An apprentice’s heart

I think the theme for 2012, at least for me, was about professional growth. As a result of my first full year as a permie at Sapient, I’ve dug more roots into projects and roles than before. Still, I continued my commitment to the community by organising UXCampLondon 2012, becoming an IxDA local leader, attending, supporting and speaking at numerous events, and building new and existing relationships.

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to be patient with myself. It’s easy to be pulled in many directions when I’m solving a problem, but some pragmatism does no harm to balance things. Plus, it’s impossible to be expert at everything. I’ve learnt instead to accept the context of the problem, but improve the way I work with people towards a solution. Old habits die hard – being a programmer for so long, I’ve gotten used to a more direct way of problem solving. This needs to change, as problem solving in design is a lot more organic and social.

So I’ve been looking at ways to build shared understanding. To begin with, I’ve started looking at deconstructing the various ways I approach problem solving, to see if any of them can be done socially i.e. not alone. I’ve experimented with sketchboards, scaffolding design documentation, paper prototyping, sketching out conceptual models – basically making things very visual, tangible and interactive.

I think that effective shared understanding is a result of three things coming together regularly:

  • shared artifacts – ‘objects’ that can be shared/owned/worked on socially
  • shared activities – solving a problem together
  • shared leadership – people who take initiative, execute to a vision, draw and connect others

This was the point of a talk I did in September. Needless to say, it can be quite stressful trying to solve the problem while trying to solve the way to solve the problem. But I see no other way – many UX briefs contain elements of wicked problems, many of which demand a pedagogical approach rather than a systematic one.

In response to this, I’ve decided to invest some of the experiences I’ve gained in the UX community into the creative domain at work. I’m hoping that all the various ‘problem solving approaches’ trapped inside everyone of us can be diffused across the group, just like what happens when we attend events, go to conferences, meet up informally, etc. I’ve also been drawing inspiration from things like activity theory, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

My main motivation for all this is based on these assumptions

  • it’s impossible to know and learn everything
  • some approaches work better than others
  • everyone has a different way of solving problems
  • knowing how and why people solve problems a certain way provides new problem solving ideas, which one can adapt
  • this doesn’t destroy an approach or style an individual has developed over time

If there was one word I would use to sum all of these things up, it’s the word “apprentice”, because we end up behaving like apprentices as we move from one domain to another and solve more complex problems. Although we’ll approach mastery of our core UX skills over time, we’re also shifting from one problem domain to another especially in projects where problems are increasingly ‘wicked’ (in which there seems to be no shortage of).

I like what Stephen Anderson said recently during his Euro IA keynote; We should ultimately be doing what interests us and what we’re curious about. That, to me, is really about adopting an apprentice’s heart. And the challenge for UX (and for me) in 2013, just like any other year, will be a pedagogical one.

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