DE / 2023

3 things that have helped me become a better designer

December 2021
Work notes

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Earlier this fall, my friend and ex-colleague, Marcus asked me to speak with designers at the Digital Product School, where he heads Interaction Design. They wanted me to share learnings about product, design, and research.

There are many things that I’ve learned over the past decade. It’s difficult to distill all those learnings to a few actionable insights that can be succinctly shared, in the hope to add value to someone’s journey. But this was a great opportunity to reflect and give it a try.

I’ve further distilled the insights I shared with designers at the Digital Product School to just three. To make the cut, (1) I put myself in my 22-year-old self’s shoes — just starting, idealistic, energetic, ambitious, clueless, naive, and wondered what would have been helpful to know, and (2) I reflected on things that have stayed true in about a decade of practicing design and have been applicable in a variety of environments.

Address the problem, not a problem.

I’ve often questioned the way we prioritize the opportunities that we’ve found in a typical design sprint or design thinking workshop. More often than not, the participants in the room vote for the opportunity they think is the strongest, and the one with the most votes will be explored further. 

I’ve seen this approach lead to solutions that might do well in a user testing session but fail to see any traction upon launch. The team is then baffled as to why that is.

It’s helpful to remember that our target audience has many problems, and typically no two problems take the same amount of mind-space. It’s important to gain a clear understanding of the hierarchy of problems so we’re solving the one that really hurts, instead of a problem that exists (as validated in user testing) but might not be big enough to warrant a change of behavior or worth the amount that our product costs (as proven at our product’s launch).

This Twitter thread by Shreyas Doshi does a fantastic job of explaining this phenomenon.

Start with stories, not screens.

At IDEO, I learned to start designing an experience by first writing a story from the point of view of the protagonist (the user). I did this in Google Sheets — each step of the story taking up a cell. The story needed to describe the environments the protagonist might be in, the situations they might find themselves in, the feelings they might have, the people they might interact with, and finally the technology they might interface with. The story also needed a narrative arc — typically following the usual context, conflict, climax, and resolution structure. Read more about common story structures here.

This helps immensely in thinking about the overall experience of the person using our product or service beyond the digital interface. Stories require us to establish context and draw cause and effect between what’s happening in the product and what’s happening in real life. It also forces us to acknowledge that our product is a miniscule part of someone’s life — pushing us to think real hard about the value we’re going to create for that person, and why they should care about it before focusing on everything else. I find that once the story starts to feel good, it gets much easier to line up the pixels.

A well-known example of this is Airbnb’s Snow White experience journey which helped Airbnb orient all its teams towards delivering a great end-to-end physical and digital experience for their guests and hosts.

Take ownership.

This mantra goes well beyond the realms of design. I’ve understood that it applies to most things in life. Taking ownership of a given problem or situation means that we care deeply. We care deeply enough to punch beyond our weight, to go the extra mile, and to do what it takes to address the problem although it might not be part of our job description and not expected of us. This mindset nudges us to think like a founder with high stakes rather than someone who’s paid to do a job.

I’ve found that this is the only way I can operate at a high level. There is very little chance of success if I’m doing something because I have to, and feel little ownership of it. There are many talented people out there, but this mindset is the stuff that good leaders are made of. This is also why companies where leadership sets a clear vision and teams have ownership in how to get there are most successful in the modern era.

Taking ownership requires a high degree of focus, both to address the problems successfully (which often require more patience than one might think) and for the sake of our mental health. It’s important to make sure we’re highly selective of the things that we want to take ownership of. 

And design at its roots is about care. So it’s no wonder that taking ownership comes naturally to good designers.

Here’s a fantastic conversation from The Naval Podcast on the Principal-Agent Problem that I would highly recommend listening to.