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A guide to deliberate practice for designers
A secret to daily improvement and achieving greatness
At one point in my life, I encountered a period where my design journey seemed to hit a plateau, where I didn't feel like I was making progress as quickly as I had in the past.
Really. I felt stuck.
I love reading and have always found solace in believing that immersing myself in books and articles will naturally enhance my design skills.
Yet, can people improve their skills in playing basketball, chess, or cooking solely through reading?
I have a passion for cooking but am also terrible at it. I enjoy reading cookbooks, exploring various culinary shows on Netflix, watching Gordon Ramsay's channel, and even reading some basic cooking skills. Despite these efforts, I still struggle to hold a knife properly and accidentally cut my finger while chopping onions.
I thought I was learning by doing but was stuck in repetitive motions and operating on autopilot. I realized I needed to learn how to approach my practice. I had no idea whether I should go back to basics or explore a different skill set to experiment with. Although that could have been beneficial, I stumbled upon a practice method that completely changed my mindset about practice. Not only just that, but it also fills me with excitement to practice and rekindles my passion for design.
It's called deliberate practice.
It is a focused and purposeful approach to learning, characterized by intense concentration, repetition, and feedback to improve specific skills or abilities. Renowned individuals like Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, and Benjamin Franklin utilized this method to improve each day and achieve greatness.
In the book 'Talent Is Overrated,' Geoff Colvin summarizes deliberate practice as follows:
“Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.”
Regular practice v.s. Deliberate practice
Aubrey Daniels, an expert in human behavior, gives a good example:
“Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate.
Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”
Player A demonstrates hyperfocus on a specific skill by engaging in a process that includes analyzing, reviewing, receiving feedback, and actively incorporating that feedback to strive for improvement. They don't simply practice to become a better basketball player. Instead, they focus on a specific skill. This targeted practice ultimately has a positive impact on their overall performance in basketball.
“While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”
The #1 New York Times bestselling author of "Atomic Habits"
In this post, I want to share how you can implement deliberate practice into the design.
It's important to note that each person may have their own unique approach to deliberate practice. Therefore, consider this a guide, and feel free to modify or customize it to suit your needs and circumstances.
Make it tiny and focused
Deliberate practice is a laser-focused approach to learning, involving breaking down skills into manageable chunks and working on each piece with unwavering intention.
Let’s break down step-by-step topics in product design. The high-level topics include:
Product thinking & strategy
Let's take one topic and break it down into smaller ones:
You can even dive deeper into more specific subtopics:
Utilizing space in a larger view, desktop.
Making the practice topic small means you can focus 10 times more on a particular topic, enabling you to zoom in and be surprised by discovering things you've never seen before—things that you didn't really care much about or notice.
Once you improve and become more comfortable with a particular topic, you can move on to other small topics.
The idea of breaking your learning into small parts is to incorporate them into your daily routine and develop it as a learning habit, making it more tangible.
“If you get 1% better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you're done.”
Have a structure
Benjamin Franklin, an 18th-century polymath, and Founding Father, has always been an example of someone who embodied deliberate practice in their life.
Young Ben was criticized by his father for his poor writing skills, but he accepted the feedback and committed to improving himself.
Despite not explicitly mentioning deliberate practice, Benjamin Franklin demonstrated the characteristics of deliberate practice through his focused, structured, purposeful approach to enhancing his writing skills.
Let’s get into his practice framework:
(Inspiration) He began by selecting one of his favorite essays, hoping to write in a similar style.
(Deconstruction) He jotted down a note about the intent and meaning of each sentence.
(Reconstruction) He rephrased the essay using his own words without looking at the original writing. According to one source, this technique, known as "Recall," which is an effective way to strengthen the neural connections responsible for long-term memory and learning. Mistakes may occur, but that’s the idea, so you can experience failures and learn from them.
(Evaluation) Ben compared his version to the original, made corrections, and explored new approaches. He acted as a teacher, gave critics to himself, and identified areas for improvement
(Repetition) He continued his structured practice, making slight variations based on the context while maintaining the overall structure. He even pinpointed his other weaknesses and tailored his practice around them.
Let’s take his framework into the design.
For example, you want to improve how you utilize spacing in a larger view.
(Inspiration) Pick a website with spacing that you think looks nice. Ask for others' opinions if you have no convictions about good or bad.
(Deconstruction) Analyze how that website uses spacing. For example, you can analyze the number of spacing variants they employ and speculate on the reasons behind the spacing choices.
