff you need to know; only it isn’t the complete information. But we designers need to be curious children and need to get the the complete information for the stakeholders. What’s better than a simple paper sketch to get the conversation started? Try it if you don’t believe me. This trick has saved me countless hours of re-work and the silent heartache of sending my designs to mordor everytime the requirements used to change.

The swiss knife: Paper sketches

5. Iterate and review

Looking back, my initial year in design was a train-wreck. Let me paint a picture for you. The closest thing I can think of would be a teen having hormones and arrogance for breakfast. Genius design methodology was the teen’s religion. Experimentation and analysis was for losers!. I just felt like I’d churn out the best design and all I had to do was open the wireframing tool and place my divine hand on the mouse. What a blunder!

But paper sketching changed all that. Sketching is like a swiss knife for a designer and one of the best things it can do is to quickly draw up options and lay them bare for comparison. This helps remove bias from one particular concept and gives you an objective mindset to evaluate your layouts / concepts or anything else. Do check out this post by Dustin Senos. He explains beautifully how to get great value from paper wireframes. Thanks a ton Dustin!

6. Take ownership

Ranting used to be my favourite hobby. I used to rant about how the requirements are changing mid-way, about how the development doesn’t match the design, about how there is no user focus in the product, about how Dawn of Justice was so crappy etc. And all the ranting only gave me headaches.

There is only one pill to this. Save the rant and channel that frustration into making the change you want to see. Take responsibility for every small process and make the product your own pretty baby. Take responsibility for improving existing processes and you’ll learn more than you ever will.

Take Ownership. Be responsible for every design decision, every visual design decision, every line of code, every point of execution. Just take ownership and stop ranting dammit!

7. Test quick, fail quick

“Testing is the holy grail of design” — Samuel Jackson

“When you are in trouble, when you find yourself in a quandary, test.” -Donald J Trump

Okay I made those up. The point is, designers function on abstraction, facts and hypotheses. The more these are tested, the more mistakes you find. The more mistakes you find, the more you learn, the more you learn, the better your designs are. Testing is probably the most effective mechanism to keep your design on track.

Now remember your friend the swiss knife again. Yes. I’m talking about paper sketching. Thanks to him, you can do this quick, fail quick, learn quick and work towards getting a better direction to your design. Confused between two concepts? Test. Want to get instant feedback about your concept? Test. That girl you always wanted to ask out; would she go out with you? Test.

See! It just works.

8. Reverse engineer insights

When Uber introduced drop off points, I was pissed! Why did I have to type in my drop off point? I’d just book a cab with a single click of a button if not for it. I mean, sure the navigation would be easy, but searching and entering a drop off point for that? That’s just too much effort. I’d rather say “Take me to the railway station” and be done with it. I kept ranting about this to many friends. Untill that is, one of them asked me a couple of important questions.

“Do you think Uber is a well designed application?” he asked

“Yes. I guess” I replied.

“Do you think there is a UX team working behind them?” He asked

“Ofcourse here should be.” I replied.

“Then you have to understand that they are there for a reason. They think and take decisions. And if it seems counter intuitive to you, you’ve clearly not understood it well.” He said.

“What do you mean” I asked.

“Why do you think Uber wants to collect the drop-off point despite knowing that snobs like you don’t like to put in the effort? Do you see any business implications?” he asked.

“hmm” I thought.

“Any new features you saw in Uber recently?” He quizzed.

“Yeah. Now I get to book cabs that are finishing a ride beside me……” I stopped stupefied.

That was genius. And that day changed me as a designer. Every picture tells a story. And so does every design. Thanks to the free world, there are millions of products we interact with everyday. And that means millions of data points to evaluate. In most products, try to question the details and you will be amazed at the kind connections you can make and the kind of insights you can get.

Question and you shall get the answers. That my dear Watson, is elementary.

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