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Old Dog? Time to Learn some New Tricks

Do you remember when there was so much to learn you didn’t think you’d ever learn it all? The feeling of trying out a technique for the first time? Or how about the first time you presented an idea and people actually agreed with you? Wasn’t that cool!

As part of my role as UX conference organiser, I talk with a lot of ‘senior’ UX practitioners about how to get back to the level of enthusiasm they had when the field was new to them. I’ve talked to folks who have stopped attending conferences because they feel like the ideas have all been presented before. They have stopped buying books because they already have books on a topic. They have stopped reading articles because they are shallow or rehashed ideas. They have stopped attending meetups because they are full of newbies asking the same questions over and over.

After a while in the same role, work can start to feel like the same thing every day, especially if you work in-house. It’s easy to feel like you know everything there is to know and you do become a bit tired and stale.

But the good news is that it is possible to re-ignite your enthusiasm for UX and find opportunities to continue your learning.

Here are some tips on how to do it.

Conferences

When you’re new to a field, conferences are amazing. There are talks about brand new things and you can meet people who do the same work as you and have the same challenges. But when you’re experienced, conferences can feel a bit same-same and full of ideas that have been presented before.

As a senior practitioner, you can make conferences great again by changing how you interact with them:

  • Treat a conference as an opportunity to learn one or two things from the presentations and to get the most out of the discussions you have with other attendees. If you find yourself in the middle of a great discussion, keep going – you don’t actually have to go to all of the sessions. I’ve been to conferences where I attended only one or two presentations and spent the rest of the time having fantastic, deep conversations with great people, learning way more than if I’d sat in a presentation.
  • Get involved. You may have the opportunity at a community conference to help out and support people new to the field. One of the best things I did at the IA Summit was to help out at their speaker studio, listening to practice runs of presentations and providing feedback to newer speakers.
  • See if there is an opportunity to lead a small group discussion. As an experienced practitioner, the things you’re struggling with may not be discussed on-stage, but there still may be people with the same issues as you.
  • Look for opportunities to have a group discussion with your peers – perhaps at lunch or in the conference foyer during sessions.

Attend conferences outside your field as well. You’ll experience the great feeling of all that new knowledge and you’ll meet a brand new group of people.

Read

Don’t stop reading!

Don’t stop reading books and articles about topics you already know. You’ll still pick up tips; see how other people attack problems and also how they communicate with their teams. I wrote an entire book about information architecture (so I probably know a fair amount about it), but I still buy every IA book I can get my hands on. I love seeing how other authors view the topic and explain it and I learn things that help me with my projects.

Read from outside the field as well. All of the traditional design fields have similarities to what we do with UX, particularly in terms of process and communication. But they interact with users differently and apply their skills to different types of problems. There is a ton to learn from other fields, so have a look into industrial design, product design, exhibition design, architecture and marketing for new perspectives.

Teach

Teaching is a fantastic way of actually figuring out what you know and finding out whether you understand a topic in a shallow or deep way. To teach well, you need to go back to first principles and construct lessons from those principles. Many of us can design well, but we don’t know why we do what we do and what our decisions are based on. Teaching will force you to examine your knowledge and become a better designer as a result.

There are many ways to teach. You can run a workshop at a conference; tutor at university, write an article for a magazine; support junior designers in the workplace or become a mentor. All of these help you examine your own knowledge and it’s super-fun to see other people improve their skills.

Study

Go back to school. There’s nothing like studying a particular topic to wake up your brain again. Study can be related (I believe we all should have a better knowledge of human factors) or unrelated (I’m studying fashion, drawing and Spanish). Related study will, of course, give you skills that you can use in your day-to-day work. Study in an unrelated field can give you something different to focus on and a new enthusiasm for life and work.

Old dogs…

So don’t stop learning. You may be an old hat at UX design, but an old dog can still learn new tricks. It’s all about perspective and seeking out new experiences within your field and outside of it. If we stop learning, we stagnate. And a stagnant experienced UX practitioner is just not happy.

Donna Spencer

Donna Spencer

Donna is an information architect and user experience designer (and a conference organiser). She loves working on complex problems, being involved in everything from the big picture to tiny details. She’s a regular conference speaker; and has written three books – on card sorting, web writing, and information architecture

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