97 UX Things

Michelle Morgan - Make Learning a Part of Your Design Process

February 22, 2022 Dan Berlin Season 2 Episode 3
97 UX Things
Michelle Morgan - Make Learning a Part of Your Design Process
Show Notes Transcript

Michelle Morgan tells us how to make learning part of your design process.

Dan Berlin:

Hi everyone and welcome to another edition of the 97 UX Things podcast. Dan Berlin here, your host and book editor. This week, I'm joined by Michelle Morgan, who wrote the chapter Make Learning a Part of Your Design Process. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle Morgan:

Hi Dan. So great to be here.

Dan Berlin:

Awesome. Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?

Michelle Morgan:

Sure. I am a lead experience designer, I work in an agency in Atlanta. An agency that has morphed over the years with the curve of what happens in digital design. And so our emphasis right now is on complex enterprise and business intelligence portals. And so, I like anything that is complex. And there's a lot of... let's narrow it down to the essence and then add things back in as we find that they're really valuable.

Dan Berlin:

And do you concentrate more on the research side, design, strategy, somewhere else? Where do you focus your work?

Michelle Morgan:

As a team, we're definitely full service and we are a design-led agency. Instead of a lot of agencies are really sort of dev shops acting like agencies, or they might be visually-led. So we are UX design, our executive creative director is a UX design, practitioner, and teacher. And so we have an opportunity to really spread ourselves across the full width of a project or breadth of a project as much as we want to as individuals. I, myself come out of a theory and criticism background. So I really enjoy the research. I spent a long time in the co-working and startup space in Atlanta, so I love the strategy part of it. The only part that I am not strong in is the UI and visual design aspect of delivering a package.

Dan Berlin:

Gotcha. And how about your career trajectory? Can you tell us how you discovered UX? And how you wound up where you are today?

Michelle Morgan:

Yeah, sure. I started out as a commercial and institutional architect and I loved asking my clients to describe how they wanted things to feel. Especially in commercial and institutional, you're asking a representative of a company to describe what he wants the people who come in his building to feel. It equates to the stakeholder versus customer interviewing. I didn't even have any language for that. But I had a friend who left architecture in the late 90s. 99... 2000. We were working at a firm in New York together and she left to go be an Information Architect. And so it was always kind of in the back of my mind and I would read up on stuff and she would mention things along the way. Then I got very burned out on my career owning a co-working space in Atlanta. I loved working with startup entrepreneurs, I loved building things from the ground up, looking at strategies and financial models, and all kinds of things like that. But that is an exhausting job for a person who has a design personality because your face forward with people all day long. And that can be really tough. My husband recommended that the thing he had noticed that had always recharged me or reset me or made me feel like oh, yeah, that's who I am at my core, was taking a class and learning something. So I'd had about an 18-year career as an architect and I went to interview for a data science class at General Assembly, because I'm also a little bit of math nerd. And I thought, oh, that'd be a really interesting thing to add to my skill set with some kind of credibility. And the girl I interviewed with for the data science class, very gently asked me, why are you not here for the UX design class? And I was like, well, I don't know that I want to be a designer anymore. And she's like, everything about you fits with continuing to be a designer and I had felt like I had left that behind when I left architecture, and opened the business. And she said, well, why don't you do this design challenge? That's really the interview process and I brought something back to her. Zoey Jordan is the girl's name and she was the intake person, right? And she's like, I don't know anything about design. So she took what I brought back to the guy who was teaching the design immersive, a lovely, lovely guy named John Kay, who now teaches a similar type of content at the Home Depot here in Atlanta. It's called the orange method. And he was like, I don't know who this person is, but you need to get them in the class. She called me up and she's like can you come over and present this project to me? I did and afterwards she said, I did not understand at all what you sent back to me, but the guy who's teaching the class cannot wait for you to be in here. And I was like, oh, well, okay, this is gonna be really fun. So that's how I got back into it. It was really accidentally and with a lot of assistance from other people.

Dan Berlin:

Very nice. I love it, it's all about those serendipitous moments. A lot of folks in UX had those serendipitous moments where they realize that it's the path for them.

Michelle Morgan:

Yeah and I think being open to that kind of feedback from somebody. Oftentimes, we get out of the habit of listening to feedback from people because we get negative feedback. People will comment on what we don't do well, and so we start shutting ourselves down to that, and it shuts down your ability to take in the positive, serendipitous. Yeah, some total stranger saying, like, hey, I think you could be really good at this, you should try it.

