Non-design advice for designers

4 ways to be a better designer by becoming a better person

Not a resolution

I don’t do new year’s resolutions. However, when the year comes to a close—and what a year 2020 was—I like to reflect on past events and the things I learned. From social unrest, to pervasive misinformation, to a global pandemic, there was plenty to reflect on. First, I want to acknowledge how my privilege as a healthy cisgender white-passing male with a secure job allows me to post these thoughts without fear. In this story, I’ll focus on the friction between our work and life priorities, hoping it might be helpful whether you work in User Experience (UX) or not.

1 : You’re not your job

UX work is so much fun! I’m blessed to have a job designing software and cannot think of another industry I’d like to be part of. It fulfills my need for uncertainty, collaboration, learning, and working with smart people to solve meaningful problems. However, when work is that interesting it’s easy to dive into the it and lose sight of what matters: family, friends, and community.

So, you are not you job. You’re a person—unique, flawed, full of complexities and contradictions—who just happens to work in UX. Don’t forget that.

You’ll probably have many jobs throughout your life across companies, industries and roles. Remember that jobs are temporary, but life events and the relationships we build are permanent.

Whether it’s house chores, home schooling, or family stuff, if you have to take care of shit, go do it. Work can and should be able to wait. If work feels overwhelming and it becomes the only thing you spend time on, take a deep breath and consider the next principle…

2 : You have the right to take a break

Stop whatever you’re doing. Seriously stop reading this, step away from your device or screen and walk around. I’ll be here if you come back. You should be ok with doing this at work whenever you feel overwhelmed. People on your team should be ok with it. You’ll have meetings to attend and responsibilities to deliver, but if your teammates or managers aren’t ok with you taking care of yourself first, then reevaluate if you should keep working there.

Many companies have realized the benefit taking time off from work has on employee wellbeing. Take breaks for both physical or mental health. Workout, meditate, read, nap, snack, drive, or spend time with your pet.

Whatever “break” means to you, do something that makes you feel better and doesn’t require being at your workspace. Try different things so you avoid making time off work become another routine.

Carve breaks into your daily schedule. I have “personal time” and “focus time” blocked in my calendar every day. I don’t always abide by them, but they serve as a reminder to check in with myself, take a break, or to reschedule it for later in the day. Partner with a colleague to keep each other honest and ensure you make time for yourselves every day. When you come back to your workspaces, you’ll feel like a better version of yourselves.

3 : Learn about more than design

If 2020 taught me one thing, it’s how much I didn’t know what I didn’t know. There’s humility in realizing how ignorant I am about divided politics, racial inequalities, health care systems, and the human condition. But there’s hope in accepting our gaps and looking to learn, grow, and educate oneself. And there’s so much to learn about without it explicitly being about UX Design.

Here are a few areas I’ve explored this year. They made me a better designer because they taught me to confront my flaws and acknowledge the need to do better for myself and each other.

> Face your role in enabling systemic racism. Start with this wonderful Antiracism Activation Kit, bookmark this anti-racist reading list, and check Tech Can Do Better. Understanding how our actions or lack thereof—as humans and as designers—impact the wellbeing of black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is one of the things we should all strive to learn, pandemic or not. If we can’t learn empathy from doing this much needed work, there’s no design book that can save us.

>> Shift your mindset. Rethink the way you talk, collaborate, and relate with other people. Learning how our biology works can help us uncover that our behaviors and struggles stem from within our ourselves, not others. My standouts books around this are: The Art of Possibility, Subliminal, and Braving the Wilderness.

>>> Be comfortable being safely uncomfortable. Explore anything that makes you giddy. Whether it’s baking bread, figuring out which city is farthest from yours, or looking out from a stranger’s window, you can bring any inspiration back into your work. And if it doesn’t apply to work, then you only grew as a person. That’s no small feat.

To become better UX professionals we need to learn more about being human. Popular design resources teach you techniques and practices that many people have tried, tested, and adopted. And that’s all fine. But, in order to become a better listener and empathize with the people whose pain points you’re trying to address, it helps to look outside of UX for inspiration.

4 : Go deeper on empathy

As a UX professional empathy is not new to you. You talk with people whose motivations are different from yours, and you see opportunities when they describe frustrations with a tool or service.

If you’ve paid close attention to their needs, you’ve also noticed that they have lives beyond the task they’re trying to complete. And surprise! Your tool or service is not the center of their lives. They have family responsibilities, personal struggles, and social issues to deal with. What you’re designing is a miniscule part of their day, but one that often has a massive impact on their mental state whenever they go back to their personal lives.

Beyond the suffering and inequalities 2020 has uncovered—and there have been far too many—you’ve felt our common human desire to build deep loving connections. You’ve seen that in first responders, healthcare workers, election volunteers, and the postal service. You’ve noticed warmth in the eyes of those who deliver your food or bring you groceries. Our need to remain both connected to the world and each other stood out over the rest.

So why not take this new appreciation for our connected human existence and use that to design better experiences that take people’s holistic needs and life priorities into account?

This deeper empathy can guide you to make design decisions that allow people to spend less time with the thing you’re designing and more time not engaging with it. If we’re doing our job right, our goal as designers should be to help people spend less time using a tool, and give them more time to spend with people they love.

Parting thoughts

These are just some of my feelings around 2020 as they relate to the life and work. If there’s one thing I take with me is that as humans we’re all uniquely complex, flawed, and beautiful. Thus, we should never allow work to take over the precious and often limited time we have with the people we care about and who should be at the center of our attention, energy, and time.

Thanks for reading. I wish you the best in 2021.

Acknowledgements: To Ploy Buraparate, Lawrence Humphrey and all involved in the anti-racism resources shared on point #3, and to Paula Le for her inspiration and eagle-eye typo-finding skills.

️✌🏽I’m Esteban Pérez-Hemminger (he/him) a Puerto Rican, husband, cat dad, and design thinker living and working in Austin, TX. This article is personal and does not represent my employer’s thoughts or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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