(Reconstruction) Design a new website based on your findings from step two without looking at the original website.
(Evaluation) Compare your work to the original version and assess what could be improved.
(Repetition) Repeat the practice, and choose either by practicing the same thing or exploring interesting variations; for example, use spacing variants as little as possible. Find out if you have any other weaknesses and tailor your practice around them.
Design your practice
The late Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion, had a unique approach to deliberate practice that set him apart from others. Through Robert, an athletic trainer for Team USA, we can gain valuable insights into Kobe's practice methods, contributing to his extraordinary success.
From 4:30 am to 6 am: Conditioning work, including running and sprinting.
From 6 am to 7 am: Weightlifting session.
From 7 am to 11 am: Focused on making 800 jump shots.
From 11 am onwards: Engaged in team practice alongside teammates.
Kobe didn't just engage in repetitive practice; he approached it with intentionality. Kobe had a specific goal, like making 800 jump shots during every practice session.
Another source mentions Kobe created game-like scenarios during his workouts, simulating different shooting situations he might encounter on the court. He would practice shooting off the dribble, coming off screens, and shooting with defenders contesting his shots.
Your practice doesn't have to be boring.
You can design your practice based on your specific needs. Here's a simple guideline to help you determine the type of practice that suits you best:
(Practice Fundamentals) What skills do I already have but want to be more comfortable or even great?
(Acquiring new skills) What skill set am I missing? Identify a unique skill set that you want to acquire. For instance, even if you intend to specialize in something other than icon design, you can learn about it to broaden your skill set. By exploring something new, you may discover how it can positively influence your abilities.
(Custom and unique practice) What is one skill that I have already great at, but there are situations I’ve never found before? e.g. Designing a financial product that aims to stand out in the market with intuitiveness and minimalism for every interaction, including paying bills, saving, and more.
Ask for feedback or ask yourself one
The main idea behind getting feedback is to gain insights that you can use to adjust your following practices. You can't expect different results if you continue practicing the same approach. Albert Einstein once said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
If your typography game is not good, the way you combine font sizes is poor. You are unlikely to change unless someone tells you or you realize how bad it is.
Others can observe what you do from the outside—identifying your weak points and spotting areas that may have gone unnoticed by you without the influence of overconfidence or biases.
To seek feedback, you can approach a senior team member, explore online resources, such as free mentoring platforms or Twitter, and reach out to them via email. While there's no guarantee they will be willing to provide feedback, I believe there are individuals out there who want to help others.
But don't limit yourself to free options if you are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. I pay for a writing coach because I understand the benefits it brings to improve my writing.
Some may think joining an open community like Dribbble or Behance is a good idea. Sure thing, it can be enjoyable as it gives you a dopamine boost, with most feedback being nice and encouraging. However, you will unlikely receive meaningful feedback that genuinely matters for refining your skills.
If you don't find someone, channel your resourcefulness, much like a young Ben Franklin. Transform yourself into your coach, adept at criticizing and analyzing your work. Take the time to evaluate and reflect, and then explore alternative approaches, just as Kobe did with his jump shots. He scrutinized each attempt, analyzed himself, and strived to incorporate new techniques with every subsequent try.
Try to reflect on these questions after your practice:
How effectively did I apply those skills or techniques during the practice session
What were the main parts where I encountered challenges or difficulties?
Did I achieve the desired outcomes or goals that I set for myself before the practice session?
What new knowledge did I discover during the practice session?
Based on my observations and reflections, what adjustments or improvements can I make for future practice sessions?
Remember that deliberate practice takes you beyond mere repetition. It compels you to be intentional, focused, persistent, self-aware, and receptive to feedback.
To conclude this post, I would like to quote George Mumford from his book
"Every high-performing mindful athlete knows that if you want to achieve something, there's a good chance that you can, no matter what, if—and this is a big if—you're willing to pay the price.
You not only have to focus on your intention but also be willing to get up early in the morning and do the same thing thousands and thousands of times—and then another thousand times—with intention."
~ George Mumford, the Mindful Athlete
Deliberate practice handbook for Designers
I'm writing a handbook for designers applying deliberate practice. This handbook will give you:
Ideas for bite-sized design topics you can dive into, accompanied by resources to learn from daily.
Structures to guide you in applying deliberate practice to different topics in design.
Reflective questions to evaluate your design practice, like Ben Franklin and more.
Coming soon, Q3 2023.