The Key to Success Is Being Coachable

If you want to level up your design career, be curious and open to feedback

Meghan Wenzel
Oct 11, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

AsAs UX professionals, we constantly iterate and refine our designs, features, and products. We collect user feedback, uncover key themes and problems, and revise accordingly. While it can be scary to put our ideas and designs out there, collecting feedback early and often is crucial to our overall success. It’s better to learn we’re on the wrong track at the beginning of a project than to learn it after we’ve invested several months of hard work and dedication. This idea of collecting candid feedback and adapting accordingly is equally important from a professional development perspective. In order to excel in your career, you need to be coachable. You need to cultivate a curious and open mind, actively seek out and welcome feedback, and continuously look inward and honestly self-reflect.

Whether you’re just entering the workforce or working as a high-level executive, curiosity and open-mindedness are crucial to your success. Seek out colleagues you don’t often work with and learn more about their roles. What projects are they working on? Who do they work with? What do they care about?

Say yes to a variety of opportunities and projects, especially early in your career.

By learning more about them, you’ll forge new relationships, better understand the overall business, and maybe even uncover opportunities to partner together.

Be hungry to learn and open to new opportunities and experiences. Look for meetups in your area, listen to podcasts, attend webinars, and read. Learn about problems other professionals are facing and how they’ve overcome them, and think about how you can apply these learnings to your own workplace.

Branch out and learn about completely different fields as well. It will keep things interesting and can spur more creative and out-of-the-box problem solving. And say yes to a variety of opportunities and projects, especially early in your career. Approach them as learning opportunities and take advantage of building new relationships and learning new skills. People will appreciate your positive attitude and work ethic, and you will build a valuable reputation.

In my experience, professionals are eager to help junior colleagues, especially if the junior person is open and eager to learn. In order to excel in your career, capitalize on this! Build rich relationships with more experienced colleagues and learn all you can from them. I was lucky to begin my UX career on a team with eight seasoned researchers. I made the most of my good fortune and observed everything I could. I shadowed their research sessions, observed how they conducted meetings and readouts, and asked them for help when I needed it. All the while, I took copious notes on what I was learning so I wouldn’t forget anything.

Personally, I’ve benefited greatly from pursuing new opportunities with a curious mindset:

  • I decided to attend a UX meetup I’d just learned about and ended up meeting my future boss and applying for a UX research internship that evening.
  • When asked to spearhead a new content strategy research project, I jumped at the opportunity. It ended up having lasting impact throughout the organization and demonstrated to my boss that I took initiative, forged relationships, and enacted change, all of which helped me convince him to convert me from an intern to a full-time team member.
  • I recently read an article by a leader in the UX field, and she noted that she needed someone to edit her next few articles. I reached out to offer my editing services, and we’ve both benefited from the partnership. I learned about Modus through her, and now here I am writing for Modus.

Putting yourself out there can be daunting, but keeping an open mind and pursuing opportunities will pay off in the end.

As in exploratory research, observation, ongoing learning, and an openness to new ideas and solutions will help you uncover new solutions and opportunities. Go beyond your daily tasks and seek to understand your organization at a higher level. What are the overall problems your company is trying to solve? How do various teams work in concert to achieve the organization’s goals? Understanding the bigger picture will make you more effective in your role and a more valuable employee.

While you may feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, receiving feedback is crucial to your overall development. Regularly ask your mentors, manager, and colleagues for feedback. Explain to them that you want candid, timely, and specific feedback in order to improve. Then, most importantly, prove to them that you can handle their critiques and implement the necessary changes. Be respectful and appreciative of their feedback, and people will see that you’re earnest about learning and improving. As you demonstrate your maturity, people will be more and more willing to coach you and help develop your skills.

Realize that feedback is a compliment, and ongoing coaching means your colleagues think you can handle it and utilize it to succeed.

While many people become defensive or hostile to feedback, in the end they’re only hurting themselves. If you react negatively, your mentors and peers will avoid providing feedback, and you will lose valuable learning opportunities. Just as it might hurt to hear that no one likes your new feature idea during research, it’s better to hear the truth and adapt to it than to frighten your participants into silence and spend valuable resources building the feature, only to learn that no one has a viable use case for it.

Realize that feedback is a compliment, and ongoing coaching means your colleagues think you can handle it and utilize it to succeed. Establish trust and ask for regular feedback in person. When you’re face-to-face, nothing will get lost in translation and you can push them for specifics. Don’t let them off easy — make sure they provide constructive critiques. Ask them:

  • How can I improve?
  • What feedback do you have for me?
  • What should I be focusing on?

For best results, ask them for feedback on specific things. For example, before going into a big meeting, let your manager know you’d love some feedback afterwards on what you did well and where you can improve. By giving her a heads up, she can prepare specific and concrete points.

During concept testing, research participants will often highlight points of confusion or inefficiencies in your products. You need to hear them out, take notes, and update the product accordingly. Similarly, in your professional life you need to be accessible and willing to listen. Once you have specific and detailed feedback, you can work on following up and implementing the necessary changes.

In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss suggests taking a minute each evening to reflect on your day:

  • What where three amazing things that happened today?
  • What are three ways I could have made today better?

Implementing this simple habit is a great way to check in with yourself and work smarter.

Additionally, as you collect ongoing feedback from colleagues, take time to reflect on it. Check in with yourself and genuinely assess how you’re doing:

  • What are you doing well?
  • Where you can improve?
  • What are you learning?
  • What changes have you implemented?
  • What’s working?
  • What new changes should you implement?

After a big project or at the end of each month, schedule a retrospective with colleagues, write an article to crystalize your thinking, or discuss learnings with friends or family. Stopping to reflect at a higher level and think about your larger goals can accelerate your development.

As in usability testing, it’s helpful to conduct both formative and summative evaluations of what’s working, what’s not, and what can be further improved. Pausing to reflect on your personal growth and development can help you uncover high-value areas to focus on and clarify new lessons you’ve learned so you can continue to implement them moving forward.

IIterative testing, ongoing feedback collection, and relevant revision are fundamental to the UX profession and product development process. We share our ideas and designs early and often, to make them as feasible, efficient, and useful as possible. We swallow our pride and listen with an open mind to well-reasoned feedback in order to improve our products. Why should our personal development be any different?

Being coachable will take your career to the next level. Approach each day with an open mind and wide-eyed curiosity. Seeking new ways to continue learning and developing will serve you well and unearth new and unexpected opportunities. Eliciting specific and concrete feedback from your colleagues will help you identify and roadmap opportunities for improvement, and honest self-reflection will help you assess where you stand, where you want to go, and how you can get there.

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

Meghan Wenzel

Written by

UX Researcher and Strategist — “It’s not the story you tell that matters, but the one others remember and repeat”

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Meghan Wenzel

Written by

UX Researcher and Strategist — “It’s not the story you tell that matters, but the one others remember and repeat”

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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