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040: Should Developers Design with Laura Elizabeth

User Defenders podcast
Web Dev
Web Dev
040: Should Developers Design with Laura Elizabeth

User Defenders "Reflection" Laura Elizabeth

Laura Elizabeth reveals how developers can learn design. She articulates the importance of reflecting on our users’ needs more than our personal tastes. She touches on how making a product makes us better designers. She also inspires us to always be genuine in our dealings with our customers if we want to build (and keep) trust.

Laura Elizabeth is an independent designer with a hankering for cross stitch and rockets. She runs Design Academy which aims to help developers conquer their fear of design. She recently launched her first product called Client Portal—a client-friendly way to keep projects organised. When she’s not writing or speaking, she’s likely watching reruns of Star Trek Voyager or Next Generation.

  • Secret Identity (4:05)
  • Origin Story (9:55)
  • Biggest Superhero (13:32)
  • Biggest Failure (16:23)
  • Design Superpower (20:54)
  • Transition from Freelance to Product (23:04)
  • Design Kryptonite (26:13)
  • Design Superhero Name (29:34)
  • Should Developers Design? (34:10)
  • Habit Of Success (42:59)
  • Invincible Resource (48:55)
  • Book Recommendation (52:09)
  • Listener Question (54:58)
  • Best Advice (59:39)
  • Connect & Keep Up (64:08)

Laura’s Twitter
Laura’s Website
Design Academy
Client Portal
Laura Elizabeth at Smashing Conference on Selling Design Systems [VIDEO]
William Shatner Sings Rocket Man At the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards [VIDEO]

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Jason: Laura Elizabeth is an independent designer with a hankering for cross-stitch and rockets. She runs Design Academy which aims to help developers conquer their fear of design. She recently launched her first product called Client Portal: A client friendly way to keep projects organized. When she’s not writing or speaking she’s likely watching reruns of Star Trek Voyager or next generation. Welcome to user defenders Laura. I’m super excited to have you on the show today.

Laura: Thank you so much for having me on.

Jason: Awesome. So what about the Shat?

Laura: Sorry?

Jason: What about the Shatner? William Shatner…you don’t like the original Star Trek or what?

Laura: I tried so hard to get into the original series and I think I’m just I’m too young for it. Next generation Voyager was the first one I watched and loved it. Next generation the second and then I haven’t found another one that I like just as much yet sadly.

Jason: Now that’s ok. I am not a Trekkie myself but I love Shatner. I just love that guy. Ever heard his spoken word stuff that he does?

Laura: No I don’t think so.

Jason: Oh you haven’t lived! No, I’m just kidding. It’s so weird. A lot of it happened in the 60s and 70s when there was a lot of LSD going around.

Laura: I can imagine that sounds interesting.

Jason: Google “Science Fiction Movie Awards – William Shatner” and you will not regret it. Defenders as well…maybe I’ll link to it.

Laura: Absolutely. Now I have to get to the next hour or so desperately wanting to listen to that.

Jason: Sorry about that.

Yeah, but Shatner’s great. He does spoken word but the original Star Trek, I agree. Some of it is like total overacting right? Like some of Spock’s grips and stuff.

Laura: Yeah. And I actually don’t think Kirk makes a great captain really. People are going to hate me for that, and maybe you should edit that out!

Jason: No, it’s good healthy tension. I like it. Yeah right on. Well as you know Laura we take a fun superhero approach to the show and every superhero has a secret identity and origin story. Let’s talk about yours. I like to start the show by taking a few moments just to give us a look into your personal life.

Laura: OK sure so when I’m not working on my product or with client work, I spend a lot of time traveling at the minute. So, I go to loads of different conferences and just try to do some leisurely travel as well. So I’m pretty much on the go, like all the time. You said in my introduction that I’m a cross-stitch addict that is definitely true. I haven’t been doing as much of that lately because I’ve been so tired I kind of just at the end of the day I’ll plunk myself in front of Netflix and I usually get my cross-stitch out, put Star-Trek on and cross-stitch. And now I just fall sleep straight away. I don’t know if I’m getting old or something but, yeah. When the travel dies down a little bit hopefully, I’ll finish a project that I’ve been working on for about two years now. So that would be good.

Jason: What do you cross-stitch Laura?

Laura: I mean at the minute I’m doing this like Pokemon Wonderland like thing that’s going to go above my piano when I get a new piano. So it’s going to be like a series of like almost like silhouettes of like it’s going to be like three Pokemon silhouettes than a leaf and a tree and it sounds kind of basic but I mean when you’re doing like teeny tiny cross-stitches, I mean these things take just forever to complete. So I mean that’s what I’ve been working on for like two years. But you know I say two years…it’s not like hours at a time I just pick it up whenever and stuff like that, but I really want to finish but at some point that would be nice.

Jason: That’s cool. So cross-stitch. That’s what’s so interesting. Can you make ugly Christmas sweaters?

Laura: No, I can’t make Christmas sweaters, but I can make like miniature versions of them with like embroidery and stuff like that. I work on a very small scale I don’t know if I could do a full sweater or anything but I mean that’s the dream when I’m like retired. I mean I’m going to be the worst. Everyone’s going to get one.

Jason: Hey, here’s a business idea. Like a side hustle, not like you need another one but here’s one…like crafting stitching some ugly Christmas sweaters for like hampsters or something.

Laura: Yes that would be good idea for guinea pigs anyway.

Jason: And you know, start an Etsy shop, and there’s the money right there.

Laura: That is adorable. And I’m actually a real sucker for a side project that you probably know. I have one which I was like I was going to call it “Make it Sew”. But like SEW rather than SO It’s like a Picard saying from Star Trek. I mean I’ve even put that on my Web site trying to encourage me to actually do it. But I am one of those people who take on way too much and I’ve just added another thing to my to-do list because that would be so cool if I could do that.

Jason: Oh man, I’m sorry, but I think that would be so cool. And you heard it here first folks and Laura has the rights to that.

Laura: Yeah I mean guinea pigs get cold at Christmas.