Dan Berlin:

Great. So thank you for that. Let's dig into your book chapter please, Make Learning a Part of Your Design Process. And you mentioned learning during what you were just telling us, so it's a big part of your life. Can you tell us all about that?

Michelle Morgan:

Yeah. So I will say I am a... I always kind of scoff at the Lifelong Learner tag. But I think it's because I make the assumption that everybody is as curious. I read about a book a week. I don't read the newspaper cover to cover anymore, who would even be able to tell if you did or didn't, right? But now that it's not a physical thing, it's hard to tell. And I read a couple of magazines. I'm a pretty avid consumer of information, especially things that I don't really understand. I've been reading The Economist for probably 15 or 20 years and I think, man, they still talk about stuff that I have to write down a list of things and Google. I think it took me a long time to understand that anything I look at or listen to, and somebody mentions a word or a thing that I don't understand, I'm very quick to either say I don't know exactly what you mean by that, or I don't know what that is. And it took me a long time in the working world to understand that not everybody is comfortable with that. And that sometimes people's default methodology is to fill in the blanks. And my default methodology is to identify the blank. It can create some static sometimes, because you're asking a lot of questions and not making a lot of assumptions. I'm way over on one end of that spectrum and if I'm working with somebody who's way over on the other end, we have to kind of set up some ground rules. Because they can, they can interpret my constant barrage of what does that mean, what does that mean, as challenging them.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah. Can you tell us more about that difference between filling in the blank and asking what that blank means a little bit there.

Michelle Morgan:

I think sometimes it's a default thing that happens in people's heads. And I don't want it to come across as a criticism of that viewpoint, because I think it's not good or bad. Neither one of the viewpoints is good or bad. We just have a natural tendency towards usually one or the other. I think the person who naturally fills in the blanks is just operating from a different perspective. If you say to them, I want something that feels really interactive. Instead of what pops up in my mind is, okay, what does interactive mean to you? Does it mean that it's moving around? Or does it mean that there's a lot of room for me to put things into it? Or does it mean that it's imminently customizable? Or some people can just mean, can I change the color of it? Right? So I'm always gonna say, well, what do you mean when you say that? And a lot of that's a lingual approach to it; interactive has a lot of different meanings. It has a jargon-based meaning in our tradition. There's another person who's going to say, when you say I want it to feel really interactive, they're immediately going to have an idea of what interactive means to them. And so that person might immediately go to... the screen needs to move in conjunction with my ability to input information into it. Which is a really fantastic set of principles about design that the screen is responding to the person. But that definition of it for us, as designers can be very elevated and very layered and complex and all those things. And sometimes for clients, it's really not. And I always want to figure out what's the gap between me and the client and what we think. And so sometimes even if I think like, oh, interactive, you mean this? The moment I can hear that conversation in my head saying, oh, they mean this, it's like... do they? Can you ask a question to make sure? Or is that what you mean? Right? And it's a lot of that... I am not the user, I am also not the client.

Dan Berlin:

Right. Right. So thanks for that. It's really all about getting the definition there, it seems like. Can you fill us in on getting that into your design process... making learning part of your design process?

Michelle Morgan:

I think one of the things that seems to be pretty consistent or inherent in the design process for UX people is to make sure we're getting user feedback. We, in our office, work on an AGILE method. And so every two weeks, at a minimum, we're getting stakeholder and client feedback and things like that. But there's also this moment... I tend to tie it in one way to my daily activities and in another way to my sprint cadence to make sure that it fits in there. I want to stop and think about what is my feedback. And that's the place where I say, this is a great way to ask yourself questions. In addition to incorporating learning into your process, you can also incorporate the idea of cataloging your wins, being a little bit more intentional about measuring your own personal growth, and recognizing that gives you a moment to negotiate for yourself or advocate for yourself in terms of your role or an expansion or recognition or things like that. But in terms of the learning when you stop and ask yourself that question and you say, you know, in a typical sprint retro style with yourself, what went well? What didn't go well? What do I need to start doing or stop doing? The other question that I add into there is what do I need to learn about? What's the thing that I don't feel as confident about that I could stand to do a little more very purposeful reading or experimentation? Or I might even want to set a goal for myself around producing some work. So I will create design exercises for myself and I do this some with people on my team. Now that I'm leading a team, I want to help everybody on my team constantly learn and recognize that they are constantly learning and improving their skills. So, I like to work it in that way.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah. And I want to dig in a little bit more on measuring the personal growth. It sounds like you're setting some personal goals and you're finding activities to fulfill those. Where does input from others come in, in terms of either finding those areas or helping you there?

