November 4, 2019No Comments

Perception of Value

If you want to be a successful designer, get ready to demonstrate your value and why you deserve a seat at the table, your entire life.

Over three years ago, I started working with a client that didn't want design. There were many times when I questioned why my job is necessary. Design is the understaffed underdog. While the company quickly staffed up more developers, designers are under the constant shortage of asking for more headcount.

Even though it's clear that designers were in demand, and the client is pleased with the work quality, the business had its reasons not to supply that demand. One of the reasons, I believe, that attributed to that was design did not demonstrate our worth in a way the client understood us. I'd presumed people cared about design, but never set my frame of mind that people may not care enough to understand.

In this product and feature-driven company, designers could be seen as the bottleneck and blocker from releasing. The amount of time designers spend going through all the iterations deserves to be in the final product. At the same time, designers need to know when to get out of the way.

Designers love to claim the idea that they are the most empathetic and understand the users more than anybody. We don't. It's impossible for a single human being to understand every type of user and anticipate their actions. This is why you need groups of people with different backgrounds, so the intersection of differing opinions is how great ideas are created and how things improve. The more you know, the less you know. It's the law of being an idiot.

Don't get me wrong. I love working in a small team of designers, and much prefer it that way. In the past six months, I had succeeded in getting the verbal ok to create a tool that would benefit everyone, but it took so much longer than I'd hope. Even though the wind is knocked out of my sails, I'm glad it's finally started.

I've realized that once you're a designer for life, you have to defend your value for life. It is way too easy to get angry from someone making yet another "stupid" design comment, believe me, I do. At the same time, if designers continue to talk about design in a way no one understands, then they will be in the corner by themselves, wondering why people don't care about what they have to say.

Sometimes, when the design is explained in 3-4 different ways, my patience wears thin when the receiver doesn't pay the same respects. To rebuild the bridge of communication, I've tried to open up to the possibility that I'm entirely wrong, then make the conscious effort to understand.

Design is so squishy and hard to quantify, using numbers could be an excellent approach to prove user behavior, but what if the client does not make decisions based on that? The client can declare, despite the numbers, they want to go against it for X and Y reasons. At the end of the day, the client chooses how they want to spend their money and time.

Numbers are a hard thing to use with a business to talk about design or user behavior because it's easy to get them wrong.

  • Was the test conducted properly?

  • When and how is it measured?

  • How were the results interpreted?

Even if the client is open to conducting studies, these are long-term investments done throughout the year and would require an on-going team.

Business is a cold world, where they want to extract as much value as possible for as little as possible. Some companies try to be design-centered, and then ones who are in it for operational efficiency. In the end, business cares about making revenue.

To understand business is to know what they care for… if it's about making money, what is their cultural approach to technology, and how do they perceive success and satisfaction? If you want the business to understand you, map your design goals to those of the company to explain your perceived value, and what it cost equally on the outside.

Before you can determine what your values are, think about what's your purpose and what motivates you to continue working. To transform the culture and minds of a long-established corporation requires you to bring them into your world, walk to their side, with grounded energy, emotional connection, and active listening.

People are not looking to me to be the genius, but to the ability to quickly understand, validate their dilemma, and conceptualize solutions. Everyone has a framework of what they're listening for, exact keywords that signal the cue of understanding. I am looking for patterns and themes to latching onto and find the solution in the delta of opinions.

Designers have to prove their worth for the rest of their lives. If this is the absolute truth, why not take the approach of being in the front lines of evaluation. Being comfortable in being judged by groups of people is something all designers should get used to and learn to improve continuously.

March 21, 2016No Comments

A mistake I’ve made in year one

Being too hard on myself.

When I moved to New York City in the winter of 2006, I didn’t have a job lined up. It was the first time that I was responsible for myself, no safety net, and not much savings on hand. My parents told me if I didn’t find a job in three months, I would need to go back home in California.

Fuck No.

I did everything to get a job and started paying for living expenses. I had to weave my own safety net and I was very risk adverse. Before I jumped into any new job opportunity or moved to a new area, I always stayed conservative. Having a steady paycheck and the stability of going to a job every day is something that I valued greatly.

Through years of working in design, I would jump from job to job. I found that I was being more and more risky with my job choices because I wanted to do work that I would be proud of.

As an independent designer and working for yourself, one of the major downsides is the lack of stability in pay. You pay your own health insurance and pay both sides of the taxes (~35–40% tax rate). You have no retirement savings account, no additional benefits, and have to wait 30–45 days on client payments.

This instability stressed me out a lot and I had to make a lot of lifestyle choices. The first six months felt like I was walking in the dark about how much rolling capital I needed to make this work. I held myself accountable for every working hour in the week. I stressed about not meeting my projected billable hours weekly. In the back of my mind, I always felt that I needed a plan B, C, D and E. Always building my mental safety net.

When I had my ducks in a row. I didn’t know how to stop. My thoughts were like a runaway train. When I had enough financial cushion for to be unemployed for a year, I pretended I didn’t. I felt the anxiety to constantly prevent “a rug being pulled from under me.” This kept me up at night, worrying about financial stability and how to make sense of everything.

One day, I looked in the mirror and I saw I had about ten strands of white hairs from my scalp. That’s when I knew I had to stop.

I spent way too much time worrying about impending risks that never really happened. You can say that I played this very safe and I am financially responsible. This time wasted could have been better spent on projects, social support from friends, or furthering a skillset.