Jason: They do right? So I was just thinking about the cross-stitching and I’m not trying to prolong this thing or beat this to death. But I think there’s a really good personal development lesson in this and I got to share this because it’s something I heard from somebody I really respect his name is Chris Brogan. He’s like an online entrepreneur guy and he’s really been known for building tribes and kind of just getting people rallied around the content and stuff. But one of the things he said and this is one of the like a big lesson that I’ve been trying to learn is quilt it in. You know how a lot of us we’re so busy and I know you especially can attest to it and we’re going to get into some of your side hustles.

When do we find time? When do we find it? Well, I think we make time, and we quilt it in, and that’s the thing like it could be 15 minutes at a time. It could be like like you’re working on this cross-stitch for two years but it’s not like you’ve been doing that only for two years. But it’s kind of the idea defenders listening when you feel like you don’t have enough time to do something. You’d be surprised–15 minutes here, 10 minutes there of actually doing something deep work on something for that long. You’ll be surprised and in like a couple of weeks you will made hours of progress on that thing. I think that that’s a good lesson in using the cross-stitch analogy is like quilt it in one square at a time, and you’ll get there.

Laura: Yeah I mean I completely agree and I think one of the reasons I’m so disappointed that I haven’t been doing it as much lately is because I can definitely tell. I don’t know I feel almost like I am working maybe more but getting less done. And when I actually take the time to carve out and do something it’s really good if it can be something away from the computer as well which I know is really hard because I have like loads have side projects I know loads of people in the same boat and the stuff that they want to do on this in their spare time is on the computer as well. And that’s really hard because if you spend all day on the computer for example I want to learn how to code and how to do some basic programming but not for any reason other than I think it looks kind of fun to be able to like build some random stuff that won’t be useful for anyone, but at the end of the day when I’ve been on my computer all day it doesn’t relax me or do anything if I’m then doing my side project or my hobby on the computer. So with the cross-stitch if I can just take 15 minutes to do that or maybe reading something or you know something like that it makes a really big difference, and I want to make more of an effort to carve that out for sure because I know that I feel better when I do it.

Jason: Absolutely I couldn’t agree more. So tell us your origin story. Laura and I know we’ve been talking analog which I love and I think it is a great release and kind of a nice refreshment from our normal day to day grind and it can be grinding sometimes working on this stuff. So tell me origin story, tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in this exciting, challenging, and ever evolving field.

Laura: Yeah so I mean I was always I guess a little bit creative when I was a kid. I wasn’t like Prodigy or anything like that. I was just I kind of liked drawing and I played the piano and stuff like that and I was kind of always that minded. But I wasn’t ever particularly good at it. I just kind of liked it. And so when I finished school I had to decide what I wanted to study after that, and I thought OK I’m going to do computer programming because you know I’m never going to be an artist or anything. I’m going to just do this and get a really good job and then I’m going to earn that decent wage and I’m going to do my creative stuff in on the sidelines. So I did that for about a year and I did really well in it. But I kept getting the same bit of feedback which was stop trying to make it look good. You know that’s not the point of this. And I just kind of kept having the same feedback over and over and I realized I was kind of miserable because I really liked doing more creative things so I thought I need to find some kind of balance because I really enjoyed programming and I enjoyed making things like calculators and stuff like that and it was kind of fun and logical, but I needed something that had both. So I needed something that was logical and creative at the same time.

So I went and studied this kind of media course where I did film and animation and graphic design which I hadn’t even heard of graphic design before. And from my very first lesson I remember walking into my first lesson on the first day of graphic design and I was completely sold and I went back to my mom and I was like I’m going to be a graphic designer I’ve finally found what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I just kind of knew that was that was it. It was perfect it was creative but not like fuzzy you know like superficial creative it was like creative but it had a reason and it had a purpose so you know I went through and I studied design through college and then university. I got a job in a design agency and I was going down this kind of print background, but I still have this kind of pull to the web from my you know slight, slight programming roots. So I ended up branching out and working for myself, and I became a freelance web designer and that was just the absolute perfect mix of creativity, logic, problem solving, and you know getting to know a little bit about the technical stuff as well.

Jason: I love that. Our back stories are very parallel Laura. I used to draw a lot to as a kid. And I loved comic books which is kind of why I do the show in this way and kind of carry that over. But I used to draw my favorite superhero (Wolverine) and then I got pulled into the web by just realizing that I could be both creative and technical because I used to tinker around with code, with basic code like on my old Commodore Amiga back in the 80s. And I was really in love with both and when I realized that I could do both on the web. I was just like OK this is this is all I want to do the rest of my life.

And so I love that story Laura and not just because it’s my own, but it’s because it is a compelling story, and I think this is why a lot of us get into this field, so we can just really kind of do both, and kind of stretch our wings and be creative and also technical, solve problems for people and and help improve people’s lives too. I think that’s definitely an awesome back story Laura.

Laura: Yeah I mean it never gets boring.

Jason: Right, because there’s always a new problem to solve right?

Laura: Yeah, exactly.

Jason: I love it. So also, I’d like to know speaking of superheroes, I told you mine was as far as comic books go, but I’d love to hear who’s been your biggest one in this field and why.

Laura: So, I don’t know if I have a design superhero as much but in terms of like because I started my own business and I’d never ever even thought I would ever start my own business. So I actually would probably credit my biggest superhero to be Brennan Dunn from “Double Your Freelancing”. And he basically teaches creative people or technical people who are really good at their craft how to also run a business, and be good at business. So it’s not necessarily I don’t really glorify designers too much. I mean I like good design and this you know a few people that I follow but there’s not really one kind of superhero that I aspire to be. But in terms of who’s helped me the most I would have to definitely credit more for the business side to it.

Jason: Nice. I like that a lot. And because there’s a business element to what we do right especially when we’re working for other people and whether that’s in a workplace or as a freelancer right you’re being hired to help typically to help increase revenue. So that’s definitely good.

Laura: Exactly and I think the more you’re kind of tuned into that you know, one of the mistakes I made when I was working for an agency is I wasn’t being hired is like just to sit in a seat and do design work all day. I was actually being hired because they were running a business, and the clients that we were working with were also running a business, and everyone wants to improve their business right? And I think if I would ever go back to an agency or maybe a company setting I think I’d be much better in terms of actually realizing why I’m doing what I’m doing and you know I can still be pretty good at your craft. But if you just kind of remember why you’re being hired, and just learn a little bit about business, you don’t have to go crazy and learn you know everything…

Jason: Accounting?

