The Hero’s Journey to Becoming a UX Designer

Monish SubherwalDesign Mindset and PhilosophyLeave a Comment

Every once in a while I teach a UX bootcamp for General Assembly – typically in Santa Monica or Downtown Los Angeles, California. The bootcamp covers the fundamentals of user experience design and students walk away with understanding the design process by practicing UX and building a mobile prototype.

The students who attend are often career shifters. These are people so deeply curious about User Experience Design as a new career possibility that they are willing to pay good money to attend my class and spend a day with me.

At the beginning of the class, I like to tell the students something which I’m not sure they fully understand, but is worth discussion. This is what I generally say:

“I’ve taught both part-time and full-time courses on user experience. But the large value of those classes are NOT that you learn user experience skills. Don’t get me wrong, the skills (domain knowledge) are a big part of the class. But the real value comes from being able to have an identity level shift at the end of the class. To be able to go from your previous profession (accountant, marketer, sales, whatever) and be able to confidently and congruently say ‘I am now a UX Designer’. That is why you are taking the class.”

To be honest, some students instantly grasp what I tell them about “identity level shift” and others sort of gloss over it. For myself, it’s a big realization I have had about my role in teaching user experience — and I think it’s important for new students to understand. Allow me to explain…

What’s Required for Transformation

To transform from one career path to another – to be able to say (and believe) that you are a UX Designer is something quite extraordinary. Any identity level shift is very difficult. For example, I can’t wake up tomorrow and credibly say to anyone (including myself) “I am a physicist!” All my internal voices in my head would say “yeah right!”. Internal doubt and incongruence would take over and people would find out soon enough I don’t know squat about physics.

This is why I’ve never been a fan of the “fake it til you make it” idea. It’s bogus. There is no “fake it”. You just make it. You can’t lie to yourself and others for too long.

How to “Make It”

So how does one “make it” then if you can’t fake it? Well, sacrifice. Hard work. Reading the books, paying for and attending the classes, and watching the videos are a part of that process of transformation. And it can be very confusing and emotionally draining too – that’s part of the sacrifice process too.

However, even in order to “make it” (to do the hard work) – you have to do something before that, which is even harder for some people.

And what could possibly be harder than the long hours of hard work?

Well, that is to admit your career isn’t where it should be — and that you don’t have it all together. That’s the hardest part!

In life, in order to achieve big things you have to be somewhat dissatisfied with where you are now. You have to admit where you are is not that great — and that learning user experience design is a worthwhile endeavor.

To those career shifters who become UX Designers, dissatisfaction and general unhappiness with ones career and life is the beginning of their call to adventure.

The Hero’s Journey: Becoming a Student again

The students in my class hear a call to adventure and it beckons them. This is the start of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

To even start on the hero’s journey – one must admit where they are now isn’t that great (and that they don’t know everything).

Only then, can they desire for a better future.

This desire leads them to turn into a student again and get back into the learning process. This is an amazing feat in itself.

I often find it amazing how when I come into a classroom, there is a clear role reversal. I may have students who are insanely intelligent experts in a different field, who now sit quietly to hear what I have to say.

They take on the role of “the fool” in tarot. And I don’t mean they ARE fools, but rather they are taking on the spirit of the fool.

The Fool

For the record: I’m no tarot buff, but I heard Jordan Peterson mention how in order to be a master, you must be a fool. Students must be willing to admit that they don’t know everything like “The Fool” tarot – a man who is carelessly walking around.

Additionally, when you see the “The Fool” tarot card, you can see the man carelessly walking towards a cliff. Ouch.

What does the cliff represent? Sacrifice. To be more precise, the cliff represents dangeroussacrifice (which can be very painful).

Students must first have the courage to admit they are lacking some information. They then have to desire for that information. And lastly, they have to sacrifice a lot to get that identity level shift.

And sacrifice they will. These courses are intense. They are called “bootcamps” for a reason (in fact, the full time course at General Assembly is called an Immersive or Intensive).

But at the end of the hard work is a pay off. “The Fool” goes on to become a master.

My Role as Instructor

Earlier I had mentioned the Hero’s Journey. Dissatisfaction, desire, sacrifice – are all parts of a student’s own personal hero’s journey.

I play the role of the “Mentor/Helper” in their hero’s journey. After their personal call to adventure, I appear in their lives for a short while. I help guide them into the unknown world of UX. I challenge them and test them (the ‘Trials and Failures’ in the Hero’s Journey image above) and help them learn new skills.

Some could say I also personify the obstacles they must overcome to reach their true end goal: ‘identity level shift’ – to be able to say they are a UX Designer.

This is their immense accomplishment and I am honored to play a part in it.

Ownership: Are designers responsible for failed projects?

Monish SubherwalDesign LeadershipLeave a Comment

Principle:  Effective designers are great at follow through, throughout the design process. This means adopting an “ownership mindset” – being responsible for successes and failures.  This includes:

  • Taking on additional responsibilities to get the project on track.
  • Getting their design implemented as intended.
  • Avoiding blaming others for stalled or failed projects.
  • Navigating difficult personalities to get work done.
  • Bringing together the right people to get the project done.

Real Life Story

“What the heck was that?!” I thought.  I had some difficulty with getting my designs implemented by the developer and my manager gave me hell.  In short, he got angry and told me the work sucked. 

After the meeting, I continued thinking angrily, “How dare he!  He didn’t even know what I put into the project.  I worked long hours to get this done.  Why is it my responsibility to code it properly?  This is unfair!”

Come performance review time, I was shocked by the lower rating.  I had performed at peak levels for years.

I was pissed.

Failure Sucks

Failure will happen on a project.  There is no escaping failure.

