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A crowd-sourced UX design book, born out of a pandemic

UX designer and design leader Tom Greever shares the inspiration behind his new book.
A crowd-sourced UX design book, born out of a pandemic

Tom Greever has worked as a UX designer and design leader for over 20 years. His first book, Articulating Design Decisions, offers designers practical advice for communicating design decisions to stakeholders across the organization. We interviewed him about the genesis of his upcoming book, 97 Things Every UX Designer Should Know, how a global pandemic moved the design community to give back, and two big design themes he’s observed over the course of his research. 

What compelled you to write this book (now)?

The context around the book is interesting. It was born out of the pandemic. In March and April, everyone was suddenly stuck at home, picking up new work habits. In general, all the uncertainty and upheaval seemed to create this sense that people should come together to get through it. There were a lot of people in the design community posting on social media, asking “How can we help? How can we support the community?” A lot of people were getting laid off. A lot of people were doing virtual coffees and meetups, and offering portfolio reviews. 

I got to thinking about what I could do to bring the design community together. 

I was already in the process of working on a second book when I realized a couple of things: 1. There are a lot of experienced design leaders who have incredible insights, but are too busy with current roles to write a book themselves and 2. Most people are home and perhaps looking for ways to connect. 

I was curious if people would be interested in contributing to a book, rather than writing one themselves. I envisioned their insights to be similar to what they’d share at a conference; what would it look like to put people on a stage, but in book form? 

I came up with the idea of a crowd-sourced resource. I started a few conversations on Twitter and LinkedIn and created a Google Doc, putting out a call to contribute. What’s most exciting about the book is that the nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected aren’t the most obvious; these are things you might not learn unless you asked.

What are some common trends you’ve noticed in the responses?

Generally speaking, I’ve observed two trends. There were a lot of contributions centered around communication, facilitation, and relationships with other people in an organization. I’m not surprised that these issues all emerged as important topics. I wrote a lot about this in my first book so it’s possible that this trend is a reflection of the people who read the book and/or follow my updates. 

The other trend that I’ve noticed is that a lot of advice came from designers having had a negative experience at some point in their career, and learning something from it. I imagine that for some people, sharing some of these experiences may have felt cathartic in the midst of a pandemic. But as individuals, we do a lot of learning and growing from events that don’t go our way. I’m happy that the book is giving people an opportunity to evaluate past experiences and share the lessons they’ve drawn from them. 

What are the things that you think keep designers (and design leaders) up at night right now?

Right now, I think the biggest thing keeping everyone up at night is the uncertainty of what’s next. Everybody’s plans changed, regardless of the circumstances. Whether you’re an individual contributor or a leader, uncertainty is likely something you’re dealing with right now. 

How is design shifting (particularly with more teams going remote/distributed)?

I have been leading design teams remotely for almost 10 years now, so the challenges and interfaces that everyone is being forced to use now are not necessarily new to me. But I think and hope one positive thing that will happen is that people’s perception of remote work will change. Before this, a lot of people have said that you can’t collaborate remotely. You can’t whiteboard remotely. But a lot of folks who’ve been “forced” into remote work are actually finding that it’s not as bad as they may have thought. 

Where I hope we end up is some sort of hybrid model where we can take the best of both worlds (remote and in person). For example, let’s commit to doing focused, in person work for a dedicated chunk of time (for example, one week). The rest of the time, we can easily do 1-1s over Zoom and collaborate on design remotely with all the tools we have. As someone who has worked remotely for a long time, it’s nice to see the entire world open up to it. In the past, there was a sense that it was all or nothing. 

Why is everyone talking about empathy?

We talk about developing empathy for users of our products and don’t take nearly enough time to take the same approach with stakeholders of our business and people we work with. We have to be able to understand our stakeholders enough to do the same thing for them. As designers, we’re known to pull the covers off our designs and say, ta-da! We have to present our work in a way that will meet the needs of the people we work with internally. Otherwise, it won’t affect the lives of the people we’re building for.

As designers, we’re known to pull the covers off our designs and say, ta-da! We have to present our work in a way that will meet the needs of the people we work with internally. Otherwise, it won’t affect the lives of the people we’re building for.

Tom Greever | Author, Articulating Design Decisions

Let’s talk about measurability in design. How are we measuring? What are we measuring? What do we need to be measuring? 

Most of the product and design teams I’ve worked with are measuring the most obvious — conversion and user engagement. Those metrics tend to be almost entirely focused on something important to the business. We’re trying to get numbers to show that our product is improving in the marketplace. It makes sense.

I think where we will start to see a lot of change in measurement is our understanding of social impact, ethics, environment, sustainability. Those are things that are not being measured enough. We’re starting to see a lot more businesses valuing those things. We need to understand not only what user engagement means for our platform(s),  but what sustainability means for culture or subculture of people. I don’t know yet what those metrics will be or how we will reconcile them with our business goals. 

How are relationships between design, product, and engineering evolving?

I see a lot more integration among those teams. Most teams are now working in cross-functional, agile environments. You see a lot of product, engineering, and design teams reporting to the same leadership. A lot more product leaders are increasingly coming from design and non-engineering backgrounds, so we’re seeing product leaders bringing a broader mix of skills to the table. 

There’s definitely a higher level of collaboration happening between the three. Gone are the days when we create something in isolation and throw it over the wall. A big part of that has to do with education and cultural norms. Component libraries and reusable code have become popularized in tech pop culture. More people are exposed to those terminologies. It’s not unusual that design teams have to design in a modular way. Overall, we’re shifting towards being more and more intertwined. 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Tom. Look out for 97 Things Every UX Designer Should Know — you can
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