Education

The First Year in Review

I have not been keeping up with this at all, have I? Then again, I can't believe it's June. So much has happened in the past few months that it's hard to believe the year is halfway over; with that was also my one year anniversary as a UX designer in title. Time flies when you're having fun.

That's the thing that hasn't changed for me at all in the past year. I love what I do still; I walked into work one day to find a set of wireframes on my desk with the ask for UX feedback, and I woke up fairly quickly after that. Though I consider myself an interaction designer, but in the past six months alone I've switched hats so often that I didn't realize exactly how vague the role of being a designer actually was.

So if I had to do a recap of the lessons learned in that year, my list would look like this:

  1. Tools are just tools - I have gotten pretty speedy with Illustrator (a good portion of my time just goes into making sure my file is organized because it makes me a little crazy and because I don't want to subject someone else to an unorganized file if they need it), but Photoshop? Totally different ballpark. The thing is, I don't really need Photoshop per se. There's so many excellent tools out there for design and prototyping: UXPin is one I'm fond of, and the intern on my team turned me onto Indigo Studio for building click through prototyping. But above all, nothing beats a whiteboard or the wonderful duo that is Post It notes and Sharpies (leftover habits from Palm).
  2. Try something new - Some of my projects this year took me all over the country to study users out in the field, and it was my first time in a research position. I came back feeling much more educated about our tools and how the users see them. Granted, the tools they were using were ones I was unfamiliar with, so it was an incredible learning experience for me. We had a short offsite to analyze the findings and came away with some powerful findings that I think will really help build a great product than if we hadn't done the research ourselves. I learned a lot about how to conduct research in the field, and in the end I was leading research sessions myself - the senior designers presented on two of my trips and then I took the lead on it. It was also a fun exercise in practicing what I preached; if we were asking people to do things on the iPad, why shouldn't we do it ourselves? Taking endless notes on the device during my research sessions helped me to see what the pain points of using a tablet could be for an extensive period of time. Though... I think there are some large difference between what I was doing and what the users would do on their applications, but the lesson is still there
  3. Immerse yourself in your field - I'm a mobile designer. Okay, so that means I should probably soak in all things mobile, and I do. I take a special interest in changes in mobile not just from the platforms, but also what people are doing in applications. It feels like just yesterday that the basement level nav panel (see Facebook's app on all devices where you can tap the icon on the left to open the panel) was created, and that wasn't truly established on any platform (correct me if I'm wrong, but I certainly don't remember it being native on iOS or Android). That keeps me up to date and able to try new things in my designs.
  4. Do or do not, there is no assuming - I know, that's not the exact quote and I wish I could have made it work in its original form but alas! The point here is that if an idea strikes you, try it. Don't kill it before you've let it bake for a bit. I had a bunch of personal things I wanted to try - my Android Music Player design, for example - and even though I knew the service layer may not exist and the aggregation would probably not be feasible, I still wanted to make the concept real to see what it would look like. I actually plan on going back on iterating on it since I haven't looked at it in a while, but I wonder what I'll see differently this time around. Had I not gone through with it, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to actually play with Android's design guidelines and also indulge in a creative exercise that was great practice for me. 

I'm probably missing a great deal of other lessons, but I also have things that I have to get done for tomorrow. This list will continue to grow, but having crossed that benchmark has taught me a lot about how I want to develop professionally and how much further I have to go.

But it's nice to have also learned that even all this time later, I absolutely made the right choice in being a designer.

No Tuition? Sweet!

One of my personal goals in the post-college world was to continue to my education in some way, both for programming and design. Previously, I would simply search for a tutorial on the topic in mind and follow it, but I've come across a few different sites that specialize in education. There exist a lot of online programming education websites, each with their own style, but they all have one thing in common: it's on the user to drive their education.

So here's what I used:

  1. Lynda.com (www.lynda.com) - a paid subscription based site that is essentially a library of videos for a large variety of subjects, not just programming. Depending on your subscription, you can access different resources such as source files to follow along with the videos.
  2. Code School (www.codeschool.com) - a freemium site that specializes in programming languages. A lot of their introductory courses are free, and they operate in a achievement/gaming model - you can earn badges for completing courses and get discounts on their intermediate courses if you complete courses. 
  3. Codecademy (www.codecademy.com) - a currently free site that, like Code School, gives you badges as achievements for courses. They're currently building out their site.
  4. Coursera (www.coursera.com) - a free site that hosts classes from multiple universities online.
One that I wish I could have used was Team Treehouse (www.teamtreehouse.com) because of their beautiful visual design, but they are completely subscription based. But the four I used kept me plenty occupied

We'll start with Lynda, the first site that I used. Lynda reminded me a lot of some of my college lectures - some of the courses were a mix of Powerpoint presentation recordings and demos of the product/code in action. I found myself taking notes on the side and pausing the video at multiple points to digest what I had just learned. But I didn't quite connect with the material as well - rewinding and rewatching portions of the video turned out to be a much more common task than I expected (or perhaps I'm just not the brightest bulb in the box...). Getting around the site itself was pretty okay, but the big problem with Lynda for me was that I just wasn't engaged with the video.

Code School and Codecademy on the other hand were definitely more entertaining. Code School's Rails for Zombies is the course I started doing, and it was far more interesting than just watching videos. But I found that what really drew me to both these sites was the hands on interactive exercises. I found that I retained a lot more information and was able to connect it to what I already knew (granted, I was doing exercises in Javascript which I'd had some experience with, so I'll have to retest again with some of Codecademy's new exercises available for beta testers).

Finally, there's Coursera. Like Lynda, it relied heavily on videos, but I felt like I was actually back in school - the course I took was HCI from Stanford. It was a great refresher course, and I definitely learned a lot of new things. What was interesting was keeping up with the homework and quizzes, especially the peer grading. It forced the students to go through an exercise where they learned what a good and bad homework sample looked like so that when they went back to review their own assignment, they would be (in theory) honest about their self evaluations and fair in evaluating others.

Exploring these sites was a great exercise in user experience, but it also taught me about myself. My learning style was refined along the way, and I found that there were things that worked for me much more. There are many different interpretations of online education, but it's a field that's still evolving as technology keeps growing and more classes become less about the traditional desk and chairs and more about having a decent Internet connection. In the end, I think that the site that worked best for me was Codecademy - the interactive exercises are what did it for me along with the site's clean design and easy learning curve. I highly recommend all four sites though - what worked for me may not work for you though.