There’s lot of articles on failure these days.  People LOVE talking about how “failure is so great” and embrace failure and “fail often!” and yada yada yada.

Failure is a great teacher, but it still sucks.  And it hurts. And truly, no one wants to talk about how they failed (until much much later when they get over it).

One of the key soft skills that effective designers cultivate,  when failures happen is to adopt a ownership mindset.  


Ownership in design means to own the design – from beginning to end.   Ownership doesn’t just mean “creation rights.”  In my definition, it means having accountability for what is built per your design.

“Failure” Will Happen

Failure will happen.  There are a variety of problem scenarios that can happen, centered around your design:

  • Deadlines keep slipping
  • The quality of the design that is launched is poor
  • The project is blocked for some reason (not enough resources, not enough stakeholder buy-in)
  • Your design gets torn apart during design review (and in front of your manager and peers!) 
  • Your developers ship something without telling you
  • And more…

Get rid of excuses and blame

When problems happen, people expect justice for others and mercy for themselves. – Anonymous

In the real life story I shared above, I was angry that I got blamed for a developer’s poor work.  When the product launched, it was due to the developer not planning their time and fixing all the css per my design.

Or was it?

At least, that was the perspective when I was getting the heat from my manager.  When I calmed down I realized that in order for me to be successful, I had to adopt the mindset that I was responsible for everything related to my design.  

To do that, I had to push aside the blame and excuses I was telling myself when the project “failed”. 

Here are some of these excuses for you to avoid:

Excuse #1:  My manager should’ve known, it’s THEIR job  

My manager’s lack of understanding was annoying to me.  

But in hindsight, he was right.

I had status checks with him early on and showed him progress, but his job isn’t to be there checking on the quality all the time.  That’s my job.

Later in my design career I realized that most manager are swamped and don’t have the bandwidth to babysit you and your project to completion. 

The babysitting is reserved for junior designers, who are expected to not yet be able to fully manage a project on their own due to their lack of experience and/or skills. 

If you are a junior designer reading this, ownership helps you stand apart.

If you’re more senior, it’s expected of you.  Inform your manager of what is going on – but don’t use that as a crutch for designs that don’t meet expectations (yours or others).

Excuse #2:  The Developer screwed up 

Developers don’t screw up.  If your developers code things that don’t match your design, it’s your job to check with them and see where they are at.  

If their progress is slow and you’re seeing the deadline approaching soon, HAIL THE RED FLAGS.  That’s the best time to let your manager know.  

For me, there was no point being angry at my developers (my teammates).  They were swamped.  Truth was, they had hustled and worked long hours to build out a lot of the functionality I designed.  

And they were fairly OK to work with – attitude wise.  

Excuse #3:  The Product Manager or Project Manager is Responsible 

Everyone knows the product manager is responsible for the success of a project.  While that may be true, it’s not a helpful attitude to adopt, for 3 reasons:

  1. You can mentally check out and silo yourself as a “designer” and that’s product manager stuff – which hurts a team mindset.
  2. You may not be responsible for the success of the product itself, but you are responsible for the design and the impact of the design.  If the design is horrible and many people think thats the reason for the failure of the product, people may start to point their finger to you for the project failure, not the product manager.  
  3. Nowadays, the designer is being looked to help validate the business ideas as well.  The idea of designing an MPV for experimenting and testing in the marketplace is becoming prominent as more and more designers are learning “lean” thinking which focuses on designing and launching small experiments to test your ideas. 

Tactics for Ownership

The idea of being only responsible for your part of the work is an old one from the industrial age.  At one point in America, lots of farmers gave up their craft to become “specialists” (factory workers).  They were just tasked to focus on one thing.  By doing so, we didn’t have to worry about all parts of a business – JUST the part we were hired for.  

In other words, we gave up ownership.

Seth Godin mentions this in his book Linchpin.  Godin writes about factory life:

“The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed.”

Great designers may be managed, but they don’t give up ownership all together. They are also self-reliant, proactive, and take on the responsibility of being aware of the project’s status irregardless if they are the product/project manager or not.

Below are some practical tactics to adopt an “ownership mindset”:

Ask for help

  • Troubleshooting early.  Raise the red flags when development doesn’t seem on track.  Discuss with the team your concerns.
  • If you still aren’t on track, go to the development manager to express your concerns and tell your manager as well.

Bring  the Right People Together

  • Bringing together the right people to get the project done.  This may include visual designers, copywriters, or others.
  • If you don’t know who else needs to be involved, its a good idea to ask your manager or someone else, “who else should we invite to our meetings to ensure project success?”

Create a Design Bug Log

When my design was implemented poorly (and after I got scolded), I did the following to get the project back on track:

  1. Talked to my manager again (when I was calm) and asked him how to improve the situation.  He suggested I create a log of all the “design bugs.”
  2. Talked to the developers managers and told them the problem.  Had their buy-in for meeting with the team weekly to go over the design bug log I created.
  3. Met with the developers weekly to fix the existing problems and prioritize future work.

Use a Project Management Tool to keep track of items

  • After that meeting, I started using Tom’s Planner, a super simple project management tool for organizing the project.  If your team already has a project manager, great!  You don’t need to do that.  My team was not organized enough – so I took on the additional responsibility to get the project on track.

Are designers responsible?  What’s your experience?

Have you ever had to deal with project gone bad and been blamed?  What’s your general attitude?  I would love to hear what your thoughts are about this topic.  Leave your comments below!

The Risk All Designers Face: Becoming too “Businessy”

Monish SubherwalCollaborating TogetherLeave a Comment

Back when I was in college studying Computer Science at UC Berkeley, design was considered the softer-not-so-serious part of my department and subtly scoffed at by engineers.

