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Why don’t design students coming out of school know about responsive design or creating mobile apps? Why are our self-taught hackers and C.S. grads having a tough time keeping up with the pace of technology innovation?
It’s not that schools or professional development programs are slow to adapt; it’s more complicated than that. But our tendency to focus on skills alone just isn’t sustainable. Instead, we need to start investing in the ways we create designers and fuel their growth.
Doing just that takes a combination of practical education, soft-skill development, and a commitment to lifelong learning. And in this talk, Jared Spool will dig into all three so you can be a part of developing the next generation of designers.
Jared Spool: Let’s talk about designing designers. And to do that– many of you, if you’ve attended some of our other events, may have met a lovely woman, Kim Goodwin, who’s probably one of the best interaction designers, design managers, I’ve ever met. She works at a company called Patients Like Me.
They do sort of a really interesting variation on a social network for people who have chronic illness that allows all these folks to talk about what’s going on with their condition, and at the same time provide information that doctors and drug companies and researchers can use to figure out– their datasets are actually more complete and more accurate and faster than most clinical trials. They can find out things about drug interactions in a way that nobody else can.
And the design team as she’s assembled is really top notch. But it’s really hard for her to find designers. And we were talking about this, and she told me about the test she uses in her interviews. And the test that she uses in her interviews sort of looks like this.
Basically, she’ll give them this rough drawing of a really messy, poorly designed contact form that breaks all the rules. And she’ll say to the design candidate, she’ll say what would you do to make this better? So what would you do to make this better, right? Think about it for a second.
Turns out that a good designer will go and sort of straighten up all the fields and make everything aligned and put the labels all in consistent places and get the order of everything right. But in Kim’s mind, a better designer might actually go and actually eliminate some of the fields, do things like make the address field free form and let the computer parse out the address instead of requiring the user to break it into street and zip code and state and city.
But most interestingly, in Kim’s mind, the best designer will just say, why do we need to get this information from the user? What are we going to do with it? Do we already have this information? Is it possible that they’ve already given it to us someplace else? Do we need to ask them for it again? They won’t actually draw anything. They’ll just ask questions about the bigger picture.
When she told me this, it immediately reminded me of an old joke. In fact, it’s an old light bulb joke. How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer was, why does it have to be a light bulb?
And actually, a big fan of light bulb jokes, how many support people does it take to change a light bulb? Our light bulb here is working fine. Have you turned it off and on again?
Or, how many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb? Change? I’m not changing crap. This is bullshit. Who said we had to change it? How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb? 645.5. That’s the Dewey Decimal number for lighting fixtures.
How many developers does it take to change a light bulb? None. It’s a hardware problem. Actually, in doing a little research, I discovered that this is the best thing of all, that Wikipedia has an entry on light bulb jokes.
This idea of how many designers does it take to change a light bulb. Why does it have to be a light bulb? This is really sort of a brilliant insight because that’s really sort of the way we think about design at its peak. But there are a lot of designers who will sort of go straight to the design patterns. They will think about design in terms of the patterns that we’ve established.
And there are a lot of us now who are starting to think about, well, what can the technology do for us? How can we take advantage of all these sensors and things that are built into our technology and all the processing power that we have available to us? So we can use that. Or we can focus on the whole bigger experience. We can think about what is this thing fitting into? How does it fit into what we’re doing?
And these three things, this is basically a maturity ladder that we go through as we’re learning how to be a great designer. We start to think in these terms. We start with the patterns, which is all about best practices. We then start to understand the technology, which is really about understanding what the capabilities of the systems we use are. And then we move to that sort of bigger picture scenario.
And I was talking about this with a group of people, and someone in the group just sort of raised their hand and said, well, this is sort of how I figured it out for myself, that there’s this pattern, right? That I sort of learned how to be a designer because I discovered that something existed. You know, I discovered that, wow, information architecture existed, and I went off and learned how to do that.
And then, along the way, I began doing it. And I got good at it. And then I realized that this thing I was doing, it was part of a bigger thing. And so I then went off and learned that bigger thing and then start doing that. Got pretty good at that, until I realized that it was part of an even bigger thing. And that this universe sort of keeps expanding on us, and it keeps getting bigger. We can see this.
When I started in this business, the way you got data into a computer was through a front panel. This was back in the ’70s. This was really sort of the first way you did it. Then we had some novel input devices like light pens, and we got to use punch cards.
And eventually, we got machines that could read keyboards. This was a huge advancement. It took decades to actually get to the point where keyboards were a functional input device. And it took another decade or so before we had the first mouse and the capabilities of it.
This is Doug Engelbart, a guy I had an opportunity to have dinner with once, just brilliant man, invented the thing. Then we got ourselves the touch screens, and then we got ourselves the multi-touch screens with this crazy idea of how you would use multi-touch in a way that no one would ever use it. And then we started realizing that devices we had could do all sorts of things, with their cameras and their capabilities. So we have augmented reality, and now we can talk to our phones.
We can even just package up little plastic wands with all sorts of capabilities. This is the Amazon Dash, a brand new product came out last week, where it has a scanner built in and a voice recognition system. And apparently, you’re just supposed to walk around your house and scan UPC codes and say, get milk. And it basically builds a shopping list. And if you live in one of the cities that has Amazon Fresh, they’ll just deliver it to you the next day. So you just sort of go talking into this thing.
