The 1% Designer


You’re in UX design now? How did it happen that quickly?

Catching up with old friends one night, I didn’t expect this comment. To them, my career trajectory changed vastly since they last saw me. It came as a surprise because all the changes – becoming a UX Designer, picking up design skills – felt rather slow and gradual to me.

But that’s the power of compounded change over time. Similarly, I can’t believe how much my friends have changed. There’s the friend who:

  • studied his ass off for years and is now a doctor
  • scraped together every penny she had and bought her first house at the age of 25
  • struggled with his startup for years and now runs a million-dollar software business.

We’ve all heard the cliches “slow and steady wins the race,” and “little by little you’ll get there.” But cliches take on actual meaning when you experience it for yourself. I call it the my mother was right moment.

There’s a common thread between all those friends, and I want to translate that to something I’ve been thinking about a lot: how to become a better designer. Especially for the completely new designer, where the hell do you start? I hope the following helps you find clarity in this constant struggle to become better.

Part 1: The Benefits of 1% Thinking

All the friends I mentioned earlier did one thing well: focus on making small improvements over time. They tried to become 1% better every day.

But wait, that sounds incredibly slow. 1% better? Don’t you want to be 50%, 100%, heck – 200% better? Why would we settle for a measly 1%?

That’s the siren call of setting ourselves up for failure. It sounds simple, but the magic of incredible growth is this: start small and show up every day.

These are the many benefits to the 1% better approach:

1) Easier to Track 

Becoming 1% better is more manageable than going for big goals.

Think of a grand goal like “I’m going to be a master UX Designer in 1 year!”

This approach to goal-setting is debilitating because “becoming a master” is hard to measure, and having expectations like this can actually be debilitating.

On the other hand, going for small wins like making 1 wireframe a day is concrete and achievable. Getting a small win becomes simply a matter of asking yourself a question “Did I make one wireframe today?” with a Yes/No answer. It’s something you can wrap your head around, and easy to track.

2) Keeps you in the game longer

Getting 1% better is about making a long term, durable system that lasts.

One of my new favorite bloggers this year, James Clear, talks about how using a system is much more sustainable than aiming for goals:

And that’s why systems are more valuable than goals. Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins. – James Clear

The thing about goals is that once you’ve reached them, one can be demoralized that there’s nothing left…or that it takes so much energy to come up with a new goal.

But with a robust enough system, you can stay in the game for a long – maybe even indefinite – amount of time.

3) Enjoy the UX journey 

When you put one foot in front of the other and don’t stress about the path 5 miles ahead, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.

Becoming 1% better helps you enjoy the journey, rather than obsess about the outcome.

Let me tell you a real life story (with fake names) to drive the point home:

George is a smart guy but couldn’t find his direction after college. After graduating, he squandered half a year chilling at his parents house, until his mother and friends urged him to apply to a job – any job. They said that just getting out of the house and working at a local business could be good for him.

But he didn’t want to work a job below his intelligence – he was an engineering graduate, after all. He wanted to work for big companies like Boeing or Tesla, but didn’t have the work experience to get those jobs. So instead of starting somewhere – even if it wasn’t a glamorous job – he’d rather do nothing until the dream job lands in his lap.

Work harder than you’re willing to dream

The larger and more undefined a goal, the bigger the fear of failure, which leads to bigger inaction. The alternate path? Start small, start somewhere, and keep going.

By focusing on getting 1% better little by little, we take advantage of the compounding effect. Just as a small amount of money will grow to a huge sum if it compounded every day, the habits and skills we want can be achieved if we chipped away at it with daily practice.

Part 2: Becoming a 1% Designer

The entire article has been set up to arrive at this section: what are some actionable things you can do every day to become a better designer?

Here’s a process you can follow:

1) Pick a skill you want to get better at.

It can be wireframing, visual design, HTML, whatever floats your boat.

2) Determine how much effort you’d like to set to that goal.

Ideally, choose an input effort like “I’ll spend 30 minutes a day making wireframes,” whereas an output effort is “I’ll make a wireframe every day.”

Input goals lower your stress and help you stay consistent. You’re more in control of how much time you spend on something than you are in how fast you can complete it. This also removes the guilt of creating something you’re not happy about.

3) Set an initial tracking period.

1 week (7 days straight) is a good start. Allow for adjustment, meaning that at the end of 7 days you reflect on the effectiveness of your approach. Perhaps 30 minutes of practice a day is too little and you want to adjust up to an hour. Or perhaps you decide the goal is not worth pursuing, and you want to switch to another one.

Adjusting as you go is fine. Some people feel a lot of guilt for not sticking to a goal, but this process encourages to you evaluate your goals quickly and gives you a guilt-free way out.

4) Track your progress

If you’re a budding UX Designer, here are some 1% goals that can make a big difference over the long run:

  • Read 30 minutes of a UX or design book every day
  • Go to 1 design event every week
  • Read 1 design article a day
  • Look at 1 new website or app a day and write down why you like it
  • Learn 1 new UX term a day

There are many ways to track your progress. You can use Google sheets if you’re a spreadsheet person, or app like to track your progress.

Or link up with someone from the UX Facebook Group for accountability.

Can you give me some UX specific examples?

Jennifer Dewalt made quite a buzz last year by making 180 Websites in 180 Days. That’s pretty hardcore, and I’m not sure if many people can replicate an effort like that (also, she was doing that full time).

So there you have it, an entire approach and system to becoming a 1% designer. Imagine a year from now, what becoming 1% better every day could do for you. Will you be a wireframing master? Will you have learned the ins and outs of information architecture?

I’m positive that with this approach, you will improve faster than you ever expected. And in a year, your friends will also say “Wow! You’e come a long way.”