In the workforce this snobbery continued. You’d join a company and it would be either product lead or developer lead. Once a vision was set, designers were a mere afterthought.

And it frustrated the hell out of us.

But man, have times have changed wonderfully!

A new world: with great power comes great responsibility

Forward to today.  Designers are now sought after. It’s fairly clear what the ROI of design is to companies (I’ve written about the ROI of design before), and we’re seen as a vital part of a successful business strategy.

And more and more, we are getting to work with parts of the business to define the product and the strategy. Which is great.

But, like the Spiderman movie says “with great power come great responsibility.” Now as designers are being seen as someone who can define strategy, there is always the risk of being TOO businessy.

Business Goals and User Needs

A common image we see, is this image here:


UX Design is usually warm and cozy in the “sweet spot” – right in the intersection of business goals and user needs.

And for many of us, that challenge to balance the two parts is a struggle.  Our primary responsibility is to be advocate for the user and their needs, but then we also must design with business in mind.  We have to think design AND think business.

The bigger problem is when we start to move over too much onto the business side of the 2 circles.  We can get caught up in the business goals too much – going beyond our primary responsibility, focusing on users.

This article is going to cover what happens when we go too far.

The Ambition Vision Scale

Back when I was at Myspace, I had met a fellow designer who had reluctantly shown me his designs. When I asked if he had shown our manager to get feedback, he said “no way.” He wanted to keep his designs into himself and reveal it only when it was fully ready (as if, there was a grand finale).

I could clearly tell he came from an art school background. His design was his art and was highly precious.

Over time, I began to realize that there were many types of designers – and their general attitudes fit nicely on a scale I call the Ambition Vision scale.

The scale is called the Ambition Vision scale, because it highlights the struggle we all face as designers. We are constantly balancing our Ambition (serving our own personal needs) with our Vision (serving the needs of others, including users and the business).

The Ambition Vision Scale looks like this, and I’ll go over it in detail:

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.35.06 AM

3 Main Attitudes

There are 3 main attitudes listed on the scale:

  1. Him/herself over People and ProfitsOn the left, we see an attitude of the Designer (him/herself) over people and profits. Everything they do is more important than the business and users (people). This attitude is all about me, me, me.Design is all about their self-expression.
  1. People over profitsIn the middle, we see an attitude of people over profits. This is the extreme attitude of putting the user over the business. There is no need to consider the business at all. This attitude all about people, people, people.Design is purely seen as a vehicle for serving others.
  1. Profits over peopleNext we see profits over people. This is the attitude of doing anything and everything to make a dollar. Tricking users is OK for people with this attitude. This attitude is all about money, money, money.Design is trivialized as a way to make a profit.

3 Main Characteristics

If we take the scale further, we can see the attitudes map to characteristics.

On the left, the person who puts him/herself over people and the profits is representing naive selfishness. I call it naive because no one lives in a bubble. Too much ambition doesn’t work.

Putting people solely over profits, isn’t any better. Those people are naively selfless. I call these folks naive because too much vision (serving others) without ambition (serving yourself) burns you out.

And lastly, the people who put profits over people, are engaging in greed.

See the characteristics here:

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.18.39 AM

The Artist, the UX Purist, and the Dark UX Designer

So what types of designers fit along this scale?

We can map the the attitudes and characteristics to personalities.

We see that the we come up with 3 personalities:

  • The Artist
  • The UX Purist
  • Dark UX Designer

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.26.52 AM

The Artist

The Artist is like my friend from Myspace. His or her design is her “art”. It’s all about their ideas, their vision, their perfect design. They don’t want to share their ideas, because they are precious.

The Artist loves sitting in an ivory tower and taking all the credit and fame.

The UX Purist

The UX Purist puts users over the business all the time. They are an idealist and see what they are doing as helping humanity. While their views are selfless, it’s naively so. Building things people won’t pay for, doesn’t serve any business well.

The UX Purist loves design and loves people.

The Dark UX Designer

The Dark UX Designer doesn’t mind breaking rules. They are comfortable using annoying pop-ups and nagging the user if it means getting more revenue.

They are OK with tricks and enjoy “persuasive design” techniques that leverage human psychology to manipulate the user.

The Dark UX Designer loves money and success above all else.

Where do product managers and designers fit in this scale?

We can map product managers as closer to the profits over people side of the spectrum – but not on the extreme end where Dark UX Designers typically sit.

We can also map UX designers between ‘People over profits’ and ‘Profits over people’. UX Designers can’t be naively selfless, nor can they be too greedy.

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 8.48.15 AM

A word of caution: where I’ve positioned the UX Designer and the Product Manager are highly debatable positions for a few reasons:

  1. The Scale is flexibleThe Ambition Vision Scale is not a device for labeling and judging others. When making design decisions, sometimes our ego gets in the way. We become the Artist. It’s all about me, me, me.Sometimes we get idealistic. We think that the business is too greedy and neglecting the users. We become the UX Purist.Other times, we may appease our business counterparts to the extreme. We focus solely on the metrics and serving business goals – at the expense of staying objective and balancing focus on user needs.So what’s the right personalities to develop? The key is balance and being flexible, embodying characteristics and attitudes that serve a problem you are solving.
  1. The role of designer is evolvingAnother reason why it’s hard to pigeonhole designers and product managers on this scale is because the role of design is evolving. Sometimes we are called to do more business strategy work. In this case we would slide up the scale, closer to the Product Manager or Dark UX Designer.Sometimes even Product Managers slide down the scale, being asked to do more UX work.Sometimes we join a company and we may be asked to do innovation work. This work often has to do with focusing solely on future ideas regardless of business constraints. We end up being the UX Purist again.

