Why is it so difficult to grow our skill set as designers?
I recently read Peak by Anders Ericsson, which shed light on this topic. It's a really fantastic book, and worth a read, no matter what field or flavor of UX/design you practice.
One research finding presented in the book still bothers me.
Experienced physicians with decades of experience were no better (and often, worse!) than physicians who had only been practicing for a few years.
No, that was not a typo. (I even bolded it for emphasis.)
Now now, Junior designers. Before you get too excited, don't mistake this as thinking you're just as smart as your senior colleagues. (That kind of thinking can get you into some serious trouble.)
The findings are saying that past a baseline set of standard skills and competency, it's really hard to continue improving our skills unless we have a really methodical approach to practicing. Ericsson refers to this process as deliberate practice.
In other words, just because we 'do UX' for the next 25 years, doesn't guarantee that we'll become expert designers. (Wait, what is an expert designer? That's a story for another day.) Most junior designers are able to close the gap between themselves and their senior designers mainly due to one advantage - training. If you've recently graduated from a solid bootcamp, art/design school, or related program from a university, chances are you've received state-of-the-art knowledge and experiences. You'll also experience rapid improvements when you get your first job, where you'll likely be mentored by a senior designer and learn how to apply your classroom training in the real world.
However, it's very likely that after a few years, your rate of growth and improvement will begin to flatten. After all, you'll be equal to or less skilled than your senior colleagues due to experience. How could you expect to become better than the master if you're simply working under or along side them?
Peak describes the ideal process of deliberate practice for becoming an expert.
However, I think with UX/design, there is some inherent challenges of applying Ericsson's framework, which he addresses in the book. The first being that there is tremendous difficulty establishing the definition of expertise in UX. The field is widely misunderstood and there are more flavors of UX being practiced than Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors. Secondly, while UX tries to be as research-oriented as possible, it inherently has a high degree of subjectivity with regard to the quality of the final product.
If we are able to apply Ericsson's model of deliberate practice to design, we will have made tremendous strides. That's a project I'll be working on in the background.
But not all is lost. I am designing an experiment (not really an experiment in the scientific sense...it's just a sexy word) to see if I can rapidly expand the depth of the various UX skills I use on a day to day basis.
I'm (tentatively) calling it the 30 Day UX challenge.
Over the next month, I'll be sharing the plan, updates, and insights.