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Research & Design Strategy

Learning to learn quickly

June 05, 2019

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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