Laura: Yeah, no.

Yeah I’ve just been in conversations with my accountant and it just…yeah, I need to learn some of that terminology.

Jason: That’s a calling.

Yeah, yeah. Just accounting, yeah don’t learn that. Or, I wouldn’t learn that.

Jason: I mean some people are naturals, and I appreciate it. It’s kind of like EMT’s. Right? Like that’s not my calling but I’m so glad it’s other people’s.

Laura: Yes exactly. Yeah for sure. I’m so glad that there are people who enjoy that kind of thing, and are happy to help other people do it.

I would be lost without my accountant completely.

Jason: Or like mortician’s or proctologists for example.

Laura: Right. Yeah.

Jason: Thank you.


Let’s talk about life altering experiences and get into your transformation. Every superhero has some sort of life altering experience that leads to a transformation where they realize the powers they have and they harness them for the greater good and historically through superheroes you see that many of them fail but they learn. So I like that analogy because I think that we learn certainly from our own failures, but I think we also can learn from others. So I know this is a vulnerable question but can you tell us a story about what’s been the biggest one in your career?

Laura: So my biggest I’ve actually had probably many many small failures rather. I can’t think of any catastrophic things that’s gone horrendously badly. But I mean I’ve had almost on a daily basis I do something wrong. So, even if you go back to me going into programming when I was always creative or you know doing that kind of thing or starting a business when I didn’t know anything about business and you know I kind of look back and I can see all these little mistakes that I made and all these failures I had in terms of you know I can think of when I first started out and I was doing projects and the projects I’m kind of thinking oh God why did someone pay me to do that? I mean that was awful. I like the idea that they came to me with was never going to work. It was never going to make them money. And I knew that it wasn’t going to make them money. But for some reason I thought that wasn’t my responsibility. I thought that their just hiring me to do whatever app that they had an idea for. And you know I do that and you know I was starting out so the end result wouldn’t have been very good. I didn’t charge a crazy amount. I probably charged too little. But still there was that kind of moral obligation to you know be like hey you know this is I can’t take your money you know because the idea’s not gonna work. You think you’re going to make millions but…

You know I think I had one situation I actually didn’t take this project but I almost did. They basically found an app and they wanted to do pretty much an exact copy of it. And I was kind of like well you know my job is not to do that, my job is to you know design. I just do what they ask and they pay me and you know I need money you know all this stuff and I didn’t take the job in the end. But that was kind of a point where I realized that okay, anyone who comes to me I can’t just take their money, because if they’re successful I’m successful. If they do really well from the projects that we work on together, that bodes well for me. If they don’t do very well, that doesn’t bode very well for me as well.

So, I think in terms of failures, I had a lot of those starting out and that’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned in terms of what I did wrong early on.

Jason: I love that Laura. It’s. I love your conviction. I love how you mentioned that because it reminded me of my career starting out too. Like I just wanted to make stuff. I just wanted to create cool Web sites for people and you know back then we weren’t as concerned about whether or not it worked, or whether or not it accomplished the needs of the client as much. I’ll speak for myself but I think in general before the user experience, the whole movement started really escalating which is more recent years. I feel like a lot of us we in not a bad way but I feel like we wanted to make cool things and there weren’t a lot of rules back then either. So that’s another thing is that it was just an open frontier. But I just feel like that lesson and the fact that especially newer designers and a lot of the Defenders listening are kind of in that place where they’re just sort of starting out and diving in. And I think it’s so great that they have a leg up on that exact point that you made Laura about business. Understanding business and being willing to push back despite the fact that you need the money. That’s a hard thing to do, but being willing and having the conviction to push back if somebody is asking you to do something that you just know is not gonna work. Being able pass on that just out of your own integrity. So I love that lesson, Laura that’s awesome.

Laura: Yeah, it can be really hard to do. And I would say to anyone like if you’ve been in that situation before and you’re not necessarily proud of it. Don’t beat yourself up too much about it because I think everyone’s had something like that where their morals have been in question, and maybe they made the wrong decision. But it doesn’t make you a bad person.

Jason: Yeah, absolutely agree. I’ve seen your work Laura and it is super powerful, and you have some major design superpowers. But I want to ask you specifically, what is your design superpower?

Laura: Is it’s a hard one. I mean I feel like I’m kind of hopping back onto the thing we were just talking about. But I really think my design superpower has kind of come from all my past experiences that I’ve had. So I mentioned at the start that I recently launched a product of my own. And I’ve been doing like side projects and stuff like that. I think for everything I’ve learned from that is making me a better designer in terms of realizing what my users or my customers need from a business perspective and not focusing as much on the visuals and as much on the design I think the visual side I am you know I don’t when crazy design awards but I think I can make something look visually pleasing. Now what I think I’m getting a lot better at is and figuring out what people want on a Web site where people need to see and just making a product that’s actually genuinely well, I think, I hope anyway useful for them. And so I’m not kind of mis-selling anyone or doing anything like that or using any shady tactics or anything.

Laura: And I just think having that kind of background in terms of I’ve had the experience in the agency I’ve run a freelance business and made a bunch of mistakes. I’ve started a product company, I think all those things kind of tie in together and I think that’s probably the best thing that I could offer is just those different kinds of experience and they can all go into the design work that I’m doing.

Jason: Yeah. Well and you’ve been at this for a while now as a freelancer and that’s hard enough being a freelancer. I’ve done it and it’s a lot of it’s been involuntarily when I’ve been in transition. But anyway that says a lot about your hustle and about your ethics so I appreciate that. But I know that you took all of that with you over into product and you’ve kind of transitioned away from freelance a little more into developing your own product now. It’s called Client Portal. I would love to know, and I know our listeners would love to know what is that product you’ve created? And also I know our listeners especially love to know especially those who are freelancing and maybe considering doing the same thing. How’s that transition been for you, and what have been some of your biggest challenges?

Laura: Well the transition was relatively simple for me because I think like a lot of projects “Client Portal” came out of something that I initially made for myself to use on my own projects.

