What is career success in design?

That’s a damn good (and difficult) question!

Are we successful when we make hundreds of thousands of dollars to design icons all day? Umm, no… probably not. According to nearly every designer that I’ve ever personally met. We want a living wage, yes, but we’re not in this field to roll in dollar bills.

To decide if you’re successful, it depends on how you think of your “design” role. A framework like jobcareer and calling is a decent place to start:

  • Job people see work as a means to an end, a necessity for affording things in life.
  • Career people want to move upward and achieve social standing.
  • Calling people consider their work a meaningful form of self-expression that is integral to their life.

Every designer and researcher I know would shout from the rooftops that design is their calling that they can’t imagine doing anything else. When I reflect on where I stand, I want to say design is my calling too. But am I an asshole for wanting some career success and standing, too?

“Success” is a loaded word; weighed down with fame, wealth and social status. Successful people are the ones who win a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award or have been profiled in Vogue as “Apple’s Design Genius”.

Like any person, I do want to be acknowledged and hear that my efforts were worth it — though I haven’t reached that level of fame (or maybe ever?)

If you go back to the Oxford English Dictionary 🤓, the primary definition of success isn’t quite so focused on material goods:

success
“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”

Obviously, other definitions touch on the fame part. But the most frequent use of the word has to do with meeting a purpose or goal. I’ve learned slowly over my career that I can’t get hung up on traditional success 💰🏆💰

The truth is:
I am successful if I have moments of feeling accomplished,
even if validation comes from no one else.

In the face of Dribbble and Instagram, it’s easy to feel like a loser if there aren’t enough likes or applause or famous companies like Facebook, Lyft and SpaceX knocking down your door. But maybe, you’ve already reached success because you want to share.

My story of success

I’ve been working in design professionally for 12 years. As a young whippersnapper, I came to work everyday wanting to create compelling artifacts that were both beautiful and functional. The tech magazine I was designing was not just going to look good, but also facilitate learning and respect the rich content within.

Success in this universe meant I created artifacts that looked “designy” and were easily readable. Thankfully, I was good enough that no tragic failures or angry, disillusioned customers plagued me.

Over time, I shifted from one job title to another: from graphic designer to online editor to interaction/service designer. I didn’t see it as abandoning one form of design for another, but instead a shift in my focus from execution to strategy. I made that shift with the idea that I wanted to make sure my companies were making the right artifacts for the right audience with the right purpose.

One of the main reasons I love being an designer is that my job is to ask (and, ultimately, answer) challenging questions about purpose and goals.

I feel most successful these days when my client and I have a mind-meld on the vision, or when my questions lead to the response “oh, that’s not right. Let me explain this another way” or “good points, we hadn’t thought about before”.

Being successful isn’t about feeling more clever or getting everything right; it’s about achieving and having a process for thoughtful design. I want to be recognized for bringing something valuable to the table — “did I contribute more than Sketch files?”

As I look ahead to what gets me really pumped, I’m shifting from doer to leader (sorry that’s so cheesy 😜). I’ve worked in a lot of different products, media, even regions; thankfully, design is a field that loves to reinvent itself, so I know there’s always more to learn about. But, I still find myself drawn to mentoring and speaking up for others. I’m making this shift with the idea that I want to do everything I can to support a positive design environment and rigorous design conversation. I want designers around me to feel like they also contribute more than just Sketch files.

Questions for measuring “success”

But, how do I know whether I’m successful at supporting a positive design environment and rigorous design conversation? I don’t do a big goal setting practices, but I do smaller check-ins at key moments in my journey.

Today, my journey is very hinged on client and internal projects, so at the start of a project, during milestones and when it’s over I use these questions to determine if I’m accomplishing what I hope to.

Before

  1. What is my purpose in taking this project? This job? This approach?
    There’s this concept of the 5 Whys which I love for unpacking this question.
  2. What’s the ideal scenario here?
    If all goes well, what happens? Who benefits from this outcome: you, users, your career, your love life?

During

  1. In my next meeting or interaction, what’s the thing I want to happen?
    Do you need something tactical to keep the project on schedule? Or, are you changing hearts, minds and attitudes to get somewhere?
  2. How is this going? Am I on track to that purpose or thing I want?
    Going “backwards” is never going backwards; it’s an important piece of data to know that assumptions were wrong or the timing wasn’t right or maybe you weren’t so realistic.
  3. Have you tried multiple angles?
    Life is iterative and full of variety. Why would there only be one way to accomplish something?

After

  1. Did you get that thing to happen (During Question 1)?
    Be honest with yourself about how things turned out. There’s good and bad to everything, you just have to give yourself time to think about it.
  2. What did you learn (tactically? About yourself? About this context?) in the process?
    While the phrase “growth mindset” is trendy at the moment, it’s describing a pretty fundamental human quality.
  3. Do you want to do that again? Could you do that again?
    Even if things turned out well, knowing if you’d put yourself through it again tells you how you want to use your energy. Don’t put energy into stuff that you don’t care to accomplish; because then the “success” won’t mean anything to you.

