<   Back to Writing

Advice from the Void

I get a lot of email and take a lot of coffee these days with eager young people looking to break into the work that I do. They tend to fall into two categories:

  • Should I go to graduate school?
  • Why isn’t my job more like graduate school?

To be honest I feel a bit unqualified to answer since I did not in fact attend graduate school. There I said it on the Internet folks. Gasp.

That said, I do think I have something to add in the ways of advice here. So here is the common advice that I do give to each of these email authors and coffee date makers.

Project into the void.

The connection between what you know, and what you do is what you make it. Not what is handed to you.

I hear from people all the time that are just waiting for that right moment, that white whale. The right job. The right client. That moment where their boss is going to finally trust them with the keys to the Cadillac. Until then, they will describe the void that the Cadillac would have filled.

I find myself giving people permission to make things up, improvise, and trust their guts way more than I feel I should have to. Put simply: no one is ever going to ask you to apply what you learned in that ethnography class to that CPG assignment BUT that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be an excellent parallel to draw.

Get over your ivory tower anxiety, walk into that dark room and be the one to turn on the light for everyone else. It feels really good, I promise.

Create teachable moments.

Hard as it is to swallow — a lot of project plans aren’t very carefully crafted and really are just “when can we see wireframes” plans. And that’s ok. Really, we are getting there. They want wireframes! There was a time when they fought about not needing those! I swear.

So, for now if you find yourself in these less than ideal scenarios — find a way to get the things you need to feel like the wireframes are as good as they can be. And as you go, talk about what would have made the process better. Get people to understand how you would have done it if you had more time or resources.

I swear to you, people will over time change their mindset. I have heard account people all of a sudden tell me how they told the client to plan for usability next year.

If you can’t do experience based work, try improving the experience of work.

I always tell those looking to break into this kind of work that the best litmus is to experiment with improving real world user experiences close to them.

Move the trashcan in your office to be more convenient. Reorganize the copy room to be more efficient. Improve the process by which office supplies are ordered and requested. Find something that matters and change it for the better.

You can use exercises like this to apply a basic user centered process. Observe user patterns around you, identify something to improve, create a potential solution, test it and iterate until you are happy with the result. Make flows and maps to try your hand at those skills along the way, communicate your ideas visually and create consensus with others.

It may not be graduate school, but if you cant find enjoyment and comfort in applying this process to something small, controllable and within your context then I would truly rethink attempting an entire career in this space.

Have more coffee.

This one is for the seniors actually. If you are reading this, hi!

In my coffee chats and emails I hear a lot about you not being very available for the young-uns. I spend a few hours a week talking to juniors, outsiders and n00bs. I really feel that we all owe that to our industry. Something tells me we were all there once. Remember that? So if you aren’t teaching, you better be accepting a ton of coffee dates.

IMHO talking about what you do keeps your mind sharp and your heart bursty.

Thanks for reading.