Jason: She’s the user!

Laura: Yeah, exactly. And that really helps for sure because I know that I need it. And then you know it turned out that other people needed it too which I didn’t actually think they would. But apparently you know they do. It was basically, you give your clients an area on your Web site where you just link to all their different deliverables and project assets and you give them like a log in and they can go in there and just see whereabouts in the project you are they can see everything that’s going on. It’s really good if you’re the kind of person who builds in the open. So if I’m a designer but I’d use maybe InVision or something to do prototypes and they can see the changes live, or I’d use Google Docs to kind of go through content with them and they can see the changes live and it’s just a way to keep it all in one place basically and like a really nice interface and that whole moving into products thing was quite easy because I was speaking at a conference about freelancing and I kind of mentioned oh you know you could do something like this you can have give your client an area on your Web site and they can see everything. And after the conference everyone went around the room and said, “What’s the number one takeaway from this conference?”

And I think it was definitely over 50% of people said Laura’s “Client Portal” idea. Like, “I want that, where can I get that?” And so I ended up making it into a product and selling it and the launch went really well because I’d already built up that validation for it. It was something I’d made for myself I had used it myself. I think it was helpful that I had made it without intending to sell it because it meant that I was making the best product possible without thinking about selling it. And I think that kind of helped a little bit. And then I so I ended up kind of selling it and now I’m really scaling back a lot of my freelance work to focus almost the majority of my time on products now. So that’s been really good and it’s really fun and fulfilling and I’ve found that since I’ve made the product like I said earlier I’m a much better designer for it because I really understand especially if I’m working with businesses who sell products, or if they have demos or trials or stuff like that, I understand a lot more like the inner workings and what the business owner is thinking of and I think I can help people a lot better now just by having that experience.

Jason: Well kudos to you Laura for building this thing that you needed, and then turns out other people needed it as well. I just love hearing stories like that and so yeah. Good job. I’ll be sure to link to that product as well. So I’d like to ask you, conversely what is your design kryptonite?

Laura: Yeah I mean I mean I have many as you can probably imagine I have lots of lots of small failures lots of small wins lots of small Kryptonite’s. I think my biggest one is I really really struggle to keep up with the industry and everything that’s going on, and I could kind of feel myself lagging a bit behind in terms of I’ve got a bunch of Web sites out there at the minute and I haven’t really taken much time into looking into accessibility as I should have.

And I know that’s like a huge thing, and I’m ashamed that I that you know I’ve got colors on some of my web sites that don’t have enough contrast and stuff like that. It’s kind of small things but it’s stuff that I’m kind of like you know I really should have been working on up until now. I really should’ve been working on and should have made a priority. So, I think my Kryptonite isn’t necessarily not just not having as much accessibility as I’d like, but it’s just not keeping up with the most important things in design. And you know I can get a little bit waylaid on looking at you know visuals and stuff like that and you know pretty things on Dribbble and things like that. I really need to keep up to date and know what’s important to implement, and what’s important to learn and also what’s not.

And sometimes I’m not very good at separating the two. I’m like spend ages on something that’s not really that important and I’m like well why wasn’t I doing this and that’s just a constant struggle. I’m sure like lots of people can relate to that cause, the industry is just changing like you said every day.

Jason: Yes it is. And I appreciate your honesty in that answer Laura and I know many of our Defenders listening (myself included) can identify with that struggle.

This next question is a really fun one. And I always caveat it with none of us got here on our own. We certainly have surrounded ourselves with other people that have pushed us forward and or been inspired by a mentor type of figure that’s really poured into us to help us grow. But certainly Laura you’ve as we’ve touched on already you’ve achieved some great success already in your career and you continue to do so. So you certainly are a superhero to me and I know many listening. So, what would your UX superhero name be?

Laura: Oh I must’ve missed this one. I have no idea. Oh gosh I’m not good at these kinds of things. I am creative and I any thing naming-wise I just come up with something really lame. I had a superhero when I was a kid called Delayed-Man and his superpower was that he was delayed everything. That’s like the level that I go in terms of like my superhero name. I don’t know I’d say I’m probably the best thing would be I like to think I’m pretty good at reflection like self-reflection and kind of keeping my ear to the ground and figuring out and like listening to people and I kind of think that’s a good thing to have in UX is empathy and stuff like that. I think I’m pretty good at that. I think I’m pretty good at not sort of rushing into like a big decision in term and assuming that a user wants to use something in a particular way and actually seeing how they actually want to interact with that, and how they want to use it and asking them rather than me telling them what they want to do. I’d say that’s probably in terms of a name.

Jason: I like “Reflection”. Just “Reflection”, what do you think of that?

Laura: Do it, yeah.

Jason: All right, yes!

Laura: My new brand.

Jason: I love it, and I love the story too behind it. I think of mirror neurons with empathy and things so I love it.

One of my favorite lines from Tron was when he said “I fight for the users”. And that’s kind of inspired this show in many ways too. How do you fight for your users?

Laura: I’d say the main thing is is say when I’m kind of talking in terms of like the product side business because that’s like my main thing. But the main reason I sort of fight for my users is I really really care about giving them a good product and I don’t want to give them something subpar. You know I actually want it to legitimately help them I’m not just trying to sell something just to you know make some money. Obviously I need to make a living and I want to make a good living, but I like to think that I really try to steer away from any kind of shady tactics to just get a sale you know.

So what I really tried to do is with anything that I put out there is I try to make it first and foremost about educating them and helping them, so I mean this kind of works with “Client Portal” and “Design Academy” which is my or that sort of side project which is going to be a course teaching developers how to design. But it’s really about helping someone become better at something that they’re struggling with. So with “Client Portal”, it’s for people who are really struggling giving their clients a really professional locked in experience, and it’s for people who feel a bit kind of like they’ve got imposter syndrome and they feel like they’re not good enough they’re not a posh enough to be like a good service provider.

