Looking back to more than a decade ago, I can see my naive self eager to make a difference and make an impact through experience design. Equipped with doctorate academic training and strong technical skills, I believed I had what it takes to do well and I was ready to take up any challenge.

Now, about thirteen years later, after going through two jobs as in-house UX designers (at Dell Experience Design Group and then at Hewlett-Packard Global Design Studio), as consultant (at Reading Room, various independent projects, and Somia Customer Experience), and founding my own business, I wish I could give these advice to my young self so things would have been more productive (and less frustrating). But hey, it’s an invaluable lessons learnt through experience, and I hope sharing these would help others learn faster 🙂

#1 Your work does not end at research or design deliverables. The delivery itself, is what influences the success of your work.

I used to hate going to meetings and having to do rounds of presentations of my work. Shouldn’t I spent more time at the design studio or on the field to perfect my research and design work?
Yet, however great your work is, if you cannot convince your clients, your boss, or your coworkers to your solutions, your work will go to drain. If you have a good design but you can’t convince the engineers to develop it, your idea will never see the light of day. If you have great strategy, but your client doesn’t buy in to it, it will end up as a nice looking report stacked on the bookshelf. That is why the skill of storytelling, communication, and lobbying becomes very important if you want to be successful in this field.

To create great work, here’s how you must spend your time: 1% inspiration, 9% perspiration, 90% justification — George Lois

#2 Accept that you will never know it all. Be comfortable with the unknown.

This industry changes very quickly — from focusing on usability to UX; from responsive web design and mobile first to chatbots; from automation to machine learning and artificial intelligence. There will always be new technology, new tools, new emerging fields, new ways of doing things. We need to acknowledge what we don’t know it all.
In my postgraduate research, I studied fighter pilots and how their confidence level relates to performance. And guess what, overconfidence (thinking that they know more that they actually know) was highly correlated to poor performance.
So be humble and be open to learn, improvise, and adapt quickly to stay relevant.

#3 Looking inside, is as (if not more) important than looking outside.

Looking outside, understanding how the customers / users are experiencing the products or services and having empathy towards them is important, so we can identify gaps and opportunity areas to serve them better. But too often, we spent too much time looking outside, and not enough time taking care of the people who are actually making things happen for the customers.
Looking inside, having empathy towards your own teams who are going to deliver the experiences, is as important as (if not more than) looking outside. In one of my projects, I learnt that designing rewards, recognition, and empowerment are key to drive employee’s internal motivation to serve customers better. But that’s HR’s role? Yes, but it’s also our job as strategist to collaborate with HR and other cross-functional departments to transform things internally before we can drive impacts to the customers externally.

If your team is not happy, how do you expect them to deliver the best experience for your customers?

#4 Know when it’s cruel to be kind. Practice tough love.

I have high score in personality trait of agreeableness [People who score high on this dimension are empathetic and altruistic]. This is really helpful for my work as researcher and designer. But, as a side effect, I often shy away from conflicts and arguments. I used to agree to do something just to avoid having to argue with people. When somebody’s work is not good, I refrain from saying too much worrying that it may hurt his/her feeling. And this is bad.
Critiques and arguments, done in constructive ways, help to improve our work. By giving constructive critiques to others, we are helping them improve. Not blindly taking client’s request and consulting them on how it should be done differently to achieve better outcome, can lead to tough conversation but will bring better results in the long run. It’s the act of tough love.

#5 Money matters. But also don’t let it kill your soul.

I used to not care much about financials. It’s boring. I prefer to go to the field, talk to people, immerse myself in walls of post-its, do creative brainstorming, and sketching. But the hard truth is, business needs money to survive. And by that, it means understanding your numbers and plan your financials properly.
But never let money kills your soul. Not taking the work when the client’s brief is wrong or when the work is unethical, is the right thing to do [whether that is a wise business decision, that’s a different story :p].

One last thing…

Doing the work that we love and passionate about does not mean it will not get tough and frustrating. Whenever that happens, I always remember what Kim Goodwin wrote in her book:
Control what you can, influence what you can’t, and let go of the rest — Kim Goodwin


When you are tired, take a break and enjoy the sun sets. It does wonder 🙂