I can’t wait until some five-year-old orders an entire store. LEGOs. More LEGOs. Need more LEGOs. That’s going to happen.
It’s like the guy who bought a car on eBay because his three-year-old was tapping on the phone. Actually bought it. Decided to keep it until the kid is 16.
And now, brain waves, right? We can start moving things with our brain. We have a way of doing this. It’s actually pretty impressive. It’s starting to work. And this is the deal, right? Input has changed. The way that I learned to design for input in the ’60s and ’70s is not at all how we design for input today. It’s a completely different universe. And it’s just getting better all the time, but there’s so much to know about.
And it’s not just the mechanics of the machine. Content strategy. We first started just embedding content directly into our documents. And then we realized, hey, no, we could build some sort of CMS. And we could separate out the presentation from the actual storage of the content in there. And then we realized, oh my god, this content, some of it’s so old, we have to figure out how to retire it.
We have to figure out what its life cycle is. So we had to start thinking about content over time and getting into governance issues and all sorts of things like that. And now, of course, we have multiple devices. So now we have to figure out how do we make sure that the content keeps itself across multiple devices, like Karen’s talking about. And so that’s how we think about content strategy.
We have to change the way we think. We have to change the things we know about, which means we have to have new ways of learning skills. That is why you’re here. That is what we’re doing. But the fact is, is that this is something that we have to fight for. This is something that we have to really beg to come to. This isn’t automatic that we get this refresher. It’s a special thing to be able to come like this.
And that’s not going to work. We cannot create the designers we need if everything is always this special case. We’ve got this ever-expanding universe design, and we are sort of stuck in it trying to constantly catch up with it.
Last week, IBM made a huge announcement. It’s actually probably one of the biggest announcements to happen in the design world, and I haven’t heard anybody talk about it really. But it’s huge. IBM has decided to invest $100 million into putting user experience professionals in their global services team.
Now, IBM last year announced that they were going to hire 600 user experience designers by the end of this year. But those folks were all going into their product development side, their hardware, their software. Global services is their consulting arm. And IBM has decided to add another 1,000 UX designers to that mix.
Right now, in the US, there are– including this– about 25,000 open positions for UX designers. That number is not getting smaller. It’s getting bigger. And we are just not creating enough designers fast enough to meet that demand. And this is huge.
Because now that IBM has announced that their competitive advantage is going to be user experience, all the other big consulting firms– Accenture, McKinsey, Bain– they are all going to get in line, and they too are going to want to have an army of user experience people. Because they’re certainly not going to somehow argue that user experience is just some sort of floppy thing that IBM offers. It’s something real.
So they’re going to have to do this. So the numbers are just going to get bigger. We’re going to have to create even more of these folks. We’re going to need an army of experience designers.
And the thing about experience design is that it’s a hard thing to staff. The interesting thing was that IBM is not talking about having a group of information architects. They’re not talking about having a group of interactions designers. They’re saying experience designers. That’s the vocabulary they use.
And when they think of that, they think of all these different categories. The thing is that it doesn’t stop with these categories of information architecture and interaction design and user research. It gets on to things that are not traditionally considered user experience design, but we deal with every day, like what the technology is like, or how we will have people connect to each other using the systems we have, or how we communicate to our higher ups why what we do actually costs a little bit more to do it, but there’s a return on that investment.
And all of those things have to happen. And in fact, when we’ve talked to hiring managers about what the most important things are for the designers they need to hire, they’ve told us their soft skills, soft skills like storytelling and facilitating and critique and presenting and leadership and professional etiquette and communication skills and collaboration.
So the work that we do is very much a big pile of skills. And we’ve been doing some research lately on how people learn all this stuff. And there are basically two ways that you learn to do design. You learn to do design either at a school or on the job. Though the truth seems to be that even if you go to school– the people we talked to who went to a design school, they tell us that most of what they learn that they use every day, they actually learned after school on the job.
So we have now this crazy nest of skills that we have to pick up constantly. And it’s not easy to be an experience designer, right? We have to take all these things and sort of push it into one thing.
And the funny thing is is that this notion of the experience designer that could do everything, it’s earned this nickname. And the nickname is a unicorn. And the unicorn started as this sort of mythical thing that you couldn’t find, right?
We started talking about it because there are all these ads appearing that said, we want someone who knows how to do information architecture, has five years of interaction design experience, can do their own user research, can write code, and in fact can be a master chef. All of these different things were in the ads.
And we’d look at this. Nobody can do all this stuff. That’s ridiculous. There isn’t anybody who can do it.
Apparently, someone didn’t tell a whole bunch of people, because now there are a whole bunch of people who could do it. They just went out, and they learned how to do it. They just taught themselves one step at a time. In fact, what we noticed was that, as we were doing our research, we got to meet a whole bunch of these people who could do all of those different things.
And while most of the designers we met have some degree of being self-taught– how many people here believe that at least 50% of what you do every day in your job, you learned on your own? OK. It turns out that all the unicorns that we met are completely self-taught. In fact, the schools were sort of discouraging them from going in that direction.
And when we started to interview them and say, well, how did you do this? We actually learned that there’s a process to it. Everybody basically goes through the same thing. So now I’ve been going around explaining to people how they could become a unicorn. I say, look, it’s just five easy steps. And by easy, I mean it’s easy for me to explain. It’s actually not easy to do. But here it is.