So what I do is I have like a free course which I’m kind of teaches people how to become better at that. And the product also helps with that. But I like to think that even if people just took the free course and don’t buy the product they’ve still gained a lot of value because I try to make sure the courses aren’t like fluffy or anything. I don’t just kind of write it and just forget about it. They’re really well-thought-out, and really trying to be something that will help people, even if they don’t end up you know buying the product in the end. And I think this works because people end up trusting you a lot more. I’ve kind of made friends with a lot of my customers, because they’ll email me back and forth you know when they go through the course and I can get to know them. I always try to ask people what they’re struggling with say not assuming that they’re struggling with something that I think they’re struggling with actually what what are you struggling with what do you want fixed, and really trying to help them in that respect. So I think that’s pretty much how I fight for my users.

Jason: I love it, and “Design Academy” Laura. This is really interesting. This is one of the things that I first noticed about you that kind of piqued my interest about the things are you’re doing. This is really interesting and those listening the show you know I tend to kind of talk about should designers code. And that’s certainly a big conversation still in our industry and maybe for quite a while.

But the other conversation that’s really minimized is should developers design. Right? And then you’re kind of answering that question and you would say a resounding yes. And I would ask you of course based on that you’re actually creating material to help developers, and developers are succeeding through your course. But I want to ask you can design actually be taught? Some with a fixed mindset would believe either you have it or you don’t. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Laura: Yeah. Well I would actually kind of start by saying that I don’t actually think developers have to design. It’s more for developers who want to design. So I think with design and it’s same with designers and code like I don’t think they have to learn to code. It’s definitely going to be beneficial both ways. I mean the more you can kind of learn and your skills you have it is only going to be beneficial. But I wouldn’t say they have to I would just say because I think designers and developers are always going to need each other. I think the closer designers and developers can work the better for everyone. Because the designers can be good at what they do, the developers can be good at what they do. At the minute there’s a lot of like I think it might be getting better but there’s a lot of clashing like designers will moan about developers for doing certain things, developers will moan about designers for doing certain things. You see this in like every industry.

Laura: I remember when I was I used to work as a waitress when I first graduated when I was doing free internships, and I was a waitress on the side, and you know the chefs would be getting really annoyed at the bar staff, and the bar staff would be getting really annoyed at the serving staff. And it was because they didn’t know enough about each others jobs to realize the struggles that the other person had. So I think there’s definitely merit in learning it.

I don’t think you have to but there’s a lot of reasons why developers would want to, and actually being able to collaborate with designers and kinda speak their language is definitely one of them. Another one that I found is I’ve noticed developers have a lot of side projects like developers are actually from my experience really really creative and they love just making really useful things for people and sometimes developers want to end up launching their side projects and maybe selling it or doing something with it and they don’t want to have to hire a designer to sell something because they don’t even know if it’s you know sellable yet if it’s actually going to go anywhere. So it’s kind of equipping developers with just enough design knowledge that they can make something look designed and make something look half decent. It’s not going to turn them into designers it’s not that’s not like the goal of the course. That would be a completely different ballgame but it’s just keeping helping developers keep doing what they love which is code, but just equipping them with just enough knowledge that they can almost be dangerous with design as well.

But to answer your second question in terms of can it be taught. This is something that I’ve been really struggling with. So like I said I really like to make sure everything I do is first and foremost useful and I’ve had “Design Academy” up and the course isn’t actually ready yet. All I do is I provide a lot of free content in terms of emails and articles and stuff like that.

While I kind of figure out how to actually teach this because I want to make sure that what I teach here, I’m actually teaching how to design. And that’s a really hard thing to teach, and it’s making me take a really critical look at my own process and how I’ve learned, and kind is trying to put that down into something that people can follow. And what I’ve actually realized recently is that a lot of I was looking at other kind of design courses. A lot of them are taught in the way that I’m going to teach you a process and you’ll be able to create a design from scratch that’s going to look amazing. And I was kind of like yeah you know I need to do that I need to teach developers how they can just create design from scratch that looks amazing. And then I tried it, and I’m like you know this is impossible. I mean even I can’t design a website from scratch that looks amazing first time.

Jason: That’s a grand promise.

Laura: Right. And it’s what a lot of them try to teach. So, what I’ve realized now is if I can teach them how to get something up and how to I call it debugging design that’s like the title of the book about I’m writing at the minute and if I can teach them how to get something up and look at a website and actually debug it in terms of like you know what is what is wrong on this page. Something’s not right. How can they identify what’s wrong and fix it.

Similar to how they work in code. I have this story about my partner who was building a gaming machine, and he was sat on the floor for about six hours building this gaming machine he reading like documentation manuals watching YouTube videos. After six hours he turned it on, and nothing happened. It didn’t work, and I was like oh my God he’s going to freak out. This is terrible.

And he was just like OK you know cool let me fix it. And I asked him like why didn’t you freak out and he said because I never expected it to work the first time. I haven’t built a gaming machine in 10 years. If it worked the first time that would be a miracle. I had to do was identify where the issue was. You know, is it an issue with the power, with the monitor, or is it with something else? And just go through one by one and fix it. And I realized it’s exactly the same with design. So I think there is a way to teach design, it’s a very long-winded way of saying that. I’m still working out exactly how to do it in the most foolproof way. But I think it really is just a case of identifying the issues and fixing them.

Jason: Wow. So I was thinking about a couple of things here when you were talking about this and, so the first thought I had about this was about teams, and maybe I think one of the reasons you touched on this already with the waitress story. And it’s funny it’s not just the design industry that suffers from this lack of understanding, but I think it’s really a lack of empathy for understanding a craft other than your own. Right? I think it’s kind of it’s sort of like not being maybe not being willing or just never having taken the time to really understand a little bit more about what that other person is doing, and the complexities that in that craft that just kind of go unnoticed perhaps. I think the best design teams probably have a really strong empathy for each other’s crafts that would be an assumption, but I think would be a safe one.

And then the other thing I thought of Laura was what a brilliant way to teach design is to kind of not just make this grand promise that after you take my course you’re going to be able to design the best website in the world or whatever but showing them what to look for. Showing them like you’re teaching design principles which like you said really haven’t changed much throughout many years. So I love that strategy. I think that’s brilliant.

Like say you’re on the market for a new car right? And say it’s like I’ll say it’s a red bug. Ok like a red Volkswagen bug. What happens all of a sudden you start seeing those everywhere. Right? I see it’s like I notice every single red bug on the freeway. And it’s because it’s something you’re cognizant of now. And I think that that’s a wonderful strategy to teach design as to what to look for and then all of a sudden, “Oh, wow…I do notice that.” You know I think just the light kind of comes on there.