Your thoughts?

I hope you enjoyed this article!  Likes and comments always provide me a lot of encouragement to keep writing articles like this.

If you are interested in more of my ideas and how to develop your soft skills as a designer, visit my website at

To your success,

Monish Subherwal

Design isn’t just messy at research, it’s messy ALL the time

Monish SubherwalDesigning JoyLeave a Comment

One of my biggest pet peeves are mundane images that are shared on LinkedIn and the web.  A whole bunch of them are cliché and/or have been worn out by reuse (especially, the UI is NOT UX image on the web thats SUPER common, how many times and ways can you tell people that UI is not equal to UX?).

A big NO-NO

One image looks GOOD, but bothers me:

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 5.48.19 PM

The image shows a tremendous amount of “messy clutter” during the research phase in design.  It indicates that a lot of activity to discover and define the project happens in the beginning of the UX process, and that once that is “figured” out, the rest of the process is less messy.

But that’s not true.  The image is not accurate.

Design is messy ALL the time

Here’s the reality:  design is messy ALL the time.  NOT just during research.

There is ambiguity throughout the process.

And, to be even more clear, I feel that navigating that ambiguity is one of our key jobs as designers.

Redesigning the graphic, I think it should look like this:

messydesign-963x417 copy

And this lines up well with a designer’s #1 job.

What is a Designer’s #1 Job?

ALL of design is a constant tension (good tension of course).  A designer does their best to learn about their users, and create a vision to solve that user’s problems.  And the entire process is just a non-stop dedication to bringing that vision to reality.

And that’s a designer’s #1 job.  To make vision come to reality.

If product managers have “product-market fit” to worry about, designers have “vision-process fit” to worry about.  This vision-process fit (this is a term I am coining btw), is matching a designer’s vision to the process (including tools and skills) that he/she uses.

So how do they make vision come to reality?

If product managers have “product-market fit” to worry about, designers have “vision-process fit” to worry about.  This vision-process fit (this is a term I am coining btw), is matching a designer’s vision to the process (including tools and skills) that he/she uses.

Creative Thinking Vs. Critical Thinking

Designers do 2 things really.  They create something AND then check to see if that thing they created is “good” or “not good”.

This constant back and forth between creating and evaluation, happens at ALL stages of the design process.

To create and evaluate, great designers end up developing 2 essential soft skills:

  1. Creative thinking skills
  2. Critical thinking skills

Through each stage of the design process (research, design and prototyping), a designer must be creative and critical.

In other words, it’s messy throughout – not just during research, but also during prototyping AND during design.

Some examples of Creative vs. Critical Thinking

Research Phase

Creative thinking activity:  Creating a topic map
Critical thinking activity:  Evaluating to see if the topic map is comprehensive.

Creative thinking activity: Brainstorming questions
Critical thinking activity:  Evaluating to see if the questions are well formed and the order is correct.

Creative thinking activity:  Interviewing users (yes, this is an art)
Critical thinking activity:  Analyzing the notes and discovering patterns from all interviews.

Creative thinking activity:  Creating the card sorting cards.
Critical thinking activity:  Having users group the cards and label the piles (open card sort).  Analyzing the results afterward.

Design Phase

Creative thinking activity:  Design Studio Method (designing solutions separately)
Critical thinking activity:  The converge phase in the design studio method (when designers come together and talk about what ideas worked or didnt)

Creative thinking activity:  Sketching
Critical thinking activity:  Getting feedback from others or self-evaluating to see if the sketch works or not (has all the requirements and solves user’s needs).

Creative thinking activity:  Wireframing
Critical thinking activity:  Getting feedback from others or self-evaluating to see if the wireframe works or not.


Creative thinking activity:  Building the prototype and the interactions
Critical thinking activity:  Getting feedback from others (usability testing) or self-evaluating to see if the prototype works or not.

It’s really really messy

As you can see, design is an ongoing process of making the unclear, more clear.  This requires 2 crucial soft skills: creative thinking and critical thinking.

And to be honest, I lied.  The graphic really needs a LOT more squiggly lines.  Here’s what the process really looks like:


For each method used in the design process, there is a squiggly followed by a straight line (lack of clarity, followed by clarity).

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts?  Are all the phases of design equally messy or do you really think research is the messiest?  Leave your comments below!

3 Things Great Designers Do When Giving Design Feedback

Monish SubherwalCollaborating Together, Giving and Receiving FeedbackLeave a Comment

There used to be an old joke in the design community: “you can always tell a junior designer from a more senior one.  When giving feedback, a junior designer nods, smiles,  thanks you…and then proceeds to the bathroom to go cry.”

Receiving feedback is a core part of being a designer and you develop “tough skin” over time.  But giving feedback is also an art.

The Delicate Balance Between Soft and Hard Feedback

As an instructor, I often have to give feedback.  I see lots of projects from students at different parts of their education and in different phases of my class.

I have to evaluate what is “good” or “bad” design and give appropriate feedback fitting the project, student skill set, and phase of their learning.

And, the truth is, it’s a delicate balancing act.

Being too soft with feedback, we lean towards being too nice and supportive.  Telling the designer the design is “OK” and “keep iterating.”  The recipient is left with little pressure –  thinking that they don’t need to worry too much and that they just need to keep moving forward.

Being too hard, we risk hurting feelings and demoralizing the person.  Telling the designer their work is “sub-par” or not acceptable.  The recipient is left with a LOT of pressure – and can shut down and not feel our feedback is useful to design iteration, but is rather a personal attack.

How much pressure?  What’s the right mindset?

Overall, we want to set HIGH expectations without demoralizing the recipient of feedback.

