The genius designer versus a mindset of experimentation

4 min read
Matthew Lavoie
  •  Mar 11, 2016
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Editor’s note: This is part 3 of the first article in a new InVision Blog column about design leadership. We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This week’s prompt was “What is the biggest problem in the design industry?”

The biggest problem in the design community is our mindset.

Let me explain, and I’ll pick on UX since it’s where my passion lies. It’s been less than a decade since user experience design as a field exploded in the design world.

In the past 5 or so years, an interesting phenomenon happened. As they learned about UX, a lot of people realized, “Oh, I’ve been doing that already,” and added the label to their job title. Sometimes they were correct, but other times they weren’t.

Many other designers were advised to throw UX on their resume to make an extra $5k a year.

Fake it ‘til you make it, right? That sounds great.

“The biggest problem in the design community is our mindset.”

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But UX design is a field that demands something beyond an aptitude to apply pixels to screen, knowing best practices, or even being an expert in heuristic evaluation. Since it’s so new and dynamic, I believe a lot of people don’t quite understand the mindset necessary to execute on user experience design. And it’s a mindset that anyone in design can benefit from.

The genius designer

I recently spoke with D. Keith Robinson at a conference in Miami, and he used the expression “genius designer.” Previously unfamiliar with it, I’ve since discovered that it’s a term Jakob Nielson wrote about way back in 2007. The idea is that a genius designer assumes their work is correct. To the outside observer, it may appear as though they disappear for weeks or months at a time on a design pilgrimage. When they return after convening with the gods of design, they deliver comps that are to be implemented in pixel perfection.

The genius designer has moved on to other things when their work is in development. Technical constraints or design feedback is irrelevant because the design is the best design possible. If they hear of customers getting confused by their design, those customers must be ignorant or stupid because their design is perfect.

“When design confuses a user, it’s the fault of the design—not the user.”

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A mindset of experimentation

To me, the difference between the genius designer and the paragon designer is that this designer realizes they’re human. No matter how brilliant or experienced they are, they accept that they’ll be wrong about something. And with this knowledge they design their process to figure out what they’re wrong about as quickly as possible so that they can make it right.

It’s terribly hard to get into this mindset because our whole lives we’re trained to avoid being wrong. We go to school to learn how to not fail. Everything is black and white, right or wrong. If only more teachers had the freedom of Ms. Frizzle to encourage experimentation and remind us to “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

The reality: designers often live somewhere between these worlds. I’m terrified for my friends and peers when they tell me they’re weeks from shipping a new product and that they’re finally getting around to some usability testing. When I ask why they didn’t test sooner, so often they tell me they just didn’t have time.

“Don’t be afraid to show someone your messy work.”

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Perhaps it feels counter-intuitive, but the truth is that testing a doodle on a piece of paper on day one will reduce riskTwitter Logo, give you confidence, and help you design knowing that you’re building upon a sound foundation. Embrace the knowledge that you will be wrong.Twitter Logo Don’t be afraid to show someone your messy work. Love the fact that it isn’t perfect.

I think of this as having a mindset of experimentation. And it’s important to continue to experiment throughout your design process. What you test will become more refined. It’ll move from whiteboard or scribbles on paper, to digital, to click-through prototypes, to live code. Focus on the economy of your work—test your design decisions with the least amount of effort you can employ.Twitter Logo

Validating a design decision as right or wrong using a 30-minute prototype is a lot easier and cheaper than finding out it was wrong after 3 months of design and development.

I’m not upset at my peers who don’t have this mindset—they’re incredible designers, and many of them have much more experience than I do. But I do think that until we all come to terms with our humanity and lack of omnipotence, we’ll only be hurting the products we love and the customers we’re trying to serve.

If you fall more into the genius design category, don’t feel bad. I’ve been there—I think we all have. Just believe me: taking this approach will save you time. Don’t let any excuses get in your way, and know that even in trying to implement a mindset of experimentation you are going to mess up. But you’ll learn a lot along the way and it’s going to be awesome.

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