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February 2010 Contents

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UPA 2010


Channeling Your Inner Compass: How to leverage your strengths as you grow your career

Robert Skrobe

Robert is the Director of Professional Development on the UPA Board, and the Chairman of both the Web and Social Network committees for the 2010 UPA conference. Outside of UPA, he's the Director of User Experience at Slingshot, a digital marketing agency in downtown Dallas.

Inspiration is everywhere for a usability professional.

Never in our collective history have so many resources been available for learning, understanding, and applying usability concepts and practices. Here are just a few to choose from:

  • You can explore usability certification and graduate studies at universities and related online institutions like HFI.
  • You can attend any number of local, national, or international conferences that deal with usability and user experience (UX Week, UPA, MX2010, Interaction 2010).
  • You can join local UX book clubs (or start one) to share your experiences and what you've learned from different readings.
  • You can volunteer in organizations like the UPA to network and learn directly from your peers.
  • You can listen and download various podcasts and videos of usability case studies, interviews, and how-to's from industry leaders and practitioners.

Even better, these resources are available for practitioners of all types. Whether it's the busiest of working usability professionals to those looking to break into the field, one of these will likely fit your schedule and interest level.

And it's good business too. For most things, inspiration sells very well.

People regularly pay attention, devote time or pay money to be inspired and connect with others in a meaningful way. Thought leaders and senior practitioners make a decent living selling various concepts, experience, and methods for others to repurpose and learn from.

Unfortunately, concepts and inspiration usually meet an abrupt end when you attempt to carry them into a dynamic business environment like your workplace. One's work culture of office politics, personal gain and the profit motive can render even the most compelling conceptual methodology mute and irrelevant. In most cases, ideas on optimizing or improving the work usually have few friends, and need a lot of help, support, and buy-in to grow.

Worse, you may even sacrifice quite a bit of time and energy (and unfortunately, reputation) in an attempt to change the status-quo. It's a lot of telling and selling to do outside of your normal responsibilities as a practitioner, with no guarantees that your efforts will pay off. In fact, you might only succeed in isolating yourself from those that can help you the most.

So how do you harness the inspiration you've taken from others and apply it? How do you take what you're actively learning on your own and start putting it into practice?

Internalize Your Inspiration

One place to start is to take stock of your strengths.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and let's do some exploring.

For starters, what do you know about yourself? What do you feel you do well now versus where you want to go? If you ask a good friend about your best attributes, either personal or professional, what do they tell you? Write everything that comes to mind down on one side of the paper in a single column.

Next, think about the subject matter you've been attracted to or gravitated towards in the past few months. Consider all of the resources mentioned above, such as a book, a conference, or even a conversation. Again, write everything down, but on the opposite side of the paper.

Start making some connections that seem to make sense by drawing lines from your personal strengths to your sources of inspiration and interest. Do you feel these personal strengths come out when you talk/practice/read about these resources?

What connections did you not make? Were there any surprises?

Finally, circle the top three strength and resource connections made and write those down on the back of the sheet you were working on.

Obtaining Focus

The end result of the above exercise should give you some perspective on the internal and external conversations you're attempting to have about what inspires you. The intersection of personal strengths with your sources of inspiration or interest is vital to understanding drive, focus, and your willingness to change or challenge yourself.

This exercise also changes the approach of 'telling and selling' usability and user experience in the workplace, to one of 'how can my insights help others?' By understanding the inspirational intersection of your strengths and professional interests, you can leverage and build upon them for professional gain. You can help others you work with understand the value of your perspective, without having to learn the method or technique behind the process. Your involvement elevates the work to a higher standard.

You can also use this exercise as a first step towards understanding your career goals and interests. Consider your current work environment and ask yourself: Are you actively doing some of the things you've indicated in the exercise? If not, do you feel your strengths being activated and utilized in the work you're currently doing? What would you be doing right now if you combined both your strengths and your interests?

Whatever path you choose to take, understand that making mistakes and failing along the way are a natural by-product of this discovery process. Senior practitioners are living examples of how to learn from failures, and most have gotten plenty of help and support along the way by those who shared their same interests and goals. What matters more is your own resolve to give it another shot, try a different approach, or evaluate your options.

So don't let your inspiration die when a conference ends or when you finish a thought provoking book. Understand how your personal strengths can be utilized, and start exploring your inspirations.


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