Step one, you find a topic that you don’t know anything about, and you go out, and you learn everything you can about it. You read every book. You watch every webinar, virtual seminar. You go to conferences. You just absorb everything you can on that thing. You just take it in.
Then you start to practice. You practice every day. You give it a try. You try it out. You see how it works. You just start doing it.
Then what you do is you deconstruct what other people have done. You start to look at what they’ve done, take it apart, say why did they do it that way? Could I do it that way? What happens if I change it? You start to really tinker with it as an experiment.
At this point, if you’re any good at it, you’re now producing work on a regular basis. So now you can take that work, and you can give it to someone who’s actually ahead of you, really good at this stuff, and you get some feedback from them. And then you learn from that feedback.
And finally, what you do is basically find someone who doesn’t know this and teach it to them. Because you don’t really learn something until you’ve had a chance to teach it. That’s really the point. And suddenly, now you can do a new skill.
You can do visual design or information architecture or something because you’ve gotten to that point of mastery. You keep that up, and you’ll have this whole raft of skills. And all the people we met who are these sort of super unicorns who can do all these things, they all went through this process over and over and over and over again.
But there was another thing that we saw that was part of this. And that was this idea of passion. This is a guy named Sam Hulick. And Sam has, about a year ago, started this blog called Onboarding, or useronboard.com. And the blog is basically these deconstructions of how various products and services get new customers. And he just takes them apart one piece at a time and comments on them.
And it’s actually pretty good stuff. It’s pretty sharp. He has done a really amazing job. And now he’s writing a book on the topic. And he’s getting better at it all the time.
But what’s key when you talk to him is how passionate he is about figuring out what are the best tricks and techniques and methods to getting someone to honestly and earnestly sign up for your service, not because you’ve tricked them into it, but because they really want to, because they really see the value in it. How do you keep all the other cruft that marketing constantly wants to shove into the onboard process out of it so that you can focus on getting people signed up quickly? And then you can talk to them later about it. And that turns out to be really cool. And Sam’s done an amazing job of that.
Another person who is incredibly passionate is Dana Chisnell. She has sort of defined this notion of what’s called now civic design. And her passion has sort of led her on this 10 year journey where she started by putting together some workshops with some coworkers that involved thinking about new types of ballots that were completely inclusive to minorities, to people with disabilities, in all sorts of ways.
And they ended up testing a brand new type of ballot that works for people with low literacy, works for people who have all sorts of disabilities. It runs on anything that supports CSS produces some really good results. And this is getting a lot of attention amongst a group of people who don’t think of themselves as in the design space or doing design work, but in fact, they make decisions every day about how an election is run and how ballots are created and how voting happens. And they are looking at what she’s doing and saying, wow. We have choices. We can actually do something other than what the vendors throw over the wall to us.
And this past year, she was selected to be a part of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, and she actually got to testify in front of the commissioners on what makes voting experiences work. And again, this was all driven by her passion, by her desire, to do this stuff.
Another person who is in the same sort of boat is Leslie Jensen-Inman, who decided that we weren’t educating designers well enough, and went off and got her Ed.D. On this thesis, and actually has done amazing work, including putting together conferences where she’s brought together industry and community and all sorts of folks to talk about how do we actually change education, in particular design education, in order to build this up. And she got all sorts of crazy people to come to these events, like this guy here, Bo Watson, who’s looking straight at us. He’s a state senator. And he was at this event talking about design education with her. And again, this is just passion that drives it. And so this theme of passion was something that we saw quite a bit in the work we’ve done.
I came across this t-shirt design that says, always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn. And that sort of defined what we were seeing, that these what we think are sort of the designers of the future are these sort of unicorns that get to where they go by teaching themselves because they’re passionate about being better designers, about being better at what they do.
I asked my friend Hagan Rivers to send me some designs she was trying to clean up. She’s basically the person companies call when their web-based applications have gotten utterly disastrous to clean up the designs. So she has all these examples of designs. This is a health care insurance company intake form that completely shows what is happening in the database.
Someone obviously just took the database fields and put them in the order they exist in the database with the labels they exist in the database and just surfaced them on the screen. And this is a style of design which we call unintentional design. Unintentional design is when we put something together while we’re focusing on everything but the actual user’s experience. We’re focusing on how the underlying system works.
We’re focusing on the business rules. We’re focusing on the business processes. Almost all those times where you’re saying to yourself, have they ever used this thing? The answer is probably, but that they knew what the underlying database was or knew what the business processes were or knew what the systems were, or they put amazing amounts of work into training people to understand what those things are so that they could create what we call these unintentional designs.
And unintentional designs are sort of the opposite of what we’re trying to do. Because what we do is in essence is rendering intent. We go for intentional, thoughtful, design. Everything we’ve talked about here for the last two days, and what we’ll talk about tomorrow, is how do we make design intentional? How do we make design important to us? And when we do that, and we do that well, we can see amazing benefits.
Westpac, which is one of Australia’s biggest banks, saw this happen to them. They went into their support center– their design team went into their support center– with the intention of just learning what people call for. It turns out no one had ever done this before.
