Theory is important, but practice makes perfect

Lessons from my first designathon.


Naina Lavakare

3 years ago | 5 min read

Last week, I took part in my first 48-hour designathon hosted by Adobe XD and Netflix. Hours of video calls, caffeine-fueled discussions and crumpled post-it notes later, I felt I was looking at UX through a brand new lens.

I had spent the past few months immersed in various UX projects, taken many MOOC’s and reading and listening to everything design. However, I was not prepared for the things a 48-hour design sprint would teach me.

Think of it as watching someone solve a tough math problem many times. You know the answer you should ultimately end up with. But you’ll only know if you truly grasped the concept if you solve the problem yourself.

And this designathon was the perfect way to test my understanding of UX, except I only had 48 hours to map, sketch, decide, prototype and test.

Mistakes were made, projects were submitted 2 minutes before the deadline, deep breaths were taken. But most importantly, 5 important lessons were learned.

Lesson 1: Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. Quickly. Cheaply.

Every book I read and the course I took mentioned this rule, but implementing it in real life was another story. I knew quick iteration was important.

But in the last few hours of the jam, I was also thinking of a hundred other things (the visual design, prototyping in XD, icons, and logos…!) I knew it wasn’t as important as thinking of the user but I couldn’t help but think of these other factors too.

We should have continuously tested on our users as we made updates or added features.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

In this way, we could’ve honed in on the users pain points sooner and eliminated them. Instead, we only spent the last 3 hours for user testing. And then got a lot of helpful feedback that would’ve solved our problems much earlier. Lesson learned: Test often, test quickly and test cheaply.

Lesson 2: The simplest solutions are often the most effective

I was working with 2 engineers and quickly realized that they were more focused on “features and feasibility” than “functionality and big picture”. When we were first brainstorming solutions, we were quick to come up with complex add-ons, features, and ideas. We wanted to incorporate the best of reddit! Of Goodreads! But also have an option for people to leave “moviemarks” for places in the movie they wanted to discuss.

We were so excited by all these ideas and features that only after a few hours realized we were quite far away from our target user and the design challenge.

So we zoomed out and chose 3 values we wanted (“authenticity”, “seamlessness” “simplicity”) to guide our solutions, and eliminate, eliminate, eliminate everything that was an extra. We cut down our features by around 50% and by a further 10% as we continued designing.

Lesson 3: Short cuts are more important than you think

Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

A small but very important lesson learned: know your shortcuts. Navigating XD or any other design software quickly is crucial if you have a deadline.

In the last 15 minutes, we realized our nav bar had a mistake, and wasted precious minutes remaking it. We ended up pasting it manually into each art board because we were so stressed that we were unable to recall the shortcut (it wasn’t edit master component since we had to make a new one.)

The shortcuts that I could remember were extremely useful for rapidly executing tasks. I promised myself I would revise and memorize all shortcuts. Here’s a shortcut cheatsheet for you incase you’re just starting out in XD.

Lesson 4: Team dynamics are even more important.

I was nervous about working with my best friend and my brother. What if we disagreed or fought? How would the other react to criticism? What was it like working with family/friends? In the first few hours, each team member’s strengths were apparent.

My best friend, a mechanical engineer, worked on generating features we could build. My brother was great at thinking about the feasibility of our solutions. And as a sociologist, I was constantly thinking about people, our users and the big picture. The lesson? Play to your teams strengths.

My brother and I were one. We were on the same wavelength and understood each others emotions perfectly. We knew what to do when one of us got stressed. We reminded each other to take breaks from the screen, to drink water, to shower and to take a deep breath. There was a moment where both of us had achieved flow state.

He was rapidly prototyping on his laptop while I was writing our abstract. The room was perfectly silent, save for the whir of the air conditioning. Any remnants of sibling rivalry had vanished without a trace. 15 minutes later our tasks came together and our product was submitted.

We were able to criticize the other without taking it personally. I did not feel bossy or uncomfortable delegating tasks to my best friend, since I was used to working with her (we produce our own podcast on intimate conversations!) Both my brother and best friend, problem solving engineers, understood each other perfectly when it came to thinking about the logic of the user flow.

Lesson 5: Learning from each other and with each other is the ultimate win.

We didn’t win the jam. But during those 48 hours, the learning, questions, creative ideas, and blunders led to a shared experience so powerful it created a bond between the three of us that was invaluable.

I was able to put everything I had learned to practice, and felt more prepared for my next project. My team and I can’t wait to apply these lessons and learnings to the next jam.

“In theory, practice is simple” -Alexandre Boily

I thought of this quote at the end of the 2 days. Granted, designathons are much more intense than a 6 week UX sprint or a freelance project, since there is only so much one can do in 48 hours.

However, I could not help but think about how naive I had been just a few days ago. I had never thought this would be so intense.

I felt I had aged a year. As I lay exhausted that night, my brother entered my room, his eyes red from hours of staring at a screen and in a sleepy voice mumbled “Is this how your life is going to be Naina? Working under pressure to deliver a project by a deadline?”

I paused, thinking back to all the lessons I’d learned, amazed that I had taken so much away in just one designathon, and excited about all that I could learn in the next. I knew, now more than ever, that this is the world I wanted to be in, and the answer, for my brother, was a resounding “YES and…”

“Yes, I may face stress and deadlines, but everyone does. And I am so grateful that I’ll be doing something I love, with a team full of talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. This didn’t feel like “work” and that’s the goal — to love doing something so much that despite the stress and deadlines, it’s still worth it.

This article was originally published on medium.


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Naina Lavakare







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