Indeed, whether we’re too “soft” or too “hard”, the intention is pure: we want them to keep refining their work so the product output is better.

Second, we want to empower the recipient (and especially if you are a leader your goal is to develop others).

Building self-confidence as a designer is a HUGE skill set (after all, the ultimate goal is self-reliance – for THEM to be the measure of quality and be able to evaluate themselves).

Problems with Being an “Expert”

“Expert” designers (designers with 10+ years of experience) become REALLY REALLY good at evaluating designs.  They can spot when a design is “off”.  Really great designers are able to “see” all these problems all at once (like Neo in the matrix, yes quite a nerdy reference).

They can tell you why grey isn’t a good choice for a color, or why your feature isn’t going to work.  It’s an amazing skill that comes with time and years of experience designing products.  I know this because I have met great UX directors who have evaluated my work and I have been dazzled at their insights during feedback sessions.

There are many many things to give feedback on, and expert designers can evaluate a design based on ALL these elements:

  • Design layout
  • Labels
  • Color
  • Design decisions
  • Content
  • Structure of content
  • Feature decisions
  • and much much more!

Yet, the drawback for expert designers is that it’s EASY to tear a design apart — AND the designer receiving that feedback.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative (business philosopher Jim Rohn says “negative is normal”) and just spew out problems.

However, if you quickly rattle off ALL the problems ALL at once, you really don’t make your feedback useful to the recipient.

They can end up flustered, demoralized, or unable to know what to “fix.”

Over time, they will stop coming to you for feedback at all – realizing it’s a painful negative experience that isn’t useful.

What Great Designers Do

The better designers can “SLOW DOWN” when they give their feedback.

They hold off rattling off “issues” they can spot.  Instead, they:

  1.  Hold off their reactions.
  2.  They seek to understand, before they ask to be understood.  
  3. They back their feedback up based on objectives.

I’m going to go over each of these (many of these ideas come from a book called “Discussing Design” which I highly recommend).

1. Holding Off Reactions

“I don’t like it” “It doesn’t make sense!”  “This is sh*t.”

When people react, they can react verbally or non-verbally.  Whether we like it or not, the reaction tells us something about their view of our design.

Great designers when giving feedback, hold off reactions.  When they are asked for feedback, they take some time to slow down and think.

When we react too quickly – we get judgmental and this automatically puts safety at risk.  This can cause the recipient of the feedback to get reactive and defensive themselves and even stop listening to you.

That is the opposite of what you want.

Remember, feedback isn’t about judgement, it’s about refinement.  So slow down.

2. Seeking to Understand

Once you’ve taken a few breathes, start to ASK QUESTIONS to learn more about how a designer was thinking about the design decisions.  “Why” questions become invaluable for discovering intentions.

Questions like:

  • Curious to know, why did you choose this color?
  • Why did you consider this feature over another?
  • Tell me, why did you go in their direction?

Asking questions like this helps show you CARE about the other person’s hard work.

It helps build rapport and helps set a context for reflecting and exploring the design together.  Showing you are thoughtful about another person’s perspective, is the basis of empathy (a skills set that great designers cultivate).

3. Back up Feedback based on Objectives

What is “good” or “bad” design?   Is Craiglist an example of “good” design? Craiglist is a successfully UGLY product that works well.

Design can only be “good” or “bad” based on if it meets the objectives of it’s users and the business.   

Thus, great designers can articulate WHY the design is off and back up their evaluation  based on objectives (persona, scenarios, problem statement, and/or business goals) and using design principles.

This is better than reacting quickly or being the “expert” and rattling off design problems.

Great designers ask about how the design meets the objectives.  Their feedback is centered around objectives.

They give feedback that ties into the objectives AND can ask questions to explore the design (mentioned earlier):

  • Your persona is really busy and doesn’t have much time.  Have you consider reducing the steps in the wizard?
  • The business wants to increase conversions.  Adding a form here instead of a button will make conversion happen quicker and save the user steps too.
  • The problem you are solving is related to a lack of discovery.  Your feature here is not addressing that so I’m concerned it won’t be enough.
  • I see that Nielsen’s Heuristic “Match Between Match and World” is a concern here.  The label you are using “Brand” may confuse your persona.  Maybe “Products” is a better word that users recognize.

Notice that when feedback is tied to objectives it becomes a LOT less personal.  It becomes less about one person’s taste or judgements.

This ends up building rapport with the recipient (synergy).

Leading by Example

Feedback recipients want to learn why their designs are not “good” and WANT the feedback raw and truthful.

Yet, we must also consider how we evaluate the designs.  Mastering our emotions (being non-reactive) and being willing to explore the design with the objectives in mind, keeps our conversation useful to the recipient.

Doing so, allows us to be clear and concise when we evaluate, but at the same time, not destroy a person’s self esteem or letting a person “off” too easily.  This allows us to balance being “hard” and “soft” – giving the recipient just enough pressure to refine their designs with a clearer direction.

In the long term, we end up leading by example – showing them how to evaluate design in a healthy way.

For Designers: 10 Takeaways for Your Better Future

Monish SubherwalDesign CareerLeave a Comment

In May, I just finished teaching the finest students at UX Design Immersive class at General Assembly in Santa Monica.   In a rigorous 10 week time period, I saw students transform (what I call an “identity” level shift), from not knowing what UX really was about, to being full fledged UX designers.  They got to work with clients and I got to see some AMAZING projects.  I couldn’t be more proud.

Alas, all good things come to an end.  During the last week, I gave a final lecture which I aptly called “the last lecture.”  It was a lecture with last pieces of wisdom and advice that students could take away for themselves.  These ideas were stuff other people told me or that I experienced.  Some were hard lessons and some I’m continuously trying to cultivate myself.

