What is it about our culture that some people are so keen to fail while others aren’t? The ability to cast off from the shore with the full ability that you may sink is a trait many envy. I envy it.

In Silicon Valley, failure has become somewhat of a badge of honor. A startup founder who was willing to move on his idea, though it didn’t gain traction, still holds value to venture capitalists and the industry at large.

The reality is, it’s not the failure that’s impressive, but rather the willingness to take a risk, to expose your brainchild to the evaluation of your peers (and complete strangers) and put it all on the line. Those people who are confident enough in themselves and their skills are willing to risk having nothing in order to have it all, and more importantly, to make something that matters; something that lasts.

I struggle every day with my fear of failure. I find myself afraid to speak my mind, share my thoughts, write a personal blog post, embark on my own. Working for a startup has eased that. I’m better at sharing ideas that may fail. In fact, many of my ideas do fail, but that makes the ones that stick much stronger.

As designers, we have to see failure as an opportunity. We must be willing to expose ourselves to criticism and change. To know that version A-L may not be accepted, but version M will be phenomenal. By being willing to fail, we are constantly pushing ourselves forward.

Empathy is so hot right now.

Whether you’re a user experience professional, visual designer, marketer, developer, empathy is the new skill to have. Unfortunately, like most buzz words that become jargon, the value of the word is being lost in the noise.

What really is empathy? The first definition that may likely come to mind is “the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Much like its cousins, sympathy and mindfulness, its a skill that requires emotional intelligence and awareness.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. By empathizing with our users (clients, colleagues, etc), we are able to create more meaningful experiences, and therefore better designed products. However, there’s a paradox to empathy: The more we think we know another’s needs, the less effort we make to find out what their real needs are.

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Yesterday, I was asked to answer a question on Quora: What do the top 1% of user interface designers do differently than the other 99%? I think the original poster was assuming that the top eschelon of UI designers use different tools or techniques in their practice.

However, I see expert UI design differently. Those designers who really meet their mark and set the bar are not the ones posting pixel perfect mocks to Dribbble that would create horrible usability issues in practice; rather, the best UI designers are the ones who create interfaces so intuitive, so simple and clear, that the design itself really fades from view.

So I answered the question in kind:

  • They talk to the people who are going to be actually using their product
  • They hear criticism and feedback as an opportunity to improve things for the user and NOT as a personal knock
  • They are tied to an outcome, not the design itself, and they realize that the first 50 versions of their design may get scrapped before the 51st is accepted
  • They iterate on small things instead of feeling forced to recreate the big picture
  • They don’t follow trends blindly
  • Most of their work happens in sketches, on whiteboards, through conversations, and only a small piece of it concerns whether something will look nice on their portfolio
  • They allow data to guide their design, but they are not afraid to question the conclusions that are drawn from it
  • Most importantly, they see design as a process that involves multiple people and inputs – they lack ego and embrace empathy.

What do you think?

I stumbled upon this great article,  Slaying 5 UX myths for the good of mankind, and was blown away by the reality (and humor) of this quote:

Gone is the view of humans as rational beings who make decisions based on logical reasoning. Embrace instead humans as they are, turning to intuition when too tired to read, making poorer decisions when grumpy and who want to buy from you because you have a pretty smile and you like cats.

Can I get an “amen”?!

When I was studying economics, one of my biggest gripes was the idea that we could make large-scale policy decisions based on perfect models and the false notion of the “rational individual.”

Well, let’s face it folks: people are not rational. That’s why news about Kim Kardashian gets more attention than children starving in Darfur. It’s why we continue to vote for politicians who work against our own interest. It’s why we eat junk food, knowing full well its negative effects on us, because we like it.

And when you’re done reading this great article (which you should), follow it up with Never Ask What They Want — 3 Better Questions to Ask in User Interviews.

You’ll thank me later.

There has been a lot of bashing on pre-processors lately, and rightfully so. Sort of.

Certainly, these tools, such as SCSS and LESS, can result in excessive bloat and specificity issues in their generated CSS. Lyza Gardner struck the nail on the head in A List Apart this month:

Pre-processors have a way of keeping us at arm’s length from from the CSS we’re building. They put on us a cognitive burden to keep up on what’s evolving in CSS itself along with the tricks we can pull off specific to our pre-processor. Sure, if we’re intrepid, we can keep on top of what comes out the other end. But not everyone does this, and it shows.

But when it comes to pointing the finger, we should be looking at the author, not the tool he uses.

Pre-processors caught on largely because they made it easier to create scalable CSS that paralleled the structure of a pattern library. They made it easier to track variants off of a single element without duplicating any code or requiring additional class names on a single HTML element.

When used correctly, they make coding CSS – and more importantly, maintaining a large CSS code base – so much easier.

To truly take advantage of the strengths of pre-processers, we have to be aware of their limitations and weaknesses, plan accordingly, and think ahead. You could say the same thing about HTML, Javascript, image use, etc. Like any tool, a pre-processor is only as strong as the person who wields it.

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As designers, we spend far too much time analyzing how to refer to ourselves. “Product designer, UX/UI designer, visual designer, full-stack designer, lead designer of products”…do any of these really tell you about the person behind the title? If you saw a resume with one of these titles at the top, would it shape your expectations?

My bet is, no.

For example, I have reviewed countless resumes for people heralding themselves as a UI/UX designer because they have worked with wireframes. Often times, these individuals have never once spoken to an actual user or conducted any user research.

But can you blame them? Read any job description for designers, and you’ll think you can only be hired if you can conduct research, generate content, formulate an app’s infrastructure and key interactions, test prototypes, design the whole thing using the latest trends, and then launch the product with CSS, HTML, and Javascript.

It’s no wonder designers are forced to market themselves as the full package, even if it’s just to get a foot in the door. Plus, descriptions like these contribute to imposters syndrome. Your company may be missing out on the perfect candidate because he didn’t think he fit the full description of what you were seeking.

As an industry, I think it’s time we take a step back and just embrace the title “designer”. That, in of itself, expresses so much.

A designer is a problem solver; a thinker; a doer. They are someone who can navigate complex ideas and processes and help define a clear way to manage them. And they have core strengths and weaknesses, too. But I would get more from someone saying “I am a designer that focuses on visual design and product interactions” than if they just said “I’m a UI/UXer.”

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phrase “less is more.” The same holds true in this case.

Someone trying to describe themselves as a unicorn through their title often fails to match my expectations going in. On the other hand, I would not shortchange someone who simple called themselves “a designer.” I would feel confident that she could understand the core values behind UX research, content strategy, or interaction design, even if they weren’t familiar with the nuances and deliverables associated with that field.

A designer is a problem solver; a thinker; a doer. They are someone who can navigate complex ideas and processes and help define a clear way to manage them.

It’s time we rid ourselves of the debates over who we are and what we do. Be a T-shaped designer, find the area you love, focus on it, cultivate your skills, but expose yourself to other areas too. Don’t be afraid to try new things, like illustrations and mobile app design.

When you’re applying for your dream job, proudly say, “I am a designer” and own it. Own your strengths, own your weaknesses, but know that you can