Why I’m Not Impressed With AI and Deep Learning

Something has always bugged me about the AI. I am somewhere between “mildly curious” and “skeptic” whenever I hear the future is rooted in computers like neural networks, eliminating all jobs and running us over like Terminator.

The mildly curious side of me subscribed to MIT Technology Review (the paper edition!!) and the skeptic side was pretty excited to read an article titled“Is AI Riding a One-Trick Pony?” in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue.

Before this article, the most I knew about deep learning was that you needed to feed a SHIT-TON (that’s a technical term 💩 😁) of data into a system that would work through a series of decisions to determine what is or is not a hot dog. My colleague Yi-Ying has written about the inherent biases in this training process that depends on the inputs — if all the data comes from white guys, we’re stuck only being able to serve white guys.

Reading this article, I finally learned how the heck that “training” happened. The effort behind backprop (the way programmers rejigger the connection strengths in the neutral networks game of 20,000(?) questions to avoid sharing bad answers). I have huge respect for solving that painful process of working backwards to “read” a system that’s writing itself. I learned about these “vectors” — fascinating, (almost) organic creation of representations of ideas. The word dork in me loves the connotations implied from using a mathematical concept to describe the fuzzy concept of “same”.

But, here’s the quote that really resonated with my uneasiness around the concepts:

“Deep learning in some ways mimics what goes on in the human brain, but only in a shallow way — which perhaps explains why its intelligence can sometimes seem so shallow. Indeed, backprop wasn’t discovered by probing deep into the brain, decoding thought itself; it grew out of models of how animals learn by trial and error in old classical-conditioning experiments. And most of the big leaps that came about as it developed didn’t involve some new insight about neuroscience; they were technical improvements, reached by years of mathematics and engineering.”

In my 4 years as a dog trainer at Petsmart (the coolest high school and college job ever!!), I taught pet owners how to condition their dogs to what “sit” and “stay” meant. A few dog owners were particularly concerned about the accessibility of English and insisted on teaching their dogs the commands in German — so only they could tell their dog what to do.

A fellow trainer and I joked about teaching the dogs commands with random words: “hotdog” represented “sit” and waffles would mean to “lay down”. Since I’ve yet to meet a dog born to know English, as trainers we were building these language associations. This didn’t make dogs unintelligent, it did just created a communication barrier. Fundamentally, we were teaching the dogs to relate to us using our language, and that good things came to them by paying attention. Thankfully, we used positive reinforcement (so no hitting dogs here), but the training was rooted in the ability to recognize the pattern of “I say a thing, you do a thing, you get treats”.

If you’ve ever noticed that pet owner that has to repeat the command “sit” 4 times before the dog sits, it’s not that the dog isn’t listening. The more likely culprit is the owner may have actually taught that the command pattern is “sit sit sit sit” before the dog is rewarded or forced to comply. Hand signals also play an important role; if you usually lift your hand and say “sit” at the same time, the dog may not comply if you only say “sit” without the hand gesture. In general, we noticed that dogs pick up the hand signals more quickly since it’s a communication method more in line with the dog world.

The phrase “Deep learning” to me implies a rich understanding of context and situation; but it doesn’t feel that way right now. Is it considered “deep” because we are giving a computer millions and millions of images that a human could never process? Is it “learning” because the program creates these seemingly magical categorizations on its own and references them later? But like a dog, if you change the command to something not already in the dataset, will it know how to “roll over”?

I understand how excited people get when something starts to work. It’s the same as when a dog stares lovingly into your eyes and does a perfect “sit” just to get more treats. We (designers, engineers, data scientists, Silicon Valley types) need to recognize that just because we’ve got a tool that sort of works, it still has limitations. The world’s problems are not going to be solved by the ability to train programs to “sit” and “stay” and “speak” and “find the ball”, we’ve got to think bigger than that to the commands we didn’t know we wanted.

LTUX: From Fire Fighter to Fire Starter

Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to speak at the San Francisco chapter of Ladies that UX. The audience was engaged and asked tough questions, so I think maybe I did a decent job 😉

Download the presentation PDF.

My talk was centered on a client project at EchoUser. The financial software company engaged us to increase the impact of the UX team. Originally, we planned to do that through doing on-the-ground work and modeling good UX process for the rest of the organization. What we learned instead was that this complex organism needed a overhaul of their collaboration, process and relationships to stakeholders.

I fundamentally believe that the way to make impact through design is to utilize empathy to understand the “real” picture of your organization, followed by collaboration that rallies teams together around the existing opportunities and where they want to go. These two forces create an energy and magic that creates a flame of new ways of working.

The audience laughed at my jokes, groaned when I talked about the stuff we all hate, and nodded when what I said resonated. They also had some questions about finding advocates (A: be empathetic, be human, be dedicated), ways to keep the work going (A: artifacts and making them public) and how to carry the torch internally (A: you’ve have trust that a consultant has to earn, so leverage that).

