A dirty little secret that no one seems to tell most kids today: There’s no clear-cut path to the career you want. Now if you want to do something respectable, like be a neurologist—yes, you do have to go to med school. But for a lot of us, the path is less concrete. Especially for creatives. We tend to do a lot of wandering in our post-grad years. We work in the service industry busing tables, slave away in retail, or for the more practical among us, work at uninspiring office jobs. The thing is, these odd jobs can be good for our careers in ways we don’t realize until much later. In my case, I worked a job in outdoor education.
For the uninitiated, outdoor education teaches personal and group growth through experiences in outdoor settings. For me, that meant a year of teaching team building activities to people of all ages. Yes, those goofy games you played at summer camp, like the human knot, were a serious, full-time job for me. But in between making sure that everyone was being spotted and preventing tick infestations, I learned some valuable lessons about designing for the best user experience.
Context is important
Each group I worked with had a different set of goals they wanted to meet and challenges that they faced. Sometimes it was a 5th-grade class with bullying issues. Other times it was a high school football team that couldn’t run plays smoothly. Each group was given a different set of challenges, called “elements,” that were appropriate for their needs. While scaling a 6-foot wall may be difficult for a group of 10-year-olds, teenagers would complete that element easily. In the same way, when developing products, context is extremely important. What goals do our users have? What are their pain points? Remember, we are advocates for our users, not just creators of a product. It is imperative to keep in mind the big-picture scope of a project in order to meet the user’s goals. Tools like user personas and vision statements give us a touchpoint to return to when larger context questions arise.
Not everyone learns the same
Something that isn’t often discussed in our industry: learning disabilities. I worked with kids who were diagnosed with everything from autism to dyslexia. We need to remember that a good portion of our users don’t learn and work the same way as a “neurotypical” user. While you can’t design for every specific subset’s needs, small things like having affordance when a user makes an error or designing for focus on a single task can make a big difference for those with special needs.
Start hard, end easy
If you are acquainted with the art of knot tying, you might have heard this saying before: “Your figure-eight follow-through will be perfectly tied if you start at the hard beginning and end in the big easy loop.” This saying lends itself well to the product development cycle. Often companies try to cut out important parts of the UX process to save time and money. If we start off hard, with user interviews and research, we will make things easier for ourselves towards the end of the process.
A big part of teambuilding is not just the games you play, but also the group discussion at the end of each activity. In outdoor ed, this is called “processing.” Processing is a time for the group to discuss issues and celebrate achievements. Something as small as having each kid choose a picture describing how they felt about an activity could lead to a larger discussion on the team’s dynamic. When we finish a project or hit a checkpoint, we shouldn’t just celebrate with beers, we should take stock of how we are doing. What were our biggest successes? How can we do better? What processes can we work on? Often this key part of the product cycle is ignored. It’s not about playing the blame game if something went wrong. Rather, it’s a way to foster growth on our teams so we can be the best at what we do.
Design should be fun
Why is outdoor education successful? Because you’re not just learning by sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher. It’s interactive, engaging, and messy. Our design process should be the same way. Prototype small interactions, even if they fail. Suggest ridiculous ideas at the beginning of the cycle, even if they are barely plausible. Don’t just go straight to wireframing, explore all ideas first. You never know what will stick. We should have fun designing too. Joke around during meetings. Take your developer out for beers. Start a company rock climbing club. Here at HZ, we take this idea very seriously. The team that plays together works better together.