Bye, bye squirrel wheel – a UX approach to riding a bike


How being a UX designer has allowed me to see the obvious – that the journey of life is an experimental bike ride of which you cannot predict the outcome. All there is, is to enjoy the ride, learn from it, and never give up on the times when you fall.

Today I’m heading off on a bike tour (yes, a literal bike tour). I’ve figured for quite a long time that I need a break from work. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but the plan is to be away for some weeks. And I’m heading south, so sooner or later I should end up in the southern parts of Europe. Or at least that’s the assumption, but I’m open for anything.

I’m hoping the tour will finally give me some time to contemplate and think about my life and my work. The last 1,5 years as a freelancing consultant has been going in an ever faster pace. I’ve had so many fun and engaging clients & projects, as well as starting to teach UX and Design Thinking to students on a regular basis. It’s been incredibly rewarding as to how many new things I’ve learned and all the great new people I’ve met. It continues to amaze me how much more you realize there always is to learn, even after you’ve worked 11 years in the field. Learning is exponential it seems. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know, as the quote goes.

What is hard about all this, is to be able to stop and slow down yourself when it seems that life is just moving faster and faster. I’ve always had a trouble with working a little to much. I guess (hope) that part of the reason for that is how I genuinely love what I do. Years ago, when I was just starting out as a freshly baked designer, I thought it was pretty cool to work a lot. It made me feel important and successful. Spending late nights at advertising & web agencies I worked for seemed completely reasonable and part of the job.

I’ve been a professional designer for 11 years now. Nowadays, I’m mainly ashamed from working too much. But it’s hard to find a balance between all the things you want to do, when work and life often blend together in an ever-changing way. Over the years I’ve tried to redefine my goals. I remember starting out as a freelancer (something I actually didn’t want to do at first – nowadays it’s hard imagining any other life than it). How I considered it a major goal if I could ever charge 500 SEK/hour for my work. As it was fulfilled a bit sooner than I expected, the next goal was 700 SEK/hour, and even that came sooner than I actually expected. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never considered money to be the solution of happiness in my life. But at the time, it seemed like perfectly reasonable goals that would confirm everything from my level of skill & competence, to new opportunities of how to work and live my life. I was constantly chasing a goal, that I didn’t even know who had set in the first place.

I remember reading a lot of magazines and blogs at the time about freelancing. One of my favorite magazines was Computer Arts, and they featured articles about successful freelancing designers on a recurring basis. They usually had in the very title of the article something about ”how to be successful as a designer. However, what frustrated me was that they never seemed to mention any secret recipes for how to be a great designer in practice, or how to raise your hourly rate.

”I remember reading a lot of magazines and blogs at the time about freelancing … what frustrated me was that they never seemed to mention any secret recipes for how to be a great designer in practice”

Instead, nearly every person in those articles were going on about how the big challenge really was to manage your personal life. That it was a continuous struggle to try and balance your freelancing work along with your time with friends and family. I just didn’t get it. ”What are they talking about – managing your life is the easy part?” It seemed to me that this was a privilege, as a successful designer, to go on about how hard it was to find the time for even a coffee with a friend. Well, the less you know the more you think you know, I suppose. Little did I know of freelancing. I was fooling myself, big time.

Nowadays, my main priority is how to find more time to spend with my fiancee, my friends and my family. It surely doesn’t seem like that most of the time, but I’m really trying. Time is such an invaluable asset. Thinking of time in ways of that an hour would equal a fixed amount of money is, when you think of it, rather ridiculous. Try and tell that to someone who can count the very weeks, days or hours they have left to live.

”User Experience is all about experimenting – as is the very core of Design Thinking and Human-centered design”

One maybe not-so-obvious aspect of being a UX designer though, is that you learn lots of approaches & methods that’s applicable to your own life in general. User Experience is all about experimenting – as is the very core of Design Thinking and Human-centered design. Pushing it even further, I would even argue that much of UX is a kind of ”common sense”. Not in a way that everyone already know it, though – but more in a way of something that seems very logical to us, something we feel we kind of ”already knew”, once we got it explained.

Unfortunately, I think we loose so much human potential in todays school system. In the process of fostering new grown-ups, we erase so much of a child’s creative mindset, and her knowledge of how to do things in a common sense way as a human being.

”A scientist can’t tell for sure when they will be done with their work – because they wouldn’t be conducting research if they already knew the outcome of it, right?”

In rational thinking, I think most of us know that it’s not reasonable or likely to expect an ultimate, perfect outcome when doing something for the first time. We’re generally all smart people. So it makes sense to most of us, that you need practice to become better. A scientist can’t tell for sure when they will be done with their work – because they wouldn’t be conducting research if they already knew the outcome of it, right?