And what they found out, when they went into the support center and listened in on calls, was that a good one third of the calls that came into their online banking support center every day had to do with password resets, issues about resetting passwords. So they decided to go off and try and fix this. Now, at a bank, this is actually not an easy thing to fix. Because the bank has multiple services and multiple servers, and there isn’t really a single password per se. There are different passwords on different things.
So the idea of changing your password actually requires that it get changed in multiple places in order to work. This is the nature of the legacy systems that they deal with. So it took them actually a whole bunch of time and a whole bunch of development effort to make this work. It took them a lot of effort to actually get there.
And when they finally got there, they saw savings of $450,000 in the first month. That was in reduced support calls. You can calculate how much a support call is. You can calculate– basically, you take the size of your support team and the amount of money you spend on salaries and facilities and stuff, and then you divide it by the number of calls the team deals with every month. $450,000 went away when they implemented their new password authentication system that had an ability to change in one place. That turned out to be $7.5 million in a single year, for password resets.
Now, there’s a lot of crazy behind these numbers. Because first, the old system was horrible. The only way you could change your password was by calling the support center. You couldn’t do it online. So that was obviously something that needed fixing. But the fix never came even close to costing $7.5 million to do. So the return on investment for this was huge.
But here’s the thing. This didn’t just require this set of skills to do this. In fact, it didn’t require the whole set of skills just to do this. The people who did this, they had to become experts in authentication.
Because it turns out that bank authentication is a big deal. It’s not something you just want to muck with lightly. And on the one side, you have all these tin hat security people who are completely risk averse to the entire world. That’s their entire job. Oh, and by the way, our government is not making this easier for us. So their job is to just say, no, no, no, no. We shouldn’t even let people have passwords. We should just not let them online.
If you’re a designer working with these people, you come out of these meetings just wondering, how do these people sleep at night? They assume everything is out to get them all the time. So you have these tin hat security people, tin foil hat folks.
And then, on the other side, you want to be creating this great experience. And to do that requires expertise at a level that none of us in this room, or very few of us in this room, have even started to get. You have to become an expert in authorization authentication systems. And this is a specialty. This is a new thing.
In our field, when we talk about specialists, we talk about specialists as being people who are really good at something. But it turns out, that’s not the real definition of being a specialist. A specialist is someone who’s good at one thing above all the other things that they’re actually good at. And a generalist is someone who’s good at a lot of different things.
There’s this myth that there’s this notion of a Jack of all trades, master of none. That if you somehow try to do everything, you couldn’t be good at anything. But that turns out to be a complete myth. The folks who are becoming unicorns, they’re becoming good at everything, possibly even great at a whole bunch of them. And some of them go on to be specialists, to be really good at one thing.
And this is generally how most fields work. Our field’s a little different. We have a third category. We call them compartmentalists.
And compartmentalists are people who are only good at one thing. So they aren’t general experience designers. They are information architects, or they’re interaction designers, or they’re user researchers. And if you ask a user researcher to do visual design, they throw their hands up and say, I can’t do that. I’m a researcher.
And you ask an interaction designer to do user research. They say, well, I could swamp my way through it, but really, you want a user researcher to do this. Don’t ask me.
And this turns out not to work. This idea of being a compartmentalist is problematic. And it’s particularly problematic to the organizations that need us most right now. Because most of them can’t afford to have one of everything and to keep those people busy all the time. So it turns out that generalists are really the most valuable, but this idea of specialist is really key. The compartmentalist? That’s not good.
And I think we’re going to see, over the next few years, that compartmentalists, people who are only good at one thing, are going to find themselves in real career trouble. They’re going to be locked into the positions they have and not be able to move to other organizations to chase some of this demand. Because what people are looking for is this idea of generalists and this new specialism that’s emerging.
And when we think about it, that’s what’s happening. Sam here is actually a specialist in onboarding. He knows more about it than any of us in this room. Dana is a specialist in civic design. Leslie is a specialist in design education. They are all really good designers. They can do pretty much anything in the design field that we need them to do.
But they have this level of specialism that is outside design, that is focused on these new topics. And I think in medicine, in finance, all of these things, we’re going to see this new type of design. So the pattern is that we start by being generalist. And then we layer our specialists on top of that.
But unfortunately, that’s not how our schools are set up right now. Today’s schools have some substantial problems ahead of them. There are not enough of these schools to do the job. Right now, we need 25,000 new designers that aren’t in the world today. And yet, the schools maybe will graduate 500 this year. So we’re way short of what we need.
And they are focused on the old specialties. There are schools that have a heavy concentration of visual design, schools that have a heavy concentration on interaction design, schools that have heavy concentrations in information architecture and user research. Those are the old specialties. So they’re producing folks who don’t quite fall into what we want.
And what we’re seeing is– whoops, I don’t want to do that yet. Where we’re at here is that the schools themselves cannot get the courses right. We’re just now seeing responsive design courses enter schools for the first time in any serious way because it takes three years to get through the accreditation program. In order to get curriculum approved, there’s a three year period. Which means approved curriculum can never be newer than three years old. And in our field, three years seems to be an eternity.
Then there’s the problem of the constraint of a semester. Semesters are this process by which we package all of the classes. They’re often 13, 16 weeks long. And the whole subject has to fit into that space.
And within the semester, we only give those teachers at most about 26 hours of time to teach something. 26 hours isn’t a lot of time. And so students going through these programs are just sort of getting into the topic, and then boom, they move on to something else. The semester thing is very problematic.
