SayKiat / Essays /

Mediocrity and the Job Title Lore

The Glowing Man Meme. 'Lone Light' by Quentin Deronzier.

People look up to you because of your good judgement, not title.

One Friday night I woke up from an evening nap into an existential crisis. Napping on Friday doesn’t serve any purpose, like what’s the point of getting a little bit of rest when you’re getting more of it during the weekend?

It has been like that for weeks. Most of the time I woke up feeling sore because I wasn’t prepared for a nap, I dozed off lying on the bed after an intense working day, just thinking that I could get some rest before hitting the gym. And to be honest with myself, I don’t even feel like hitting the gym that evening because I’m already mentally exhausted after a long day at work and I’m not training for any kind of physique anyway. It’s just a normal routine that I doing mindlessly, like a family ritual you have no idea why you’re still practicing it. Eventually, I find myself not lifting as frequently and heavy as before. Day by day, I felt worse about myself.

As for my personal projects, eventhough I still have the drive to explore new stuffs, it feels like I am creating a project only for the sake of exploring new design and development opportunity. I had this belief that I just need a “nice enough” design for the MVP, so I rushed the visual exploration phase. As a designer, this behaviour doesn’t sit well with me because I prioritised speed over craft.

All these made me feel like I am living the life on easy mode. Not comfortable zone, but easy mode. That’s an important disclaimer because I don’t think there’s anything wrong about comfort zone, but living on easy mode feels like undercutting my own work ethic, something I place high value of myself. I always had this belief that we shouldn’t just barely qualify for a job. That’s not a good place to be in because it means we’re willingly undermining ourselves into the lower competence hierarchy.

That is when I felt mediocrity had creeped into my work. Suddenly I am not proud of the design that I’ve created before. My way of living also felt stale.

Mediocre Designs

I don’t meant that my designs were BAD, but it felt unpolished. It’s like I’m baking lemon cake that only looks good enough to sell, but didn’t pay attention to its texture or even experiment with better ingredients.

Coming back from the metaphor, I felt my designs were lacking the element of craftsmanship.

I don’t want that. I want to create websites or apps that make people feel something, either fall in love with it or even hate it. It should raise eyebrows, smirk, breathe out a sigh of relief, or just anything appropriate to how it should intend. It’s like shopping for a keyboard — even if I’m looking for the most affordable and appropriate keyboard, the slightly premium keyboard that has cooler light and better clicks will make me rethink if settling down with the cheaper variant is the wise choice in a long run.

To help myself understand what defines a mediocre design, these are a few questions that I want to keep in mind when exploring new designs:

  • How does this interaction or flow make user feel. Does it feel ok, or it’s feels like a joy to use?
  • How does this product grow together with a user? For example, is there a way the product can give more power to the user (hence power user)?
  • How should the UI make people feel. Should it be fun, calm, excited, curious? How can we evoke those feelings in harmony with graphic element, colours, typography and spacing?
  • Does the copywriting sounds natural and appropriate? Should it be concise or elaborated? Should it sound conversational or instructional?

I understand that not all apps have the luxury of time, resource or even the cool niche of target audience. For example, it’s extremely challenging to make enterprise apps like Microsoft Word a delightful product compare to newer apps like Notion / Obsidian. My point is that it’s important for designers to have the conscious to craft better design that complement and support the user in every stage, and doesn’t just exist for the sake of existing.

And here comes the next elephant topic.

The Lore of Job Titles

Big job titles comes with great responsibilities, but I feel there’s not enough people talking about how job title correlates to the level of its craft. This isn’t just limited to design, for example, in the field of software, developer needs to understand how to write code that are easily manageable by team, scales appropriately and self-documented all at the same time.

When we approach job title as a set of responsibilities, we forget the importance of “craft” in those responsibilities. It’s a hard thing to vet through hiring process when interviews can be rehearsed and case studies being are churned using GPTs.

Hence it is increasingly important for us to have opinions on how things should work, so we can make the right judgement during execution. Without judgement, we cannot differentiate between good and bad craft (by our own definitions), and we may just continue developing bad crafts until there’s no tomorrow.

This also means that we need to understand that we’re living at a time where having a bad opinion or judgement (while still open to other) is better than none. In a time where ChatGPTs can produce “opinion”, we’ll need to acquire sharper sense that help us evaluate if the response is appropriate for our use cases… until the day we can truly automate opinions.

A screenshot from Thread with the title 'LinkedIn option to dispute someone's skills' showing a mockup of LinkedIn with the said title

Let’s divert a bit here. Lately I have been wrapping up a project at work, and thinking if there’s anything I would change or improve if we could restart this project. I realised as I grew more familiarity with different kind of projects, my answers usually sounds like “it would be much better if client could agree to x, so y could happen”, and never “I wish the design could be improved in such ways”. I feel it’s extremely hard (and unrealistic) that our judgement towards the design outcome will change within a typical project timeline, hence it makes more sense that our opinions usually surround external factors and conditions.

Of course our judgement may still change along the progress, not to mention that’s a good sense of growth. But expecting different judgement within weeks or months is an ignorance towards the reality of how opinions are formed over time.

This further emphasise the important of judgement. Given that design is a profession that highly values craftsmanship, the ability to make quick and accurate judgement can separate us from mediocrity. In a grander scheme of things, when good judgement is possible, the (only) other variables that can affect the project outcome becomes external. In other words, if we consistently make bad judgement on our craft, even the best condition to success could not save the design.

So Where Can I Start

First, understand that external factors like workflow and tool can indeed affect the outcome. Start by asking yourself: Given the current context and condition, is there a better way to doing what we’re doing so we’re set up for success?

Then, acknowledge that your users are open for a better way of doing things, especially if it’s done repeatedly. Ask yourself how the product can give users a better sense of accomplishment.

Third, and also the point of this essay, start developing ideals to aid your judgement in design craftsmanship. Follow people online, consume their content and go create something with it (in work and during leisure). Realise that bad judgement at the beginning can be improved, but no judgement at all means nothing can be improved.

Nutty Shell

Treat this essay as a guidance on how to be good at your job. Soon, you’ll be more willingly to accept larger responsibilities because you understand what’s important to improve the project outcome.

When that happens, you’ll understand why career success is never about job title or seniority. Job title merely defines a set of role that we play in an organisation, and doesn’t yet represent our capability. Ultimately, it is our ability to make good judgement consistently that separates us from mediocrity.

Does the opening paragraph make sense to you now?

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