My Reading List for July - December 2014

As I've ramped up my career as a UX designer, I have continue to build my reading list. Over the last six months I've read and returned to the books below - each of which offer a unique perspective on design and shed light on to the multifaceted nature of the discipline. If your looking to begin a career in UX design or are an seasoned designer, these books are must reads. 

My reading list for July - December 2014:

1. The Elements of User Experience - Jesse James Garrett 

2. Don't Make the Think - Steve Krug

3. The User Experience Team of One - Leah Bulley

4. UX for Lean Startups - Laura Klein

5. Microinteractions - Dan Saffer

6. The Sketchnote Workbook - Mike Rohde 

How I Define UX

What is UX?

In the last few years, UX has become a critical aspect of building digital products. Today, good UX is what often differentiates a successful product from one that fails. Because of this, UX has become a high priority for companies and an invaluable component of a business. 

So what is UX? And how can we define it to better understand it?

This is Google's definition. 

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 2.13.39 PM.png

Although somewhat helpful, it felt like an empty, unfulfilling definition. I found myself looking for more. I wanted to better understand how real people understood UX and then create a personal definition for myself. 


I teamed up with a designer friend, Cathrine, to do some guerrilla research, interviewing 10 people to better understand how UX is perceived. We looked to friends and strangers -- men and women, people young and old -- and aimed to talk to a group of individuals with a wide range of life and work experiences to help us answer "What does UX means to you?"

Equipped with a notepad and iPhone camera at-the-ready, this is what we discovered after a morning in downtown San Francisco. 


Interviewee in the park

Interviewee in the park

Perhaps my biggest take away from the interviews came from the diversity of answers we received. Some baseline patterns emerged, yet it was clear that UX had many meanings for many different people. Some discussed UX within the context of digital products, while others talked about UX in the real world. Some talked about UX in relation to their feelings and world view while others, having no prior knowledge of what UX was, invented definitions on the spot! You can take a look at a video of selected interviews here

In all, I found that there is not a singular way to define UX. It's a fluid definition that changes depending on who you talk and changes with context. It's not just a term you can search on Google -- it has personal connotations. 

Finally, I defined UX for myself.

My Personal Definition

User experience is about understanding people. It's about asking the right questions.

It's about understanding context, goals, and how one achieves those goals.

It considers psychology, experience and culture, and through design, informs how people interact with and experience the world around them.

I would like to think of this definition as one that will evolve with time. As I continue to build on my experiences, I'll continue to grow my understanding of UX and how I define it. I'm excited to see how this will change over the year and throughout my career. 

Sketchnoting the Share Economy

Over the weekend, I read an article on Wired titled How AirBnB and Lyft Finally Got Americans to Trust Each Other. It was a fascinating look into the Share Economy and the critical role of trust in driving its success. The article highlighted personal narratives within the movement and provided context for the many peer-to-peer services that are taking hold across the country. 

As a big proponent of the share economy and user of peer-to-peer services like Lyft, AirBnB, CouchSurfing, and yerdle, I was excited about the article and began to take notes with paper and pen. Starting first in bullet points and pros, I found myself progressively moving towards sketches, visually communicating the ideas in the story. Sketching gave new life to my notes and provided a dynamic way to express what I was reading. 

Inspired by Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Handbook, I decided to scrap my my written notes and instead, sketchnote the article. 

Here’s the final piece:


We are:

A Brief history of Trust:

The share economy as a function of trust over the last 200+ years.

Beginning pre-1800s, the share economy was able to succeed based on a sense of intimate trust. With advances of technology during the 1900s and mass migration to urban areas, trust was lost and proxies for trust emerged. Now with the help of the internet, modern devices, and peer-to-peer businesses, intimate trust is being restored and is helping to bring people together again. 

Additional notes

  • In the Sharing Economy, we’re not anonymous. 
  • Psychology tells us we don’t mess with people we know. 
  • “[The Share Economy] is not just building a business but fundamentally re-wiring our relationship with one another.
  • Money feels secondary; an afterthought to the human connection that upholds the whole experience.
  • My inspiration: Wired

For more on sketchnoting, check out the Sketchnote Army, here

100 Sketches in 2 days

As a UX designer, it's important to be able to communicate your ideas visually. Developing this skill takes time, effort, and an acute awareness of interactions among people, objects, and the environment.

I like to learn fast and slow, immersing myself in an experience for an intense period of time then  stepping back and to reflect on my what I learned. Last week I challenged myself to take a deep-dive into visual communication -- 100 sketches in 2 days. I was curious to see what patterns might emerge and how I might have developed as a visual communicator. 

Using 3x5 inch cards, Sharpies, and a grey marker, I sketched what was around me. My walk home from work, people on the street, and ordinary objects. I captured people, things, contexts, spaces, and flows. 

Below are 10 of my 100 sketches.

From my dining room table

From my dining room table

Across the table from this.

Across the table from this.