When we look at what the semester looks like here, it’s basically this 13 week period thing. And oftentimes, students take five different classes at a time. And in design school, every single one of those classes has some sort of project, and almost always all those projects are due on the same day. Not because that’s the best way to teach design, but because that’s the day the professors have to have their grades in.
So we’re sort of stuck in this mode where the way we think about this, the practice of this, is forced based on the optimization of a school, not because it’s the best way to teach students. And so students are in this position where they have five different courses, and they’re often working on five different projects, all of which are due at the same time. And so at best, they do a surface job. And they come out of this having done these projects.
They take a couple weeks for break, and then they come back with a new semester. And it’s five new courses with five new sets of projects, and they are sort of stuck in this position. And this is how we’ve defined the conventional design school. And the thing is, is that this was not designed because we said, you know, this is the best way to teach people how to learn this craft.
It was designed by dead people. In particular, this dead dude. This is Saint Ignatius. And he founded the Jesuits. And the Jesuits set up a set of colleges, primarily because– I mean, this guy was amazing. He did some stunning stuff. The biggest thing he ever did was he convinced the Pope that the best way to propagate religion was an informed, intelligent community. It’s actually sort of the opposite of what religion is all about today.
But for the most part, this is what he did. He started the Jesuit School of Teaching, and they opened the first colleges, and they created all of this stuff. But that was in 1574. And the basic format of a school has not really changed since then. This idea of semesters and multiple classes and having these different people teach different subjects who don’t really talk to each other, that was not in Saint Ignatius’s vision, but that’s what the schools evolved to, and they’ve been that way now for hundreds of years.
The other important thing to note is that this was in a world where people only lived until their mid 30s. So you went to school when you were in your early 20s, and you graduated from school. You probably had 15 years of your life left. So this was a period that is not the period we live in. And we have not changed the underlying schools.
The end result is we’ve got something– the focus is way more on academics than on craft. Now, academics is fine. Academics is important. But academics was created by Saint Ignatius and his followers to create other teachers, to create people to go into the world.
The Jesuits were always big on the sciences, so they were always about using academics to explore the sciences. So this idea that we use research in schools to figure out what the state of the art is, that’s great. But that’s a very slow, long process. And it was designed for sciences like physics, where the universe isn’t changing that quickly. It wasn’t designed for technology that moves at a huge pace. I think academics is really important, but it’s not necessarily the best way to teach craft. What we do is craft.
Though cool things get published in papers, like this paper on the folklore behind light bulb jokes that appeared in the Journal of Western Folklore. One of the things I liked best about that Wikipedia entry is it had citations to stuff like this. How many academic professors does it take to change a light bulb? One, but they’ll get three papers out of it. That’s what it’s about.
And the schools, they’re very good at focusing on theory. And we have some good, solid theory. And understanding theory is really important. But the craft in practice that we do, that too is really key. And so we have to think about theory and craft, theory and practice.
There’s an old saying, which is, in theory, theory and practice are always the same. But in practice, they hardly ever work out to be that way. And it isn’t until you actually get out there and you start doing the work that you start to see what we actually do, how we actually do it.
So what can we do about this? What is it that we need to start thinking about? It turns out we don’t have to invent anything new in education. This isn’t about coming up with some new technology or coming up with something. Turns out that there are other fields that are really good at this.
One of the other fields that’s really good at this is medical education. Medical education combines theory and craft in a really interesting way. Medicine, we don’t like to think of medicine as a craft, but you know what? It’s serious craft work. It’s craft work because it’s all about constantly getting better. It’s all about improving your skill. It’s all about understanding and refining and really mastering what you do.
And the entire education system for medical education is designed around this. We start with pre-med, a four year program that only students who are the best and brightest, who show aptitude to become doctors, can get into this. And when they graduate, they’re not any closer to being a doctor than they were when they started. Then they go to medical school, another multi-year program, that teaches them rudiments and basics and fills up their brains with a ton of stuff about medicine.
And then they’ll go off during that period and do internships, often multiple internships, in order to see what the craft is like. So they’ve already gotten the theory and the foundations, and now they’re really learning the craft. But they don’t stop learning the theory and foundations. That continues at the same time.
And then they join residencies, often a two-year program where you rotate through different specialties, not to actually become a specialist, but to be able to understand and learn what the specialists do and to be able to work with those specialists at such time that you have to. And then, if you’re so inclined, you go for a fellowship, which is another multi-year program where you actually are assigned a leading mentor, and they actually teach you some of the more really nuanced and subtle elements of the craft.
So here we have this multi-year process to becoming a doctor. But we don’t have that in design education. In design education, you show up. Sometimes you have to have a portfolio to get into the program, but oftentimes you don’t. And two years, four years later, you’re a designer. And you go off, and you now can do design. And then we’re wondering why the hiring managers are not happy with the crop of students coming out of these programs.
Maybe the programs are not structured right. Maybe we have not designed them well. Maybe this is not what we intended for design education. Maybe what we’ve done is created an education system that is in fact unintentional design. We focused on the mechanics of it. We focused on the business of it. And we forgot what we were trying to do. We forgot the experience of what we’re trying to Do
One of the places where we’ve really fallen short is this idea of practice. If you watch professional athletes on their day-to-day work, they spend a lot of time practicing. Baseball players spend two to three hours every day just hitting balls in the batting cage for two or three hours. They just go in, and they just keep hitting balls over and over and over again.
