Six Habits That Will Make You a Better Product Designer

Like the flow of a river through a canyon⁠—over time⁠, daily habits can carve your approach to design.

Published on July 27, 2020

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Growing as a designer is a complicated journey that spans decades, and there is no sure-fire way to become a superstar overnight. Like most things in life, it takes showing up every day, putting in the work, and always learning. Forming the right habits and repeating them can help elevate your game and set you up for success in the long run. These are a few of the habits that you can inject into your daily mindset right now.

Collect Inspiration

Inspiration is jet fuel for creatives. It motivates you to start, unblocks you when you’re stuck, and helps you define a benchmark for quality. Inspiration can be anything and anywhere — interesting arrangements, lettering at the coffee shop, a CSS trick, or something completely unrelated. You can actively seek it out as needed, or it can be spontaneous. Inspiration can be whatever you need it to be.

There is no shortage of inspiration online or in life, and it’s up to you to curate it meaningfully so that you can use it. Try to organize it using relevant categories — keeping items grouped based on the ways you might want to re-visit them later. On occasion, it makes sense to browse a general pool, and other times it’s more helpful to look at specific groups that are relevant to your work. Think about these categories early so you can make it easy for yourself later. Do you need a broad group like “Mobile App Design” or one that’s more specific like “Finance Dashboards”?

Dropmark is a tool that’s flown under the radar. The freemium bookmarking and visual collection tool allows you to save almost anything. It includes a web app, mobile app, and Chrome plugin that makes it easy to add, organize, and retrieve. There are countless tools out there with similar functionality, so figure out what works for you. It’s helpful to use a tool to aggregate everything rather than see pieces individually on different platforms. Start with a central location for capturing anything that inspires you this week and look for patterns to inform how best to organize it.

Reverse Engineer

There are a lot of people who work on incredible ways to push the boundaries of technology, art, design, products, systems, experiences, and life itself. By staying curious, you can leverage their work as your learning tool. Reverse engineering is a technique used to deconstruct someone else’s product to understand its design, architecture, mechanics, and impact on the world. It’s an efficient and effective way to extract vast amounts of knowledge that you can apply to your process. You can do this with physical or digital products, companies, processes, and systems. If it’s out there, then chances are you can reverse engineer it.

Start by opening a familiar app and saving a few screenshots of its main flow. Try to unpack how it works and take note of the design decisions. Do this with any new apps you encounter. Miro — the infinite whiteboard — is a perfect tool to visually display UX flows and write annotated thoughts, opinions, and insights. Learning from these real-world examples teaches you practical lessons about how they work from a technical and experience perspective. The next time you’re designing a specific user flow, you will better understand the patterns that currently exist and use them as a baseline for your approach. As a bonus, you will become better at formulating and articulating opinions about design for critiques and other feedback sessions.

Look out for conferences like Apple’s WWDC and try to disassemble the huge design decisions that are being made there. Many of these conferences release videos and detailed explanations of their process and findings.

Experiment

This one is the most fun. Luckily, the act of design is a profoundly fulfilling process that many enjoy doing outside of work. Experiments don’t have to lead anywhere, but they help you try new things and expand your skills without any constraints. Don’t limit yourself to feasibility or business outcomes, and don’t get too in your head about it. Go with the flow and see what happens, this time is never wasted. Things get more interesting when you step outside of your primary practice and experiment with new materials, approaches, and technologies. If you design interfaces, try composing a beat, working with 3D software, or creating a voice experience. You’ll keep things fresh, and you can figure out creative ways to blend it all into truly unique outcomes.

The habit of experimenting can take the form of participating in a weekly design challenge, re-designs of your favorite apps, or simply filling your sketchbook with fresh ideas. Experiments are a great way to build your portfolio and show interviewers your genuine curiosity to explore. Even the most senior designers can benefit from showing off their experiments to stand out from the crowd — these are often the most exciting pages on a designer’s website. Many tech companies encourage growth through experimentation by organizing hackathons, providing access to resources, and offering up flexible time, so make sure you’re using those opportunities if they’re available.

Tell a Good Story

Whether you freelance or work in a large organization, the journey of a designer is centered around effective communication. A client pitch, stakeholder call, user interviews, case studies, presentations, team updates, and even the copy in your designs — these are all opportunities to make people intrigued and aligned with your vision. Designers have a front seat when it comes to watching compelling product stories take shape. We’re there at kickoff, we empathize with everyone involved, and we advocate for the right solutions. The product process is like a Hollywood movie plot with a cast of characters, highs, lows, drama, problems, and resolutions. You’re likely surrounded by people who are curious and passionate about tech and the process that makes bringing it to life successful. They’re either stakeholders of your work, end-users, your colleagues, or the global tech community. Use these groups as an audience to practice telling a compelling product story and make them interested in your work.

Zoom In and Out

The design process is like Google Maps, zoom in to street level to work on micro-interactions but know when to zoom out to understand the system and how users will experience those interactions with others. It takes some time to master, but you will end up shifting between these zoom levels frequently throughout your journey.

Figuring out where you spend most of your time is an essential first step. Does your current role limit your zoom levels? Try to become more involved in the opposite zoom level that you most frequently operate in. It’s common to see upper-level management and executive teams hang out at the 30,000 ft. elevation while individual contributors perform more detailed work at ground level.

Put Stuff Out There

Most designers get their ideas to 60% and give up. Try to get comfortable with the idea of not chasing perfection and rethink your definition of “done,” so you can push yourself to get more ideas out into the real world. Become more than a designer hoarding jpegs on a hard drive. Become a maker and publish your article, post the Dribbble shot, or launch a minimal app just to see what happens. Being comfortable with putting stuff out there means you break down the perfection barrier and benefit from learning about your work’s impact on the world.

When your work is out there, you contribute to a community of people who can offer feedback and support to help you grow — that’s the most important thing.

One helpful technique to get stuff out there is to prioritize everything you’ve started but didn’t finish. Think about what you could do to wrap things up just enough to get them out there. When you’re prioritizing, think about how your unfinished work relates to your goals and bring the essential stuff to the top. At the end of this workshop, you should have one or two things that you aspire to release into the world and some action items to get started.

Closing thoughts

These positive habits are a few of the small things you can implement into your day today. Ideally, they should be enjoyable and seamlessly integrated into your current workflow, but, as with anything new that requires effort, the challenge is finding the motivation to develop and maintain momentum. If you think incorporating new habits will be beneficial, but you’re having trouble sticking to them, try using a habit tracking app like Habit Minder or dedicate a block of time on your calendar to get them done. Gamification and quantifying your progress goes a long way. Good luck!