Michelle Morgan:

I'm typically using that same information and that same methodology in my regular one on ones and in my daily catalogue of events of the day. Let's talk about the one on ones first, because most offices do those. Probably every two weeks, I meet with my boss. I probably talk to him at length every other day about how things are going because of where I sit in the team. But I asked that question a lot, hey, what do you think is going well? What do you think isn't? What do you think we could improve? And I'll bring up topics that I want to learn about, sometimes because he is a catalog of information for me and sometimes because, I'll say, hey, I'm thinking about spending some really intentional time learning about this. It may be something he's not as excited about or his response to me the other day when I I mentioned, okay, everybody on our UX team now has some kind of visual design background other than me, and that makes me feel edgy and angsty, right? Like ooooh, ooooh, that the imposter syndrome creeps in really fast. And when I started to feel that way, I was like, oh, I could just spend some time working on my visual design skills and my UI design skills in a really purposeful way. I mentioned this in a pretty unvarnished way to my boss... I feel really insecure about, you know, everybody else having this skill. And he was like, that's nice; everybody else has this one skill, and here are the five skills that you have that other people on the team don't have. And I was like, ohhhh! That's that place, when you open yourself up. What I was expecting him to say is, yeah, you really need to level up your visual design skills Michelle. And instead, what he was saying is you play this really vital role around understanding the client and the language that the client speaks in the business requirements and the strategy behind what we're doing and how that connects to the business KPIs that you have. You're really strong in it and you're teaching other people on the team. So in that particular instance I was looking for criticism and what I got was...

Dan Berlin:

Perspective.

Michelle Morgan:

Yeah. And I think that goes back to what we were saying at the beginning about making sure you're leaving the door open for feedback, because where you might be trying to close it against negative feedback, what you might be expecting, designers can be really good at always looking for the hole, not just in the project, but in themselves and their skills and their resume. We are naturally people of critique and criticism and we're expecting that from everybody else all the time. So sometimes we can try to shut that out. And when you don't, you might get really valuable positive feedback, validation, reinforcement that you're like, oh, I'm forgetting that.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah, I want to stress the importance of one on ones. When I was managing a team as well... yes, as you said, you check in with folks on projects and things on a daily basis, or every other day, but those one on ones are the time to dig in a little deeper, and do that self introspection and setting aside that time with your manager and the people that you manage is just so so important. One place I want to ask you a question is what about the folks who don't know where to dig in? Where, alright, I know what I like, but I don't know where I want to find my niche or where I need to learn? How do we guide those folks?

Michelle Morgan:

I think it's just like your investment portfolio or thinking about time management and time allocation. Especially when you have a lot of discretionary time, you want to make sure that you have something that's assigned to a position of security. So these are really basic skills, right? And they're more production-oriented skills, there are more jobs in those areas. Those jobs are easy to pick up and they're easy to quantify performance. Especially when a market contracts or collapses and being able to quantify your super basic skills is an incredibly valuable thing. And people think about that a lot. What they don't think about are the other buckets, where it's like, here's my basic stuff, here's what I'm really passionate about or what I'm deeply interested in. I don't necessarily need to be particularly gifted at those things, my interest will carry me a really long way in a learning journey whether I'm good or not. Ira Glass has that great video about none of us are good in the beginning, our taste far exceeds our capabilities. I think your interest can help you, or you're passionate about something can help you; be kinder to yourself about those things in the early days. Then the other buckets are about how do I stretch myself? And in my investment portfolio, I think of these things as like super high risk, super fast growing. What's the thing I can do that is socially, intellectually, and skills-wise, totally outside my comfort zone? And that's how I ended up picking up some of my skills in strategy and in business and financial modeling and things like that. That's not on the architects radar, but it's something that I was like, oh, I don't know anything about it. So I had nothing to lose trying to learn it. I think that's an area that people oftentimes forget. They think, you know, I need to be working in my profession, building those skills. You do, but you need to look at what's adjacent. One of those things that are adjacent... strategy, dev, animation, things like that. What's the one thing you're super interested in that you could spend two hours and it would feel like play? What's the one thing that you're terrified of? My sneaky way of doing it is to say, what's the thing nobody else wants to do? Because this will differentiate me really quickly.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. And not being scared of trying the new or being wrong or trying something and realizing that it's not for you. It's not wasted time because you learned that it's not for you.

Michelle Morgan:

Trying something and then showing it to somebody for feedback... The first pro forma I built for a business, I showed to a guy, that that's his specialty, right? I was terrified. I took him out to lunch at this Thai restaurant and slid it across the table. And I thought, oh my God, I've got to drink a glass of water. My teeth are chattering, I'm shaking, I just know he's gonna tell me how dumb I am. And he was like, wow, this is really good. And I was like, oh, this could work, like this could totally work.