Still, our mindsets seems to turn completely upside down when it comes to certain aspects in life or in work. As when designing a website, an app or any other technical interface for example. All of a sudden, we have this idea of that we’re gonna spend a fixed amount of weeks on designing and developing this interface. By the end of the project, we’re gonna release a perfect, shiny solution because… well, because that’s how you do it in design, right…?

Image credit: SVT Play

In the fall of 2017, the nobel price in physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne. They had found proof of gravitational waves – for which they had spent the last 40 years searching for. An interviewer on Swedish’s state television (SVT) asked Weiss: ”…but didn’t you ever doubt your work over these 40 years?” And so he replied:

”That’s actually the wrong question – it has nothing to do with doubt … every day is an interesting day. You’re not always thinking about the future … and certainly not on whether you have found gravitational waves yet or not. What you think about is this wonderful circuit that you’ve just designed. It doesn’t work today, but then you improve & fix it, and everybody is happy. You’re continuously busy with improving the experiment, and you enjoy it. That keeps you going – you don’t think about any end result.”

I love that response. I think it’s the whole essence of User Experience work, and Design Thinking. To live today, and focus on what’s important. Start where you are, and do what you can with what you have. Try not to focus too much on the end result or what the final outcome will be.

UX is still a very young field (though some few people in it have been doing it for a very long time up until now, but no one cared to listen to them before). Most organizations are in the very first footsteps of finding a routine for doing design work on an experimental approach, rather than on a dare-I-say ”foolish” approach of preset ideas of outcome & definitions. Design Thinking is becoming more and more popular though, nowadays not shaping only design processes but also whole organizations into something completely new. It is very interesting times to live in, indeed.

”Rationally, in the back of my head, I know that I can’t predict or control all aspects or outcomes of my life – but still, I live most parts of life as if I could.”

But back to my own life. What has UX done for me, except being the core of my work? Actually, I like to think that it helps me in approaching life in a much more ”common sense” way. At least as long as I’m open for it. Ironically, it turns out I’m no better than any old, traditional ”dinosaur” corporation who show little or no interest in changing their way of working into a more UX friendly approach. I rationally, in the back of my head, know that I can’t predict or control all aspects or outcomes of my life – but still, I live most parts of life as if I could.

Somewhere along the way, I think society has managed to twist my mind and way of thinking, into something unreasonable. I shouldn’t live my life as if I knew how long I will be able to live it, what will happen along the way, or what the final outcome will be. Instead, I should live it as an experimental, agile work process where I’m open for anything. Just as with any healthy & well performed UX design process. I know that. I do. Still it’s so hard to realize or really (I mean REALLY) understand.

But I’m trying, and that’s all I can do. This bike trip will be an experiment (actually, I don’t even know that – I should be open for that it could turn out to be something else, too). I will consider it as yet another step in living my life in a more experimental way. A way where you’re never certain of the outcome. Not in a stressful way of course – we should try and not fear what’s coming next.  A general rule of thumb for me in work, is to think like this; ”Is there a risk that someone will actually die from this? If not, then I don’t really have a problem”. Originally I read that somewhere, but I no longer remember where.

Image credit: Based on original by Henrik Kniberg

I’ll finish of with this image above, directly inspired by the great illustration made by Henrik Kniberg (hope it’s OK Henrik, if not let me know). It’s the thinking behind an MVP, explained in a simple yet brilliant drawing, and in this article:

If you’re going to make it from point A to point B, don’t start by thinking of how it will actually look at point B. Don’t wait for the perfect moment to get started – start today. And don’t try to get there by trying to make the perfect journey from scratch (as in the example above, trying to build a car). Start with something that is able to help you get going. After that, you’ll learn and refine along the way. As long as you have a goal (a goal that you’re also open to change based on circumstances), you’ll be fine.

I could have started my journey with skateboard, but unfortunately I don’t know how to skate. I know a little about how to bike, though. Learning to ride a bicycle is an interesting experience. If you were to conduct a usability test on a bike, it had to be done with much caution – as it will fail the first times for anyone trying to learn how to ride it. That doesn’t mean that a bicycle isn’t intuitive, or that it has a bad design.

I am sure I’ll find out later where I’m going. Right now, the goal is just to actually get going. Everything that comes from that will be great, I’m sure of it. 

So long everyone, and a big thanks to all of you who know who you are – I’m so happy for everything you give me in life. We’ll meet again soon, hopefully with some new and interesting learnings.