Laura: Yeah that’s a really good analogy as well and I think even putting a name to something really helps as well say if you can show them what’s wrong with this. And then if you don’t then sort of put a name to it as well. That kind of gives even more of a connection to it and you’ll start seeing it everywhere. So I think this is how a lot of designers are that kind of like you know how can you not see that that line height is completely off? Like how don’t you see that? Isn’t that obvious? And then you know they might think oh maybe I was just born being able to see that, and it’s not necessarily the case you know they they learnt it over time and right now I know when I started out my line height was either too wide or too short, and I couldn’t figure out what looked wrong with it. Now I’m pretty good at getting it. It is just a small example but it can be sort of applied anywhere. But yeah I really like that analogy of the red car.

Jason: Nice. So this is great. And I think that you’ve picked a lot of interest for the defenders listening the Dev-Fenders. I just came up with right now, the Dev-Fenders.

Let’s wrap up the show with imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit that you believe contributes to your success?

Laura: It’s got to be the reflection thing again. Yes I think that’s got to be the main thing I think. Just really taking a really really critical look at what you’re doing, and why you’re doing that, and listening to other people. I mean, I’d say put something out there like make create a hypothesis, and whether this is like a UX change or whether it’s a product and it can be applied to anything put something out there and then really listen to the responses that you’re getting, and try to kind of tweak it based on that. Don’t just assume that the first go is going to be perfect. You know really just try to you know I guess the whole debugging thing works in every area or I suppose just like put something out there and then slowly fix what’s wrong with it.

Jason: Yes, and thankfully we can do that in our field. I love that. That’s one of the things that drew me also into this field is knowing that whatever I design is not final. And I mean really, are any of our designs final in this in this medium? Really, no. So I think that’s what’s so awesome is like it and I think kind of overcoming that imposter syndrome of like is it good enough yet, is it good enough yet? Just get it out there and then make it better as you get feedback. Right? That’s the only way you can test your hypothesis is if you actually launch something and launch isn’t even the right word anymore…just release something. We used to have launch parties, remember? We used to have launch parties back in the day where we would like nine months after we got paid and got the brief together and the timeline…nine months or even a year later when we finally launched the website we would have a launch party. And then the client’s like, “What the heck did you just ship for me? What is this?”

Laura: Yeah, right. Yeah everything’s done behind the curtain.

Yeah exactly. Yeah definitely. I really like the whole build in the open like stuff that’s going on in this industry. I remember I worked in a print industry before and that’s horrendous. Nice typo and it’s already 50,000 copies have gone out you know. We’re very fortunate to be able to do that, and I think it makes better products because of it. You know you can ship quicker. You can iterate faster it’s definitely I think a bonus.

Jason: Absolutely. And of analog. I mean it used to all be done by hand. And I totally respect that, now that I know again kind of going into that trying to understand the craft behind it, and what other people had to do other designers you know even 30 years ago had to do to try to get something published 50 years ago…an ad in Life Magazine. How much work that was…paste up. Oh my gosh. All by hand you know? And so, a little story here I just I went to I just got back from vacation in Southern California.

We were in Newport Beach and I went to see a tattoo artist that many people recommended and this guy’s been doing it for decades. This guy is a pro and ny tattoo that I got on my arm was type and it was something I found I really liked it. And so the only problem was the F on it was too far away that you know because it had you know an extender. It was just too far away from the other types. I said we got to fix that. And I’m so used to just going into my computer or opening up Sketch or whatever or Photoshop or whatever and going in there and and just tweaking that. But in this case it was paste-up. I’m like oh my gosh, he’s about to put a permanent ink on my arm that he’s doing paste-up on my hand and doing kerning on letters.

Laura: Wow. And did it turn out OK?

Jason: It turned out OK. The F is just a little too close now.

Laura: Was that tattoo User Defenders by any chance?

Jason: No it’s not. But maybe one day I’ll get that on me, or maybe “I fight for the users” I’ll get that on me. But my tattoo says, Fall: 7 Rise: 8. And it’s basically I was inspired by a really awesome book called “Grit”, and it’s about how grit trumps talent every time. Right because if you have a growth mindset as we talked about earlier, you can you can learn anything. I don’t care what it is I don’t care how hard it may seem. You can learn it if you want. And that is that is a conviction of mine. I believe it. I’ve seen it in other people’s lives, and my own life. But I so inspired by this. It’s also a Proverb too that says, “The righteous fall seven times and rise again”. And so I just really liked that a lot, and I got it tattooed on my arm, but I was just like it’s a lot of faith you’re putting in this guy hands.

Laura: There’s no Command > Z.

Jason: Oh my gosh, you’re right there was no Command > Z, and I’m like OK. And so anyway, all that to say is that I appreciate so much the craft of design and how far we’ve come, and how much easier it is to iterate on our work, and we just need to take advantage of that. Defenders, don’t feel like it’s the final product. Just get it out there and tweak it.

I’ve had a website online for a long time, but I started to redesign my website about four or five months ago, and all I have is like a little Flexbox thing on there that just says one, two, three. And it says, “I’m designing this in the open.” And it’s my first time ever doing that. But I just need to actually start doing that now…quilt that in too.

Laura: It helps with accountability as well if it’s in the open.

Jason: Exactly, yes. And I think other people may learn from it. I just need to be a little more kind of you’re talking about “I need to update my websites”, I need to do the same thing and just start practicing what I do.

Laura: Yeah, exactly.

Jason: I’m sorry, I just felt like I just rambled on there for so long. This is your interview, Laura.

Laura: Nah, I enjoyed it, it’s a good story.

Yeah I mean I don’t know how I’d feel about it if there was an “F” that was slightly, I actually really feel your pain there. Hopefully it doesn’t bug you too much!

Jason: I think every designer probably felt my pain when I said the “F” is just a little too close to the “A”. Oh well, I still love it.

Anyway, so what’s your most invincible resource or tool you can recommend to our listeners? And I’m going to recommend your two Web sites that you that you’re working on your products “Design Academy” and “Client Portal”. But do you have any others that you like to put out there?

