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Five and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Designers

Posted: 19 Feb 2011 10:37 AM PST

We have theories about everything: why the sky is blue, why apples fall, why bees buzz (and do other unmentionable things), why my boss said a certain thing, why that girl in the restaurant looked at me, why didn't that girl in the restaurant look at me…. We're wired to theorize. Theories make us feel secure. We can wrap our heads around them and explain them with little diagrams on whiteboards, or with equations, or even graphs. We give theories fancy names like "The Classical Elemental Theory" and "The Flat Earth Hypothesis."

The bottom line is: we humans love theories. Yet as a wise person once said, "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not." This article is about practice. It's about five and a half — yes, half — habits that highly effective designers tend to share and which I've observed first-hand in the complicated, non-theoretical, absolutely real world. If practice is your thing, keep reading.

Five and a Half Habits of Highly Effective Designers
They Know When To Quit

Some of you might know Vince Lombardi as a football legend. I know him as the guy who ruined the world by uttering seven simple yet lethal words: "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." You'll find this unassuming little quotation's fingerprints all over tragic events worldwide: co-dependent lovers who implode their relationships, leaders of warring nations who refuse to compromise for peace, CEOs who won't back down from flawed strategies to save their company from bankruptcy, and blackjack players who double-down instead of retreating to their rooms.

They Redesign Processes

I remember when Agile software development methodologies were all the rage. I was working at Amazon as a program manager at the time, and our team was the first to adopt Scrum. Scrum was going to enable us to ship early, with twice the features and zero overhead (at least, that's how we interpreted Ken Schwaber's words).

They Combat Distortions Of Reality

Picture this. You're reviewing final comps with a set of stakeholders. After multiple iterations, you're finally feeling great about the design. Then, out of nowhere, a senior manager says, "I think we need to change the blue on the top bar. It doesn't feel right. I showed it to my wife, who's pretty good at picking colors, and she felt the same way." He continues, and then delivers the final blow: "I know you worked hard to find the right color scheme, but picking colors is pretty subjective, right? It'd be worth taking another pass at this."

They Find The Right Environment

People are brilliant scavengers. In a world of a million choices, we know exactly where to look when we need something. We're good at identifying environments that meet our demands, almost without thinking. We instinctively know how to find certain things (keyword: certain).

They Habitually Rewrite The Habits

In the software industry, we strive to build "perfect" (read: bug-free) things that can't be improved. This is a worthy goal, but it can have negative side effects. For example, we often conclude that certain practices, processes and lines of thinking have reached their zenith and can't be modified. We start treating real life like a line of code — a meticulously crafted string, neatly concluded by a semicolon, that reaps a perfect, logical result (needless to say, I'm not referring to Web development here).


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