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20 years. 20 lessons.

Insights from the UX school of hard knocks

Emilio Passi
7 min readJul 30, 2020


I didn’t go to design school. I never studied art or cars or furniture or buildings or movies. So as a junior business intelligence analyst in July 2000, I had no idea I was starting a career in design. And all over the world, there were others like me — engineers, product managers, psychologists, writers — unwittingly starting a design career too. Most of us didn’t know what to call this kind of design yet. We just had an inkling there was a better way to do things.

That’s what I find so interesting about User Experience design. We just made it up. It was hard at first. Every little step forward felt like a fight. Twenty years ago we were convincing classmates, colleagues, and business leaders that experience matters. Now there are degrees, bootcamps, conferences, books, and even executive positions for UX.

I did eventually get around to some formal design studies. But I’d learn there was a lot more to this field than just the technical aspects of the trade.

1. It’s better to be a specialist.

Focus on being good at one thing. Recruiters will have an easier time placing you in an established organization. Your career path will be simpler. There’ll be experienced people you can learn from, and lots of resources to help you grow.

2. It’s better to be a generalist.

Unless you’re among the very best at what you do, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Experience as many different things as you can. See the connections. Get the perspective you need to lead cross-functional teams. You might even end up inventing a new specialty.

3. It’s more fun to make up your own job.

It’ll feel like this job is ⅓ doing it, ⅓ justifying it, and ⅓ complaining you can’t do it without justifying it. Before you get jealous of that other person who’s allowed to just get stuff done, whose job everyone understands, relish in the new ground you’re breaking. Not everyone gets why we should design the UI before we code it — yet. Or why it’s important to animate the transitions between these screens — yet. Or why designers should embrace data science — yet. Keep blazing those trails.

4. Without insight, you’re just another opinion.

Just because you’re The Designer doesn’t mean anyone should listen to you. You don’t need to be an expert to have an opinion on design, and everybody has an opinion. But most people will listen when you back up your work. Relating to goals, sharing user observations, citing analytics, and yes, dazzling with good old-fashioned creativity will make you more than just another opinion in the room.

5. Magic is not a method.

You’re not a guru, a rockstar, or a ninja. You’re a professional. Your methods are transparent and inclusive. “Drawing a bunch of mockups till I like it” isn’t a process that instills confidence in the people paying you. Have some basic method for getting things done. Articulate the goals, connect the dots in your rationale, leave room for the team to weigh in, measure your progress along the way, realign when things fall off track.

6. Beware of easy.

Finding a stock photo is easier than directing a shoot. Vetting popular design systems is easier than developing your own. Using a visual prototyping tool is easier than coding it yourself. Making design decisions alone is easier than getting buy-in from the team. There’s a time for easy, but know when you’re robbing yourself of a better result or richer learning experience. The path of most resistance is often the more rewarding one.

7. Check in with younger you.

Younger you may not have had the wisdom you have now, but they were a lot better than you at being happy. Younger you didn’t care about career ladders, business metrics, company politics, and other things that suck the joy out of purposeful work. Don’t lose sight of what matters.

8. Real designers ship.

Real designers finish things. They understand product design is 90% product, 10% design. They don’t shy away from tough meetings. They put as much energy into relationships and planning as they do mockups and prototypes. They measure the effectiveness of their work in the market. They have the discipline and patience to start from something small. They don’t just ship products — they nurture them.

9. Real designers design.

Real designers can start something from nothing. They do research. They draw inspiration from things outside the company. They don’t just use design systems — they create them. They don’t just solve problems — they envision the future. They understand design isn’t just visual design. They explore bad ideas to know what the good ones are. They call bullshit when profits outweigh people. They know not all solutions are products.

10. Know what energizes you. And what drains you.

In your diligence, you can forget how much time you’re spending on the stuff that drains you: the effortful things that need more coffee than usual, make the day seem longer, and may not even be aligned with your career goals. It’s the path to burnout. Don’t neglect what you love about the work, and partner with people who are energized by the things that drain you.

11. Competence begets confidence.

The best way to lessen your anxiety before presenting your work is to actually know what you’re talking about. There are times you need to fake it till you make it. But this should be the exception, not the rule. Being a charlatan takes more energy than spending time to understand and practice something. And it will catch up with you. Learn it till you earn it, or partner with others who know more about it than you.

12. Code is a design medium.

Human-computer interaction is a dialog, but designers are taught to only concern themselves with the human part. If you’ve got coding skills, don’t abandon them. Finish the dialog. Code isn’t just for producing software. Like words and pictures, code is a medium for showing design. Coding gives you the computational perspective to complete the connection between people and machines.

13. Complexity is conserved.

Like energy in the universe, complexity doesn’t go away. It just moves somewhere else. Know that when you talk about “simplifying,” you’re really just moving complexity elsewhere. Be conscious of what, or who, is inheriting that complexity. And consider whether users really want that complexity taken from them in the first place.

14. The idea is only as good as the pitch.

Don’t just design the product. Design the narrative, the meetings, the presentations. Connect the dots for people, from the problem you’re solving to the solution itself. And remember that not everyone will be as invested or interested in the executional details as you are: clarity is sometimes better than accuracy.

15. You can’t do it alone.

It’s common sense to staff a product with a team of developers that specialize in different things, but we’re still learning that design needs a team too. Sooner or later, you’re going to realize you can’t be good at all of it: operations, strategy, facilitation, research, design systems, interaction, visual, motion, sound, prototyping, etc. Don’t do it alone. Know your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses, and partner with complementary people.

16. Form follows function. Function follows people.

To improve your product, make it look nicer. To make it look nicer, understand what it should do. To understand what it should do, observe the people who will actually use it. And to do all this more efficiently, start with the observing-people part.

17. UX is a mindset, not a department.

UX is not, and has never been, just a UI design thing. It’s the totality of how users interact with your company, and it’s too big for any one designer or department to handle: advertising, retail, packaging, product, delivery, customer support, social media. UX is the story that meaningfully connects all of this stuff, and it’s everyone’s job to collaborate on getting it right.

18. Leadership is about one thing.

Moving forward. That’s all. And you don’t need genius, charisma, or a title to do it. When you make people feel that today is better than yesterday, that they’re making progress toward a better thing or better self — that’s leadership. Create that progress with a well-informed and inspiring vision, meeting your teammates where they are, and systems that minimize the guesswork in solving big problems.

19. Appreciate, imitate, innovate.

Use this as a recipe for being good at anything. Take time to study the masters and their work, apply their methods to your own projects, and constantly look for ways to do it better. It’ll take a while, but you’ll discover your own voice in the process.

20. Share what you know.

Even if you post the umpteenth listicle on lessons learned in Silicon Valley, there’s bound to be some nugget of wisdom that’ll help a fledgling designer dodge a punch in the face. You’re never too young, too inexperienced, or too unknown to be a professor at the school of hard knocks.