Where am I in terms of design?

I’m working on learning more about design. I don’t think about it all the time, but sometimes I check out design blogs like Little Big Details and CSS Tricks. I’m getting the hang of sketching several variants instead of jumping straight into the first idea I have, and sometimes I even show those wireframes to other people before coding it up.

Someone asked me where I’d rate myself on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s hard to do that without thinking about what 1 and 10 are and what’s in the middle. Besides, I know that the scale will keep shifting anyway. I’ll never ever get to 10, and this is good. There’s always more to learn.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. Which, on reflection, might be overstating it. Sometimes I feel like I’m still throwing everything in including the kitchen sink. But at least this gives me a map, a You Are Here, and more usefully, a sense of what the next step on the path might be.

2014-11-29 Where am I in terms of design

There are at least three components to this, I think. TECHNICAL SKILLS–the CSS and Javascript, the code and the fiddly bits–that’s actually the smallest part, and probably the easiest. I’m not too worried about that. I can learn it when I need to, following the tutorials that other people have written. For the few things that aren’t covered by Javascript polyfills and StackOverflow answers, I can use trial-and-error to bodge my way through (at least until I understand things better).

DESIGN SENSE–now that’s tough. I can read all the usability books I want. I can study the key principles of visual hierarchy or grouping. I can take a master’s degree in human-computer interaction. (Wait, I did!) I know I’m supposed to keep the end users in mind, either by talking to people directly or by keeping personas in front of me. I know I’m supposed to keep things simple and discoverable, with affordances that encourage you to use things in the right way.

I can mostly find my way down well-worn roads. (Want a real-time status update visualization? A mosaic of news items on the front page? A multiple choice survey? Gotcha.) I am often asked to come up with something new, though. Sometimes it’s just new to the group, so we figure out what people want after a little back-and-forth. Sometimes it’s new to me, and I have to do some research. Sometimes, I suspect, I’m trying to come up with something a little new to everyone. Or at least it requires a lot more translation to find something familiar to draw on.

But there’s still so much more to learn before I can confidently sift through conflicting feedback, before I can guide people from vague ideas to that flash of recognition: “Ah, yes, this is what I wanted.”

I don’t know if it’s just a matter of experience. I’ve worked with designers on web projects and I’ve disagreed with them. (Gradients? Really? And you want that to do what?) I’ve also worked with designers I got along really well with, especially the ones who weren’t coming from a print background and who knew the difference between what looked flashy and what was easier to do on the Web.

So. Design sense. This is the part that intrigues me the most. I’m working on developing opinions. It’s not just about memorizing a bunch of principles or applying the latest fads (from skeumorphic to flat, from static to parallax, etc.). I think it involves being able to see, understand, and recommend. Browsing through design blogs doesn’t really help me with this. I have to slow down and think about why something works, why it doesn’t, what other variants I might try, why I like something or another. And then, beyond opinion, there’s also measurement: revealed preferences often go against what we think we want.

This is where WORKFLOW comes in. I’ve been working on resisting the temptation to jump in and start coding things right away. Instead, wireframing possible designs means I can play around with how something looks and behaves, changing it with less friction. (It also means I can turn ideas over to team members in case they want to use that for development practice.) Getting the hang of wireframing will also help me try different variations while being less invested in them.

Research can help me quickly find different types of the same idea, so I can broaden my horizons. For example, looking at a few support communities (Adobe, Apple, and Skype) gave me a better sense of what I liked about each of them and why.

My main challenges for design and workflow are:

  • How can I apply what I’m learning within the constraints that I have? For example, it’s one thing to know that testing is good. It’s another to think about how I might do A/B testing without proper analytics and without hundreds of thousands of views.
  • In the absence of stronger metrics, how can I work with conflicting feedback? Can I get better at generating different variants to help people find something they agree on? Can I get faster at working with low-fidelity prototypes or in-browser code?
  • How can I recognize familiar aspects in new ideas, and get better at cobbling together well-tested ideas from different places? Hmm. Come to think of it, it’s a little like those Master Builders in the LEGO Movie, isn’t it? There’s something about that ability to look at something and say, “Oh, that looks unfamiliar, but it’s really like A and B and C.” I do this kind of connecting-the-dots outside design. I can learn how to do it here too. (Analogies are another way to practise this. =) )

I’ll probably be able to get the hang of the tech along the way, so I’m not worried about it.

I think this will help me learn the kind of design I want. I’m not really interested in the kind of design that involves following fairly well-sorted out paths making snazzy websites for other people, like WordPress theme customization or development or things like that. I can pick that up if I need to, probably.

I’m more curious about getting better at designing new(ish) things, the kind where I can’t just pick a few sites for design inspiration, the kind where I’m making something I haven’t seen before and I have to decide what to show and how it behaves.

Oh! Here is another version of that sketch, in case you want to fill it in yourself. =)

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