One of the things they don’t tell you in undergrad is how important what you do outside of your regular job is to your professional growth. As I get older, more experienced, and my career advances, I’ve realized how valuable engaging in speaking and professional development opportunities outside of my particular workplace can be to me professionally, but also to the people I work with. These opportunities provide a chance to engage in my professional community, keep up with advances in my field, and become a better leader.
Recently, I was asked to lead a User Experience Design workshop for a new crop of business students at my alma mater, NYU Stern. As the Director of User Experience at Cake & Arrow I find opportunities to teach others my craft a welcome change of pace from the regular schedule of meetings that dominates much of my time these days, but also a professional development opportunity for myself, which helps me clarify my own thoughts and insights as they pertain to User Experience Design and leadership.
While I cherish these opportunities to teach, and consider them valuable not only to the students I teach, but to me professionally and to my colleagues and our clients at Cake & Arrow, finding the time on top of everything else on my plate is tough. When it came to preparing for my upcoming workshop at NYU I felt particularly overwhelmed. The last time I taught UX was at General Assembly, where I had 12 full weeks with students, and still felt as if I was leaving so much out. My workshop at NYU would last only an hour, plus 30 minutes for questions, which meant I needed to take an entirely different approach. Couple that with the normal demands of agency life, where it is late in the evening before I can even begin thinking about something that isn’t work related, and you’ll understand why I was procrastinating.
But as with any project, getting started is always the hardest part. And the good news is that as a UX professional, solving problems and coming up with solutions is what I do for a living. This is why I decided to take a page out of my own book and approach this project like I would any other, making myself a set of activities and deliverables, and scheduling out a series of deadlines. I’m happy to report that in doing so, I was able to design an awesome workshop that I’m confident will be valuable to all participants, and more impressively, with time to spare. Last week I put the final touches on my presentation and handouts and I am feeling prepared for tomorrow’s workshop and relatively stress free.
As UX professionals, I think sometimes we forget that the tools of our trade can be applied to pretty much any problem, and by applying our methodologies to all of life’s most daunting tasks, we can be more productive, successful professionals and can delivery a lot of value to the world. Below are a few of the ways I was able to take what I knew from being a UX professional and apply it to developing my upcoming workshop.
Make Meetings Matter
If you are anything like me, you sometimes feel like a professional meeting go-er. And while meetings can often feel like distractions from all of the work you really need to get done, meetings are valuable opportunities to talk through ideas and gather important information. They can also provide important milestones that can help keep you on track. Instead of fighting meeting-going, make meetings work for you.
If I have a meeting on the books, I’m going to make sure those meetings matter. Do whatever you can to book out your meetings in advance so you have time to prepare for them and to ensure they fit in with the milestones and workflows of the project you are working on. For example, when preparing for my upcoming workshop, I wanted to give myself plenty of time to have an initial meeting to gather pertinent information about the structure and format of the workshop and have time for a follow up meeting where I could discuss the content I had developed. Having these meetings as deadlines pushed me to get things done. And since I’m super focused on the experience I create for others, I know that I’m going to use those meetings as milestones and make sure I’m prepared so no one’s time is wasted.
Treat Project Players Like Stakeholders
When kicking off planning for my workshop, one of the first things I did was consider all the different players in the project–the department head who asked me to teach the workshop, the student organizing the workshop, etc–and thought of each as a key project stakeholders. I knew I wanted to fully understand their role, what they were trying to achieve, and what their expectations were. I made a point to schedule interviews with these stakeholders and probed them on all of these topics. And while this was just one set of inputs for the project, these interviews set me up for success by helping me derive a framework and I left them with a lot of ideas to explore. At the very least, treating your project players like stakeholders and interviewing them will give you the information you need to formulate a research plan.
Conduct User Research
This of course is the silver bullet. Though I went to business school, it was over 8 years ago and I can’t fully expect to understand what exactly is going through the heads of today’s students. A lot has changed in technology, in education and in the business world over the past 8 years. So instead of trying hard to guess, I actually conducted user research. For this workshop, I tried to meet in person or get on the phone with at least 3 participants. From talking to these 3 people, I was able to gather a diversity of ideas and a ton of inspiration. During the interviews, I did my best to learn about their backgrounds, their goals, their knowledge and even threw a few concept ideas by them to get their reactions (yep, that’s a prototype.) You can take this even further and make a provisional persona if you like. But often times, just the act of talking this through with real live humans is enough to help you formulate a really good plan.
Make a Deck
Ok you don’t always need to make a deck, but it helps to write in a medium that you are used to working in. For me, making a deck–regardless of whether or not I will be presenting it–is a great way to organize my thoughts and get my ideas on paper. Decks are great because by design they encourage succinctness and supply an organizational structure. And these days, it seems that everything is communicated in a deck, whether in business or in the classroom. While in this case, I was conducting a presentation so a deck made a lot of sense, sometimes I will just start with a deck regardless of the project because the format helps me get moving. Make sure your deck doesn’t just include the key pieces of information, but tells a story. Whether or not you are presenting it, knowing what the story is will always help you communicate your ideas in a more impactful way.
Take a Day Off
This one can be tough, especially for procrastinators. But I find it extremely important to take a day off and let your work sit. You want to have time for your brain to subconsciously work through any issues. This is a really critical step that people either don’t think about or don’t find time for. I really trust my subconscious brain to do a lot of heavy lifting. For this project, taking a day off helped me simplify my presentation. I have a tendency to include too much. By taking time away from the piece I can come back with fresh eyes, ready to simplify. If there is time I then do a practice run with friends.
Procrastination, even with the best intentions, can be exacerbated when you are attempting a project outside of your day- to-day. Rather than dwelling on how the project might be different than what you are used to, instead remember your core skills and treat it like any other problem that you know how to solve. Structure it into your normal working cadence, conduct your key research activities and use a known format to structure the output, demystify the task and make it as easy as business as usual.