But this post is different. This is where I get personal.
After over 20 years of crafting my career, from the fields of psychology to user experience, from working freelance to gigs with agencies to my 12-year journey with Habanero, I realized that my career needed a reboot.
In fact, I felt a little panicky when I thought about "what's next?", not just for my career, but as my family matured and needed me differently, as our company shifted its focus, I realized I didn't have an answer to the questions: what could my future look like? What could I spend my time and talent on in a meaningful way?
I realized that I could offset the panic by relying on my training as an experience designer. The fundamentals of my human-centred design mindset helped me navigate a personal and professional transition, connect with my own personal purpose, and deepen my commitment to an amazing employer. And ultimately, I'd love to provide some inspiration to others who may be stuck in a similar way.
Tenets of the design mindset
You may be familiar with these fundamentals:
- Be human-centred
- Take a holistic approach
- Be collaborative
- Be visual
- Prototype and pilot
I use these tenets every day to create incredible workplace experiences with our clients, their employees and their customers.
Bringing the design mindset to life
These tenets are no longer the domain of just designers.
The democratization of the designer's mindset means that the application of design thinking to solving problems is more familiar than ever.
What I realized was that these design "superpowers" can apply not just to the enterprise challenges I work on every day, but also to my own career and life.
I was inspired to approach my life with a design lens by the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. These two Stanford d.School professors made the connection between design skills and life design a few years ago, when a course they taught for students became so popular with mid-career professionals, that they realized they were on to something and wrote a book.
In addition to their framework and several of the activities from their book, I was inspired by several other book/resources, all of which I used in my journey:
- Change by Design by Tim Brown
- Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Bringing each design tenet to life
The resources above, especially Designing Your Life, gave me a starting point to reflect and observe, develop ideas for the future, and have the courage to experiment with intention.
In client projects, we facilitate workshops to hear and observe the experiences of employees and customers so that we gain insight and empathy about what's happening today. Our goal is to understand both the good and bad experiences happening across organizations, platforms, and touch points so that we can turn up the dial on the things that help both people and our clients, and decide how to address and change less optimal experiences.
With life design, the concept is absolutely no different. I used tools like the baseline dashboard and the Good Time Journal to observe my own life today, capture the activities and experiences within it, and make the connection between what I do and how I feel.
This process was enlightening, both for the insights it generated about what I love and don't love in my life, but as a method that put me at the centre of the life design process, which is the essence of human-centred design. I discovered through this process just how much I love (and seek out) highly empathetic and insight-driven problem solving (a.k.a. the murky grey stuff). Even better if it’s a domain that we haven’t tackled in the past. No pattern, no templates? No problem. Just as helpful, I learned just how little joy I get from routine, repeated tasks where I can’t experiment and play with “how might we…?”. While I had a feeling this was true, this crystal clarity made it easy to figure out what to jump into and what to say no to.
Take a holistic approach
We talk a lot at Habanero about taking a systems approach to solving the right problems. By that, we mean stepping back to see the big picture, identifying relationships between events, touch points, and issues, and then addressing the root cause of challenges. For example, in our work to understand the journey of breast cancer patients, stepping back and viewing the entire journey from diagnosis to treatment and post-treatment care gave us the necessary perspective or “altitude” to see the experience as a whole, not just a narrow problem. This holistic perspective allowed us to identify completely different problems and solutions than anyone expected.
This approach applies as much in our lives as it does within organizations.
I had to give myself the space and time to step back - literally - to get this holistic perspective. First, I left town! I escaped with my "thinking partner" in this process, my good friend Jacqueline, to her cabin on an island.
That distance from my day-to-day, paired with her as a sounding board, helped start this journey with perspective and altitude. I didn't jump to a quick solution, in fact, I gave myself permission to take the time I needed to gain the insights from across my work and personal life.
While the Designing Your Life book suggested a three-week timeline of observation, I thought that wasn't nearly enough time to see patterns and gain insight. I know from the research I do with my clients, that this isn't a process that benefits from rushing, so I extended the duration of my journaling to several months, on and off. Giving myself permission to gather enough data allowed me to develop meaningful insights about my observations.
That extra time helped me see a pattern that I’d taken for granted. I’d always volunteered and been a professional catalyst the UX domain…but what I didn’t realize was that I could mash up that same community building desire and experience with my new emerging personal passion area of public art. That connection has led me to some incredible new relationships and applying my professional, human-centred design skills to my volunteer work with Vancouver Mural Festival.
To be successful in any experience design process, collaboration is key. At Habanero, our consultants work in pairs or teams, and fluidly collaborate with our clients. Whether applied to work scenarios or life design, the process of co-creation, validation, and challenge only makes our ideas better.
Borrowing from my work experience, I tackled this life design challenge with a team around me.
I mentioned my "thinking partner" - a good friend from another industry than mine - and together we supported each other through the process with regular check-ins and accountability. This is a term I have adopted from a client and I love everything about it. Adding even more accountability in this process, I also developed my "personal board of directors" - a group of people who deeply influence my life. Here I was inspired by several professional colleagues who have recruited me to “sit” on their boards, and created my own. This concept is called your “team” in Designing Your Life. Whatever you call it, the key factor is support from people who you respect, who care about you, and will invest their time in your journey.
My board helped me refine my insights, verbalize them, codify them and test them out. Sharing my insights and ideas out loud was a great bullshit filter, even if your people aren’t asking you to refine them, and your ask is just for them to listen.
In the culture and employee experience work that I do, I spend a lot of time “catching” people’s stories. (Story catching is a term I absolutely love, by Brene Brown). I find that the most emotional and meaningful way to share the insights we garner from these stories is to visually represent them. As Brene says, stories give soul to data, and in my experience, visuals give stories life.
I'm not a visual designer (but I get to work with lots of talented ones). But throughout the process, I put aside my worries about perfection I used sketching together with the tools from the Designing Your Life toolkit to visualize my ideas for the "future me." I particularly enjoyed (and was challenged by) the constraint of communicating complex personal and emotional concepts with visuals.
In the current state assessment, simple sliders made it easier to document where I was at with my life balance. This quick visual format helped me make quick assessments that I didn't overthink. You can find loads of worksheets on the Designing your Life website.
Prototype and pilot
This is the part of the process that I've found the most fascinating. We are familiar with prototyping and piloting from a UX perspective, where the benefits of getting quick feedback on concepts and refining them early prevents you from going down a wrong (and expensive) path for your product or experience.
The same concept - and benefits - apply when designing your life.
Design schools teach that you need to work through many concepts and iterations. I was inspired (and intimidated) by the idea of creating several "odysseys", which are several possible versions of my future life based on all the insights I developed.
Picking away at elements of these odysseys has helped me validate and discard ideas, refine them, and feel like I'm moving forward intentionally, and with the right things. For example, it's helped me decide on the right work for me, and I've been fortunate to find and refine that within Habanero. It's also helped me outside of work, evolving the volunteer work I do with the Vancouver Mural Festival from starting with research and data insights to helping create the festival’s vision for art and artist storytelling.
In conference talks, workshops and team sessions, I've shared my journey and encouraged others to start their own.
Getting started can be difficult, but you can make it happen with a few key steps:
- Grab a thinking partner and talk about supporting each other
- Start with a few weeks of observation
- Check out Bill Burnett talking about the process of Designing Your Life
- Pick up a copy of the Designing Your Life book
- Develop insight into and align your personal, world, and work views
- Get more of what you want and love in your work and life
- Set yourself up to make intentional, value-based decisions as you move forward in your career