Research yourself first

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May 07, 2013
Research yourself first.

Every time we begin a web design project, we do research. We research our clients, their customers, the website’s target audience, and the competition.

Throughout our careers, we research new trends, techniques, tools, and other designers. We’re always on the lookout for that one new thing which will make us better at what we do, or will make our jobs easier. We love our craft, so we read articles, analyze raw data, consult with experts, and more. What is life without improvement and progress?

But so often we neglect to research the one tool, the one common factor, present in every project you will ever touch: you. Oh, you figure things out about yourself eventually. You set up your desk just the way you like it. You figure out that you're better at some aspects of the design process than others. You may even read a self-improvement article or two.

But real self-improvement takes time, and we’re all busy people. We have things to do, and people to see. We have deadlines.

This is about more than self-improvement as a person. Yes, becoming a better person can make you a happier person, and that does have a direct impact on your work, but there’s more than that. Learning about how your own brain works, and why you make the daily choices you make is something that will give you power. Specifically, it will give you the ability to essentially “hack” your own brain in order to improve its performance.

I have compiled a basic list of questions to ask yourself, that may help you to improve the way you design things. Feel free to add any of your own as you see fit.

1. How good am I at introspection?

The idea of introspection can leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, so I’d like to clear something up first: There are two basic kinds of introspection. First, there’s the bad kind: when all you think about is your own mistakes and past errors in judgement.

While learning to highlight your own flaws can certainly be beneficial, Bad Introspection(TM) can lead to depression and the desire to stop thinking altogether. It’s usually unscheduled, that is to say, it hits you when you’ve run out of other things to think about, and uncontrolled, and so it is unproductive. If you’re prone to this, stop it.

Good introspection is an intentional, controlled analysis of your own actions. When you are engaged in good introspection, you are able to acknowledge your mistakes while also taking note of what you’ve done right.

It’s a good idea to get introspective after each and every project, whether it was a marvelous success, or fell through entirely. Think about everything from your interactions with your client, to your wireframes, to your code. Did you do anything you’re particularly proud of? Did you come up with an awesomely simple explanation for a complicated concept? Did you create a code snippet you’d like to use again? Did you do anything you’d specifically like to avoid doing in the future?

2. Are you a “multipotentialite”?

Some people can sit down and sketch layouts, push pixels, and/or write code for 8-16 hours a day and barely break a sweat. If that’s you, then you are awesome! You guys rock so hard. Your boss, if indeed you have one, probably loves you and if you’re ambitious enough, the world is your oyster!

But I myself am nothing like you. Some of us would positively languish in those conditions, and many do. We might seem like flakes, lazy people, and we look like we’re destined to live off of others. The truth is that many of us can work just as hard as everyone else, as long as we’re able to switch it up a little.

Do you have a million different hobbies, or things you’d like to learn about? Does the idea of doing the same job all week, or even all day, drive you to misery? Does your brain just shut down and refuse to be creative any more around mid-day if you’ve been working on the same project since you started?

You might be what some people call a “multipotentialite”. It turns out that there are more than a few of us. No really, go take a look at that site. Even if you’re not one of us, you should at least recognize that we exist.

If you are a multipotentialite, there are ways to increase your ability to concentrate, such as meditation. But if you’re hard-wired to have an intense interest in many things, you should probably learn to accept it. When you learn to work with your brain, instead of against it, being creative gets a lot easier.

3. When do you do your best work?

I am most creative earlier in the day. This is not to say that I am a morning person, just that the first few hours of my work day are when my best ideas come out. For others it might be the afternoon, or the wee hours of the night.

If you have the option, you should schedule your creative work for whichever time of day works best for you. I do this by writing, wireframing, and doing all aesthetic work in the morning hours. In the afternoons, I can code, and do other more repetitive tasks which require less concentration.

Everything on this list might present you with changes which are difficult to make. This one is probably the worst, though, especially if you work in an office. If that’s the case, have a talk with your employers. See if you can persuade them to allow you to work on your own schedule for a week or so to try it out.

3a. When do you need to stop?

As a side note, it’s good to figure out when or if you need to stop working. I don’t mean stopping for the day, I mean stopping for frequent, very short breaks. For me, it’s about every hour. On alternate days, that’s also when I work out. Those few minutes away from the screen give me time to think without the myriad potential distractions. The pressure eases, and the exercise wakes me up.

