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Research & Design Strategy

Learning to learn quickly

June 05, 2019
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Having a foundational understanding of your problem space is necessary for any design process. You wouldn’t hire someone who has never seen the ocean to design a ship, would you?

While natural curiosity and an innate desire to continuously learn are traits found in most creative professionals, getting immersed in a new subject area can be intimidating for many designers. As an in-house designer, you get the opportunity to learn about your organization and operating industry organically over time. The domain fluency you acquire from this learning makes it easier to discuss the problem space with fellow collaborators and users.

When working as a designer in a consulting firm or agency, each new client project can bring with it an entirely new industry, from home automation to medical imaging. This variety is what makes consulting appeal to a lot of designers — it was definitely a major draw for me. However, having previously worked in-house, I wondered how I would rapidly immerse myself in my client’s product or service, their users, and their overall business in order to quickly add value and make informed design recommendations. Here are some tactics I’ve developed over the past five years in consulting that have helped me learn more quickly.

Start with the 101

Before you can understand complex concepts or processes, you must establish a foundation. Ask your client how they onboard new team members and if they offer any training for people who are completely new to the field. Focus on this 101-level content initially to get an overview of the subject and discover areas where you might need to learn more. I often leverage Wikipedia to identify key concepts and terminology, thought leaders, additional information sources, and even related fields of study. Just don’t get stuck in a wiki rabbit hole.

There is no such thing as a dumb question

Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something. Ask your client to explain or demonstrate a confusing concept or process. If you don’t ask for help, then you’ll inhibit your ability to learn and keep up with conversation. As a newcomer, asking questions can also have the added benefit of highlighting opportunities to improve your client’s existing training and communication tools.

Take notes

For many people, taking notes by hand improves the speed of learning. Your goal should be to engage in active listening, not to create a verbatim transcription of the source material. I leave space in my notes to go back and draw pictures or diagrams of key concepts. I also like to summarize conversations and observations, which helps cement the new material in my memory.

Create a glossary

It’s easy to get lost in a sea of terminology when learning something new, especially when getting immersed in a highly technical subject matter. To make things more challenging, you’ll be navigating through jargon and acronyms that may be specific to your client’s organization. As you expand your vocabulary, be sure to document your learnings in a glossary. This could prove useful later in the project when you need to recall a term or when onboarding a new project team member.

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Learning something new is like peeling an onion — it works best when you do it one layer at a time.
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See for yourself

Look for opportunities to conduct observational research during your project immersion. Observing an experienced practitioner perform tasks in their actual work environment and with their current processes and tools will build more empathy than simply reading about it in an article or watching a video demonstration. If possible (and safe), trying to perform some of these tasks yourself can make the experience even more memorable because several of your senses will be engaged.

Hack your brain

You can trick your brain into understanding fairly complex concepts using metaphors and analogies. Referring to one thing as another or comparing things can have the powerful effect of providing clarity and revealing previously hidden similarities between two seemingly unrelated ideas. These can be shortcuts to quick learning because they allow you to transfer information and meaning from a known subject to another.

Level-up

Learning something new is like peeling an onion — it works best when you do it one layer at a time. Once you’ve grasped the foundational concepts of your new subject, it is time to peel back another layer and build upon your knowledge base. You might be ready to read more detailed articles or books, watch a Ted talk from a domain thought leader, listen to a related podcast, or watch a how-to video on YouTube to better understand an important process. There is a wealth of information online that you can leverage. And while you can’t trust everything you find, there are a lot of people sharing credible knowledge. In fact, many established universities and some companies offer free online courses.

Trust your partners

Despite your sincerest intention to learn all you can about your client’s users, product, business, and industry, be realistic about what can be achieved in the amount of time that is available. Reading articles and watching videos can’t replace the years of applied experience that is often required to truly become an expert in a given field. Therefore, it’s important to recognize your learning limitations and leverage the subject matter expertise of your client to fill in the inevitable gaps in your own knowledge throughout the iterative design process.

While learning an unfamiliar subject area can be daunting, it is necessary to avoid designing in a vacuum. Getting immersed in a new domain will help you make informed decisions and recommendations. And, the more unique learning experiences you have as a designer, the more connections you’ll be able to identify between the seemingly disparate people, processes, and things around you. These connections are like accelerants for creativity. So, be intentional about your own process for learning and reflect on what does and does not work for you. Over time you, too, might develop a set of tactics or hacks that help you learn to learn quickly.

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