I think this experience could not have been any different if I turned back time. It was an invaluable learning experience that allowed me to be braver and more clear headed with my target direction. I realize that being confident in your own skillset plays a great role in being successful.

Don’t waste time dwelling on bulletproof plans that you have in place. Always look back and self-evaluate, but also learn to change directions and move forward in a positive fashion. Spending time worrying about things will not improve any situation, only actionable plans do.

March 7, 2016No Comments

Joining a Startup Checklist

20 Qs to consider when joining a start up

  1. Do you believe in the product?

  2. Do you see potential?

  3. Will this product or service succeed?

  4. Are you inspired by the people?

  5. Do you like your future peers & boss?

  6. Who will you be working with?

  7. Do they have a good track record?

  8. Did you research on the background of the startup, the founders, where they received seed money?

  9. What is the competitive landscape like?

  10. Are you going to work 60 hrs per week?

  11. How’s the work-life-balance?

  12. Are you willing to work really hard?

  13. How will taking this job affect your own future?

  14. Is it in the direction you want to go towards?

  15. Will you gain invaluable experience if it fails?

  16. Will you learn to wear different hats and take on different roles and responsibilities that may be above and beyond?

  17. What is the business plan, how will it make money?

  18. What’s the company’s business goals in the next year, 5 years?

  19. How will it expand?

Career Tip: Weigh the pros and cons of each path and see how much risk/reward ratio you are willing to take on before you take the deep dive.

March 3, 2016No Comments

The Mythical Unicorn Full-Stack Designer

Want to Hire: Unicorn Designer. You know…. someone that can code HTML/CSS/Bootstrap, photoshop pretty pictures, map user experience, write copy, cheap, and have it all tomorrow?

“Do you think [person] has the chops? Can you take a look at their portfolio and give me your thoughts?”

— People ask

Determine your needs

What is the project? Does it require independent development? Does it need a lot of handholding since it’s my first time or I’m experienced in the design process?

There isn’t a designer that’s one-size-fits-all. Designers come from different backgrounds and have different strengths, which means they think and solve problems differently. How can you determine if this is the right person to work with? Some designers are awesome at visual design, but not all are experienced with the product or executing interaction. Some are generalists, and some are focused on specific areas.

Finding this elusive unicorn designer that is a straight ace at everything will be tough.

Also-known-as-any-of-these-words-combined-in-any-order: Awesome Fantastic Full-Stack Ninja Rockstar Master Designer (ㆆ▃ㆆ)

If you do find this ☆ magical being ☆, they’re probably working in their own company or developing their own ideas. After all, spellbinding design chops only happen when the planets align.

Clients turn to agencies because they provide a supportive team of designers that are dedicated to their project, giving different variations and perspectives. (Shameless plug: If you need an agency, MartianCraft is here for ya.*WINK*)

What if you don’t have the budget for an agency? Or maybe you prefer the attention and personal touch of working with a few designers?

Take some of these different areas of design into consideration:

Product Design
Can the designer explain the process of how users get from point A to point B? Does the process make sense? Are they vested and confident in their direction? Are they able to focus on the pain points in the process and show solutions? Do they look at the project from a user’s perspective? Can they explain why executing the design in this manner is the right way? Are they able to map solutions to business goals? Can they sell this idea and win over the listener?

Interaction Design
Can the designer come up with usability wireframes to illustrate the process in a concise format? Are they able to break down complex user needs into actionable UI and weigh out the best options? Is the UI useful, intuitive, unobtrusive, and reliable? Are all the interactions directly linked to user’s needs, wants and avoids confusion? Is the design simple and delightful?

Visual Design
Are the designs crisp? How are the type hierarchy and visual system? Is it aesthetically pleasing and honest? Was it designed with care and accuracy that shows respect towards the user? Is there a purpose for every element on the page and is it essential? How is this designer’s skill level for executing technical designs? Are they able to produce illustrations, 3D, sketches, or composited mockups? Are the brand and layout designs cohesive?

As you can tell. Designing an effective product takes a lot of consideration. This is probably why designers are allergic to feedback such as “Make it Pop” or “Make it Bigger” since it’s not backed by constructive reasoning. More things that you shouldn’t say to a designer.

What about soft skills?

Can this designer listen and communicate well? Are they confident in solving the problem with tact? Are they easy to work with? Are they able to take feedback well and *really listen* to what’s being conveyed? Can they understand intuitively, because people are unable to express constructive direction?

Sample traits you want to look for:
Empathy, Articulate, Pragmatic = convince a developer to build a feature
Self Aware, Passionate, Systematic = understanding user needs
Pragmatic, Curious, Analytical = research and compare user data
Patience, Fearless, Articulate = sell and educate ideas

Choosing the right person for the right job

Select two out of three and focus on core values, in the order of priority. If you haven’t seen the famous trinity, I have illustrated it below.

(Left) When working with clients, they can only select two out of the three, meaning if you want a design that is fast and cheap, it will probably be ugly. If it’s fast and good, it’s going to cost money. If it’s cheap and good, it’s probably going to take a long time.

(Right) Speaking broadly and generally, you can pick a designer that is:
Great in Product & Visual = may have trouble with UI and UX
Great in Visual & Interaction = may be weak with designing for the user
Great in Interaction & Product = may be weak with technical design skill

With the area that they are lacking, decide if it’s important enough to overlook, or hire another member that will complement the team’s strength. If hiring a member is not possible, there’s always the option of sub-contracting the work to an expert.

December 22, 2014No Comments

The Art of the Email

How to get a better response. 

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