Overall though, I think it’s a pretty darn good list of takeaways for designers.  Hope you enjoy it and it helps you on your journey to becoming a great designer. 

1.  Follow your heart (more often than your head).

heart mind photoWhen we just think with our heads (our intellect), we ignore the most important part of who we are: our heart (as corny as that sounds).

I’ve joined companies and went after titles that sounded nice, but in the end, realized that I was in the wrong place. When we just chase the money, the title, or position – we focus on what we will get.  Instead, great designers focus on who they are becoming.

Some great advice from a mentor of mine: most people who look like they are successful and have reached a high position can’t really tell you how they did it.  They most likely didn’t have a five or ten year plan (or if they tried to create one, they pivoted quite a bit).

Instead, they just chose the next best thing for themselves.  In other words, they got good at listening to their heart – choosing something, then the next thing, and then the next.

2.  Be a part of a community.

community photoOftentimes, when we have problems in life, we tend to reflect on the problems and try and solve it ourselves.  We alienate ourselves from others.

General Assembly is a fantastic community.  When people enter our school, they can feel that this is a different place.  The vibe is one of learning, growth, and support.

You’ve got to continue being a part of a community.  Community heals, community lifts you up.

3. Don’t seek to become a bigger version of yourself.

Anytime you are evaluating options and you start salivating at your own greatness – a new position or title, ask if thats who you truly want to become.  Becoming a bigger version – bigger title, bigger position, is OK – so long as it’s what you truly want to do.

4. Develop your skills.

Be a serious learner.  The definition of luck is the intersection of preparation meeting opportunity.  So keep learning new things, being involved.  Luck will happen.

You get paid for the value you bring to the hour and to the marketplace.  The man who cuts the tree down with a stone axe will take 3 days, the one with the steel one will take 1 hour.

5. Don’t be the sad jerk during layoffs.

Be nice to others.  Nice people do get ahead.  Yet, it can confuse you because you may see jerks and aggressive personality types leading organizations.  I can tell you, there are also really nice people leading organizations too.  Look for them and find them.

Jerks are sad people.  They are frustrated and their personal lives are usually a mess.

When layoffs happen, people help support each other through the change.  Everyone realizes they were on the same ship.  But no one cares for the jerk.  The jerk is on his or her own, because they burnt bridges through the entire journey.

6. Don’t stagnate.  Invest in your personal and professional development.

If you aren’t growing, get out.  Don’t waste your time and your employers – if you’re not happy, you’re not going to do good work.

Yet, some place offer nice paychecks and benefits.  How can I sacrifice that Monish?  Somethings cost too much.  The cost of staying outweighs the benefits – but you can be blind to this fact.

Again, we need money – so choose wisely.  But don’t fool yourself if you are stagnating, and don’t blame others if you realize you stayed too long.

7. Don’t show up to prove, show up to improve.

When you start a new job, the intention should be simple:  I want to help.  I want to help.  I want to help.

Don’t think about yourself.

A former manager told me some sage advice:  the first 3 months should be making friends.  Don’t do anything else.  Get to know people.  Don’t be selfish.

Later, you can add your two cents – but that right is earned when trust and respect is earned.

8. Don’t network, make friends.

Networking doesn’t work.  It’s ultimately saying “I do something for you, you do something for me.”  It’s so contrived and agenda based.

Instead, just make friends.  Show up to an event to learn.  Meet people.  The ones you like, keep in touch.  Expect nothing.

And remember, the major key to a better future, is YOU.  No one else is going to do it.

Don’t seek that ultimate mentor or manager.  Everyone tells you that successful people have mentors.  What they don’t tell you is that successful people attract all sorts of people.  Everyone wants to be around successful people.

9. If you leave, leave it better than you found it.

People should be sad you’re leaving, not glad you are.

Be a person of value.  Simple as that.

10. The things you build, end up building you.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.24.03 AMProjects you work on, the people you work with – end up defining who you are. Choose wisely.

Why It’s Important to Know Your UX Heroes

Monish SubherwalDesign CareerLeave a Comment

One of the personal development people I really like is Jim Rohn. Rohn once said,

“Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.”

So who are you becoming? For 2016, I have been asking myself this question and one of the quickest ways I’ve found to know who I am becoming is to find a hero or role model.

Finding someone who inspires you, that makes you FEEL excited about the field of UX, is key. Their ideas and beliefs will add to your own. You will then expand and grow faster than others. Over time, their ideas will integrate with your own thinking and uniqueness.

We sadly live in a world where its hard to find good role models, people to aspire to, so we often silo ourselves. We continue “the daily grind” and zone out. Don’t do that. Develop a personality. Get emotional about your life, feel excited about UX and who you are becoming. Only then can your “work” transform into “emotional labor” and an expression of yourself.

Who are you heroes? Which people do you watch on youtube? What books do you read? Do you have a picture of this person on your wall?

If I ask you “who are you becoming?” and you answer with “a UX Designer” I think thats a limited view. You need a richer answer. There are many UX designers – how are you different? What is your flavor? What is your own brand, your own value proposition? The answer to this question comes from borrowing ideas from other great people along with your own introspection and exploration.

Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Who’s shoulders are you standing on?

Food for thought for 2016.


The Student, the Master, and the Drunk

Monish SubherwalResolving ConflictLeave a Comment

A story on how to win EVERY fight at work:

An aikido student once traveled on a train with his Master and one drunk muscular huge guy was attacking and being aggressive to people on the train.

And the student said to his teacher; “Now I will show you what I’ve learned.” And prepared for fight. And the teacher calmly said back; “No, now you will learn again, watch me.”