They’re not learning anything new per se. They’re just doing things they already know how to do. The highest paid baseball players go out and hit balls for two or three hours a day in between injections. Professional musicians spend their days between concerts practicing, going over scales, going over rudiments, just doing the things they’ve done since they were little kids. Practicing over and over and over again.
This idea of practice actually comes from another thing that came out of the– we can look at it through this lens of another thing that came out of the medical profession, which is the medical profession was trying to figure out why sometimes the world’s best surgeons make the world’s crappiest teachers of surgery. They were trying to understand what that was.
And it wasn’t just that great surgeons are somehow so arrogant they can’t belittle themselves to teach. Some of them actually wanted to teach a lot. But there was a problem. So a bunch of researchers went and studied how this worked. And they came up with this interesting model.
The way the model works is that whenever we learn anything, the first place we start is at a state called unconscious incompetence. And unconscious incompetence is when we actually don’t know what we’re doing, but we don’t know we don’t know what we’re doing. You’ve probably seen this with anybody you know who thinks they’re a good cook, but they’re not. They work in the kitchen. They produce this thing. They say, here. And you’re just like, ugh, OK, I’ll try it. And those are people who are unconsciously incompetent.
Now, if that person has a really good friend who takes them aside and explains to them that the thing they’re cooking isn’t very good, they suddenly become consciously incompetent. They now know that they’re not good at this thing. And here’s the deal. When you’re unconsciously incompetent, you’re a very happy person. You’re making all this great stuff. You’re doing all these great things. And you think you’re doing awesome.
But conscious incompetence, that’s a very depressing place to be. That’s really sad. And in terms of doctors, neither of these are the people you want to be your medical team.
But it turns out that this is the process that medical students go through. They come out of the best and brightest pre-med programs. They even come out of the best medical schools, and they think they’re good at what they do. And then they get into their residency, and they realize they’re not very good at all, and they sort of go through this amazing thing.
And actually, one of the hardest things in medical school and residency programs is to keep the students who have potential from dropping out when they make this transition because it is so depressing to realize that you’re consciously incompetent. At such time, all your life, you’ve been told you’re the best and brightest. So this turns out to be a real issue.
But if they make it, they work their way up to conscious competence. And conscious competence is when they actually know how to do the stuff they’re going to do, but they have to pay attention to every little thing they do. And then finally, they make their way to unconscious competence. And unconscious competence is when they can do things without thinking about it.
You’ve ever worked with someone who’s just amazing at their craft. They just do stuff. And you say, how did you do that? And they say, I don’t know. I just did it. I’ve just been doing it for a long time. I just did it. And that’s unconscious competence.
And here was the thing that the researchers discovered, was that surgeons that were really unconsciously competent made bad instructors. Because in order to be a good instructor, you actually have to remember what it was like to be consciously competent. You have to remember how things broke down into little pieces.
And the best surgeons, who were unconsciously competent, were like, I don’t know. Can’t you see the problem? I mean, that’s wrong. Why is it wrong? It’s wrong. That’s unconscious competence. And they could be completely right, but the problem is they can’t communicate. So they don’t make good instructors.
But there’s another piece of this that’s really interesting, which is that we can think of these transitions in a different way. When we’re moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, we’re basically becoming more literate. We’re learning what it is.
We’re learning the difference between good design and bad design. We’re learning words that describe good design and bad design, like maybe consistency or flow or alignment or grid. And we’re learning what these things mean.
And then, when we move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence, there we’re talking about being fluent in the things that we do. And when we move from conscious competence to unconscious competence, that’s what we call mastery. And mastery is really sort of that level of craftsmanship that we are trying to achieve. And when we’re practicing, what we’re trying to do with practice is move through these different stages.
The concert pianist or violinist who is performing at the top gig all year, getting paid the most of any violinist on the planet, they’re focused on mastery. The people who are coming out of the great music schools trying to get into the concert, they’re focused on fluency/ And the students getting into those schools are focused on literacy.
But each one of these things, each of these processes, is key. We have to go through these steps. And in our practice, we need language to talk about it. We need to actually become consciously competent at putting together ways for us to learn how this is done. I think many of our organizations are unconsciously incompetent about our internal training processes. And so we need to think in terms of Practice
Now, here’s one of the saddest things that came up when we were starting to look at this. If you want to be a professional violinist playing in the world’s best orchestras and symphonies, you don’t show up at music school never having touched a violin. You pick up the violin at a very young age, and you start practicing. And so by the time you get to school, you’ve got a decade or more, probably way more, of practice under your belt.
If you want to be a professional athlete, you don’t show up to a school that’s going to put you in that place without ever having played sports before. That doesn’t happen. You spend most of your childhood playing sports. And you do drills, and you do rudiments, and you play scales. And all of these things happen. We need to figure out what those things are in our profession. We need to understand what is our equivalent of rudiments and skills.
So we’re going around, and we’re talking to all sorts of folks about design education. And we run into the alarm clock. The alarm clock seems to be the student project of choice. Everyone’s about designing alarm clocks. We’ve got this one with these crazy buttons.