I feel great this day after because I genuinely enjoyed my time with this group of ladies (and men!). A friend texted me on her ride home last night and said, “You made me remember why I’m in design/research again 😊 ”

To that, I say, mission accomplished!

5 Tips for Planning a Great Design Sprint Workshop

I got into design because I love tackling design problems. But, working on my own isn’t nearly as fun as working with others. At EchoUser, my colleagues and I commonly lead workshops with clients to supercharge the design process and bring teams together. It’s a great way to kick-off design work, learn new design techniques and engage in research findings.

In this post, I’m sharing some of EchoUser’s favorite tips for preparing for a design workshop. Behind every tip, there’s a story of an EchoUser learning it the hard way. ;)

 Presenting a service blueprint in preparation for brainstorming activities

Presenting a service blueprint in preparation for brainstorming activities

Tip 1: Set the right expectations

One of the greatest values of the workshop format is that it gives people a chance to try out new ways of thinking and doing. As valuable as design workshops and sprints are, the ideas that result aren’t final, fully-fleshed out solutions. Instead they serve as instigators for future work and exploration; it’s important to communicate that during the planning phase and workshop day. Be explicit about what the group is doing and what they’re going to get out of it.

Joanne Wong, senior experience designer, summarized this best when she said, “The process is as important (or actually more important) than the solution. I found that a lot of people were really focused on the solution. We always had to reel them back in to understand that the discovery phase and the problem space is really important.”

It’s also important that each person or group knows why they are involved — they will be more engaged because they know they are needed. Ideally, leadership is involved as participants who can lead by example but also work with their teammates as peers. I’ve heard of situations where a leader from one company kept walking in and out from the workshop, which may have affected the group dynamic.

 Snippet of a workshop schedule.

Snippet of a workshop schedule.

Tip 2: Build a detailed schedule (and checklist!)

I know how challenging it is to get on everyone’s calendars. So you want to get the most out of the time you have. In the same way that a design project is done when the final deadline approaches, a workshop ends when the time slot is over.

Be sure to discuss the goals and output of the workshop with clients and moderators to determine which activities best fit the goals and time you have.

My colleagues and I like to plan schedules at 5-minute increments and include everything: introductions, activities and breaks. It helps us know if we’re on track to finish all we hoped to accomplish. Focus on how long activities will take and use timers; otherwise, “it’s very tempting to give people more time,” says Laura Chang, director of EchoUser East.

Along with managing the schedule, make sure to prepare a checklist with materials, space and food. You don’t want to forget markers or extra sketching paper! It’s a small detail, but checklists help you make sure you don’t forget to ask about details like dietary needs before ordering lunch.

Tip 3: Prioritize your schedule, and choose the first things to go

Detailed schedules are great, in theory. But, I’ve learned that no matter what, I have to plan for an seemingly inevitable reality of a late start or change of plans. Maybe a key participant is leaving early to catch a flight, or a conversation gets completely derailed and goes on twice as long.

Plan in advance for what activities can be adjusted, shortened or removed. That way, when (not if) you have to adapt the session, you already have a game plan and don’t have to think that much the day of. It’s like designing a product, you shoot for the ideal but have to make trade-offs to get to release.

“We’ve definitely fallen off of the schedule many times; one workshop was an hour behind on the first day. However, the detailed schedule allowed for us to see what we should cut out and allowed us to shuffle things around,” says Joanne Wong, senior experience designer.

Tip 4: Don’t moderate alone

Even if you’ve got an exact schedule and you’ve done your best to streamline the day, don’t think you can do it alone. Throughout the workshop, you need to be documenting activities with photos, capturing notes and guiding teams through unfamiliar activities, all while keeping an eye on the time and gauging the mood of the room. That’s a lot of work for 1 person.

Since EchoUser workshops often have full group and small group activities, we like to plan for a moderator for every small team of 3–6 participants, with potentially a lead moderator who manages the whole room. During large group activities, moderators serve as presenters, photographers and note-takers. When the small groups take over, the moderators mentor teams in creating artifacts and helping them when they get stuck.

I’ve also found it really valuable at the end of the workshop to have multiple people for debriefing to understand better what was happening in the room.

 Prototyping a workshop game.

Prototyping a workshop game.

Tip 5: Rehearse everything

With every workshop, I try out new methods and agendas tailored the tasks or client. I like to rehearse the format once I have a pretty solid schedule. There’s two ways we’ve done it here at EchoUser: 1) prototype and test activities either as small practice runs, or 2) run a brief, sped-up version of the entire workshop.

With a new activity, I like to prototype it with some colleagues to test out the timing, instructions and solicit general feedback. As a result, I can decide whether it makes sense in the agenda, needs better focus on workshop goals or needs to be streamlined.

I’ve also worked with colleagues who have run full workshop dry runs. Working through the agenda at a speedy pace, moderators critique the flow or timing. This also is a good time to practice presentations to make sure they fit in the time you’ve allotted for them, or to adjust your agenda to fit your presentation length.

Planning workshops gets easier as you have more formats and practice under your belt. Next time, I’ll share 5 more tips on executing a great design workshop on the day of.