Walking on Valencia Street

Walking on Valencia Street

Tossing out old ideas

Tossing out old ideas

Homemade vegetable smoothy

Homemade vegetable smoothy

Waiting at the bus stop

Waiting at the bus stop

Pigeons in the park

Pigeons in the park

Trash near the Embarcadero

Trash near the Embarcadero

My backyard

My backyard

Cat in Noe Valley

Cat in Noe Valley

5 Takeaways from a Portfolio Critique

What I learned from a top designer

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a portfolio review hosted by one Silicon Valley’s top interface designers. Due to issues of confidentiality, I can’t reveal his name or company, however, I can say that his work has influenced products that many of us use everyday. I can also say he’s a pretty great guy. Holding a two-hour session with a handful of my UX design peers, this is what I learned.

1. Never let anything distract your audience from your work

Within the first minute of the session, we came to a stop.

“The Chrome browser is pretty distracting.”

It’s a small detail but an important consideration. No one wants to see your open tabs or bookmarks and in general, framing your work in a browser detracts from the experience. If you can, go ahead and create a PDF. (If you have to present online, make sure to show your work in presentation mode.)

2. Order your portfolio pieces with intention

The order in which you present your work matters. Consider how you want to make a first impression. When you present your portfolio, you’ll be judged on how you make decisions — focus on demonstrating that first. One of my peers showed a usability study as his initial portfolio piece and walked us through how he conducted user testing to come to a number of design recommendations. The piece was great at demonstrating how to expose usability issues and illustrated the importance of user testing but it wasn’t effective at showcasing independent design thinking. For your first portfolio piece, make sure to set the tone by emphasizing who you are as a designer.

3. Be clear why you embarked on your design journey

Often, designers are caught spending too much time explaining the “what” of their project and never getting to the “why.” Your audience will be interested in who you are and why you made your decisions. Although projects that you present during interviews might be fascinating, the audience won’t care to focus on the details. They’ll want to know how you think through a problem, derive your solutions, and potentially see how you might contribute to helping their company. Remember to always explain the “why.”

4. Have a point of view

It’s your responsibility to have a point of view. The difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer is supposed to be aware of design and how to improve it. It’s important to be user focused but to not rely too closely on what users say. Often, users will provide you with symptoms of their problem but won’t have the vocabulary or awareness to truly get to the root cause. It’s the designer’s role to identify and synthesize user problems and think creatively about solutions. Having a clear point of view differentiates you from other designers and lays a foundation to inform your decision choices.

5. Tell a story

As designers, we’re responsible for not only creating elegant products but also responsible for communicating about them. By nature, people respond to stories. Stories allow your audience to relate their own experience with the one you’re developing. Stories also present a clear beginning, middle, and end. On a foundational level, when talking about a portfolio piece, consider following this story arc — recognize, define, and develop.

Why Strengths Are More Important Than Weaknesses


My results from the Strengths Finder 2.0 test and why it matters.


Last week, I took the Strength Finder 2.0 test to discover my top 5 talents and how I could use them to improve my personal and career development.  


These were my results


1) Individualization - Intrigued with the unique qualities of each person.  They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively. 

2) Empathy - Can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others' lives or others' situations.

3) Relator - Enjoys close relationships with others.  They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

4) Restorative - Is adept at dealing with problems. They are good at figuring out what is wrong and resolving it. 

5) Arranger - Can organize, but also have a flexibility that complements this ability.  They like to figure out how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity. 


Why it matters


I recently joined Tradecraft, a 12-week personal accelerator program designed to train people to succeed in traction roles at high-growth startups. Before my first day of curriculum, I was encouraged to read the book Strength Finders 2.0 and take their test. From the reading, I learned that "people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies." It may seem obvious that our potential lies more in our strengths than our weaknesses yet, in practice, we seem not to take advantage of this fact. 

The reality is that we often tend to focus more on improving our weaknesses.  

Actually, this should come as no surprise. Overcoming deficits is part of our cultural narrative. We celebrate stories of the underdog, who triumph by conquering their weaknesses and beat the odds and often overlook stories of those who succeed by capitalizing on their innate talents.  

Although the former story may be more compelling, focusing on improving weaknesses can only benefit one so much.  

In my own life, I can think of instances in which I spent time focusing trying to overcome weaknesses and garnered little benefit. Trying to become a "coder" is one example. Entering the techworld, I had ambitions of becoming a junior developer. Although programming was never one of my strong suits, I wanted to learn to program and devoted all my free time over the course of eight months to realizing that goal.  I completed online tutorials, attended hackathons, and took an in-person course and by the end of it, I had learned some HTML, CSS, and Javascript, but later realized no matter how hard I tried to force it, being a full-time developer wasn't for me.  I wasn't playing to my strengths.  

Beginning at Tradecraft, it will be as crucial as ever to use my time wisely and compliment my innate potential. I'm interested to see how my talents in the themes of individualization, empathy, relator, restorative, and arranger will propel me during this journey.

I'm excited to further develop not who I want to be, but instead, who I already am. 

Take the test for yourself and find out what your top 5 strengths are here