Design & UX

Climbing for clarity in UX & life.

December 1, 2016
A few months ago I took up rock climbing. More specifically, Bouldering.

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that is performed without the use of ropes or harnesses. The walls are usually less than 6 meters, and bouldering mats are used to prevent injuries from falls.

Since then, I’ve fallen down more times than I could count, and become completely addicted to that remarkable feeling when I’m awkwardly scaling up the wall. The most significant impact it’s had on my life (besides building forearms of concrete), is psychological. There’s an insane amount of clarity that comes from pure focus.

I’ve found again & again that the struggles of daily life disappear at the bouldering gym. There’s simply no space in your mind to think about your outrageous HECS debt when you’re balancing on your tip toes & fingertips 5 metres above the ground.

So anyway, over the last 3 months of climbing, I’ve finally been able to start summarising the lessons I’ve learnt about life & UX:

1. Try, try, try again
(iterate, iterate, iterate)

Persistence & tenacity pays off big.

UX is a field of experimentation & iteration. You can build an ivory tower of UX, fortify it with fancy buzzwords and acronyms, and make it inaccessible to everyone on the outside. Doing this might make you feel mighty important, but you’ll never learn anything valuable until you get on the ground & fail. A lot.

“Why do we fall Master Bruce? ”
— Alfred (Batman)

If you want to break new ground you can’t be afraid to fail constantly.

Before I started climbing, I wasn’t very good at failure. I’d give a route my best shot, and fall down, thinking I just wasn’t strong enough or flexible enough. It wasn’t until I tried again & again, the same problem over & over (sometimes falling down more than 30 times) that I realised the value of persistence.

In UX, you’re never going to get it right the first time. Make something fast that communicates your ideas (even a crude wireframe or prototype), talk to your users, learn, try again. Rinse & repeat.

2. Look at it from another angle

There are many, many ways to solve a problem. A fresh angle, or perspective on a project can be absolutely invaluable to help you see a clearer path.

Sometimes it’s not as simple as solving a problem; the challenge comes from solving a route with your own unique constraints (body strength, flexibility, balance etc)

When you get stuck:
—  Reframe the problem
— Get an outside perspective
— Check out how others solved a similar problem
— Do Crazy Eights
—  Try a variety of random ideas that you know won’t work, but they’ll all help you learn a little bit more about the problem you’re solving.

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!” — Dr Suess

3. Move briskly & efficiently and when tired, just hang for a bit.

You only have so much energy. The trick is finding the most optimal way to use that energy, and what will generate the most value before you get a chance to catch your breath. In climbing we call it ‘economy of movement’.

When you’re getting tired on the bouldering wall, you have two options; push through and risk falling, or try to rest your body for a moment, before continuing onwards.

I guess that’s why Lean UX with its short feedback loops has become so popular. A nimble design approach, followed quickly by prototyping & validating is a cycle that encourages efficient & valuable forward motion on a project.

In product design, ‘project fatigue’ is a very real threat. And once it sets in, everyone loses their motivation & momentum.

Optimise your economy of movement. Don’t burn out, and don’t run your team into the ground. Find natural places to rest, reflect & regroup before proceeding forward.

4. Watch others

One of my favourite past times at the climbing gym is just watching other people climb. It’s fascinating to try to put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what they are thinking and feeling as you see them make a daring grab for the next hold. Watching others helps you learn new ways to use your body, and new ways to look at problems.

In UX, watching others & learning to empathise with them is a core skill. You might be watching how a user behaves in a usability testing session, or how another designer tackles a project, or even watching how stakeholders interact with different members from your team so you understand the communication styles they respond best to.

As a Designer, observing others with a boundless sense of curiosity is an incredibly beneficial super power to cultivate.

“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.” — Dr Suess

The worst trait for a Designer (or even a business) is to assume that you know everything and as a result you don’t need to talk to your customers, or test your products with them.

Don’t let go

It might sound cheesy, but don’t give up. Keep trying, iterating, pushing through the hard stuff and you’ll haul yourself to the top soon enough.

“So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act.”