Laura: Yeah, I mean so for me, I’m really big on things like reusable design. So, I think a lot of companies can benefit from having some kind of patent library, and style guides and you know making everything quite consistent and scalable is quite a big subject so I won’t get into it too much. But I think I resource for that which is just amazing if anyone wants to get into the whole like creating a living style guide so you kind of build your components rather than full pages. It’s just a lot more scalable and you can collaborate a lot easier. There’s a Web site called which is like the best resource, and it will just teach you absolutely everything you need to know. But I think that’s right. I think that’s going to be a really big thing for so many companies, and I know a lot of companies are doing it already, and it’s just stopping the whole thing that you were talking about earlier where you do like this big launch, and then a year down the line they have to completely recreate that whole web site again from scratch, and then they do a big redesign and you know redesigns can have issues and like SEO and stuff like that, and there’s a lot of usability issues because people aren’t used to your website changing so much. So I’d say, having more of a consistent UI wherever possible is probably the best thing. And if anyone wants to get started with that it’s the website I think Anna Debenham put it up. I might have got that wrong it might have been someone else. But yeah, and she’s really good to follow as well.

Jason: Awesome. We’ll be sure to link to those. And I want to give a hat tip to your great talk. I saw it on. It was a Smashing Conference talk about pattern libraries, about how should you use them. Yeah it was awesome. So we’ll be sure to link to that as well. But I loved your approach on that whole subject matter because that is so important now. And like you said we’re we’re not designing pages anymore, we’re designing systems, and especially when you have a large website and you had a lot of great examples in your talk of enterprise level corporations or companies that have benefited greatly from having a pattern library and to save them just days probably of work to make a change. But I love your honest approach too where you say you know here’s the cons to it too. It’s not you just saying, “Oh I’m I’m a fan girl of style libraries”. It’s like well here’s the other side too. And so I think you just present a really well-balanced case, and help people think about whether it’s right for them. So yeah great.

Laura: Yeah exactly, yeah because it’s not always right for everyone. I’ve done it before where I’ve tried to create one because I was like the cool thing new thing today and it wasn’t needed. The client didn’t really want it, and it never ever ever got used, and it was just a giant waste of time and money. Say yeah there is the downside as well.

Jason: Great talk to kind of consider that is this gonna just waste money, or is this going to like save money. Awesome stuff.

Yeah if you could recommend one book to our listeners what would it be and why?

Laura: So probably the book that I’m reading at the minute which is I can’t remember the author’s name. It’s called “Users are Bad-Ass”. I think I’m just going to quickly Google that.

Jason: That’s an interesting title.

Laura: Yeah, it’s a really good book and it’s just oh it’s called “Bad Ass: Making Users Awesome” Kathy Sierra. And it’s just really well written. It’s really funny she uses like really bad stock images and like overlays text of you know it’s a really nice easy read but it kind of teaches you a really valuable lesson in that with everything you’re doing you’re not you’re not selling features you’re not creating features. It goes pretty much anything that you could possibly sell is how can you make your users awesome so you know in terms of like “Design Academy”, I want to make my users awesome because I want to make them feel confident that they can put together a really nice design. I’m not like selling you know you get five lessons or ten lessons and it’s 18 hours of video or whatever. I’m selling that vision of them being a more awesome version of themselves. And it can be applied everywhere and it’s just I haven’t finished it yet but so far it’s like it’s a fantastic book.

Jason: Ah, that’s so cool. We’ll be sure to link to that as well and it’s funny you mention Kathy. I hadn’t heard of her until I interviewed Samuel Hulick who’s the guy behind a UserOnboard. He does the tear downs of onboarding experiences and he’s like hugely inspired and influenced by her and I’m like I haven’t heard of her yet. And then you recommend the book and I’m like OK I need to like dig into that, but he has a similar like his mission is driven by a similar cause of making users awesome right. Making them a better version of themselves. And we have the power speaking to superpowers and I love how he puts it to he says you know software can. It’s actually a superpower in some ways you can give people this superpower to become better versions of themselves. So anyway, you have kind of authenticated something that I had heard recently that I now need to look into myself.

Laura: Yeah. It’s such a good book and I don’t know Samuel Hulick, but I’ve been a huge fan of his onboarding teardowns, they’re so funny. They’re really good and really useful. I love it when people can teach things and not make it really stale. So yeah, that’s awesome. But if you get the book I would say I do the print edition rather than Kindle because of the way it’s kind of laid out. It really needs to be. I can’t imagine it on a Kindle cause it’s just lots of pictures and pointy arrows and you know.

Jason: Nice, that’s a nice little hack there.

Laura: Yeah yeah. It’s really good it’s a different format so it’s nice.

Jason: Awesome. So we have a listener question today which is really exciting. I always love when I put that out there, and thanks Laura for sharing this.

So we got a question from Anthony (@AnthonyEnglish) and he says, “Laura, you do a lot of travel. You do speaking gigs, and you get around to a lot of conferences. How do you keep up your client work? How do you make the user experience still very positive when they don’t know where you are? How do you keep it all up? How do you manage your own time to do all of that? That’s my question, and I’m really fascinated to hear how you do it.”

Laura: Yeah well that’s something I have historically not been very good at. I’m a lot better at it now. And I think there’s kind of two things that I’ve done that’s made that a lot easier.

The first is I don’t actually take on as many client projects anymore so I used to just take on anything that kind of came to me and I would sometimes have like five projects on at the same time. Now I have a maximum of one client project on at the same time. And if you have a schedule that’s you know you’re traveling a lot, I think that’s really important if at all possible to just have one client project on a time because I thought that when I was traveling I was like you know travel is going to be the same as when I’m at home I’m just on my laptop in a coffee shop. But it’s really not. I mean you don’t have, or I don’t have as much time to get work done. It’s harder to get into the zone you know. I’m definitely not as productive. So that’s been one thing that really helped me in terms of clients. Keeping clients happy while traveling. And the other thing is is I have a really set process, and my process means that I don’t really need too much communication in forms of phone calls with clients, so what I’ll typically do is I’ll say hey we’re going to have a one phone call a week or one phone call every two weeks or something like that to kind of sync up. In the meantime I send them an update every Monday of everything that I’ve been working on, anything that I need from them, and everything is quite structured.