Dan Berlin:

Great. Well, thanks for all that. Is there anything else about your chapter that you were hoping to convey here today?

Michelle Morgan:

One of the things that is important about it, I talk about reviewing your own projects, and thinking about what you've learned and what you want to learn next, and things like that from reviewing your own projects. But the sort of hidden piece in here is learning by using other people's experience, learning vicariously. Asking the other people in your organization or your peers that you know in the city that you work in or now that we're all going to meetups on Zoom all the time and meeting people from all over the place, asking all kinds of people, hey, show me what you've been working on and tell me a little bit about it. I think that goes a long way to people having a better understanding of what is possible, starting to understand, oh, my peers are gifted in these ways that maybe I'm not interested in doing. You don't have to do everything as a designer, right? You can pick your lane and then know, oh, I have all these other resources of people who love those things. Some of those conversations where you're asking somebody else to talk to you about a project, I've thought, oh, that's how I've always wanted to do it. And my person that's leading my project hasn't validated that process, but here's this other person next to me at the office who has a different project manager, that that's exactly how they're doing and I should be doing it that way too and I should push a little harder. Sometimes you'll see somebody's work and you'll think, ooh, this is one of my peers and that's fascinating and look at all those capabilities that they have in that particular area that I don't. My UX bestie, from my immersive design class, has become a conversational AI specialist and I am astounded at the stuff that she does. It's fascinating to me, but at the same time, she's incredibly complimentary of the BI stuff that I do and it's kind of outside of her scope. But both of us have used the other one as a point of reference in a conversation with a client and had more knowledge about the the area that we don't work in then you might think somebody would because you've got somebody who's a specialist that's telling you about it. And you have a really open, especially when they're your friends, you have this really open conversation about , oh my God, tell me how you got from A to B? Or or like, what's next? Or what do you wish your boss would let you do that you can't write? Things like that.

Dan Berlin:

Great. So Michelle, thank you for all of that. About your chapter and about your career trajectory. In our final moments here, we'd like getting a piece of advice, a piece of career advice. So is there a tip you can offer folks who are either breaking into UX or who have been here for a while?

Michelle Morgan:

Let's see, for people who are breaking into UX, especially for people who came from other educational backgrounds or other professions, I would say... Think a lot about your transferable skills and learn to quantify them. I used the Gallup strength finder as a way to understand. When you say, I'm an architect, everybody thinks they know what that means, but they don't. They know what the product of that is, that it's a building, but they don't really know what you're doing. I learned to quantify my skills in a more abstract way and it helps me help other people understand how that design career serves the design career I have now. It also helps people understand how that design career served the career in co-working and advising startups and coaching them and things like that gave me a lot more credibility in that space. So it's just thinking about how to make your experience portable.

Dan Berlin:

Can you tell us a little bit more about quantifying your skills in an abstract way? What are ways that people can do that?

Michelle Morgan:

Yeah, so one of the things you do as an architect, I'll just use an anecdote about it... One of the things you do as an architect is you coordinate information between all of the engineers and all of the designers. So you learn to say, where does this stop and where does this start? And which of these systems has to take priority over the other? When you say, I coordinated all the building systems, people have no idea what that is. When you say, I coordinated all of the design disciplines, and I had to constantly make decisions about when you have a conflict, what needed to take priority of one or the other, all of a sudden, what your creative director or your head of UX is hearing is, oh, this is a person who can cross over disciplines very easily and that puts you immediately in a seat to have a managerial or director or team leadership role. I think it's finding what's the abstract language to describe the skill to get it out of the particular sector that you might have worked in, or area or title or role and then using the role based things as an anecdote to help explain it to somebody.

Dan Berlin:

Great. Well, thanks for all that. We're just about out of time here, so Michelle, thank you so much for joining me today.

Michelle Morgan:

Thanks. It's been really great to be here and to be a part of the project as a whole.

Dan Berlin:

Wonderful, thanks for being a part of it. My guest today has been Michelle Morgan, who wrote the chapter Make Learning a Part of Your Design Process. Thanks for listening, everyone. You've been listening to the 97 UX things podcast companion to the book 97 Things Every UX practitioner should know published by O'Reilly and available at your local bookshop. All book royalties go to UX nonprofits as well any funds raised by this podcast. The theme music is moisturized and situation by consider the source and I'm your host and book editor Dan Berlin. Please remember to find the needs in your community and fill them with your best work. Thanks for listening