Earnest Hemingway once said that it’s best to stop writing while you still know what’s going to happen next. In my personal experience, the same is true of design, and this habit of stopping regularly helps me to do that.

Some of you who need to get into “the zone” to make progress might recoil at this idea, and that’s okay. Maybe a short break every hour isn’t for everyone. But please, do consider your body’s need to move every once in a while.

4. Do you have design biases?

The design you are exposed to in your career’s “infancy” tends to shape the way you work. Apple-style minimalism is still a large trend because many designers use Apple’s products, or at least started with them. Fixed-width website layouts are still being made because that’s how we’ve done it since before the Internet.

I’d like to pretend that no one uses tables for layout anymore, but I know for a fact that there are at least one or two table-layout coders still out there.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’re most likely better than that, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a bias or two. I myself learned to design websites in the minimalist fashion: the fewer elements a page had, the better. It’s always been a bad, bad idea to distract the user with anything extraneous.

But sometimes even minimalism fails us. Justin Hubbard pointed this out here, and when I read it I was forced to confront a narrow way of thinking, and I’d like to think that I’m a better designer for it.

Besides, Andy Rutledge managed to prove that you can take lots of data, and still make it look good: Texas Rangers Proof of Concept.

Challenge yourself. Make a good-looking website that is most decidedly not minimalist, or vice versa. Use colors you normally wouldn’t. Use a layout you might normally dislike. Of course, you should never do any of this for the sake of it. Do it only to achieve your client’s goals.

5. Do you have people-related biases?

Obviously, I’m not talking about racism, sexism, or any other “ism”, here. I’m talking about personality clashes between individuals. No matter how civil, polite, and nonjudgemental you might try to be, certain personality types are almost guaranteed to bug you.

Maybe it’s that guy in the dev department who just won’t say anything with more than one syllable. Maybe it’s that manager who sees himself as a father figure, and won’t stop putting his hand on your shoulder. Maybe it’s happy people.

I don’t mean people who are content with their lives. I mean happy people who cannot rest until everyone around them is wearing euphoric smiles. *shudder*

My personal favorite is the overseer who hired you to do this job based on your qualifications, but insists on telling you how to do it. The problem with these personality clashes is that we begin to develop a bias toward these individuals and anyone else who seems to act like them. This is counter-productive.

Just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean that they’re wrong in any given situation. This means that if we want to communicate effectively with them, we have to put our emotions on the sidelines, and see things from their point of view.

It’s tough. Oh man, it’s tough. But there’s more than good communication to be had. Once you’ve developed the kind of empathy required to communicate with people you may dislike, you gain a greater understanding of humanity as a whole.

This provides a huge range of benefits, from being better able to visualize how another person might use an interface you’re designing, to being better able to sell and support your product.

6. Can you explain yourself clearly?

When you first learn the jargon of your new profession, it can make you feel like you’ve joined an exclusive club that has its own language. Besides the obvious problems that this can create when communicating with non-designers and/or developers, this can tend to make you think in vague, abstract concepts.

Ask a non-techy friend to listen to you while you explain your work. See if you can clearly and simply articulate your reasons for making specific design choices. Like the last point, this has more benefits than just clear communication. It helps you to think about your own work in simple, clear terms.

If something you did sounds stupid when you say it simply, you may want to rethink your choices.

Where do we go from here?

Asking yourself a few questions is really only the beginning. If you want to understand anything at all about how your own brain works, you have a lot of reading and thinking to do. If you want to use and apply the knowledge you gain to your work, you have a long road ahead.

But it’s worth it. Since I myself started on this journey, I’ve learned how to accomplish a lot more than usual in less time, and with much less stress involved.

In the meantime, why don’t you add any self-enlightening questions of your own below?

What lessons have you learnt about yourself? Are you too self-critical, or not self-critical enough? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, reflection image via Shutterstock.

Ezequiel Bruni

Ezequiel Bruni is a web/UX designer, blogger, and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he’s not up to his finely-chiselled ears in wire-frames and front-end code, or ranting about the same, he indulges in beer, pizza, fantasy novels, and stand-up comedy.

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