And he stood up, went to the drunk guy and asked, “Hey! What did you drink? It was probably good!” And the drunk guy, who was noticeably confused, replied; “Sake!” And the teacher said with a calm voice, “Oh Sake (rice wine)! I love Sake! Why don’t we go off the train and I will buy you some sake, we can drink together?”

And the drunk guy calmed down and suddenly started to cry, saying, “I’m really sorry, my wife left me, I don’t know why I am like this, I’m really drunk…”.  And the aikido teacher hugged him, said that it’s all ok, and everyone was fine.

And then the teacher said to the student, “See, this is how you really use aikido!”

Are your the Student, the Master, or the Drunk?

In the workplace, how do you deal with conflicts?  Are you aggressive like the drunk?  Prideful like the student?  Or artful like the Master?

I think, the story is a great one.  It teaches the idea of mental, behavioral, and verbal flexibility directed at resolution.  Indeed, it is tough to be like the Master.  Even the aikido student wanted to show off his skills and “fight” to resolve the problem.  Instead, a solution was discovered in a clever way avoiding any conflict or potential conflict.  Pure genius.

The core lesson, I think, is this:

“You win every fight that you don’t start.”

Peace & Aikido

I’ll be honest.  I know little about aikido.  But from what I’ve googled about it, it is a martial arts that advocates utilizing an opponent’s resistance to direct that energy towards something more positive.

One of the core principles of aikido is “A commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict whenever possible.” A wonderful quote by founder, Morihei Ueshiba:

“Regardless of how fast or slow my attacker advances, I will not be taken off guard nor defeated. This is not because my technique is faster than that of my opponent. Fast and slow are of no consequence. The contest has already been decided from the beginning, merely by having the intention to fight with one who embodies the universe, my attacker has fixed his mind on violating the harmony of nature itself. In other words, the moment my attacker fixes his attention on fighting with me, he has already lost.”

To me, this is the essence of teamwork in the workplace.  Conflict will arise, but winning involves creating harmony.  Any company that wants to win, must have teams that work together and play nice.

Side Discussion:  The Power of Stories

A coach of mine once said,

“Your mind is like a garden.  Some people allow weeds to grow in it (negative thoughts) and it destroys the garden and its beauty.  Over time, nothing is left only the weeds (negativity, antagonism, cynicism).  You must work hard to pull out of the weeds so that you can enjoy the garden.”

Metaphors like this are very powerful.  It’s very easy to grow weeds in your mind’s garden.  Under stress, our beliefs and thoughts can easily become negative towards:

  • our co-workers
  • our company
  • ourselves
  • our managers
  • our future
  • our skills
  • etc.

Stories, like “the Student, the Master, and the Drunk” share powerful lessons that help pull “weeds” out of our mind’s garden.  Yet we forget this.  When we were little, we used to read fables and stories.  These were powerful because they shaped us and taught us valuable life lessons.  As we grew older, most of us stopped hearing such insightful stories.  But I believe they are important and that they can change us and make us better individuals and team players.

I’ll be sharing more stories as I find them, because I believe in their power.  If you have any good ones that you feel have helped shaped you, please share them below.

Trickle Down Bullying: How to Deal with Negativity From the Top

Monish SubherwalResolving ConflictLeave a Comment

Bullying happens in the workplace. Yet it’s not so apparent as the school yard bully (it’s typically more “covert aggressiveness”). You aren’t left with bruises and cuts – but more emotional wounds (as corny as that sounds).

I strongly feel that leadership comes from the top. If you ever see a website that is ugly and disjoint in its experience, it’s because their leadership team is that way (the outside tends to match the inside). This is “trickle down leadership”.

One of the forms of bullying is what I call, “trickle down bullying”. Like “trickle down leadership”, trickle down bullying is anger coming from someone else (usually above you).

For example, a manager may get very upset with you about having things done a certain way BECAUSE his manager got mad at her for something else.

Trickle down bullying comes from someone’s superior and goes down to their junior (and perhaps even beyond, to people’s homes). It’s negativity that spreads.

An Example of “Trickle Down Bullying” from my own Life

“What the heck was that?!” I thought. I had some difficulty with getting my designs implemented by the developer and my manager gave me hell. In short, he got angry and told me the work sucked.

After the meeting, I continued thinking angrily, “How dare he! He didn’t even know what I put into the project. I worked long hours to get this done. Why is it my responsibility to code it properly? This is unfair!”

Come performance review time, I was shocked by the lower rating. I had performed at peak levels for years. I was pissed.

Next week, I went and saw the developer. I had a talk with them about process and how important it was to get the design done. It went over his head. He said HE had a lot of stuff on his plate. I wasn’t expecting that. I wanted to hear he was sorry for not following through and getting things done. I wanted to hear, yes, we’ll do a better job next time. Instead, I got resistance and a lack of openness to doing the work!

I held my breath until no more. I gave him my thoughts “you know, I got a lower performance review because YOU didn’t do your work. I don’t want this repeated. I’ll have to talk to your manager because this can’t happen again!”

Trickle down bullying at its finest.

When is anger okay?

I’m not going to be like HR and say anger is NEVER okay in the workplace. Because thats just silly.
Anger happens since we are all human beings. It’s not okay, it’s not fun, it’s not “right” – but it happens.

If it happens too often, sure, go ahead and talk to HR. But when it happens, you need to be empowered to deal with it in the moment.

Tip: Nip it in the bud, so you don’t end up bullying someone else out of frustration.

There are 2 steps to dealing with Trickle Down Bullying.