We’ve got this one with everything really well labeled. We’ve got this one that you actually program from your phone. We’ve got all of these over here. I don’t even know what they do. Crazy alarm clocks.
My favorite one was a sustainable alarm clock for the homeless. I don’t know why the homeless need alarm clocks, and I’m sure they’re not that concerned about the environment, but maybe it’ll sell. Alarm clocks seem to be the big deal. Everybody builds an alarm clock for their student project. OK, this one’s sort of cool.
But here’s the deal. It’s a real problem, but it’s not a problem that most of us ever will need someone to have skills in in the work that they do. So why does every design school have alarm clock projects? This was the sort of mystery for me.
And when we were really got into it, and we were doing our research, we realized that what was happening was that it was a limit of the way the school was structured. Turns out that when we talk to professors, the best professors can do is expect that in a semester, the students will be able to put 30 hours towards a project.
And in fact, one of the things that kept coming up was professors saying that their students were getting kickback from other professors because the students were working on their project and not somebody else’s project. Because they had five projects going at the same time, 30 hours that they were expecting for each. They were actually being asked to reduce the number of hours that the students worked on projects.
Now, think about your work. Think about this idea of 30 hours. We have a technical name for 30 hours of a project. We call it Thursday. We don’t even get through an entire week in under 30 hours. So we have projects that go on for months, thousands of hours. Yet the students at best, in the best conditions, they are done after 30 hours. We want students who know how to do things well, who can in essence make really good judgments.
And there’s a saying for that too. Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgements. That’s how we’ve all learned stuff. And the reality is that if you don’t work enough time, you won’t be able to have enough bad judgments to understand what the best judgments were to come out of that. So we need to think in terms of how do we structure school to be able to make this work.
Again, we can actually look to other fields. Health care does this very well. They have this idea of the teaching hospital. And the teaching hospital is a place where med students start, and then they do their internships, and then they do their residency. So they spend a lot of time in the hospital.
And at each stage, they’re getting closer and closer to the craft, but at each stage, they’re also getting a lot of experience. They’re seeing real world situations. And this isn’t just a short, six month internship. This is multiple years in the same place. And they’re working their way through the process.
And they’re learning how the different doctors approach the problem. They’re seeing the edge conditions, the special cases. They’re seeing all the things that happen. They are being asked to make judgments, and then they are being told that those were bad judgments, and then they are being corrected, and they’re given a chance to make good judgment. And so this is the process.
So if we were going to design something like this, what would be the design equivalent of a teaching hospital? How would we create that? And this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot.
But it isn’t just a teaching hospital. There’s another element to the way they do this. There’s this notion of grand rounds. Grand rounds is a specific type of stand up meeting that happens in the context of where the problem’s occurring. The doctors, the medical students, the residents, all travel from hospital room to hospital room, reviewing cases, meeting the patients, talking with them.
And in the teaching hospital, the way it works is that the medical students are asked to make decisions of diagnoses, and then the more senior people who are in the room at the same time actually say what they would do. And the students learn in this process. So what would be our equivalent of grand rounds? How do we create an environment where we have that constant feedback in the real context of the work?
And then there’s the attending physician. The attending physician is an interesting position. They’re basically a professor in the hospital. So their job, their purpose, is to basically press pause on what’s happening in the hospital and say, let’s talk about what we’ve learned here. They are looking out for the education of the students and the residents in the process of doing the work. So who would be the attending physicians that we would have in our workplace?
So this idea of creating these contexts, of creating these elements, is really interesting to us. So we’ve started to think about how do we create this. You may have heard that we had a Kickstarter project earlier this year for something called the Unicorn Institute. This was a project. It’s a collaboration between me and Leslie Jensen-Inman to look at what would it take to answer some of these questions.
And we came up with an understanding of how to do it by doing this research and asking these questions. And what we’ve done is we’ve created this experience-based learning process that uses basics from professional music schools, from professional sports training, and from medical training, to actually change the way we do design. It’s basically a two-year program where students work 75% on project work, most of which are not projects they will get to pick. They will be projects that are assigned to them.
But one of the most important interesting features of this is a job position which we officially refer to as the facilitator. Facilitator is the full time faculty. They are, in essence, our attending physician. They are a trained person in the field. They have project leadership skills. They’ve probably been a creative director in their past life. They understand what design is about, and they have practice.
So they’re going to actually lead the projects the students are on, but not in the traditional way. Because in a traditional way, a project leader’s job is to– if the project starts to go south– intercept it and say, no, no, no. We’re going in the wrong direction. We need to go right. Our facilitators, their job is to actually make the call. Do I let the students go in the wrong direction for a while, or do I stop them?
It’s a really hard thing to do. But the most interesting thing, I think, about the facilitator’s position is that they will have the ability to press pause. Because they will be with the students every day. They’ll have 12 students in their charge, each one.
They will press pause, and they’ll say, hey, remember what we learned about typography? Let’s look at what you’ve done here, and let’s compare the theory of typography to the craft that you’ve used so far. And let’s apply what we learned in theory to improve the craft we have.
Remember what we said about designing for multiple channels? You’ve been focused on just this one tablet. What will this look like on a desktop? What will it look like on the phone? Let’s have that. So they press pause in the project, and they have this learning moment. And this could be for five minutes, or it could be for two hours.