And like I say I design very much in the open so they can go in and check a design at any time, and you know I use the “Client Portal” which has been really helpful in terms of keeping everything so they don’t have to email me looking for files. You know if I’ve sent them files before I used to get emails hey can you resend that, I’ve lost it or something. That really helps with that and it just means that I can travel and get on with my work and clients don’t even notice a change in experience because you know I would have the issue before where I’d have clients emailing me all the time and I wouldn’t always be able to reply, and you know maybe I was on a flight or maybe I was at a conference or something. Now, because my project is so kind of set in stone, and it’s so structured and I almost over- communicate, they hardly ever need to get in touch with me because they always know where they stand and they have you know the “Client Portal” where they can find everything that they need. And so that’s like been the other thing that’s really helped in terms of travel and work. But it is a huge challenge because traveling is tiring as well. So yeah, definitely hard.

Jason: I appreciate you answering that question and that is a tough one. That is a tough one to balance I don’t do that much travel so I can’t say that I know how hard it is. But yeah I can I can certainly imagine it. And another plus one for “Client Portal” there.

Laura: Yeah. You can tell I definitely had a need when I made it.

Jason: Yeah for sure. I love that, scratch your own itch. That’s another kind of one of my little conversation pieces. Yes, designers are users too.

Laura: Yeah exactly. It’s good if you are the user you know, you can understand a bit better.

Jason: That’s right. So this is my last question for you Laura and it’s one of my favorites because again I do this for the Defenders listening and in my heart goes back to when I first started doing this stuff and it was a lot more simple than. And it’s just only gotten more complex in what we do. So my heart is as a kind of an eternal learner. Right? Like I always maintain a beginner’s mindset because there’s always something new to learn. Anyway my thoughts are for them in knowing kind of what’s the best way for them to get a leg up in what they’re doing. And so my question for you Laura is what’s your best advice for aspiring UX superheroes?

Laura: Yeah I mean I’d say my best advice is to obviously you know keep learning. I mean that’s always a good thing to just keep kind of increasing your skills. But I’d also say don’t get too hung up on what other people are doing because that can be really really toxic. You know, I mean I’m sure you’ve had the same thing where you look at everyone else and you think you know this person is so much more ahead of me or this company is doing all this and I’m still here and I have to do XYZ to keep up and why am I so behind know all this kind of stuff. You know if we’re talking about designers learning code or developers learning design.

You know if you can’t do that yet, it doesn’t make you a bad person. I think designers in particular get a lot of flack if they don’t know how to code. And there’s a lot of pressure on designers to learn. And I know firsthand that even if you really want to learn it’s hard because like I said you know you’re in front of the computer all day, the last thing you want to do is stay in front of the computer in the evening. You want to. Or I do, I want to sort of get away from it a little bit. And then if you’re not learning something like code every day it’s hard to just…you’ve got to keep it front of mind so I would just say my best advice is to keep learning. But don’t stress too much if you feel like you’re behind because everyone has different skills that their better at. Just harness what you’re really good at and just try to become competent at most on what you’re not good at so you can work better with other people to help basically.

Jason: So good. Harness your superpowers Defenders. You know what those are. And if you are still discovering those just find what you’re drawn to. Right? There’s so many different areas in this field that you can kind of sink your teeth into. And I would say specialize in that one area first and foremost and then start to learn more about those other areas at least enough of a working knowledge. Right? If you just want to design experiences but you don’t want to code at least learn the fundamentals at least learn sort of what it takes for your web developers to actually get your design into a browser and into multiple devices at least learn what goes into it. But you know what, if you want to be the best UI designer on the planet go all in on that. Yeah absolutely. Just go all in. You wanna be the best user researcher in the world? Do that. Right? You don’t have to do everything. In fact it’s better if you don’t. Yeah definitely. You can’t specialize a generalization, as one of my guests says…I can’t remember her name right now.

Laura: Yeah yeah I agree completely.

Jason: Ashley Karr said that.

Laura: Cool yeah. I mean it is totally true. I would definitely say yeah just get good at one thing. Whatever you’re most passionate about. And then just keep kind of learning you know the other stuff as much as you can, and just let people know that you’re open to, I mean I find a lot of the time if I’m a designer and I’m working with a back-end developer or something–as long as I just let them know upfront you know hey you know I’m not as good technically but I really want to work closely with you to make this really good. So, if there’s anything I’m doing that just isn’t the best solution, talk to me and we’ll figure out a solution together. I think just being upfront about that kind of takes away the expectation that it’s designers vs. developers. You know it’s because it’s not it’s designers and developers. Each have their strengths. Each have their weaknesses and it’s kind of a push/pull in terms of what the best solution is because, you’re not always going to agree. But the fact that these designers and developers are so different, hopefully you can come to a nice compromise. And I think that’s when the best solution happens when you’ve got two people kind of almost in completely different corners, and you’d meet a really nice middle ground and you come up with a completely new solution that actually ticks all the boxes, and I think that’s where the really good stuff happens.

Jason: So good. Wonder Woman has the Justice League. Iron Man has the Avengers. They are superheroes but they need a bigger group to accomplish that work. And I think it’s just a great analogy that we all need each other. You can’t say to the arm I don’t need you. You can’t say to the leg I don’t need you right? The body needs every part that it comes with.

Awesome stuff. Laura, this has been so incredible. As we close, can you tell our audience the best way to connect and to keep up with you? Because I know they’re going to want to.

Laura: So, the best place to go is it is my web site. And because I’ve got so much going on, that’s kind of a central point for everything so you can find everything that I do on there. I’m pretty active on Twitter as well so that’s at @laurian. That’s probably the best way to connect with me is on Twitter.

Jason: Awesome. So great. Laura this has been incredible. I just want to thank you so much for being here today and sharing this time with me and the Defenders listening, and dropping so many value bombs. And just keep doing what you’re doing. You are making a difference, you are making an impact. You’re helping developers learn how to design! Keep going my friend, and fight on my friend!

Laura: Awesome. Thank you very much for having me on.

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