The Ol' College Try is the Goal

  
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We idolize a project that is complete in design work. We don’t organize portfolios around failed experiments, incomplete products, the good ol’ college try. Instead, our bragging rights are constrained to a spectrum of doneness, notches in a belt, that — like a belt — represent arbitrary milestones on a line that loops back on itself.

Saying this stuff out loud is a little woo, but I’m trying to temper our endemic reverence for getting things done. A complete collaborative project represents, if anything, compromise. It is the way in which a team worked together to weigh user needs against organizational objectives. As your craft matures, you’ll have one or more pieces of work — maybe even a majority, if you stick with a single company long enough — you’re not proud of. We have to pay bills. We lose battles. I have an entire list of complete projects that make me groan. You probably do, too. These are projects not only where our skills were less refined but, maybe, our design principles took a back seat to the stakeholder’s demands. Sunk cost, right?

Service design is the work of people. Cooler heads don’t always prevail, the best ideas don’t always survive rank, the time required is too much for the time given. Shipping is compromising. Sometimes, that’s to the detriment of our pride.

But — is this just a problem with perspective?

The practice of Stoicism is the practice of asking, “is this in my control?” What about shipping design work is? What control did we share, and thus forfeit? Shipping work requires you to recognize your place in the process. Your control of that process is limited, as is how a completed project turns out.

What’s in your control? You are in control of whether or not you try.

Do your best to convince them. But act on your own, if justice requires it. If met with force, then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues.

Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren’t aiming to do the impossible.

Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded.

What you set out to do is accomplished.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6 #50

Design work is a verb. Do what’s in your control virtuously.


What do you think? Let’s chat about it on twitter.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

Adhering to design principles under pressure

  
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When I meet with teams I’m sometimes asked to catch folks up on the progress of various feature requests in the system. I work pretty hard to make sure these statuses are transparent, so more often than not I’m confirming what they know: I haven’t made and probably won’t address these in the near future. That sucks to hear.

Often many of these requests are small design tweaks that take no time at all, but stay in the backlog by principle.

Here’s a real conversation between me (MS) and a stakeholder (SH):

SH: We know some of the customers complain [about this design] and [want it changed in this way].

MS: I feel ya. But any design changes like this ought to be prototyped and tested, and that just takes bandwidth we’re using for [this OKR]. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to bump this to the front of the line.

SH: Literally no one would care [if you just make the changes right now].

How often as user experience professionals do you feel you talk into the void? It’s easy to capitulate. You tell the stakeholder, “okay, sure, I’ll try to make this happen,” because on some level the stakeholder is right. When the stakeholder outranks you, it may even be wise not to die on that hill.

But I profess here and for many years in Metric that it’s not just that good UX is good business but that a good user experience design process is good business, and in cases above without really compelling evidence it holds-up that adhering to a design principle is better for the business. And if, after all, principles were so easily subverted, they shouldn’t be principles.

I’m frustrated when I have to have these kinds of conversations, to champion principle. What’s more, it’s easy to second-guess yourself. Often the business of championing systems of work and design process is lonely. You’re in a state of evangelism until there is enough organizational buy-in. Even as I write this I’m not supremely confident that being a stick-in-the-mud is worth it.

However, the reason we put so much effort into developing systems of work and establishing strong best practices and design principles is that they make both organizational decision making easier as well as a quality product more likely. They should be defended.

Let me emphasize the shit out of this pull-quote from Epictetus:

When the standards have been set, things are tested and weighed. And the work of philosophy is just this, to examine and uphold the standards. But the work of a truly good person is in using those standards when they know them.”

— Epictetus

He isn’t talking about design work, and we should keep that in mind. For most of us, design isn’t life or death. It doesn’t matter as much. But I think we can maintain this perspective and apply the dogmatism of doing what you said you were going to do simultaneously.

The work of living is to set standards and then not compromise them. … Not, I want to do good—that’s an excuse. But, I will do good in this particular instance, right now.

— Ryan Holiday

Craft virtuously.


Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

Fear of Missing Out

  
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Design is a performance of smart people among smart people where it’s easy to conflate merit with your in/ability to solve the kind of algorithm you’ll probably never actually encounter in your day-to-day. While reminding yourself you’re not the smartest person in the room is probably key to doing quality work, it’s easy to start believing you’re the dumbest.

This sense of being head and shoulders below a colleague fuels this survival impulse to try to further clamber-up the tree because not only do we convince ourselves we’re deservedly lower in status, we assume that because they know React they are living a better life.

The fear of missing out is part of a vicious cycle that motivates us to subscribe to a shit ton of newsletters, grind through tutorials, join and try to be fully present in a dozen slack communities, write for UX Collective or Hackernoon, chat-up John Cutler on Twitter to try to soak-up that residual experience, while doing our job, gigging on the side, having a relationship, walking 10,000 steps, until your will just nopes out and you succumb to the neuroticism endemic to the industry.

Our symptoms are exacerbated by the times but this is an ancient poison. You just know the mad emperors of Rome were insecure. What — had Nero asked this of Seneca — would a Stoic advise?

I think Seneca might suggest that the fear of missing out is a prioritization problem.

We either feel we’re missing out because our brief time here is spent on the joyless hustle, or we feel FOMO despite being otherwise content because there is a signal-to-noise ratio disparity.

In one case, FOMO is a ticking clock, a reminder not only that there are experiences you want but that your time left to experience them is short. Stoicism at its core is a prioritization framework. We use the deliberate practice of reminding ourselves that there’s no guarantee there’s a tomorrow to make easier decisions about how we spend time. If you think you are really missing out to your detriment, what are you waiting for?