But then they get to press play again and let the project continue. And the students are basically in the same sort of idea of a teaching hospital with rounds and an attending physician. And all of this came about because we had the realization that maybe a design school is not really about learning design, that maybe a design school is about learning how to learn about design.
So by combining these notions of medicine and music and sports and things, we learned something. That the education institutes students that are very good at this, they’re basically maker academies. They are schools that produce makers. And that is a mindset that I think if we can somehow get into the educational institutions that we’re trying to recruit from, that we want students who are makers. Because makers have to work on fluency and mastery in addition to just literacy. That, in fact, that could possibly work for us.
But we also have to change our workplace. The workplace that we’re in needs to have a new sort of thought model behind it. First, we have to be ready to accept the idea that learning has to exist in our workplace. It’s not something we do before we get to the job.
We don’t stop learning on graduation day. In our craft, it’s always about learning. So we have to build a culture that not only accepts that we’re always learning, but that actually encourages it.
So here’s the thing. Because there’s such great demand in our work right now, many of us in this room are going to be management within a few years. We’re going to be managing this new group of designers that are coming in. And many of us are going to make it into senior levels of our organizations.
And in a lot of those organizations, they’re going to see that design is actually a competitive advantage. Because that’s happening more and more everywhere. So that means that many of us are going to be in a position where we can infuse our cultures with learning. And we need to learn how to do the baby steps that get us there now.
One way to do that is to figure out how we start to build practice into our weekly routine. What is our equivalent of getting into the batting cage and hitting balls? Do we have time set aside for every one of the professionals in our charge to practice our craft? Can we share this?
This is more than just brown bag lunches. This might be getting together and sketching. This might be holding mock usability tests. This might be doing critiques on a regular basis that focus not just on, are the fonts ugly or not, but in fact, how did we get to the choices we did? And what is the process we used? And how can we improve our process? So to look at all those things.
And we need to sit down and apply design skills to the way we learn design. And there are tricks to this, right? Here’s an example. We know that there’s all sorts of social effects. When you start to publish things publicly, people see them, and they become envious of it, and they want to do that too.
There’s no better evidence of this when we start to see people doing these amazing sketch notes. Because I don’t know about you, but every time I see someone put out a sketch note of some talk, I’m like, oh, I so wish I could do that. I really wish I could.
And the fact is, if you talk to any of these people who are doing these sketch notes, 9 times out of 10, they’re people who learned how to do it in the last year. And 9 times out of 10, they taught themselves. And the way they taught themselves is through those steps of becoming a unicorn.
First, they figured out how to do it. They read everything they could. Then they started practicing over and over and over again. They went from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence. They just kept doing it, and they ended up with something amazing when they were done.
We can do this too. This is a design effect. So we start publishing what we’re doing. We start publishing our process. We start showing the world what we can do. And we’ll make other people envious of what we’re doing, and we’ll get to see what they’re doing, and we’ll be envious of that, and we’ll want to improve ourselves.
And we’ll get the passion. We’ll make it work. And we’ll infuse the passion into those we work with because we reveal our process. We can do this. It’s easy. With the fact that it’s really hard. But it’s easy to think about. It’s really hard to do. But that’s cool. We like that. That’s what designers deal with every day.
Other things. We know that when something gets measured, people pay attention to it. There’s an old organizational maxim, what gets measured gets done. And what gets rewarded gets done well. So when we get into our positions of management, let’s start to figure out ways to reward this behavior, to reward training, practicing, learning. Because that will get it done well.
So this is what I came to talk to you about today. We are in this ever-expanding universe. We need to figure out how we’re going to keep up, not just for ourselves, but for the designers that are coming in after us. So we have to think about the education system we have.
We have to think about how we fuel the passion that allows us to produce these unicorns that exist in the world and to actually become the great designers that we need. We have to understand this notion that generalism is not a bad thing, not something that should be shunned, but in fact is the basis of what we do. And that there are all these new specialties that are going to come about, and that we have to see how that works.
And finally, we have to understand that our learning of design doesn’t stop on graduation day, that we have to actually continue it. We have to be lifelong learners. And since our lives are hopefully getting longer, that’s a long time that we have to build institutions to do this.
Now, if you’re the least bit interested in the school that Leslie and I are creating, it’s called Center Centre. The nickname was the Unicorn Institute. Before we were authorized by the state of Tennessee, we weren’t allowed to advertise. So we just called it the Unicorn Institute for that period.
But here we are. Center Centre. You can learn about it at the website. And we’re actually hiring our facilitators who’ve earned the nickname of unicorn wranglers. And so please look at that. And also, if you’re interested in all of this stuff that I talk about, I write a lot about this at uie.com, which you probably get in your email on a regular basis.
If we’re not connected on LinkedIn, I would like to be connected to you on LinkedIn because I found this is a great way to keep track of folks. I was very pleased the other day when my friend Joe Kilby endorsed me on LinkedIn. Endorsing is sort of this game of whack-a-mole, right? Yes. Bump, bump, bump, bump. But he endorsed me for dirty deeds done dirt cheap. And that’s like my proudest endorsement.
So please connect with me on LinkedIn. And finally, if you want, you can follow me– if you’re inclined to do these things– you can follow me on the Twitters, where I talk about design, design practice, design strategy, design education, and also the amazing techniques that the airline industry uses for customer service. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for encouraging my behavior, and enjoy the reception.
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