Step 1: Empower Yourself

There are a couple of different reactions you can have to trickle down bullying:

1. You could feel bad and guilty.

This is a form of beating yourself up. You feel like you deserved the trickle down bullying. Thats your inner wimp coming out. No one needs to get angry and you don’t need to feel like you deserve their anger.

2. You feel frustrated and angry.

As human beings, we expect others to treat us as we treat them. We expect others to play by the rules of conduct and good manners because we do. But it doesn’t happen all the time.

It’s unrealistic to think others are as nice as you or are always going to treat you as you treat them.

Some people get mean and that’s OK. You don’t need to be friends with everyone, but you do need to learn how to deal with others powerfully.

Step 2: Consider your Action Options

Once you deal with how you feel about the situation, you have a few options for taking action:

1. Ignore the person all together. They are angry right now and they are dealing with some bullying from their superiors. You aren’t going to change them nor do you need to. Give them space.

If someone is not being positive and supportive, you don’t need to call it out all the time. Pick and choose your battles wisely. A lot of times, people are dealing with their insecurities and anger and are looking to unleash it and nothing you do is going to help them.

2. If you can’t ignore the person (you work with them daily), you need to address it assertively. You DON’T need to escalate and get angry back at them.

Pull the person aside. Ask the person, “What is up? Why are you so angry?” This requires maturity and willingness to understand the other side.

Calling out people’s emotions in the workplace is different than calling out people’s emotions at home. At work, people understand they shouldn’t be so emotional and the fear of HR limits their expression.  Use this to your advantage.

You’ll find typically, as long as you assert your desire to have a good relationship with them (ex: “I want to be effective and help you out…”, they will be willing to apologize and explain what is going on with them.

If the person keeps escalating, sometimes they need more space. Leave them alone until they can talk to you like a mature person.

Note: none of this is fun and can be uncomfortable. But it is necessary at times.

What do you think?

Have you ever dealt with trickle down bullying? What do you think about the suggestions here? Any more ideas on how to deal with this behavior?

How UX Design Leaders avoid making horrible first impressions

Monish SubherwalCollaborating TogetherLeave a Comment

I used to hate the saying “first impressions are last impressions!”  It drove me nuts. Over time, I realized I hated that saying because I don’t think I did a great job when meeting new people! I sucked!

And the reality is – most people do too. Don’t be that person.  Work on mastering “the meet and greet” – the first time you meet someone to get to know them (typically 1 on 1 private meeting).

Why are “meet and greets” so important?

The first time you meet someone is a very important time, because it can set the stage of the remainder of the relationship.

My manager was awesome because when I joined, he encouraged me to meet people across my department and within my department.  If your manager doesn’t offer the suggestion to do some “meet and greets”, bring it up with him/her.  Doesn’t matter if you are new or not – get started wherever you are at.

The following things begin to happen during “meet and greets” that makes them pivotal:

  • Building rapport – seeing if you are similar to the other person and getting each other’s world.
  • Alignment – seeing if you see eye to eye with the other person.
  • Exposure – seeing who’s who in your company and sharing with them who you are.
  • Feeling people out – seeing who’s friendly or not.

Earlier I mentioned I used to “suck” at the meet and greet. However, now I think I’m improving. How? Well, if you know me, I’m a huge fan of setting up structures for yourself. I created a simple “Meet and Greet” framework that I’ll share with you below.

Why Have a Framework?

Before I jump into the framework, I want to mention why a framework is important. It’s important because most of the time when you meet people you are either:
1. Phony – Trying to look good and make a good impression
2. Stifled – Stuck in your head and unable to express yourself fully

And to be honest, #1 is really you not being present either.

The framework keeps you focused on the OTHER person and understanding their needs.  After all, you weren’t hired to solve your OWN problems.  You were hired to solve OTHER people’s problems.

Preparing for something as simple as meeting others is a sign to others that you care. It’s the preparation alone that separates you from others – that sets a good foundation for your future relationships.

With that, here are the 6 steps for creating a solid first impression.

Step 1: Do some simple research on who you will be meeting.

I write down the following:

  • Their Role/Title
  • Their manager
  • Their corporate page (copy the link to their official corporate page in case your company has an intranet with an org chart and profiles – if not, skip this)

Step 2: Know your intro.

Write down some points about yourself! Things about yourself that you would like to tell the other person. Here’s some things I mention:

  • Tell them WHY you think you should be meeting (ex: I wanted to get to know your department more, etc.)
  • Give some background on who you are
  • Tell them what your role is
  • Tell them what you do
  • Tell them where we’re you prior to this job (optional)
  • Tell them something personal (good for establishing some rapport)

Step 3: Discovery: Ask them about their goals, strategies, and priorities.

Finding out what the other person is trying to accomplish is SUPER valuable.  Most people don’t even do this.  Here are some good questions that center around knowing the other person’s agenda:

  • What do you do?
  • What are the projects you are working on? (this should start illustrating a strategy to you)
  • What are the intentions of these projects (how does it fit in with the bigger picture product, UX, company, division strategies)?
  • Are there any other initiatives and efforts to follow the strategy?
  • What’s the scope of work?
  • Current status of things?

Step 4: Knowing their goals (Step 3), what are they struggling with and how are they measuring success?

  • What are the challenges? Obstacles?
  • What is the aspiration? Desired outcomes?
  • Focus areas? Scope?
  • Guiding principles? Mantras?
  • Activities? Capabilities?
  • How do you measure success?  What are some of the metrics?

Step 5: Ask who are their partners in crime.

  • Which stakeholders and buy in is needed? Support from higher up?
  • On the design side who have you worked with?

Step 6: Thank them and make sure to follow up and add them on LinkedIn and your company chat.

  • Send follow up thank you email
  • Be sure to add them online! (on chat or other system)