This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow. — Marcus Aurelius.

What’s more likely is the other case, where we might see how the fear of missing out can be the result of a practical signal management problem.

The Stoics were concerned with jealously reserving their attention because information overload can dilute perspective. You can be awe-struck when you stare at the horizon — and sometimes you should — but you really don’t want to be awe-struck in the middle of a road.

Your monkey brain, engaged in watching all the other monkeys in the industry, wants to monkey-do. In the interest of staying current we subscribe to newsletters, join communities, and watch social because we perceive there to be value in staying current. Maybe you’re working with Sketch but see that screen-names you admire use Figma, or perhaps you are tap-tapping away at some jQuery but see in this morning’s newsletter that you can program a robot with Vue. This is interesting, sure. Have you ever asked yourself why you care? Does it really matter to you?

This is just as much a prioritization problem as the other, because it is either in your control and your best interest to learn all this stuff - or it isn’t.

Some of this is perpetuated by the fallacy that the more bullet-points on our resume make us more marketable, but that for the most part isn’t true. What’s left, then, is whether you have the control of your situation to learn a thing, and whether - memento mori - following a tutorial is really how you want to spend your brief time.

If it sparks joy, go for it. Life is short. Whittling your to-do list to things that are worth your time is the Stoic template for resolving FOMO. If it doesn’t, be honest.

It’s hard to admit that you don’t care about WordPress’s Gutenberg, because caring about Gutenberg is wrapped-up in what it means to be a WordPress professional. So, because we choose to care what other WordPress professionals would think of us, we continue to subscribe and read these newsletters only to delete them without further action, burning the time we could use for something else, devoting attention to information we can’t and won’t use. We open ourselves to signals motivated by the myth of staying current - when, really, we should stop listening for the signals entirely. If it doesn’t spark joy and it doesn’t make you measurably better as a human, unsubscribe.

Such are the lessons of the Stoics:

  1. Know what really matters

  2. Jealously guard your gift of attention so you stay focused on what really matters.

Craft virtuously.


Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

Deliberate practice rewires the brain

The long-game of routine

This week I read The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge (Goodreads), which tl;dr not only reinforces the mind-is-body link — your mood, right now, is the shuddering of neurons — but that you can train your brain for a desired mood.

Connections in the mind strengthen or weaken with use or disuse, in the same way your muscles atrophy as a thirty-something who doesn’t get out as often as they should (ahem). Norman Doidge writes about the extremes: training to reduce the tremors of advanced Parkinsons, or focusing on alternative sensations during times of chronic pain to decouple the connection your brain’s made between — say — moving your arm and the sense of hurt. But neuroplasticity applies to emotion and reaction, too - or even creativity.

Doidge often makes the point that these recoveries take months or even years of deliberate practice, which is something I’ve written a number of times about here. “Deliberate practice” refers to specific training designed to improve a metric. It’s the difference in training between going for a run regularly, which is healthy and a great habit, versus going for a run to increase your personal record. In design work, we are in a state of “deliberate practice” when learning a new programming language or a new technique.

Journaling being a foundational practice to the practice of Stoicism is such because it is, in fact, practice. The tenets are unconventional and uncomfortable: it’s weird to not only contemplate mortality but use that as a measure for prioritization. But, you do it long enough — through journaling, or blogging — and such prioritization comes easy - with practice. We start exploring Stoicism as a suite of practices to reduce the noise endemic to a neurotic industry, but we have to go through the motions.

It’s getting through this grind where the value of routine becomes apparent. Routine — setting and keeping to consistent schedules — that incorporates deliberate practice makes the wait for results less grueling by transforming that practice into a habit. If you want to think differently you have to practice thinking differently. This is easier done if it’s on the calendar.

For me, these insights we’re gaining about the neuroplasticity of the brain is a comfort. We can train thinking the same way we can train a skill. If Stoicism is about recognizing, accepting, and letting-go of what isn’t in your control (most things), the Venn Diagram of what is seems to be getting bigger.

Craft virtuously.


Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

The adaptable will

  
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One of the first a-ha moments many of us have who are interested in user experience design is that whole maxim that “you are not your user.” At the time it’s a profound wagging of the finger that after years rings a tad cliche if only because it’s on the tip of every UX designer’s tongue.

It’s not wrong, though. In fact, we reinforce this truth adopting principles like being data driven, internalizing infinity-loop design models with quadrants dedicated to testing. Good design, we learn, is about accepting that you’re wrong, your stakeholders are wrong, your product manager is wrong, and - shit, when it comes to survey responses - your users are wrong, then evangelizing that wrongness until everyone adopts a design process that makes ya’ll a little less wrong.

What does that say about personality traits we, culturally, accept to be good? We applaud an iron will, but are frustrated by a stubborn one.

What’s the difference?

Remember that to change your mind and to follow someone’s correction are consistent with a free will. For the action is yours alone — to fulfill its purpose in keeping with your impulse and judgement, and yes, with your intelligence.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.16

Conditions change. New facts come in. Circumstances arise. If you can’t adapt to them — if you simply proceed onward, unable to adjust according to this additional information — you are no better than a robot. The point is not to have an iron will, but an adaptable will — a will that makes full use of reason to clarify perception, impulse, and judgement to act effectively for the right purpose.

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic

Craft virtuously.


Clicking that ❤ in this issue of Stoic Designer is an easy, no-sign-in-required way to signal to the great algorithms in the sky that this writeup is worth a minute of your time.

If it’s easier, you can listen to Stoic Designer in your podcatcher of choice.

Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield

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